“To Be Made Whole”
Ada Limón is the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States. She’s written six books of poetry, most recently, The Hurting Kind. Her volume The Carrying won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and her volume Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is a former host of the poetry podcast The Slowdown, and she teaches in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, in North Carolina.
Transcription by Alletta Cooper
Krista Tippett: I really believe that poetry is something we humans need almost as much as we need water and air. We can forget this. And then there are times in a life, and in the life of the world, where only a poem — perhaps in the form of the lyrics of a song, or a half sentence we ourselves write down — can touch the mystery of ourselves, and the mystery of others. So my interest, when I get into conversation with a poet, is not to talk about poetry, but to delve into what this way with words and sound and silence teaches us about being fully human — this adventure we’re all on that is by turns treacherous and heartbreaking and revelatory and wondrous.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’ve been reading Ada Limón for years, and was so happy when she was named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States. And it was an incredible treat to interview her before 1,000 people, packed together in a concert hall on a cold Minnesota night. Her presence on that stage was electric. I think we all came a little bit more alive. And I’m not sure I’ve had a conversation across all these years that was a more unexpected and exuberant mix of gravity and laughter — laughter of delight, and of blessed relief.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
I spoke with Ada Limón at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. We were brought together in a collaboration between Northrop at the University of Minnesota and Milkweed Editions.
Tippett: Look at all these people. [laughs] Oh my. I want to say first of all, how happy I am to be doing something with Milkweed, which I have known since I moved to Minnesota, I don’t know, over a quarter century ago, to be this magnificent but quiet, local publisher. And now we have watched it in these 25 years go from strength, to strength, to strength. And now I’ll just say it again: they are the publisher of the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States.
And I am so thrilled to have this conversation with Ada Limón to be part of our first season. For her voice of insistent honesty and wholeness and wisdom and joyfulness. And also I’m so happy to be together with you in the old-fashioned flesh, which we no longer take for granted.
Ada Limón: That’s true.
Tippett: I have your books, and there’s some, too. I’m really longing — I realized as I was preparing for this, I’m just — Of course, I read poetry, I read a lot of poetry in these last years, but I realized I’m craving hearing poetry. So I think we’re going to just have a lot of poetry tonight. And I hope, I don’t think anybody here will mind. But I also feel a little bit out of practice with this live event thing. So we’ll just be on an adventure together.
So you grew up in Sonoma, California, but my sense is that it’s not the land of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir that immediately comes to mind now when someone says Sonoma.
Limón: [laughs] Yeah. I grew up in Glen Ellen in Sonoma, California, born and raised. I was actually born at home. And it is definitely wine country and all of the things that go along with that. But it’s also a land that is really incredibly beautiful and special and sacred in a lot of different ways. And sometimes when you’re going through it, you can kind of see the mono-crop of vineyards that it’s become. But in reality it’s home to so many different kind of wildlife. And the Sonoma Coast is a really special place in terms of how it’s been preserved and protected throughout the years. So it’s a very special place.
Tippett: Was there a religious or spiritual background in your childhood there, however you would describe that now?
Limón: Yeah, there wasn’t a religious practice. In fact, my mother is and was an atheist. And it’s funny to tell people that you’re raised an atheist because they’re like, “Really?” But I was. And they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was a thing.” [laughs]
Tippett: Cradle atheist.
Limón: Yeah. No, really I was. And enough so that actually, as I would always sort of interrogate her about her beliefs and, “Do you think this, do you think that? What happens after we die?” And she says, “Well, you die, and you get to be part of the Earth, and you get to be part of what happens next.” And it was just a very sort of matter-of-fact way of looking at the world. And so that’s really a lot of how I was raised. And then I would say in terms of the sacred, it was always the natural world. And both parents — all four of my parents, I should say — would point those things out, that special quality of connectedness that the natural world offers us. So I think that’s where, for me, I found any sort of sense of spirituality or belonging. All came, and still comes, from the natural world.
Tippett: And also, I read somewhere that Sundays were a day that you were moving back and forth between your two homes, your parents divorced and everybody remarried. And that’s also not the religious association with Sunday, right?
Limón: Right. [laughs] And it’s a very interesting thing to be a kid that goes back and forth, and I’m sure many people have this experience or have had that experience, where you’re moving from one home to another. And if it’s weekly, there’s a day of the week and you do it. And for us, it was Sundays. And for a long time Sundays kind of unsettled me, even as an adult. And I always thought it was just because I had to work. But I think there was something deeper going on there, which was that idea of, “Oh, this is when you pack up and you move.” And I even had a pet mouse named Fred, which you would think I would’ve had a more creative name for the mouse, but his name was Fred. [audience laughs] And he had a little cage, I would make sure he was — And he would get bundled up and carried from house to house. So Sundays were a different kind of practice, if you will, a different kind of observation. [laughs]
Tippett: And you have said that you fell in love with poetry in high school.
Tippett: And poetry is absolutely — this is not something I knew would happen when I started this — but poetry now is at the heart of On Being, it’s woven through everything. And so I think my investigation or my curiosity is not so much talking about poetry, but about where poetry comes from in us and what poetry works in us. And I wonder if you think about your teenage self, who fell in love with poetry. Can you locate that?
Limón: Yeah. That’s such a wonderful question. I feel like there’s so many elements to that discovery. When you find a song or you find something and you think, “This. I don’t know why this, but this.” And I remember reading — it was Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, and it’s a villanelle, so it’s got a very strict rhyme scheme. It’s repeating words. And I knew immediately that it was a love poem and a loss poem. And I knew that at 15.
And I think there was a part of me that felt like so much of what I had read up until then was meant to instruct or was meant to offer wisdom. And here was something that was so well crafted — and people to this day will say it’s one of the most expert villanelles ever written — it’s so well crafted, and yet it doesn’t actually offer any answers. It just offers more questions. And there’s sort of an invitation at the end. And I think it was that. I think I trusted its unknowing and its mystery in a way that I distrusted maybe other forms of writing up until then.
Tippett: That’s so wonderful. And when people describe you as a poet, they’ll talk about things about intimacy and emotional sincerity and your observations of the natural world. And if I had to condense you as a poet into a couple of words, I actually think you’re about — and these are words you use also — wholeness and balance. So that even when you’re talking about the natural world: we are of it not in it. And also that notion — and these are other things you said — that poetry recognizes our wholeness. And even as it relieves us of the need to sum everything up…
Tippett: …as you said, to give instruction or answers, where to give answers would be to disrespect the gravity of the questions.
Limón: Yes. I think that’s very true. I feel like there’s a level in which it offers us a place to be that feels closer to who we are, because there is always that interesting moment where someone asks you who you are, even just the simple question of, “How are you?” If we really took a minute to think about it, “How am I? How am I?” You could really go to some deep places if you really interrogated the self. And thought, “How am I right now at this moment?” Okay. Interesting. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of feelings moving through me. And I feel like poetry makes the world for that experience, as opposed to: “I’m fine.”
Tippett: [laughs] Yeah. Right. “Good, good. How are you?”
Limón: Yeah. Or, “I’m suffering, or…” Right. It makes room for all of these things that can also be — It holds all the truths at once too.
Limón: That you can be joyful and you can actually be really having a wonderful time. And then you can also be like, “I’m a little anxious about this thing that’s happening next week.” Or all of these things, it makes room for all of those things. And I know that when I discovered it for myself as a teenager that I thought, “Oh, this is more like music where it’s like something is expressing itself to you and you are expressing yourself to it. And together you kind of have this relationship.” Which I hadn’t had before.
Tippett: Yeah, because it’s made with words, but it’s also sensory and it’s bodily.
Limón: Yeah. It’s got breath, it’s got all those spaces. The caesura and the line breaks, it’s breath. And then that’s also the space for us to sort of walk in as a reader being like, “What’s happening here? Why are all these blank spaces?” It has silence built all around it. Silence, which we don’t get enough of. When you open the page, there’s already silence. And we think, “Well, what are we supposed to do with that silence?” And we read naturally for meaning. I mean, that’s how we read. We read for sense. And poetry doesn’t really allow you to do that because it’s working in the smallest units of sound and syllable and clause and line break and then the sentence. So you get to have this experience with language that feels somewhat disjointed, and in that way almost feels like, “Oh, this makes more sense as the language for our human experience than, let’s say, a news report.”
Tippett: I mean, even that question you asked, “What am I supposed to do with all that silence?” That’s one way to talk about the challenge of being human and walking through a life.
Limón: Yeah. And I think about that all the time. I have people who ask me, “How do you write poems?” And you talk about process. And it’s always an interesting question because I feel like my process changes and I change. But I think the biggest thing for me is to begin with silence. If you’re having trouble writing or creating or whatever it is you make, when was the last time you just sat in silence with yourself and listened to what was happening?
Tippett: Which also makes it spiritual practice.
Tippett: Something I remember reading is that you grew up in an English-speaking household, but your paternal grandfather spoke Spanish and that you just loved to listen to him.
Tippett: And I also just wondered if that experience of loving sound and the cadence of this language that was yours and not yours, if that also flowed into this love of poetry.
Limón: Yeah. I think there was also — he also was a singer, so he would just sing. And you could — so a lot of what he knew in Spanish and remembered in Spanish were songs. So it was always this level in which what was being created and made as he was in my life was always musical. So I think there was a lot of, not only was it music, but then it was music in Spanish. So it had this kind of wonderful way of existing in an aliveness of a language, aliveness of a second language as opposed to just sort of a need to get something or to use. It wasn’t used as a tool.
Tippett: Right. It wasn’t functional in a way.
Limón: Exactly, exactly.
Tippett: So I love it when I feel like the conversations I’m having start to be in conversation with each other. And coming in future weeks, is a conversation with a technologist and artist named James Bridle, whose point is that language itself, the sounds we made and the words we finally formed, and the imagery and the metaphors were all primally, organically rooted in the natural world of which we were part. And that there was this break when we moved from pictographic language, which is characters which directly refer to the things spoken, and when we moved to the phonetic alphabet. But if you look at even the letters we use in our — the A actually was initially a drawing of an ox, and M was water. And the Q has the tail of a monkey, and we’ve forgotten this. But something I started thinking, with this frame, really, this sense of homecoming and our belonging in the natural world runs all the way through every single one of your poems.
So maybe just to use a natural world metaphor to just dip our toes into the water, would you read “Sanctuary”? And it’s page six of The Hurting Kind.
Suppose it’s easy to slip
into another’s green skin,
bury yourself in leaves
and wait for a breaking,
a breaking open, a breaking
out. I have, before, been
tricked into believing
I could be both an I
and the world. The great eye
of the world is both gaze
and gloss. To be swallowed
by being seen. A dream.
To be made whole
by being not a witness,
Tippett: “To be made whole/ by being not a witness,/ but witnessed.” Can you say a little bit about that?
Limón: I remember having this experience — I was sort of very deeply alone during the early days of the pandemic when my husband’s work brought him to another state. And it was just me, the dog, and the cat, and the trees. And I was feeling very isolated. My family’s all in California. Many of us were having different experiences. And I was having this moment where I kept being like, “Well, if I just deeply look at the world like I do, as poets do, I will feel a sense of belonging. I will trust the world and I will feel at peace.” And this time, what came to me as I stood and looked at the trees was that — Oh, it isn’t just me looking. It is the world and the trees and the grasses and the birds looking back. And it felt like this is the language of reciprocity. This means that I am in a reciprocal relationship with the natural world, not that it is my job to be the poet that goes and says, “Tree, I will describe it to you.” [audience laughs] I have a lot of poems that basically are that. [audience laughs] But instead to really have this moment of, “Oh, no, it’s our work together to see one another. And to not have that bifurcated for a moment.” Is where that poem came from.
Tippett: That just took me back to this moment in the pandemic where I took so many walks in my neighborhood that I’ve lived in for so many years and saw things I’d never seen before, including these massive — Just suddenly looking down where the trees were and seeing and understanding, just really having this moment where I understood that it’s their neighborhood and I’m living in it. That it’s not my neighborhood, and they look beautiful.
Limón: Yeah. Yeah. I think there were these moments that — that quietness, that aloneness, that solitude, that as hard as they were, I think hopefully we’ve learned some lessons from that.
Tippett: You said a minute ago that the poetry has breath built into it, and you said also that, you have said: it’s meant to make us breathe. And isn’t it strange that breathing is something that we have to get better at?
Limón: Yeah. Do you remember the Colbert Report when Stephen Colbert was doing the earlier show, and he had this one skit where he said, “I love breathing, I could do it all day long.” [laughter] And I always think about that because of course, it’s so ironic that we have to think about our breath. It’s the thing that keeps us alive. It’s the —
Tippett: We have to do breathwork.
Limón: We literally. Yeah. Like, “Oh, take a deep breath.” Then we get annoyed when it works, too. [laughter] We’re like, “Ugh, I feel calmer.”
Tippett: That’s right. Yeah.
Limón: When I lived in New York City, my two best friends, I would always try to get them to go to yoga with me. And they would say, “I don’t want to go to yoga.” And I was like, “Why?” And they said, “I just don’t want anyone telling me when to breathe.” [laughter] But it’s true. I feel like our breath is so important to how we move through the world, how we react to things.
Tippett: It also says something about this time.
Tippett: Just back to this idea that there is this organic automatically breathing thing of which we’re part, and that we even have to rediscover that.
Limón: Yeah. Yeah. There’s whole books about how to breathe.
Tippett: A lot of them are in the On Being studio, they come in the mail.
Limón: Yeah. And yet at the same time, I do feel like there’s this — It’s so much power in it. And I feel like it’s very interesting when you actually have to get away from it, because you can also do the other thing where you focus too much on the breath…
Tippett: And you can’t do it.
Limón: …and you forget how to breathe. So it’s this weird moment of being aware of it and then also letting it go at the same time.
Tippett: And then a trauma of the pandemic was that our breathing became a danger to strangers and beloveds.
Limón: Very much so.
Tippett: And we were given to remember that civilization is built on something so tender as bodies breathing in proximity to other bodies.
Limón: And to feel that moment of everyone recognizing what it is to kind of look out for one another and have to do that in the antithesis of who we are, which was to separate. Because how do we care for one another? We hold each other. We touch each other. And then in this moment it was we cared for each other by being apart.
Tippett: Yeah, it was completely unnatural. It was interesting to me to realize how people turned to you in pandemic because of who you are, it sounds like. And were you writing The Hurting Kind during the pandemic and lockdown?
Limón: Yeah. I would say about 50 percent, maybe 60 percent of it was written during the pandemic.
Tippett: I do feel like you were one of the people who was really writing with care and precision and curiosity about what we were going through. And that was in shorter supply than one would think. We were so focused on survival and illness and vaccines and bad news. It feels important to me, right now, because I want to talk to you about this a little bit, what we’ve been through. And I think when we’re talking about this, we’re talking about who we are right now, because we’re all carrying this. And it feels important to me whenever I’m in a room right now — and I haven’t been in that many rooms with this many people sitting close together — that we all just acknowledge that even if we all — this exact same configuration of human beings — had sat in this exact room in February 2020, and we’re back now, we’re changed at a cellular level. And we’re at a new place, but we have to carry and process that.
So anyway, I got The Hurting Kind, the galley in the mail from Milkweed. And I remember sitting on my sofa where I spent an inordinate amount of time, and reading it. And the one I’d love you to read is “Not the Saddest Thing in the World.” This is the one where I felt like there’s subtlety to it, but you just named so much in there. Page 20.
Limón: Oh, thank you.
Tippett: I don’t expect you to have the page number memorized.
Limón: “Not the Saddest Thing in the World”
All day I feel some itchiness around
the collar, constriction of living. I write
the date at the top of a letter; though
no one has been writing the year lately,
I write the year, seems like a year you
should write, huge and round and awful.
In between my tasks, I find a dead fledgling,
maybe dove, maybe dunno to be honest,
too embryonic, too see-through and wee.
I don’t even mourn him, just all matter-of-
fact-like take the trowel, plant the limp body
with a new hosta under the main feeder.
Seems like a good place for a close-eyed
thing, forever close-eyed, under a green plant
in the ground, under the feast up above. Between
the ground and the feast is where I live now.
Before I bury him, I snap a photo and beg
my brother and my husband to witness this
nearly clear body. Once it has been witnessed
and buried, I go about my day, which isn’t
ordinary, exactly, because nothing is ordinary
now even when it is ordinary. Now, something’s
breaking always on the skyline, falling over
and over against the ground, sometimes
unnoticed, sometimes covered up like sorrow,
sometimes buried without even a song.
Tippett: Yeah. “Between the ground and the feast is where I live now.” That really spoke to me, on my sofa.
Limón: Yeah. I feel like that between space, that liminal space, is a place where we were living for so long, and many of us still living in that between space of, “How do I go into the world safely, and how do I move through the world with safety and care-take myself and care-take others. And what’s good for my body and my mental health.” All of those things. And that between space was the only space that really made sense to me.
Tippett: Yeah. I think coming back to this idea that poetry is as embodied as it is linguistic. I think that’s something we didn’t know how to talk about. Also because so much of what’s been — and again, it’s not just in the past, what has happened, has been happening below the level of consciousness in our bodies. The fear response, the stress response, it had so many other kinds of ripple effects that were so perplexing. These full-body experiences of isolation and ungrieved losses and loneliness and fear and uncertainty. Just uncertainty is so hard on our bodies.
And you also wrote about that, and you also wrote this essay. Just the title of this, I feel is such an invitation and not the kind of invitation that was being made. So, “On Preparing the Body for a Reopened World.”
Limón: Yeah, I had a moment where I hadn’t realized how delighted I was to go about my world without my body. Because I was teaching on Zoom, and I was just a face, and I found myself being very comfortable with just being a face, and with just being a head.
Limón: And I would just have these whole moments when people would be like, “Oh, and then we’ll meet in person.” And I was like, “[sharp breath] I don’t want you to witness my body. Only my head is for you. My body is for me.” [audience laughter] And it really struck me that how much I was like, “How do I move through this world?” Remembering what it is to be a body, I think to be a woman who moves through the world with a body, who gets commented on the body. For me, I have pain, so I’ve moved through the body in pain. And there was an ease, I think, that living in the head-only world was kind of a poet’s dream on some level.
Tippett: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, isn’t this therapeutic also for us all to laugh about this now, also to know that we can laugh about it now?
Limón: Yeah. Yeah.
Tippett: Well, a lot of us I think are still a little agoraphobic.
Limón: Oh, definitely. Definitely. This might be hard for some of you right here.
I think that there is a lot about trying to figure out who we are with ourselves. That’s the work of poetry in general, right? We just ask questions. We get curious, we interrogate, and we ask over and over again. We say, “Oh, I want to write about this flower.” And then we say, “Why this flower? Why that color? Why not that weed?” Our entire world is spent that way. And then to do it on top of really global grief, that is a very kind of different work because then you think, “Well, who am I to look at this flower? Who am I to live?” Right?
It comes back to these questions of like, “Why do I get to be lucky in this way? And is it okay for me to spend time looking at this tree? Is it okay?” The danger of all poets and I think artists in general, is it some moment we think we don’t deserve to do this work because what does it do? And I feel like the thing that always kept coming back to me, especially in the early days was, “What does it do?” Well right now it anchors you to the world again and again and again. And it says, “You are here.” And I felt like every day I’d write a poem was literally putting that little, “You are here” dot on a map. And then I would be like, “Okay, I was there.” And the next day I’d wake up and be like, “Well, I was there yesterday. I wonder if I’m here again today or in a new place.” And that was really essential to my practice of who I was as a creative person in the middle of such an enormous tragedy.
Tippett: I chose a couple of poems that you wrote — again that kind of speak to this. And I think for all of us, kind of mark this, which is important. And one of them — this is also on The Hurting Kind — is “Lover”, which is page 77.
Limón: I remember writing this poem because I really love the word “lover,” and it’s a kind of polarizing word. [laughter] Where some of you were like, “Eww,” as soon as I said it. [Laughter] I feel like I could hear that response, right?
Tippett: I did not hear that response.
Limón: There was a bit of like, “Eww, lover.” [laughter]
Easy light storms in through the window, soft
edges of the world, smudged by mist, a squirrel’s
nest rigged high in the maple. I’ve got a bone
to pick with whoever is in charge. All year,
I’ve said, You know what’s funny? and then,
Nothing, nothing is funny. Which makes me laugh
in an oblivion-is-coming sort of way. A friend
writes the word lover in a note and I’m strangely
excited for the word lover to come back. Come back,
lover, come back to the five-and-dime. I could
squeal with the idea of blissful release, oh lover,
what a word, what a world, this gray waiting. In me,
a need to nestle deep into the safekeeping of sky.
I am too used to nostalgia now, a sweet escape
of age. Centuries of pleasure before us and after
us, still right now, a softness like a worn fabric of a nightshirt,
and what I do not say is: I trust the world to come back.
Return like a word, long forgotten and maligned
for all its gross tenderness, a joke told in a sunbeam,
the world walking in, ready to be ravaged, open for business.
[Music: “Molerider” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: So the poem you wrote, “Joint Custody.” You get asked to read it. It’s wonderful. And I want you to read it. I think there are things we all learned also. And I think it’s in that category. But I want you to read it second, because what I found in Bright Dead Things, which was a couple of years before that, certainly pre-pandemic, in the before times, was the way you wrote, a way that you spoke of the same story of yourself. And then what we find in the second poem is a kind of evolution. So would you read, it’s called “Before,” page 46.
Limón: Yeah. I love that you do this. She’s teaching me a lesson. [laughter] But I mean, I’ve listened to every podcast she’s done, so I’m aware. This is amazing.
Tippett: And this is about your childhood, right? And we all have this, our childhood stories.
No shoes and a glossy
red helmet, I rode
on the back of my dad’s
Harley at seven years old.
Before the divorce.
Before the new apartment.
Before the new marriage.
Before the apple tree.
Before the ceramics in the garbage.
Before the dog’s chain.
Before the koi were all eaten
by the crane. Before the road
between us there was the road
beneath us, and I was just
big enough not to let go:
Henno Road, creek just below,
rough wind, chicken legs,
and I never knew survival
was like that. If you live,
you look back and beg
for it again, the hazardous
bliss before you know
what you would miss.
Tippett: And then “Joint Custody” from The Hurting Kind…
Limón: This is amazing.
Tippett: …several years later and a changed world later. Page 40.
Limón: Thank you.
Why did I never see it for what it was:
abundance? Two families, two different
kitchen tables, two sets of rules, two
creeks, two highways, two stepparents
with their fish tanks or eight-tracks or
cigarette smoke or expertise in recipes or
reading skills. I cannot reverse it, the record
scratched and stopped to the original
chaotic track. But let me say, I was taken
back and forth on Sundays and it was not easy
but I was loved each place. And so I have
two brains now. Two entirely different brains.
The one that always misses where I’m not,
and the one that is so relieved to finally be home.
Limón: I see what you did there.
Tippett: You see what I did? [laughter] I was so fascinated when I read the earlier poem.
Limón: Yeah. It’s so interesting because I feel like one of the things as you age, as an artist, as a human being, you start to rethink the stories that people have told you and start to wonder what was useful and what was not useful. And there are times where I think people have said as a child, “Oh, you come from a broken home.” And I remember thinking, “It’s not broken, it’s just bigger. [laughs] I get four parents that come to the school nights.” And I felt like I was not brave enough to own that for myself.
And it wasn’t until really, when I was writing that poem that the word came to me. And I was in the backyard by myself, as many of us were by ourselves. And I kept thinking how I missed all my family, and I missed my father and his wife, and I missed my mother and stepfather. And it was this moment of like, “Oh, this is abundance. This is not a problem. This is a gift.” And that reframing was really important to me. And then I kept thinking, “What are the other things I can do that with?” [laughter] Because there are a lot of unhelpful things that have been told to me. And I found it really useful, a really useful tool to go back in and start to think about what was just no longer true, or maybe had never been true.
Tippett: As we turn the corner from pandemic, although we will not completely turn the corner, I just wanted to read something you wrote on Twitter, which was hilarious. I never go there very much anymore. But you said — I don’t know, I just happened to be — I saw you again today. “I just set my wash settings to who I’d like to be in 2023: ‘Casual, Warm, Normal.’”
Limón: Yeah, that was true. The poet’s brain is always like that, but there’s a little — I was just doing the wash, and I was like, “Casual, warm, and normal.” And I was like, “Ooh, I could really go for that.”
Tippett: Something that you reflect on a lot that I would love to just draw you out on a bit is I think people who love language the most, and work with language, also are most intensely aware of the limits of language, and that’s partly why you’re working so hard. Talk about any of the limits of language, the failure of language.
Limón: I think the failure of language is what really draws me to poetry in general. And I think most poets are drawn to that because it feels like what we’re always trying to do is say something that can’t always entirely be said, even in the poem, even in the completed poem.
Tippett: It’s that Buddhist, the finger pointing at the moon, right? Sometimes you’re, and so much of it’s…
Tippett: …pointing, pointing. Yeah.
Limón: Exactly. And I feel like there’s a level of mystery that’s allowed in the poem that feels like, “Okay, I can maybe read this into it, I can put myself into it,” and it becomes sort of its own thing. And that feels like it’s an active thing as opposed to a finished thing, a closed thing.
And so it’s giving room to have those failures be a breaking open and for someone else to stand in it and bring whatever they want to it. But when we talk about the limitations of language in general, I find language is so strange. And it often falls apart from me. And I’m sure it does for many of you, where you start to think about a phrase or a word comes to you and you’re like, “Is that a word?” You’re like, “With. With.” It suddenly just falls apart… [laughter]
Tippett: Right. Yes.
Limón: …and I feel like there are moments that — I travel a lot in South America, with my husband, and by the end of the second week, my brain has gone. It’s Spanish and English, and I’m trying, and I’ll look at him and be like, “How much degrees is it?”
Tippett: [laughter] Right.
Limón: And he’s like, “Are you trying to ask me what the weather is?” [laughter] I’m like, “Yes. Yes I am.” But I trust those moments. I trust those moments where it feels like, “Oh, right, this is a weird.” Language is strange, and it’s evolving.
Limón: And I love it, but I think that you go to it, as a poet, in an awareness of not only its limitations and its failures, but also very curious about where you can push it in order to make it into a new thing.
Tippett: Would you read this poem, “The End of Poetry,” which I feel speaks to that a bit. That’s page 95.
Limón: Yeah. This definitely speaks to that. Sometimes it feels like language and poetry, I often start with sounds. Poems all come to me differently. Sometimes it sounds, sometimes it’s image, sometimes it’s a note from a friend with the word lover. [laughter] Sometimes it’s just staring out the window. And this poem was basically a list of all the poems I didn’t think I could write, because it was the early days of the pandemic, and I kept thinking, just that poetry had kind of given up on me, I guess. And so I gave up on it. And then what happened was the list that was in my head of poems I wasn’t going to write became this poem.
Tippett: A poem. Yeah.
Limón: “The End of Poetry”
Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot,
enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy
and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and ‘tis
of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing, enough
of the kneeling and the rising and the looking
inward and the looking up, enough of the gun,
the drama, and the acquaintance’s suicide, the long-lost
letter on the dresser, enough of the longing and
the ego and the obliteration of ego, enough
of the mother and the child and the father and the child
and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.
Tippett: So at this point in my notes, I have three words in bold with exclamation points. All right. No, question marks. “God,” which I don’t think we’re going to get to talk about today. So we have to do this another time. “Tacos.” Because you did write a great essay called “Taco Truck Saved my Marriage.”
Limón: Yeah, that’s true.
Tippett: Maybe that speaks for itself. And actually, it seemed to me that your marriage was in fine shape.
Limón: It’s fine. It’s beautiful.
Tippett: And you were just using that…
Limón: But tacos help.
Tippett: …”napping,” we both love.
Tippett: But we don’t need to belabor that. Okay. There’s this poem which I’ve never heard anybody ask you to read called “Where the Circles Overlap”…
Limón: Oh yes.
Tippett: …In The Hurting Kind. And honestly, this feels to me like if I were teaching a college class, I would have somebody read this poem and say, “Discuss.”
Tippett: So can we just engage in this intellectual exercise with you because it’s completely fascinating and I’m not sure what’s going on, and I’d like you to tell me.
Limón: I’m so glad that you asked this.
Tippett: I feel like it brings us back to wholeness somehow.
Limón: Because I love this poem, and no one has ever asked me to read this poem.
Tippett: Okay. You’ll see why in a minute.
Limón: Yeah. Yeah. You’re going to be like, “huh.” Or you’ll just be like, “That makes total sense to me.”
“Where the Circles Overlap”
We beg and beg.
The thesis is still a river.
At the top of the mountain
is a murderous light, so strong
it’s like staring into an original
that brief kinship of hold
and hand, the space between
teeth right before they break
into an expansion, a heat.
We beg and beg.
When should we mourn?
We think time is always time.
And place is always place.
Bottlebrush trees attract
the nectar lovers, and we
capture, capture, capture.
The thesis is still the wind.
The thesis has never been exile.
We have never been exiled.
We have been in the sun,
strong and between sleep,
no hot gates, no house decayed,
just the bottlebrush alive
on all sides with want.
Tippett: The thesis. What was it? “The thesis is still the wind.” “The thesis is still a river.” “The thesis has never been exile.”
Limón: Yeah. I think this poem, for me, is very much about learning to find a home and a sense of belonging in a world where being at peace is actually frowned upon. Where being at ease is not okay. We prioritize busyness. “Oh, I’m stressed.” “Oh, if you want to know about stress, let me tell you, I’m stressed.”
Tippett: That’s right.
Limón: I like to tell my friends when they say they’re really stressed, I’ll be like, “Oh, I took the most wonderful nap. You should take a nap.” [laughter] I know it’s cruel. [laughter]
But I think there’s so much in this poem that’s about that idea that the thesis that’s returned to the river. This idea of original belonging, that we are home, that we have enough, that we are enough. And the title comes from when you’re planting a tree and you’re looking for where the sun is the right space, you can draw where the circles are, and they’ll tell you to plant where the circles overlap. So it’s actually about fostering yourself in the sun, in the right place, creating the right habitat. And the right habitat for that, for all human flourishing, is for us to begin with a sense of belonging, with a sense of ease, with a sense that even though we are desirous and even though we want all of these things, right now, being alive, being human is enough. That’s really hard.
Tippett: And when you say — I know one shouldn’t take poems apart like this, but “The thesis is the river.” What does that mean? What is the “thesis” word — or the “wind”?
Limón: Yeah. The original idea, when we say like our, “thesis statement,” or even when we say like…
Tippett: This is how vitality looks…
Tippett: …this is how vitality looks like.
Limón: It is still the wind. It is still the river. It’s still the elements.
Limón: That’s still it.
Tippett: We’re back at the natural world of metaphors and belonging.
Tippett: You hosted this, The Slowdown podcast, this great poetry podcast for a while and…
Limón: Thank you.
Tippett: I guess maybe you had to quit doing that since you had this new job. You said there in a place, “…as I’ve aged, I have more time for tenderness, for the poems that are so earnest they melt your spine a little. I have decided that I’m here in this world to be moved by love and [to] let myself be moved by beauty.” Which is such a wonderful mission statement. And also that phrase, “as I’ve aged.” You say that a lot and I would like to tell you that you have a lot more aging to do.
Limón: I hope so. I hope so.
Tippett: I’m really glad you’re enjoying it because there’s many more decades. You’re very young.
Limón: I love it. My grandmother is 98. I just saw her. So I’m hoping.
Tippett: I also think aging is underrated. The bright side is not talked about. But I do think you’re a bit of a — So the thing is, we have this phrase, “old and wise.” But the truth is that a lot of people just grow old, it doesn’t necessarily come with it. [laughter] But I think you are a prodigy for growing older and wiser.
Limón: I do think I enjoy it. I think I enjoy getting older. I mean, I do right now. My mother says, “Oh yeah, you say that now.”
Tippett: No, there’s so much to enjoy. But I love it. I love it that you’re already thinking that. I’m so excited for your tenure representing poetry and representing all of us, and I’m excited that you have so many more years of aging and writing and getting wiser ahead, and we got to be here at this early stage. [laughs] And I think I’d just like to end with a few more poems.
Tippett: Because I couldn’t decide which ones I wanted you to read. We haven’t read much from The Carrying, which is a wonderful book. Okay, I’m going to give you some choices. Why don’t you read “The Quiet Machine”? Actually, that’s in Bright Dead Things. This is like a self-care poem. I almost think that this poem could be used as a meditation.
Limón: I think it’s definitely a writing prompt too, right? There’s a lot of different… People…
Tippett: It’s page 13, sorry.
Limón: Oh, thank you. People will ask me a lot about my process and it is, like I said, silence. But then I just examine all the different ways of being quiet. It’s a prose poem.
“The Quiet Machine”
I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way. There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street, that’s another way because I’m farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone. There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock. There’s daytime silent when I stare, and nighttime silent when I do things. There’s shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there’s a silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works.
Tippett: I love that. So in The Carrying, there are these two poems on facing pages, that both have fire in the title. These are heavier, page 86 and page 87. I feel like the short poem, maybe read that one, the “After the Fire” poem is such a wonderful example of so much of what we’ve been talking about, how poetry can speak to something that is impossible to speak about. Page 87.
Limón: “After the Fire”
You ever think you could cry so hard
that there’d be nothing left in you, like
how the wind shakes a tree in a storm
until every part of it is run through with
wind? I live in the low parts now, most
days a little hazy with fever and waiting
for the water to stop shivering out of the
body. Funny thing about grief, its hold
is so bright and determined like a flame,
like something almost worth living for.
Tippett: I think grief is something that is very — We have so much to grieve even as we have so much to walk towards. And so, it’s so hard to speak of, to honor, to mark in this culture. I really love —
Limón: Yeah, I think there’s so much value in grief. And it’s continual and that it hits you sometimes. You’re never like, “Oh, I’m just done grieving.” I mean, you can pretend you are, right, but we aren’t. And then it hits you or something you, like you touch a doorknob, and it reminds you of your mother’s doorknob. Or there’s just something happens and you get all of a sudden for it to come flooding back.
And this particular poem was written after the 2017 fires in my home valley of Sonoma. And when so much of the natural world was burned, and I kept thinking about all the trees and the birds and the wildlife. And I think there was this moment where I was like, “Oh, I’m just sort of living to see what happens next.” And the grief is also giving me a reason to get up.
Tippett: And that is so much more present with us all the time. So I want to do two more, also from The Carrying. And the next one is “Dead Stars.” Which follows a little bit in terms of how do we live in this time of catastrophe that also calls us to rise and to learn and to evolve.
Limón: I think it’s very dangerous not to have hope. And if you can’t have hope, I think we need a little awe, or a little wonder, or at least a little curiosity.
Tippett: I wrote in my notes, just my little note about what this was about, “recycling and the meaning of it all.” I don’t think that’s — [laughter]
Limón: Kind of true. You boiled it down. I will say this poem began — I was telling you how poems begin and sometimes with sounds, sometimes with images — This was a sound of, you know when everyone rolls out their recycling at the same time. And it sounds like thunder?
Limón: And then you go, “Oh no, no, that’s just recycling.” So that’s in the poem. But it’s about more than that. [laughter]
Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.
I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.
We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.
It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.
And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.
But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—
to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.
Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
No, to the rising tides.
Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?
What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain
for the safety of others, for earth,
if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,
if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,
rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?
Tippett: So I feel like the last one I’d like for you to read for us is “A New National Anthem,” which you read at your inauguration as Poet Laureate. And you mentioned that when you wrote this, when was it that you wrote it?
Limón: Do you remember that?
Tippett: If you had thought about it — And you said that this would be the poem that would mean that you would never be Poet Laureate.
Limón: Yeah, I was convinced. I wrote it and then I immediately sent it to an editor who’s a friend of mine and said, “I don’t know if you want this.” And it was up the next day on the website. I was like, “Oh.” Then I came downstairs and I was like, “Lucas, I’m never going to get to be Poet Laureate.”
Tippett: The mystery of it all.
Limón: And then I’ll say this, that the Library of Congress, they’re amazing, and the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, had me read this poem, so.
“A New National Anthem”
The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets’
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we absentmindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the shortgrass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, the song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?
Tippett: Thank you. Thank you all for coming.
[Music: Eventide by Gautam Srikishan]
Tippett: Ada Limón is the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States. Her six books of poetry include, most recently, The Hurting Kind. Her volume The Carrying won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and her book Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is a former host of the poetry podcast, The Slowdown, and she teaches in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, in North Carolina.
Special thanks this week to Daniel Slager, Yanna Demkiewicz, and Katie Hill at Milkweed Editions. Also: Kristin Brogdon, Lindsey Siders, Brad Kern, John Marks, Emery Snow — and the entire staff at both Northrop and the Ted Mann Concert Hall of the University of Minnesota.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. We are located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. Our closing music was composed by Gautam Srikishan. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
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