By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ada Limón, born in 1976, became the US Poet Laureate in 2022; in doing so, she was the first Latina to take on the post. Her poetry collections, which include The Hurting Kind (2022, Milkweed Editions), The Carrying (2018, Milkweed Editions), and Bright Dead Things (2015, Milkweed Editions), reveal a poet writing in a personal and even conversational manner about both her life and the lives of others, even while Limón sometimes uses more traditional forms.
There is an authoritative sincerity to her work, whether she’s writing about her relationship with her mother or taking out the trash (see ‘Dead Stars’ below).
Numerous comparisons could be made: the twentieth-century poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose work is perhaps recalled by an Ada Limón poem like ‘The Raincoat’, is just one of many names that might spring to mind. But Limón is too distinctive to be restricted by any such comparisons, and her work bears the stamp of originality. As The Smithsonian has put it, she is a poet laureate for the 21st century.
Below, we select and introduce ten of Ada Limón’s best poems. These are just introductions, of course: there’s every reason to go and treat yourself to one of her numerous poetry collections if these poems pique your interest. We especially recommend The Hurting Kind, her most recent collection of poems.
1. ‘Instructions on Not Giving Up’.
In this poem from 2017, Limón offers a new take on the feelings that spring evokes, although we may find echoes of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Spring’ (and even, perhaps, T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’).
Rather than wholeheartedly welcoming the return of spring, the speaker of the poem is in two minds. It heralds a return to ‘continuous living’, but, especially after the drab darkness of winter, this seems a ‘strange idea’.
Note that the poem is fourteen lines, summoning the sonnet, although the poem is unrhymed. This shows Limón’s awareness of the literary heritage she inherits, and her desire to forge a new way of writing about the contemporary world.
2. ‘The Raincoat’.
This moving poem from 2018 is Limón’s finest exploration of a daughter’s relationship with her mother. Recalling visits to the osteopath and massage therapist as a child to treat her ‘crooked spine’, Limón reflects on the fact that she is now the same age as her mother was then.
The image of the raincoat, which concludes the poem and provides its title, is achingly beautiful, using the idea of the coat as a form of protection to say something profoundly true about parent-child relationships.
3. ‘Dead Stars’.
A quintessential Ada Limón poem, this, from 2018’s The Carrying: it blends the small and everyday (taking out the trash bins) with the vast and cosmological (the speaker muses on the fact that we are all stardust, since every atom in our bodies was once part of some long-dead star).
The poem is about possibility, hinting at the massive potential that humans, with their stardust compositions, house within us.
4. ‘A New National Anthem’.
How many of us actually like our country’s national anthem? In this 2018 poem, Limón professes a dislike for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, the USA’s national anthem, not least because of the ‘bombs’ mentioned in it, as well as the now-unacceptable (and unsung) verses about slaves.
Instead, we want a song in the mouth that ‘feels / like sustenance’, as Limón beautifully puts it – or, in another arresting image, a song like a match being lit in an ‘endless cave’.
5. ‘Give Me This’.
In this 2020 poem, Limón shows that the label ‘nature poet’, whilst not the most accurate categorisation of her work, is not entirely inappropriate. Asked by a reader to describe what suffering is, the poet instead finds joy in watching a female groundhog as she joyously feeds on the poet’s unripe tomatoes.
Here’s a fine example of how deftly an Ada Limón poem can move between the delicately lyrical and the down-to-earth and colloquial: contrast the first sentence of ‘Lover’ with the second to see what we mean. See also the poet’s masterly use of enjambment or run-on lines to sweep us along the tide of the poem’s emotions.
This poem needs to be understood in the context of the recent pandemic, and the era of ‘social distancing’, to be fully appreciated: published in 2021, it is about a world in waiting – waiting for everything to be ‘open for business’ once more, waiting for pleasure to return, and waiting, even, for the word ‘lover’ to attain its old meaning again.
7. ‘The Conditional’.
Here’s a slightly earlier poem, from 2013. Using the rhetorical device of anaphora, Limón posits a series of possible or ‘conditional’ statements, ranging once more from the cosmic to the domestic. The poem concludes, however – in ways which may recall Michael Donaghy’s wonderful sonnet ‘The Present’ – with the consolation that the here-and-now is perhaps enough.
8. ‘The Leash’.
A 2016 poem which helps us to see that, no matter what topic an Ada Limón poem is discussing, an animal is usually to be found. A whole dissertation could be written about Limón’s use of animals in her work, and here the quietly despairing speaker contemplating a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself focuses on the image of her dog heading straight for the oncoming pick-up trucks.
9. ‘What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use’.
Animals come into this poem, too, in which the poet recalls how abandoned barns in the back and beyond of America look, even though they are in use. A disagreement between the speaker of the poem and her friend over whether God exists turns into a lyrical description of the animal shapes found in the clouds above the two women’s heads: one of them believing in the heavenly, the other merely in the quasi-numinous power of nature.
10. ‘How to Triumph Like a Girl’.
What better place to conclude our pick of the best Ada Limón poems than with this 2018 poem? Once more, we find Limón turning to animals to furnish her poem with its central conceit: here, the speed and ability of a female horse used in horse-racing.
The magnificence of this splendid animal, as it runs forty miles an hour, makes the speaker almost convinced that she, in also being female, has a horse’s heart inside her chest, inspiring her to reach the same heights – or the same speed, at least – as the fastest female horse.