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The Carrying

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From National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Ada Limón comes The Carrying—her most powerful collection yet.
Vulnerable, tender, acute, these are serious poems, brave poems, exploring with honesty the ambiguous moment between the rapture of youth and the grace of acceptance. A daughter tends to aging parents. A woman struggles with infertility—"What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?"—and a body seized by pain and vertigo as well as ecstasy. A nation convulses: "Every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza, something brutal." And still Limón shows us, as ever, the persistence of hunger, love, and joy, the dizzying fullness of our too-short lives. "Fine then, / I'll take it," she writes. "I'll take it all."
In Bright Dead Things, Limón showed us a heart "giant with power, heavy with blood"—"the huge beating genius machine / that thinks, no, it knows, / it's going to...
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Lucky Wreck

This Big Fake World

Sharks in the Rivers

Bright Dead Things

© 2018, Text by Ada Limón

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Milkweed Editions, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Suite 300, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55415.

(800) 520-6455

Published 2018 by Milkweed Editions

Printed in Canada

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker

Cover art by Stacia Brady

Author photo by Lucas Marquardt

18 19 20 21 22 5 4 3 2 1

First Edition

Milkweed Editions, an independent nonprofit publisher, gratefully acknowledges sustaining support from the Jerome Foundation; the Lindquist & Vennum Foundation; the McKnight Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Target Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Also, this activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and a grant from Wells Fargo. For a full listing of Milkweed Editions supporters, please visit

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Limón, Ada, author.

Title: The carrying: poems / Ada Limón.

Description: First edition. | Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017061361 (print) | LCCN 2018002212 (ebook) | ISBN 9781571319944 (ebook) | ISBN 9781571315120 (hardcover: acid-free paper)

Classification: LCC PS3612.I496 (ebook) | LCC PS3612.I496 A6 2018 (print) | DDC 811/.6--dc23

LC record available at

Milkweed Editions is committed to ecological stewardship. We strive to align our book production practices with this principle, and to reduce the impact of our operations in the environment. We are a member of ; the Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of publishers, manufacturers, and authors working to protect the world’s endangered forests and conserve natural resources. The Carrying was printed on acid-free 100% postconsumer-waste paper by Friesens Corporation.

For Lucas & Lily Bean


Title Page




A Name


How Most of the Dreams Go

The Leash

Almost Forty


On a Pink Moon

The Raincoat

The Vulture & the Body

American Pharoah

Dandelion Insomnia

Dream of the Raven

The Visitor

Late Summer after a Panic Attack


Dead Stars

Dream of Destruction



The Burying Beetle

How We Are Made

The Light the Living See

The Dead Boy

What I Want to Remember


The Millionth Dream of Your Return

Bald Eagles in a Field

I’m Sure about Magic

Wonder Woman

The Real Reason

The Year of the Goldfinches

Notes on the Below

Sundown & All the Damage Done

On a Lamppost Long Ago

Of Roots & Roamers

Killing Methods

Full Gallop

Dream of the Men

A New National Anthem


The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual

It’s Harder


Against Belonging

Instructions on Not Giving Up

Would You Rather

Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother


What I Didn’t Know Before


The Last Thing

Love Poem with Apologies for My Appearance


Sacred Objects

Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air

Cannibal Woman


From the Ash inside the Bone

Time Is On Fire

After the Fire


The Last Drop

After His Ex Died

Sparrow, What Did You Say?

Notes & Acknowledgments

About the Author

She had some horses she loved.

She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.




When Eve walked among

the animals and named them—

nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,

fiddler crab, fallow deer—

I wonder if she ever wanted

them to speak back, looked into

their wide wonderful eyes and

whispered, Name me, name me.


I’ve come here from the rocks, the bone-like chert,

obsidian, lava rock. I’ve come here from the trees—

chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar,

one thousand oaks

that bend with moss and old-man’s beard.

I was born on a green couch on Carriger Road between

the vineyards and the horse pasture.

I don’t remember what I first saw, the brick of light

that unhinged me from the beginning. I don’t remember

my brother’s face, my mother, my father.

Later, I remember leaves, through car windows,

through bedroom windows, through the classroom window,

the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that

power from roots. Imagine you must survive

without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves,

I do not know where else I belong.


First, it’s a fawn dog, and then

it’s a baby. I’m helping him

to swim in a thermal pool,

the water is black as coffee,

the cement edges are steep

so to sink would be easy

and final. I ask the dog

(that is also the child),

Is it okay that I want

you to be my best friend?

And the child nods.

(And the dog nods.)

Sometimes, he drowns.

Sometimes, we drown together.


After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,

the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,

the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,

that brute sky opening in a slate-metal maw

that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s

left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned

orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can

you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek

bottom dry, to suck the deadly water up into

your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to

say: Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish

comes back belly up, and the country plummets

into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still

something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.

But sometimes I swear I hear it, the wound closing

like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move

my living limbs into the world without too much

pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight

toward the pickup trucks breaknecking down

the road, because she thinks she loves them,

because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud

roaring things will love her back, her soft small self

alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,

until I yank the leash back to save her because

I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,

and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings

high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay

her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.

Perhaps we are always hurtling our bodies toward

the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love

from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe,

like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together

peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.


The birds were being so bizarre today,

we stood static and listened to them insane

in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.

We swallow what we won’t say: Maybe

it’s a warning. Maybe they’re screaming

for us to take cover. Inside, your father

seems angry, and the soup’s grown cold

on the stove. I’ve never been someone

to wish for too much, but now I say,

I want to live a long time. You look up

from your work and nod. Yes, but

in good health. We turn up the stove

again and eat what we’ve made together,

each bite an ordinary weapon we wield

against the shrinking of mouths.


I’d forgotten how much

I like to grow things, I shout

to him as he passes me to paint

the basement. I’m trellising

the tomatoes in what’s called

a Florida weave. Later, we try

to knock me up again. We do it

in the guest room because that’s

the extent of our adventurism

in a week of violence in Florida

and France. Afterward,

the sun still strong though lowering

inevitably to the horizon, I check

on the plants in the back, my

fingers smelling of sex and tomato

vines. Even now, I don’t know much

about happiness. I still worry

and want an endless stream of more,

but some days I can see the point

in growing something, even if

it’s just to say I cared enough.


I take out my anger

And lay its shadow

On the stone I rolled

Over what broke me.

I plant three seeds

As a spell. One

For what will grow

Like air around us,

One for what will

Nourish and feed,

One for what will

Cling and remind me—

We are the weeds.


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.


On my way to the fertility clinic,

I pass five dead animals.

First a raccoon with all four paws to the sky

like he’s going to catch whatever bullshit load

falls on him next.

Then, a grown coyote, his golden furred body soft against the white

cement lip of the traffic barrier. Trickster no longer,

an eye closed to what’s coming.

Close to the water tower that says “Florence, Y’all,” which means

I’m near Cincinnati, but still in the bluegrass state,

and close to my exit, I see

three dead deer, all staggered but together, and I realize as I speed

past in my death machine that they are a family. I say something

to myself that’s between a prayer and a curse—how dare we live

on this earth.

I want to tell my doctor about how we all hold a duality

in our minds: futures entirely different, footloose or forged.

I want to tell him how lately, it’s enough to be reminded that my

body is not just my body, but that I’m made of old stars and so’s he,

and that last Tuesday,

I sat alone in the car by the post office and just was

for a whole hour, no one knowing how to find me, until

I got out, the sound of the car door shutting like a gun,

and mailed letters, all of them saying, Thank you.

But in the clinic, the sonogram wand showing my follicles, he asks

if I have any questions, and says, Things are getting exciting.

I want to say, But what about all the dead animals?

But he goes quicksilver, and I’m left to pull my panties up like a big girl.

Some days 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?

The great black scavenger flies parallel now, each of us speeding,

intently and driven, toward what we’ve been taught to do with death.


Despite the morning’s gray static of rain,

we drive to Churchill Downs at 6 a.m.,

eyes still swollen shut with sleep. I say,

Remember when I used to think everything

was getting better and better? Now I think

it’s just getting worse and worse. I know it’s not

what I’m supposed to say as we machine our

way through the silent seventy minutes on 64

over potholes still oozing from the winter’s

wreckage. I’m tired. I’ve had vertigo for five

months and on my first day home, he’s shaken

me awake to see this horse not even race, but

work. He gives me his jacket as we face

the deluge from car to the Twin Spire turnstiles,

and once deep in the fern-green grandstands I see

the crowd. A few hundred maybe, black umbrellas,

cameras, and notepads, wet-winged eager early birds

come to see this Kentucky-bred bay colt with his

chewed-off tail train to end the almost forty-year

American Triple Crown drought. A man next to us,

some horse racing bigwig, hisses a list of reasons

why this horse—his speed-heavy pedigree, muscle

and bone recovery, etcetera etcetera could never

win the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.

Then the horse comes out, first just casually trotting

with his lead horse, and all at once, a brief break

in the storm, and he’s racing against no one

but himself and the official clockers, monstrously

fast and head down so we can see that faded star

flash on his forehead like this is real gladness.

As the horse eases up and all of us close our mouths

to swallow, the big-talking guy next to us folds his arms,

says what I want to say too: I take it all back.


The big-ass bees are back, tipsy, sun drunk

and heavy with thick knitted leg warmers

of pollen. I was up all night again so today’s

yellow hours seem strange and hallucinogenic.

The neighborhood is lousy with mowers, crazy

dogs, and people mending what winter ruined.

What I can’t get over is something simple, easy:

How could a dandelion seed head seemingly

grow overnight? A neighbor mows the lawn

and bam, the next morning, there’s a hundred

dandelion seed heads straight as arrows

and proud as cats high above any green blade

of manicured grass. It must bug some folks,

a flower so tricky it can reproduce asexually,

making perfect identical selves, bam, another me,

bam, another me. I can’t help it—I root

for that persecuted rosette so hyper in its

own making it seems to devour the land.

Even its name, translated from the French

dent de lion, means lion’s tooth. It’s vicious,

made for a time that requires tenacity, a way

of remaking the toughest self while everyone

else is asleep.


When the ten-speed, lightweight bicycle broke down

off the highway lined thick with orange trees, I noticed

a giant raven’s head protruding from the waxy leaves.

The bird was stuck somehow, mangled in the branches,

crying out. Wide-eyed, I held the bird’s face close to mine.

Beak to nose. Dark brown iris to dark brown iris. Feather

to feather. This was not the Chihuahuan raven or the fan-

tailed raven or the common raven. Nothing was common

about the way we stared at one another while a stranger

untangled the bird’s claws from the tree’s limbs and he, finally

free, became a naked child swinging in the wind.


A neighborhood tuxedo cat’s walking the fence line

and the dogs are going bonkers in the early morning.

The louder they bark, the more their vexation grows,

the less the cat seems to care. She’s behind my raised

beds now, no doubt looking for the family of field mice

I’ve been leaving be because why not? The cat’s

dressed up for this occasion of trespass, formal

attire for the canine taunting, but the whole clamor

is making me uneasy. This might be what growing

older is. My problem: I see all the angles of what

could go wrong so I never know what side to be on.

Save the mice, shoo the cat, quiet the dogs? Let

the cat have at it? Let the dogs have at it? Instead,

I do what I do best: nothing. I watch the cat

leap into the drainage ditch, dew-wet fur against

the daylilies, and disappear. The dogs go quiet

again, and the mice are safe in their caves, and

I’m here waiting for something to happen to me.


I can’t undress from the pressure of leaves,

the lobed edges leaning toward the window

like an unwanted male gaze on the backside

(they wish to bless and bless and hush).

What if I want to go devil instead? Bow

down to the madness that makes me. Drone

of the neighbor’s mowing, a red mailbox flag

erected, a dog bark from three houses over,

and this is what a day is. Beetle on the wainscoting,

dead branch breaking but not breaking, stones

from the sea next to stones from the river,

unanswered messages like ghosts in the throat,

a siren whining high toward town repeating

that the emergency is not here, repeating

that this loud silence is only where you live.


I’m driving alone in the predawn

dark to the airport, nerves nearly gone

when I fly now, gravity only another holy

thing to contend with, what pushes us

down squeezing out the body’s air.

The shock jock’s morning jawing clangs

in its exaggerated American male register

to tell us how the twenty-four-year-old Colombian

woman whose breasts had been hacked

open and stuffed with one kilogram

of cocaine swiftly admitted the smuggled

property because she was in dire agony.

Wounds rupturing, raging infection,

she was rushed to a Berlin hospital.

Her three kids were home in her country

where she worked in agriculture, another

word for cultivation of land, for making

something out of dirt. The rude radio

disc jockey licks his lips into the studio’s mic

and says something about motorboating

her tits jammed with nose candy and I’m

thinking of my friend who’s considering

a mastectomy to stay alive, another who

said she’d cut them off herself if it meant

living. Passport and boots that slip on and off,

a sleepy stream through the radiation

machine. A passive pat-down of my outline

and I’m heading somewhere else before

the world has even woken up. I’ve got shit

to do and I need to lose a little weight before

I turn older. There’s the email scan of the bank

statement showing barely enough, the IRS

check, the dentist that’ll have to wait until

payday next month. We do what we have

to do to not cleave the body too quickly.

I wait for my zone to be called and line

up with all the others, the woman’s voice

over the intercom’s buzz reminding us

the flight is full, reminding us to carry

only what we need. The chill rises

up in the jet bridge as does the tremor

in my chest as we board, this shiver of need

that moves my hand to my breastbone,

some small gesture of tenderness for this

masterpiece of anatomy I cling to.


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?


We somehow knew the electric orange volcanic ooze

of hot lava was bound to bury us all, little spurts of ash

popping early like precum and not innocuous at all

blasted into the sky like a warning siren on the horizon.

The air felt different. The sky felt different. You felt different.

Still, there I was down in the valley where I was born, coyotes

on the ridges of the Mayacamas, turning over the steamy earth

to plant a garden. You were standing on the steps, staring

out at the sky’s ominous openings, a mouth of terrible red,

like a tongue that’d been bitten so often it was not a tongue

but a bloody wound with which the earth tried to speak. I held

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.


The muffled, ruptured voice of a friend

turns into an electrical signal and breaks open

to tell me her sister has died. A muted pause,

then a heaving. Sounds sucked from lungs.

Outside, as the sun descends to inch-high

on the fallow horizon, a hawk grasp-lands

on the telephone pole. Brawny and barrel-

chested, it perches eyeing the late winter

seed head of switchgrass. Later, we’re talking

about self-care, being strong, surviving

a long time. The hawk launches as the sun

oozes puce and ochre and sinks. I write

to another friend who says her partner

is like a hawk—steadfast, wary. I think

of the sharp-shinned hunters, the Cooper’s,

the Swainson’s, how hawks are both serene

and scary as hell, scary that is, if you’re

the mouse. That’s the trick, we say,

isn’t it? Don’t be the mouse.



I like to imagine even the plants

want attention, so I weed for four

hours straight, assuring the tomatoes

feel July’s hot breath on the neck,

the Japanese maple can stretch,

the sweet potatoes, the spider plants,

the Asiatic lilies can flourish in this

place we’ve dared to say we “own.”

Each nicked spindle of morning glory

or kudzu or purslane or yellow rocket

(Barbarea vulgaris for Christ’s sake),

and I find myself missing everyone I know.

I don’t know why. First come the piles

of nutsedge and creeper and then an

ache that fills the skin like the Cercospora

blight that’s killing the blue skyrocket juniper

slowly from the inside out. Sure, I know

what it is to be lonely, but today’s special

is a physical need to be touched by someone

decent, a pulsing palm to the back. My man

is in South Africa still, and people just keep

dying even when I try to pretend like they’re

not. The crown vetch and the curly dock

are almost eliminated as I survey the neatness

of my work. I don’t feel I deserve this time,

or the small plot of earth I get to mold into

someplace 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.


For Philip Levine

For months, I was a cannonball

dropped down the bore, reeling

in blurry vomitous swirls toward

the fuse; forty days with vertigo

is like that. My new equilibrium

was spinning inside the chambers

of spherical blackness when the news

came. You, with your wiry limbs

of hard verse, inky gap-toothed grin

of gristle and work, you who grimly

told us to stop messing around,

to make this survival matter

like a factory line, like fish scaling,

like filament and rubble, you

who would say, most likely,

this was all sentimental crap, you

had gone to cinders, blasted

into the ether without so much

as smoke. I stood then on the icy hill

under the expressway, filled

with the salt you had given me,

and for the first time that year,

my entire world stood still.


For Adam & Michael

We’re stopped in Subiaco

to lay stones on stone

at a fellow penner’s grave

where we jaw, punchdrunk

and carsick, about being buried

or burned up. I don’t want

to take up any more space,

I tell the boys, both fathers now,

who, shaped like trees, lean

toward the earth. I imagine

their old daughters leaving a slice

of gas station moon pie,

rye, a nickel-plated acorn, ladies

picnicking in the shade of a pine

as immobile as the body’s husk.

Chemicals and maggots, sure,

but also a place to grieve, a creek,

a constellation of death to count on.

These men know something

I don’t. That someone will grieve

past their bones, count on them

to be there among the shaded trunks

of pines like the stark bars

of a generous cage.

(What if no one comes to the cliffside

where my skin’s ashes set sail?

No mourning kin, no lost hitchhiker.)

But friends, it’s lunchtime,

and doesn’t my mouth still work;

my appetite, my forked tongue?


It was spring then too, and the Southern grass

was thick with ant legs and needling beetles.

The day was all lemonade and meditation

on the true-blue atmosphere that held me

in the palm of quietude and survival. But,

from the summer-thinned dorm rooms, a young

woman came running, her oversized T-shirt

billowing, her straight brown hair wild as she

begged us to call 9-1-1. Because we were

the adults, Fred and I ran toward the stale

hollow room where, already purple with death’s

permanent hue, the boy was gone. But Fred,

being a father, and maybe more hopeful,

tried to revive him. So I tried too. Turned

him to see the ruined face like a petaled

jellyfish washed to the stormy shore.

I don’t want to admit this, but I hated

him. Hated his face that I already knew

I’d see forever, hated the needle on the waxy

dorm room desk, hated the dorm, hated

the kid I loved back in college who mainlined

until his too-high pal had a seizure, hated

my ex who had died that way a different spring.

I hated the world, the pain of it that circles in us,

that makes us want to be the moon,

the treasure, and not the thing on the sea

floor. Later, I found out his name was Griffin,

part lion, part eagle, named for the king

of the creatures, named the guardian

of riches. And because symbols matter, I try

to say his name: Griffin, Griffin, but because

language matters too, I have to tell you: I did not

feel like I was laying down a lion, or a king,

or an eagle, but a poor suffering son, and even

if I hate these words and the drug that dragged

him there, he is etched in my mind, named

in language forever and only as: dead boy,

dead boy, and gone.


Right before General Vallejo’s home,

with its stately stone and yellow walls,

there’s a field along the footpath

where spring rains bring the frogs,

a whole symphony of them, breaking

open the hours just after the sun

sinks into the Pacific Ocean only

an hour away. Why am I placing

you here? I’m on a plane going west

and all the humans are so loud

it hurts the blood. But once I sat

next to a path that was still warm

from the day’s heat, cross-legged

with my friend named Echo who taught

me how to amplify the strange sound

the frogs made by cupping my ears.

I need to hold this close within me,

when today’s news is full of dead children,

their faces opening their mouths for air

that will not come. Once I was a child too

and my friend and I sat for maybe an hour,

eyes adjusting to the night sky, cupping

and uncupping our ears to hear

the song the tenderest animals made.


The road wasn’t as hazardous then,

when I’d walk to the steel guardrail,

lean my bendy girl body over, and stare

at the cold creek water. In a wet spring,

the water’d run clear and high, minnows

mouthing the sand and silt, a crawdad

shadowed by the shore’s long reeds.

I could stare for hours, something

always new in each watery wedge—

a bottle top, a man’s black boot, a toad.

Once, a raccoon’s carcass, half under

the overpass, half out, slowly decayed

over months. I’d check on him each day,

watching until the white bones of his hand

were totally skinless and seemed to reach

out toward the sun as it hit the water,

showing all five of his sweet tensile fingers

still clinging. I don’t think I worshipped

him, his deadness, but I liked the evidence

of him, how it felt like a job to daily

take note of his shifting into the sand.


At the tequila tasting bar called Izquierda Iguana

where the silvery agave plants were pure hydroponic

and upside down so you had to swerve around them

to get served, I suddenly remembered you were coming

in that evening, a special return. I rushed to the cavernous loft

where the power was all on one ancient grid so the lights

flickered each time someone opened the refrigerator,

and put on the white dress that you had once said made you look

like an angel with its real swan feathers and fool’s gold.

Then I sat for a long time in the night and waited. At dawn,

I woke with feathers sticky on my tongue and I remembered

you were dead all over again.


She was almost gone at that point,

enough so we could start to make plans.

Bright for a February near Fishtown,

Skagit Bay another sun on the earth

shining upward. On our way for groceries,

we saw one eagle in a field, then another.

I had never seen two bald eagles together

like that, and it felt like a sign, something

that would shift things forever, but it wasn’t

really, it was just a moment, dad and daughter

pulled over in the car, silent and breathing

for a singular instance before all we knew

took flight.


After the artist Dario Robleto

With dust from every bone in the body,

and the strange material trinitite (a glass

forged in the heat of the 1945 atomic blasts),

the artist makes a spell for the dead. Me?

I cross the wide river the same color as trees,

thinking what could I excavate, melt, smash

of yours. The copper pots you bought to last

turned into a heavy necklace for all to see

like Cleopatra and her beloved Caesar coins,

late August, hot, overripe trailing black

dewberries cooked into an inky purple stain

for a tattoo on the wrist, juniper-laden cold gin

mixed with beeswax and lit from a stolen match

all wasted like your too-short life down the drain.


Standing at the swell of the muddy Mississippi

after the urgent care doctor had just said, Well,

sometimes shit happens, I fell fast and hard

for New Orleans all over again. Pain pills swirled

in the purse along with a spell for later. It’s taken

a while for me to admit, I am in a raging battle

with my body, a spinal column thirty-five degrees

bent, vertigo that comes and goes like a DC Comics

villain nobody can kill. Invisible pain is both

a blessing and a curse. You always look so happy,

said a stranger once as I shifted to my good side

grinning. But that day, alone on the riverbank,

brass blaring from the Steamboat Natchez,

out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl, maybe half my age,

dressed, for no apparent reason, as Wonder Woman.

She strutted by in all her strength and glory, invincible,

eternal, and when I stood to clap (because who wouldn’t have),

she bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth—

a woman, by a river, indestructible.


I don’t have any tattoos is not my story to tell. It’s my

mother’s. Once, walking down Bedford Avenue in my twenties,

I called her as I did, as I do. I told her how I wanted a tattoo

on the back of my neck. Something minor, but permanent,

and she is an artist, I wanted her to create the design, a symbol,

a fish I dream of every night. An underwater talisman, a mother’s

gift on my body. To be clear, I thought she’d be honored. But do we

ever really know each other fully? A silence like a hospital room; she

was in tears. I swore then that I wouldn’t get one. Wouldn’t let a needle

touch my neck, my arm, my torso. I’d stay me, my skin the skin

she welcomed me into the world with. It wasn’t until later that

I knew it wasn’t so much the tattoo, but the marking, the idea

of scars. What you don’t know (and this is why this is not my story)

is that my mother is scarred from burns over a great deal of her body.

Most from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying

in her belly, others from the skin grafts where they took skin to cover

what needed it. She was in her late twenties when that happened.

Outside her studio in the center of town. You have to understand,

my mother is beautiful. Tall and elegant, thin and strong. I have not

known her any other way, her skin that I mapped with my young

fingers, its strange hardness in places, its patterns like quilts here,

riverbeds there. She’s wondrous, preternatural, survived fire,

the ending of an unborn child. Heat and flame and death, all made

her into something seemingly magical, a phoenixess. What I know

now is she wanted something else for me. For me to wake each

morning and recognize my own flesh, for this one thing she made—

me—to remain how she intended, for one of us

to make it out unscathed.


There were two that hung and hovered

by the mud puddle and the musk thistle.

Flitting from one splintered fence post

to another, bathing in the rainwater’s glint

like it was a mirror to some other universe

where things were more acceptable, easier

than the place I lived. I’d watch for them:

the bright peacocking male, the low-watt

female, on each morning walk, days spent

digging for some sort of elusive answer

to the question my curving figure made.

Later, I learned that they were a symbol

of resurrection. Of course they were,

my two yellow-winged twins feasting

on thorns and liking it.


For Mammoth Cave National Park

Tell me—humongous cavern, tell me, wet limestone, sandstone

caprock, bat-wing, sightless translucent cave shrimp,

this endless plummet into more of the unknown,

tell me how one keeps secrets for so long.

All my life, I’ve lived above the ground,

car wheels over paved roads, roots breaking through concrete,

and still I’ve not understood the reel of this life’s purpose.

Not so much living, but a hovering without sense.

What’s it like to be always night? No moon, but a few lit-up

circles at your many openings. Endless dark, still time

must enter you. Like a train, like a green river?

Tell me what it is to be the thing rooted in shadow.

To be the thing not touched by light (no, that’s not it)—

to not even need the light? I envy; I envy that.

Desire is a tricky thing, the boiling of the body’s wants,

more praise, more hands holding the knives away.

I’ve been the one who has craved and craved until I could not see

beyond my own greed. There’s a whole nation of us.

To forgive myself, I point to the earth as witness.

To you, your Frozen Niagara, your Fat Man’s Misery,

you with your 400 miles of interlocking caves that lead

only to more of you, tell me

what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing.

Ruler of the Underlying, let me

speak to both the dead and the living as you do. Speak

to the ruined earth, the stalactites, the eastern small-footed bat,

to honor this: the length of days. To speak to the core

that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s

shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.

I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.


Nearly nine and still the sun’s not slunk

into its nightly digs. The burnt-meat smell

of midweek cookouts and wet grass

hangs in the air like loose familiar summer

garb. Standing by the magnolia tree, I think

if I were to live as long as she did, I’d have

eleven more years. And if I were to live as long

as him, I’d have forty-nine. As long as him,

I’d be dead already. As long as her, this

would be my final year. There’s a strange

contentment to this countdown, a nodding

to this time, where I get to stand under

the waxy leaves of the ancient genus, a tree

that appeared before even the bees, and

watch as fireflies land on the tough tepals

until each broad flower glows like a torchlit

mausoleum. They call the beetle’s conspicuous

bioluminescence “a cold light,” but why then

do I still feel so much fire?


I don’t know what to think of first

in the list

of all the things that are disappearing: fishes, birds, trees, flowers, bees,

and languages too. They say that if historical rates are averaged,

a language will die every four months.

In the time it takes to say I love you, or move in with someone,

or admit to the child you’re carrying, all the intricate words

of a language become extinct.

There are too many things to hold in the palm of the brain.

Your father with Alzheimer’s uses the word thing to describe

many different nouns and we guess the word he means.

When we get it right, he nods as if it’s obvious.

When we get it wrong, his face closes like a fist.

Out walking in the neighborhood, there’s a wide metal lamppost

that has scratched into it “Brandy Earlywine loves

Jack Pickett” and then there come the hearts. The barrage of hearts

scratched over and over as if, just in case we have forgotten

the word love, we will know its symbol. As if Miss Earlywine

wanted us to know that—even after she and Mr. Pickett

have passed on, their real hearts stopped, the ones that don’t look

anything like those little symbols—they frantically, furiously,

late one night under the streetlight while their parents thought

they were asleep, inscribed onto the body of something like

a permanent tree, a heart—so that even after their bodies

have ceased to be bodies, their mouths no longer capable of words,

that universal shape will tell you how she felt, one blue evening,

long ago, when there were still 7,000 languages that named and honored

the plants and animals each in their

own way, when your father said thing and we knew what it meant,

and the bees were big and round and buzzing.


Have you ever noticed how the trees

change from state to state? Not all

at once, of course, more like a weaver

gradually weaving in another color

until the old trees become scarce

and new trees offer a shaded kingdom

all their own. Before I knew the names

of towns or roads, I could recognize

places by the trees: Northern California’s

smooth-skinned madrone, looming eucalyptus,

fuzzy fragrant flowers of the acacia. So

much of America belongs to the trees.

Even when we can’t agree on much,

there’s still the man returning from his

late shift at the local bar, who takes

a long look at the bird’s nest in the maple,

pats the trunk like a friend’s forearm,

mumbles something about staying safe,

and returns home. And the girl whose

slapdash tree fort we can see from our blurry

window, how she stands there to wave

at a world she does not even know

the half of yet. My grandmother once

complained she couldn’t see much

of America on her cross-country trip because

it was all just trees. Ask her, she’ll laugh as she

tells you. Still, without the bother of licenses

or attention to a state line, a border, they

just grow where they’ve grown all their lives:

there, a small stand of white pine arrives,

there, a redwood begins to show itself along

the coastline, water oaks in the south, willows.

Their power is in not moving, so we must

move to them.


Outside, after grieving for days,

I’m thinking of how we make stories,

pluck them like beetles out of the air,

collect them, pin their glossy backs

to the board like the rows of stolen

beauties, dead, displayed at Isla Negra,

where the waves broke over us

and I still loved the country, wanted

to suck the bones of the buried.

Now, I’m outside a normal house

while friends cook and please

and pour secrets into each other.

A crow pierces the sky, ominous,

clanging like an alarm, but there

is no ocean here, just tap water

rising in the sink, a sadness clean

of history only because it’s new,

a few weeks old, our national wound.

I don’t know how to hold this truth,

so I kill it, pin its terrible wings down

in case, later, no one believes me.


The night after, I dream I chop

all the penises off, the ones that

keep coming through the walls.

Tied in sweat-wet sheets, I wake

aching, how I’ve longed for touch

for so much of my bodied time.

In the shower later, I notice new

layers I’ve grown, softness love tosses

you after years of streetlights alone.

I will never harm you, your brilliant

skin I rub against in the night,

still, part of me is haunted—

a shadow baying inside me

who wants to snap her hind leg

back, buck the rider, follow

that fugitive call into oblivion.


At the beach that was so gray it seemed stone—

gray water, gray sky, gray blanket, and the wind

some sort of gray perpetual motion machine—

we gathered like a blustery coven on the blanket

from Mexico woven with white and gray threads

into a pattern of owls and great seabirds. Then,

they came: the men. Blankets full of them, talking,

talking, talking, talking, and our mouths were sewn

shut with patient smiles while they talked about

the country where they were from; their hands

like slick seaweed were everywhere, unwelcome,

multicellular, touching us.


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 blindly 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, that 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?


I wish I could write to you from underwater,

the warm bath covering my ears—

one of which has three marks in the exact

shape of a triangle, my own atmosphere’s asterism.

Last night, the fire engine sirens were so loud

they drowned out even the constant bluster

of the inbound freight trains. Did I tell you,

the R. J. Corman Railroad runs 500 feet from us?

Before everything shifted and I aged into this body,

my grandparents lived above San Timoteo Canyon

where the Southern Pacific Railroad roared each scorching

California summer day. I’d watch for the trains,

howling as they came.

Manuel is in Chicago today, and we’ve both admitted

that we’re traveling with our passports now.

Reports of ICE raids and both of our bloods

are requiring new medication.

I wish we could go back to the windy dock,

drinking pink wine and talking smack.

Now, it’s gray and pitchfork.

The supermarket here is full of grass seed like spring

might actually come, but I don’t know. And you?

I heard from a friend that you’re still working on saving

words. All I’ve been working on is napping, and maybe

being kinder to others, to myself.

Just this morning, I saw seven cardinals brash and bold

as sin in a leafless tree. I let them be for a long while before

I shook the air and screwed it all up just by being alive too.

Am I braver than those birds?

Do you ever wonder what the trains carry? Aluminum ingots,

plastic, brick, corn syrup, limestone, fury, alcohol, joy.

All the world is moving, even sand from one shore to another

is being shuttled. I live my life half afraid, and half shouting

at the trains when they thunder by. This letter to you is both.


When you come, bring your brownness

so we can be sure to please

the funders. Will you check this

box; we’re applying for a grant.

Do you have any poems that speak

to troubled teens? Bilingual is best.

Would you like to come to dinner

with the patrons and sip Patrón?

Will you tell us the stories that make

us uncomfortable, but not complicit?

Don’t read us the one where you

are just like us. Born to a green house,

garden, don’t tell us how you picked

tomatoes and ate them in the dirt

watching vultures pick apart another

bird’s bones in the road. Tell us the one

about your father stealing hubcaps

after a colleague said that’s what his

kind did. Tell us how he came

to the meeting wearing a poncho

and tried to sell the man his hubcaps

back. Don’t mention your father

was a teacher, spoke English, loved

making beer, loved baseball, tell us

again about the poncho, the hubcaps,

how he stole them, how he did the thing

he was trying to prove he didn’t do.


Not to unravel the intentions of the other—

the slight gesture over the coffee table, a raised

eyebrow at the passing minuscule skirt, a wick

snuffed out at the evening’s end, a sympathetic

nod, a black garbage can rolled out so slowly

he hovers there, outside, alone, a little longer,

the child’s thieving fingers, the face that’s serene

as cornfields, the mouth screwed into a plum,

the way I can’t remember which blue lake

has the whole train underneath its surface,

so now, every blue lake has a whole train

underneath its surface.



It’s been six years since we moved here, green

of the tall grasses outstretched like fingers waving.

I remember the first drive in; the American beech,

sassafras, chestnut oak, yellow birch were just

plain trees back then. I didn’t know we’d stay long.

I missed the Sonoma coast line, the winding

roads that opened onto places called Goat Rock,

Furlong Gulch, Salmon Creek. Once, when I was

young, we camped out at Russian Gulch and learned

the names of all the grasses, the tide pool animals,

the creatures of the redwoods, properly identifying

seemed more important than science, more like

creation. With each new name, the world expanded.

I give names to everything now because it makes

me feel useful. Currently, three snakes surround our

house. One in front, one near the fire pit, and one

near the raised beds of beets and carrots. Harmless

Eastern garter snakes, small, but ever expanding.

I check on them each day, watch their round eyes

blink in the sun that fuels them. I’ve named them

so no one is tempted to kill them (a way of offering

reprieve, tenderness). But sometimes I feel them

moving around inside me, the three snakes hissing—

what cannot be tamed, what shakes off citizenship,

what draws her own signature with her body

in whatever dirt she wants.


More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out

of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s

almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving

their cotton candy–colored blossoms to the slate

sky of spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees

that really gets to me. When all the shock of white

and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave

the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,

the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin

growing over whatever winter did to us, a return

to the strange idea of continuous living despite

the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,

I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf

unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.


Remember that car ride to Sea-Tac, how your sister’s kids

played a frenzied game of Would You Rather, where each choice

ticktocked between superpowers or towering piles of a food

too often denied, Would You Rather

have fiery lasers that shoot out of your eyes,

or eat sundaes with whip cream for every meal?

We dealt it out quick,

without stopping to check ourselves for the truth.

We played so hard that I got good at the questions, learned

there had to be an equality

to each weighted ask. Now I’m an expert at comparing things

that give the illusion they equal each other.

You said our Plan B was just to live our lives:

more time, more sleep, travel—

and still I’m 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 Muhammad Ali museum, but always

the last time tops the list, in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge,

looking over toward Alcatraz, a place they should burn and redeliver

to the gulls and cormorants, common daisies and seagrass.

Down below the girder that’s still not screened against jumpers,

so that it seems almost like a dare, an invitation,

we watched a seal make a sinuous shimmy in the bay.

Would you rather? Would I rather?

The game is endless and without a winner.

Do you remember how the seal was so far under

the deafening sound of traffic, the whir of wind mixed

with car horns and gasoline, such a small

speck of black movement alone in the churning waves

between rock and shore?

Didn’t she seem happy?


Snow today, a layer outlining the maple like a halo,

or rather, a fungus. So many sharp edges in the month.

I’m thinking I’ll never sit down at the table

at the restaurant, you know that one, by the window?

Women gathered in paisley scarves with rusty iced tea,

talking about their kids, their little time-suckers,

how their mouths want so much, a gesture of exhaustion,

a roll of the eyes, But I wouldn’t have it any other way,

their bags full of crayons and nut-free snacks, the light

coming in the window, a small tear of joy melting like ice.

No, I’ll be elsewhere, having spent all day writing words

and then at the movies, where my man bought me a drink,

because our bodies are our own, and what will it be?

A blockbuster? A man somewhere saving the world, alone,

with only the thought of his family to get him through.

The film will be forgettable, a thin star in a blurred sea of stars,

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.


The sky’s white with November’s teeth,

and the air is ash and woodsmoke.

A flush of color from the dying tree,

a cargo train speeding through, and there,

that’s me, standing in the wintering

grass watching the dog suffer the cold

leaves. I’m not large from this distance,

just a fence post, a hedge of holly.

Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,

mares look for what’s left of green

in the pasture, a few weanlings kick

out, and theirs is the same sky, white

like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut.

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 stakes 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.


was how horses simply give birth to other

horses. Not a baby by any means, not

a creature of liminal spaces, but already

a four-legged beast hellbent on walking,

scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way

to another horse and then suddenly there are

two horses, just like that. That’s how I loved you.

You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying

a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two

computers swinging in it unwieldily at your

side. I remember we broke into laughter

when we saw each other. What was between

us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed

over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.


I’m in Texas at a bar with a friend who doesn’t drink

anymore and I’ve missed him. We order food and share

and talk aging bodies and Mexico and how the mind goes mad.

We talk about a friend who’s going blind, the pressure

on his brain, how much we admire his fierce allegiance

to this world, his unflagging wail into the abyss.

I like being at this bar with a man I admire

but don’t love, don’t need to fleece for affection. It makes

me feel all grown up, like I should get a good-job chip too.

We talk about marriage and the tender skin

of the other. I lay out the plans for my upcoming

wedding—a mountain named after the moon,

blooms in my hair, my beloved.

We’ve known each other almost fifteen years, my friend

with eyes the color of a clear cenote. I trust him. He leans in,

tells me the real miracle, more than marriage, the thing that makes you

believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child.

He stares at me, but I am not there anymore. I don’t say

we’ve tried a long time, been sad, been happy,

that perhaps the only thing I can make

is love and art. I want to tell him that’s enough. Isn’t it? Isn’t love

that doesn’t result in a seed, a needy body, another suckling animal,

still love? Isn’t that supernatural? Screw your god. He’s showing

me a photo now of his child and I’m unfolding and folding

the napkin. He’s pointing out how amazing his child is. I order

a drink because I can. (And maybe because he can’t.) He retreats

in his seat. I take a long sip and really look into his eyes.

I want him to notice what he said, how a woman might feel agony,

emptiness, how he’s lucky it’s me he said it to because I won’t

vaporize him. I sip again, I want him to see how much pleasure

I can handle, my tongue a tuning fork, how mute and mirror I can be,

even with these ordinary wonders he can’t see swirling around us.


First there was the blue wing

of a scraggly loud jay tucked

into the shrubs. Then the bluish-

black moth drunkenly tripping

from blade to blade. Then

the quiet that came roaring

in like the R. J. Corman over

Broadway near the RV shop.

These are the last three things

that happened. Not in the universe,

but here, in the basin of my mind,

where I’m always making a list

for you, recording the day’s minor

urchins: silvery dust mote, pistachio

shell, the dog eating a sugar

snap pea. It’s going to rain soon,

close clouds bloated above us,

the air like a net about to release

all the caught fishes, a storm

siren in the distance. I know

you don’t always understand,

but let me point to the first

wet drops landing on the stones,

the noise like fingers drumming

the skin. I can’t help it. I will

never get over making everything

such a big deal.


Sometimes, I think you get the worst

of me. The much-loved loose forest-green

sweatpants, the long bra-less days, hair

knotted and uncivilized, a shadowed brow

where the devilish thoughts do their hoofed

dance on the brain. I’d like to say this means

I love you, the stained white cotton T-shirt,

the tears, pistachio shells, the mess of orange

peels on my desk, but it’s different than that.

I move in this house with you, the way I move

in my mind, unencumbered by beauty’s cage.

I do like I do in the tall grass, more animal-me

than much else. I’m wrong, it is that I love you,

but it’s more that when you say it back, lights

out, a cold wind through curtains, for maybe

the first time in my life, I believe it.


What is it about words that make the world

fit easier? Air and time.

Since last we spoke, I’ve been better.

I slept again once the Pink Moon

moved off a little, put her pants back on, let me be.

Are you sleeping again?

I’m home in the bluegrass now, one of the places

my body feels at ease. I can’t stop

putting plants in the ground. There’s a hunger in me,

a need to watch something grow. A neighbor brought me

five new hostas to plant along the fence line that’s shaded all afternoon.

As I dug into the ground making room around the maple,

I found a bunch of wild strawberries, flowering.

I let them be: the heart berry. Red,

like our rage. The red of your desert. Your heart too.

My neighbor and her wife bring me plants and chive pesto

and we let our dogs run under the fence

to multiply their space. Small beasts running in more air.

I have been alone a long time this year.

She says when she looks at me, she is reminded of time.

I didn’t know what she meant, so she repeated,

When I see you, I become very aware of time.

A grackle, now two, are joining us here, in the vines; they’re

too heavy for the young spring branches.

My man is coming home today, driving ten hours

to be home, and by god, I will throw my body toward him,

the way you wrote: How is it that we know what we are?

Maybe this letter is to say, if it is red where you are,

know there is also green, the serrated leaves of dandelion, lemon balm,

purple sage, peppermint, a small plum tree by the shed.

I don’t know how to make medicine, or cure what’s scarring

this planet, but I know that last night, the train came roaring

right as I needed it. I was alone and I was time, but

the train made a noise so I would listen. I was standing so

close, a body on a bridge, so that I could feel how

the air shifted to make room for the train. How it’s easier

if we become more like a body of air, branches, and make room

for this red charging thing that barrels through us,

how afterward our leaves shake and stand straighter.


I’m driving down to Tennessee, but before I get there, I stop at the Kentucky state line to fuel up and pee. The dog’s in the car and the weather’s fine. As I pump the gas a man in his black Ford F-150 yells out his window about my body. I actually can’t remember what it was. Nice tits. Nice ass. Something I’ve been hearing my whole life. Except sometimes it’s not Nice ass, it’s Big ass or something a bit more cruel. I pretend not to hear him. I pretend my sunglasses hide my whole body. Right then, a man with black hair, who could be an uncle of mine, pulls by in his truck and nods. He’s towing a trailer that’s painted gray with white letters. The letters read: Sacred Objects. I imagine a trailer full of Las Vírgenes de Guadalupe—concrete, marble, or wood—all wobbly from their travels. All of these female statues hidden together in this secret shadowed spot on their way to find a place where they’ll be safe, even worshipped, or at the very least allowed to live in the light.


I slipped my hands in the cold salt froth

of the Pacific Ocean just two days ago. Planetlike

and everything aquatic, even the sky, where an eagle

unfolded so much larger than my shadow.

I was struck translucent. A good look for me!

My hands were slick with the water I was born next to,

and there was a whole hour that I felt lived in, like a room.

I wish to be untethered and tethered all at once, my skin

singes the sheets and there’s a tremor in the marrow.

On the way back to the city, a sign read:

“Boneless, Heartless, Binge-Worthy.”

Next to it was a fuzzy photograph of a jellyfish.

Imagine the body free of its anchors,

the free-swimming,

a locomotion propelling us, pulse by pulse,

but here I am: the slow caboose of clumsy effort.

When the magician’s wife died, how could they be sure

he hadn’t just turned her into ether, released her

like a white bird begging for the sky outside the cage?

Creeley says, The plan is the body. What if he’s wrong?

I am always in too many worlds, sand sifting through my hands,

another me speeding through the air, another me waving

from a train window watching you

waving from a train window watching me.


I’m looking for the right words, but all I can think of is:

parachute or ice water.

There’s nothing but this sailboat inside me, slowly trying to catch

a wind, maybe there’s an old man on it, maybe a small child,

all I know is they’d like to go somewhere. They’d like to see the sail

straighten, go tense, and take them someplace. But instead they wait,

a little tender wave comes and leaves them

right where they were all along.

How did this happen? No wind I can conjure anymore.

My father told me the story of a woman larger than a mountain,

who crushed redwoods with her feet, who could swim a whole lake

in two strokes—she ate human flesh and terrorized the people.

I loved that story. She was bigger than any monster, or Bigfoot,

or Loch Ness creature—

a woman who was like weather, as enormous as a storm.

He’d tell me how she walked through the woods, each tree

coming down, branch to sawdust, leaf to skeleton, each mountain

pulverized to dust.

Then they set a trap. A hole so deep she could not climb out of it.

(I have known that trap.)

Then people set her on fire with torches. So she could not eat them

anymore, could not steal their children or ruin their trees.

I liked this part too. The fire. I imagined how it burned her mouth,

her skin, and how she tried to stand but couldn’t, how it almost felt

good to her—as if something was finally meeting her desire with desire.

The part I didn’t like was the end, how each ash that flew up in the night

became a mosquito, how she is still all around us

in the dark, multiplied.

I’ve worried my whole life that my father told me this because

she is my anger: first comes this hunger, then abyss, then fire,

and then a nearly invisible fly made of ash goes on and on eating mouthful

after mouthful of those I love.


I’m not yet comfortable with the word,

its short clean woosh that sounds like

life. At dinner last night my single girls

said in admonition, It’s not wife-approved

about a friend’s upcoming trip. Their

eyes rolled up and over and out of their

pretty young heads. Wife, why does it

sound like a job? I want a wife, the famous

feminist wrote, a wife who will keep my

clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced

when need be. A word that could be made

easily into maid. A wife that does, fixes,

soothes, honors, obeys. Housewife,

fishwife, bad wife, good wife, what’s

the word for someone who stares long

into the morning, unable to even fix tea

some days, the kettle steaming over

loud like a train whistle, she who cries

in the mornings, she who tears a hole

in the earth and cannot stop grieving,

the one who wants to love you, but often

isn’t good at even that, the one who

doesn’t want to be diminished

by how much she wants to be yours.


Right when all I want to do is tell you a story,

the way wiingaashk (is that the word,

the name for sweetgrass that Kimmerer gives?)

have settled in to the middle raised bed,

the way I greet them in the morning, sometimes

run my fingers through them like a child’s hair,

right when I wanted to tell you a good thing,

a stone to hold and rub in the pocket like skin,

right then, the sickness comes again. I want to write

of the body as desirous, reedy, fine on the tongue

on the thigh, but my blood’s got the spins again, twice

today the world went bonkers. Cracked, careened,

and I come up all clown and out of whack. My body

can’t be trusted. MRI says my brain’s hunky-dory

so it’s just these bouts sometimes, the ground rises

straight up, or I’m trying to walk on water,

except it’s not water it’s land and it’s moving when

it should be something to count on. A field of something

green and steady. Sleep is familiar, though the birds

are starting earlier and earlier, and I keep dreaming

that the sky’s turning to ash, or that I’m falling

through the clouds—tops of pine trees and oceans below.

What does Lorca say? Compadre, quiero cambiar

mi caballo por su casa. Friend, I want to trade this horse

of illness for your house that praises the throat.

I’ll settle for these words you gave me: sweet smoke

and I’ll plant them into my chest so I can take this

circling spell and light it on fire.


I meet a physicist at the party and immediately

ask him if it’s true that time doesn’t exist, time

being important to me. Even now, I’m older,

time’s crypt and wish curl around me like ghost wind.

He doesn’t answer so maybe I don’t exist. One day:

nothing. Another: mushrooms or mildew, or some

inching sprout, or some leaf gone black and dead.

Time does that. The arrow we ride into the now,

then into the future, does not pull out of the skin

backward. Or does it? The past is happening.

Pampas grass slicing the thumb before the dozer

came and cut the grass out like a cancer, my old cat

Smoke leaving dead birds on the garden posts,

the first man, the first woman, the madrone’s rust-

colored berries of fall, each second is in me. The arrow

we ride like a horse, mute and fast, retraces and races,

so that right now even as my valley burns, it rewinds

too, each black ash rubble pile pulls itself back

into a dear home, a living cat leaps into the understory,

and in the soft yellow hills the first flame goes out.


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.


After your father gets lost for the third time,

you get angry because he won’t answer his phone.

Part of me wants him to stay lost. God, what has stolen my generosity?

He pours a bowl of cereal and milk and leaves the refrigerator door open.

He calls you boss and me mother. Yes, Mother, he says and rolls

his eyes when I tell him to eat something, to clean up after himself.

Would I be more patient with a child? Would I love the smallness

of a life more than the gone-ness of the mind? Yes.

I don’t know what to do with him, so I cook elaborately—

pea salad with blanched red onions, radishes and asparagus,

scalloped potatoes, all good things that come from the ground.

He eats the mini eggs I’ve left for guests until they’re gone;

he says, How do you feel about abortion?

I explain how you can eat violets, and dandelions, and wild chives,

so that we almost have an edible lawn. He says he hates birds.

I laugh and ask him, How can you hate birds?

He says he hates them because they’re everywhere, they are all over,

everywhere you look, and we look up at the sky together.

Turns out he’s right, those damn things are everywhere.


You’ve just left your dad in Virginia with your brother after taking him to the neurologist to confirm that it is, in fact, Alzheimer’s. Now, you’re driving to New York to get your dead ex-girlfriend’s cats who need a home and even though we weren’t planning on cats, they’re fifteen and who’s gonna take them and you know them already and why not give some animals a home even if it’s another twenty hours of driving there and back? I tell Manuel about your travels and he says, It’s a good premise for a horrible road trip dark comedy movie. And there is something funny about it all. Your father hates cats, but they love him. And I spent a long time envious of your ex-girlfriend’s beauty and now I only miss her and want to love her cats for her. My memoir could be titled Everything Was Fine until It Wasn’t. My memoir could be called I Thought I Wanted a Baby but All I Got Was Your Dead Ex-Girlfriend’s Two Old Cats. My memoir could be called Before the Wedding You Must Suffer a Little. My mother’s motto is “Nothing Is Easy” and I tease her for it, but it’s true. Before he left, your dad said he didn’t understand the saying “Good to the last drop.” Does that mean the last drop is bad? he asked. No, I reassured. It means all of it is good, every single drop of it is good.


We were quick to tell each other what we wanted. I said I want to be cremated and then I want my ashes to be tossed in the Pacific and the Atlantic. He said I was greedy for wanting both coasts, but he’d do it. I made it specific: Herring Cove in Cape Cod and Salmon Creek on the Sonoma coast (but also, I was thinking of the Calabazas Creek in Glen Ellen). He said any horse farm would do for him, and then he corrected himself to just any pretty pasture. He said we don’t believe in the afterlife. I stopped him and said, I don’t believe in God, but I do have some very interesting thoughts concerning ghosts. What he was trying to say, if I’d stop talking about ghosts for once, is that it’s important to have a spot to visit: a tree, a rock, any place where you can think of that person. We’ve got her two old cats downstairs now, hiding behind the water heater, the stairs, hissing and purring both. Last night, I dreamt that she didn’t like me, wouldn’t let me in a car that everyone else was getting into. Or rather she took the last seat in the car and everyone drove off without me. But this morning, I kissed the man she used to love and one of her cats crawled into my lap.


A whole day without speaking,

rain, then sun, then rain again,

a few plants in the ground, newbie

leaves tucked in black soil, and I think

I’m good at this, this being alone

in the world, the watching of things

growing, this older me, the she

in comfortable shoes and no time

for dishes, the she who spent

an hour trying to figure out that the bird

with a three-note descending call

is just a sparrow. 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.


My deep appreciation goes out to my friends and mentors who put up with my questions, my moods, and my always asking for advice. I’d particularly like to thank those people who have read almost all of these poems in many different forms and have made them better for their attention and care: my stepfather Brady T. Brady, my mother Stacia Brady, Jennifer L. Knox, Jason Schneiderman, Adam Clay, Michael Robins, Matthew Zapruder, Vaughan Fielder, Rob McQuilkin, Trish Harnetiaux, and Heather Grossmann. Thank you to my teachers who are with me in everything I do. Thank you to Natalie Diaz for the letter-poems we wrote back and forth to each other for a year. Thank you to Diana Lee Craig and Jeff Baker for giving me a home on Moon Mountain to write and to breathe. Thank you to my father, to Linda, and to my brothers who, for some reason, never stop believing in me. Thank you to all the large-hearted people at Milkweed Editions who have been my guides and my pit crew. Thank you to my editor, Wayne Miller, whose keen eye is unsurpassed. Thank you to my mother, whose stunning paintings grace all of my book covers. Finally, thank you to my husband, Lucas, who encourages me to write everything about our lives even when it’s the hard stuff. I am forever grateful for this life.

Thank you to the editors of the following journals, in which the poems of this book, sometimes in earlier versions, first appeared.

Academy of American Poets, “The Leash,” “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” “Notes on the Below”

American Poetry Review: “The Year of the Goldfinches,” “Almost Forty,” “Sundown & All the Damage Done,” “It’s Harder”

Buzzfeed: “A New National Anthem”

Copper Nickel: “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual”

Guernica: “On a Lamppost Long Ago”

Lit Hub: “Prey”

MAKE: “On a Pink Moon,” “Trying,” “The Raincoat”

Mississippi Review: “Love Poem with Apologies for My Appearance,” “The Last Thing”

Monstering: “Wonder Woman”

National/Amtrak: “Of Roots & Roamers”

New Yorker: “The Burying Beetle,” “Overpass,” “Sway,” “From the Ash inside the Bone,” “Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air,” “Cargo”

New York Observer: “How We Are Made”

Poetry in Motion/MTA Subway/InDigest: “A Name”

Prairie Schooner: “American Pharoah”

Southern Indiana Review: “The Millionth Dream of Your Return,” “Dream of Destruction”

SWWIM: “Cannibal Woman”

Tin House: “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,” “Would You Rather,” “Carrying”

Tupelo Quarterly: “The Light the Living See,” “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”

Typo: “Full Gallop”

Virginia Quarterly Review: “After His Ex Died,” “Losing,” “The Vulture & the Body,” “Sacred Objects”

Washington Square Review: “What I Want to Remember,” “What I Didn’t Know Before”

Waxwing Literary Journal: “Late Summer After a Panic Attack,” “Bust,” “The Visitor”

What Rough Beasts: “Killing Methods”

“The Leash” was awarded the Pushcart Prize (2016).

“Killing Methods” is anthologized in Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. “A New National Anthem” is anthologized in The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King. “The Leash” is anthologized in Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence.

“Sway,” “From the Ash inside the Bone,” “Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air,” and “Cargo” were all written as letter-poems to Natalie Diaz as part of the anthology They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.

Cridet: Lucas Marquardt

ADA LIMÓN is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Tin House, and American Poetry Review.

Founded as a nonprofit organization in 1980, Milkweed Editions is an independent publisher. Our mission is to identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it.

Typeset in Garamond

by Mary Austin Speaker

Adobe Garamond is based upon the typefaces first created by Parisian printer Claude Garamond in the sixteenth century. Garamond based his typeface on the handwriting of Angelo Vergecio, librarian to King Francis I. The font’s slenderness makes it not only highly readable but also one of the most eco-friendly typefaces available because it requires less ink than similar faces. Robert Slimbach created this digital version of Garamond for Adobe in 1989 and his font has become one of the most widely used typefaces in print.