I live in Sonoma County, California. That means I am long overdue to get to know the work of Ada Limón, Poet Laureate of the United States since 2022, who hails from Sonoma County. Ada Limón grew up in the city of Sonoma and nearby Glen Ellen. Her mother Stacia Brady is an artist and a rancher. Brady’s paintings grace the covers of Limón’s books, of which there are many.

Many of Limón’s poems are odes and homages to the natural beauty of Sonoma County and capture spaces and places I have come to love since moving here, making her poetry an extra delight for me to read.

Limón has been breathing and writing poetry for most of her life. And we get to benefit. Her mother’s ranch life brings many horses to her poetry, as well as her husband who also works with horses. It is his work that brought her to her new home in Kentucky, a place that she regretted leaving Sonoma County for but has learned to love as well.

The first poem I read of Limón’s when I opened the book Bright Dead Things, won me over at once.

How To Triumph Like A Girl
Ada Limón

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

Limón’s poetry collections read like an autobiography, often passing chronologically through her years, strung together with memories and characters we come to recognize. We witness her growth and maturation of wisdom mapped over time. This makes Limón a very accessible and relatable poet.

Limón grew up with a close connection to the natural world she lived in, hanging out by a local stream with her brother and feeling the freedom of a childhood unencumbered by busyness. This, as well as her continued, deep relationship with the ecosystems she embeds within, comes through in her poetry. She has a gift of noticing the sublime and placing these moments of heightened attention next to other, more “lowly,” components of life. This makes it all seem extraordinary while at the same time completely and elegantly ordinary. With her poetry she affirms the sacred and the profane not only sitting beside each other but deeply intertwined and often confused. Every moment matters and every matter has its moment.

It’s the way things are placed together that makes them meaningful and sometimes even magical or extraordinary. But yes, how most of us experience the world in all its complexity of plain as well as profound, harrowing as well as resplendent, is how others experience it as well. It is the way things are.

The way things are is on display in Limón poems and again, it is reassuring, to have it acknowledged. Her poems not only highlight the way things are, they celebrate it.

The following is also from the book, Bright Dead Things.

Miracle Fish
Ada Limón

“I used to pretend to believe in God. Mainly I liked so much to talk to someone in the dark. Think of how far a voice must have to travel to go beyond the universe.  How powerful that voice must be to get there. Once in a small chapel in Chimayo, New Mexico, I knelt in the dirt because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. That was before I learned to harness that upward motion inside me, before I nested my head in the blood of my body. There was a sign and it said, This earth is blessed. Do not play in it. But I swear I will play on this blessed earth until I die. I relied on a Miracle Fish, once, in New York City, to tell me my fortune. That was before I knew it was my body’s water that moved it, that the massive ocean inside me was what made the fish swim.”

In an interview on the Ezra Klein show, Limón speaks about the importance of poetry, noting that one important quality of poetry is how it encourages us to slow down.

“Poetry has the breath built into it because of its line breaks, its stanza breaks, its caesuras. Any part of its prosody is really telling you, as the reader or the listener, when to pause, when to break. And it actually has a moment in which you are supposed to breathe.

And I keep thinking, you know, for all of us who are so intent on moving forward at the fast pace that the world often requires, I think it’s important to remember to breathe. Mary Oliver has that quote, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” And I think about that a lot in that sense of what is it that we need? And so much of that is the breath. And so much of that is to sit back and realize that we’ve been living shoved forward as if the wind’s at our back and we’re just being pulled and shoved in a direction without so much as a moment to even recognize where we are” (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/24/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-ada-limon.html).

Limón attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate studies and then went on to the M.F.A. program at NYU. She worked in marketing for Condé Nast and as a professor at Queens University of Charlotte, NC. Other poetry collections include: This Big Fake World, Lucky Wreck, Sharks in the Rivers, and The Carrying.

In 2023, Limón was awarded the MacArthur Genius award. This comes with an $800,000 prize, allowing Limón, for the first time in her life, to relax around the issue of money. Coming from a lower-middle class family, she was accustomed to always having and needing a job. The prize allows her to focus more fully on her poetry and feel a kind of security she never had before.

On the MacArthur  Foundation page she writes:

“For me, poetry is the language of mystery, it exists in the liminal spaces, the between worlds of waking and sleep, the places where extreme clarity turns into a surreal and unarguable truth. I feel my most free when I am making poems, when I am not searching toward an end goal but instead when I’m unraveling the strangeness of my own human experience, when I am listening to the inner and outer worlds” (https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2023/ada-limon)

Limón’s father is descended from Mexican immigrants. Though she resists categories and the specific identity as a Mexican American writer, she pays homage to her grandparents and her Mexican roots in her work.

Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs
Ada Limón from Bright Dead Things

“My older brother says he doesn’t consider himself Latino anymore and I understand what he means, but I stare at the weird fruit in my hand and wonder what it is to lose a spiny layer. He’s explaining how white and lower-middle class we grew up and how we don’t know anything about any culture except maybe Northern California culture, which means we get stoned more often and frown on super stores. I want to do whatever he says. I want to be something entirely without words. I want to be without tongue or temper. Two days ago in Tennessee someone said, Stop it, Ada’s Mexican. And I didn’t know what they were talking about until one of them said, At least I didn’t say wetback. And everyone laughed. Honestly, another drink and I could have hit someone. Started the night’s final fight. And I don’t care what he says. My brother would have gone down swinging and fought off every redneck whitey in the room.”

 

Below I include 2 parts of a six part poem from Limón’s poem titled “The Hurting Kind,” from her collection of the same name.

The Hurting Kind
Ada Limón

 

 

5.

Once, a long time ago, we sat in the carport of my grandparents’
house in Redlands, now stolen by eminent domain,

now the hospital parking lot, no more coyotes or caves
where the coyotes would live, or the grandfather clock

in the house my grandfather built, the porch above the orchard,
all gone.

We sat in the carport and watched the longest snake
I’d ever seen undulate between the hanging succulents.

They told me not to worry, that the snake had a name,

                the snake was called a California king.

all slick black with yellow
stripes like wonders wrapping around him.

My grandparents, my ancestors, told me never
to kill a California king, benevolent

as they were, equanimous like earth or sky, not

                toothy like the dog Chacho who barked
at nearly every train whistle or roadrunner.

Before my grandfather died, I asked him what sort
of horse he had growing up. He said,

Just a horse. My horse, with such tenderness it
rubbed the bones in my ribs all wrong.

I have always been too sensitive, a weeper
from a long line of weepers.

I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.

My grandfather carried that snake to the cactus,
where all sharp things could stay safe.

6.

You can’t sum it up. A life.

I feel it moving through me, that snake,
his horse Midge sturdy and nothing special,

traveling the canyons and the tumbleweeds
hunting for rabbits before the war.

My grandmother picking peaches. Stealing
the fruit from the orchards as she walked

home. No one said it was my job to remember.

                 I took no notes, though I’ve stared too long.
My grandfather, before he died, would have told

                anyone that could listen that he was ordinary,

that his life was a good one, simple, he could never
understand why anyone would want to write

it down. He would tell you straight up he wasn’t
brave. Andy my grandmother would tell you right now

that he is busy getting the house ready for her. Visiting now
each night and even doing the vacuuming.

I imagine she’s right. It goes on and on, their story.
They met in first grade in a one-room schoolhouse,

I could have started their story there, but it
is endless and ongoing. All of this

is a conjuring. I will not stop this reporting of attachments.
There is evidence everywhere.

There’s a tree over his grave now, and soon her grave too

                 though she is tough and says, If I ever die,

which is marvelous and maybe why she’s still alive.

I see the tree above the grave and think, I’m wearing

my heart on my leaves. My heart on my leaves.

Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?

 

The seven national parks participating in Poetry in Parks are Cuyahoga Valley NP, Mount Rainier NP, Everglades NP, Cape Cod NS, Great Smoky Mountains NP, Redwoods NP, and Saguaro NP.
NPS photo

In her position as Poet Laureate, Limón is launching a project in June 2024 called: You are Here: Poetry in Parks.  This will include installations of picnic tables with poetry on them in seven National Parks. Poets will include Mary Oliver, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton and more. The first unveiling will be in Cape Cod National Seashore, on June 14, 2024. To view the rest of the schedule and learn more about the project, visit Poetry in parks at this link.

Limón will also release a companion anthology of nature poems to go along with the poetry in Parks project, titled, You Are Here. Poetry in the Natural World.

I close with one of Limón’s most well-known and beloved poems, “The Raincoat,” from her collection titled, The Carrying.

The Raincoat
Ada Limón

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five-minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say that even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.

Ada Limón is a Nasty Woman Writer.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Featured image: Ada Limón by Caroline Tompkins

Works cited

Limón, Ada. Bright Dead Things. Milkweed Editions, 2015.

________. The Carrying. Milkweed editions. 2018.

________. The Hurting Kind. Milkweed Editions. 2022.