Women carry many loads. They carry with their bodies—physical labor they do on behalf of their homes, their jobs, and/or their families. Some things they carry only as mental or emotional weight, given to them by circumstance or taken up by choice. Ada Limón’s latest poetry collection, The Carrying, demonstrates one woman’s ability to carry all of these at once, even as she finds herself unable to carry what our culture says is the ultimate thing for a woman to carry: a child.
The epigraph of the collection is from Joy Harjo’s well-loved poem, “She Had Some Horses”: “She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / These were the same horses.” Perhaps Limón intends, through the choice of this particular passage as epigraph, that her speaker feel some degree of ambivalence towards her own pursuit of motherhood, and perhaps motherhood itself. While she longs for it and strives for it, there are overtones of uncertainty. Undoubtedly, this challenges the cultural convention that wraps a woman’s worth into her ability and fervent desire to produce children, and this tension is part of what makes the collection itself so riveting.
For example, in “The Vulture and the Body,” Limón writes,
Somedays there is a violent sister inside of me, and a red ladder
______that wants to go elsewhere.
I drive home on the other side of the road, going south now.
The white coat has said I’m ready, and I watch as a vulture
______Crosses over me, heading toward
the carcasses I haven’t properly mourned or even forgiven.
______What if, instead of carrying
__a child, I am supposed to carry grief?
This poem also represents the speaker’s strong connection with the natural world, a theme that persists throughout the collection. Limón’s speaker is routinely gardens, cultivating and interacting with all the animal and plant life around her. This is a beautiful parallel to the idea of conception and pregnancy: trying to make a fertile place that can support a fragile life. In “The Burying Beetle,” Limón writes:
…I don’t feel I deserve this time,
or the small plot of earth I get to mold into
something livable. I lost God awhile ago.
And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture
the plants deepening right now into the soil,
wanting to live, so I lie down among them,
in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered
in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt
that’s been turned and turned like a problem
in the mind.
Limón’s ability to express her speaker’s connection to the earth, her desire to bring forth life in all its forms, is breathtaking. She acknowledges in “Ancestors” that “I’ve come here from the rocks, the bonelike chert, / obsidian, lava rock. I’ve come here from the trees— / chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar… .” It seems fitting that a speaker so rooted to the world around her would want to contribute to it, to grow it through bringing a child of her own into it.
However, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that traditional motherhood may not be a possibility for Limón’s speaker. The third section of the book encompasses the necessary shift in the speaker’s thoughts as she comes to terms with infertility. She states in “Would You Rather,”
You said our Plan B was just to live our lives:
more time, more sleep, travel—
________and I’m still making a list of all the places
I found out I wasn’t carrying a child.
At the outdoor market in San Telmo, Isla Negra’s wide iris of sea,
the baseball stadium, the supermarket,
the Muhammed Ali museum, but always
the last time tops the list, in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge,
looking over toward Alcatraz…
The significance of the final location is not lost on the reader, who notices the recurring ambivalence of the speaker towards her own infertility. She stands on a bridge, an elegant feat of engineering meant to connect two lands that would otherwise be separated, to bring two existences together; however, the bridge overlooks the most notorious prison in the country, if not the world—a prison that is abandoned and crumbling, and as the speaker says, should be “burn[ed] and re-deliver[ed] / to the gulls and cormorants, common daisies and sea grass.” The grief the speaker feels after so many losses is made more intense when she learns, yet again, that she is not pregnant while standing in this liminal space, not belonging to either side.
However, all is not heartache. There comes a point when the speaker appears to have come to terms with her life as it is. As Limón writes in “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,”
No, I’ll be elsewhere, having spent all day writing words…
I’ll come home and rub my whole face against my dog’s
belly; she’ll be warm and want to sleep some more.
I’ll stare at the tree and the ice will have melted, so
It’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way
to other green branches, everything coming back to life.
Although there is a hint of bittersweetness in the tone, this passage indicates that there is, perhaps, more to the speaker’s life than her heartbreaking pursuit of motherhood, and that she will be able to carry on.
Hearkening back to Harjo’s epigraph, horses feature prominently in the collection, particularly in the third section. These poems and their images beautifully connect to the epigraph by reinforcing the idea of the horses as the speaker’s (and perhaps all women’s) relationship to themselves and to motherhood. In one poem, Limón’s speaker likens her relationship with her partner as a foal being born, fully developed and ready to walk. In another, such as the title poem, “Carrying,” the speaker describes a horse she owns:
A few farms over, there’s our mare,
her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
mare worth her salt is carrying the next
potential Stake’s winner. Ours, her coat
thicker with the season’s muck, leans against
the black fence and this image is heavy
within me. How my own body, empty,
clean of secrets, knows how to carry her,
knows we were all meant for something.
What makes Limón’s poetry so engaging is its vibrant voice, at once reflective and otherworldly, yet grounded in vernacular. For example, in “Dream of Destruction,” Limón writes,
that black rake in my hand like a weapon. I was going to rake
until that goddamn lava came and killed us. I was going
to rake and rake and rake, feverishly and mean, until the fertile
dirt knew I was willing to die trying.
This compelling voice makes the entire collection both accessible and emotionally centered. The speaker is so easy for a reader to identify with because of Limón’s carefully chosen language.
One thing is clear from reading Ada Limón’s fifth collection of poetry: she is a master of endings. Each poem in The Carrying leads the reader to piercing conclusions that make us take a breath. Although her journey through conception and infertility treatments is an enormous strain on the speaker, she roots herself to the earth and stretches into the question of what comes next for her. In the closing poem of the collection, “Sparrow, What Did You Say?,” Limón’s speaker asks,
______________…What would I
do with a kid here? Teach her
to plant, watch her like I do
the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place
her palms in the earth, part her
black hair like planting a seed? Or
would I selfishly demand this day
back, a full untethered day trying
to figure out what bird was calling
to me and why.
These questions persist, intriguing readers long after they’ve put down the book. With masterful language, emotional grounding, and powerful imagery, Ada Limón has created a poetry collection that carries so much more than its simple title implies. It questions a woman’s time-worn cultural role as enthusiastic child-bearer, and instead shows a speaker who occupies a liminal space, both desiring a child and seeking her worth beyond motherhood.
Photograph of Ada Limón © Lucas Marquardt.