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Lucky Wreck

This Big Fake World

Sharks in the Rivers

© 2015, Text by Ada Limón

© 2015, Cover art by Stacion Brady

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 2015 by Milkweed Editions

Printed in Canada

Cover design by Gretchen Achilles

Author photo by Jude Domski

15 16 17 18 19 5 4 3 2 1


Milkweed Editions, an independent nonprofit publisher, gratefully acknowledges sustaining support from 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 the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. For a full listing of Milkweed Editions supporters, please visit

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Limón, Ada.

[Poems. Selections]

Bright dead things / Ada Limón. -- First edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-57131-471-0 (alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-1-57131-925-8 (ebook)

I. Title.

PS3612.I496A6 2015



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. Bright Dead Things was printed on acid-free 100% postconsumer-was; te paper by Friesens Corporation.

For Lucas & Lily Bean


• Title Page

• Copyright

• Dedication


1. How to Triumph Like a Girl

2. During the Impossible Age of Everyone

3. The Last Move

4. Mowing

5. The Rewilding

6. The Good Wave

7. Down Here

8. How Far Away We Are

9. The Quiet Machine

10. I Remember the Carrots

11. The Tree of Fire

12. Someplace Like Montana

13. State Bird

14. Downhearted

15. Miracle Fish

16. The Saving Tree

17. What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use


18. Bellow

19. What Remains Grows Ravenous

20. In a Mexican Restaurant I Recall How Much You Upset Me

21. Cower

22. Relentless

23. The Riveter

24. The Vine

25. After You Toss Around the Ashes

26. The Noisiness of Sleep

27. We Are Surprised

28. The Long Ride

29. Before

30. Torn

31. Field Bling

32. In the Country of Resurrection


33. Glow

34. The Wild Divine

35. Day of Song, Day of Silence

36. Oranges & the Ocean

37. Play It Again

38. Long Ago & the Cow Comes Back

39. Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds

40. Service

41. The Plunge

42. The Good Fight

43. Drift

44. Midnight, Talking About Our Exes

45. Nashville After Hours

46. Oh Please, Let It Be Lightning


47. Adaptation

48. Roadside Attractions with the Dogs of America

49. Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs

50. The Whale & the Waltz Inside of It

51. A Trick of the Light

52. Tattoo Theory

53. The Problem with Travel

54. Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston

55. The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road

56. Lies About Sea Creatures

57. Call to Post

58. Lashed to the Helm, All Stiff and Stark

59. Home Fires

60. After the Ice Storm

61. The Other Wish

62. The Conditional

• Acknowledgments

• About the Author

Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment

Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility & the fleeing of flesh?




I like the lady horses best,

how they make it all look easy,

like running 40 miles per hour

is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.

I like their lady horse swagger,

after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!

But mainly, let’s be honest, I like

that they’re ladies. As if this big

dangerous animal is also a part of me,

that somewhere inside the delicate

skin of my body, there pumps

an 8-pound female horse heart,

giant with power, heavy with blood.

Don’t you want to believe it?

Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see

the huge beating genius machine

that thinks, no, it knows,

it’s going to come in first.



There are so many people who’ve come before us,

arrows and wagon wheels, obsidian tools, buffalo.

Look out at the meadow, you can almost see them,

generations dissolved in the bluegrass and hay.

I want to try and be terrific. Even for an hour.


If you walk long enough, your crowded head clears,

like how all the cattle run off loudly as you approach.

This fence is a good fence, but I doubt my own haywire

will hold up to all this blank sky, so open and explicit.

I’m like a fence, or a cow, or that word, yonder.


There is a slow tractor traffic hollering outside,

and I’d like not to be traffic, but the window shaking.

Your shoes are piled up with mine, and the heat

comes on, makes a simple noise, a dog-yawn.

People have done this before, but not us.


It was only months when it felt like I had been

washing the dishes forever.

Hardwood planks under the feet, a cord to the sky.

What is it to go to a We from an I?

Each time he left for an errand, the walls

would squeeze me in. I cried over the nonexistent bathmat, wet floor of him,

how south we were, far away in the outskirts.

(All the new bugs.)

I put my apron on as a joke and waltzed around carrying

a zucchini like a child.

This is Kentucky, not New York, and I am not important.

This was before we got the dog even, and before I trusted

the paralyzing tranquilizer of love stuck

in the flesh of my neck.

Back home, in my apartment, another woman lived there.

In Brooklyn, by the deli, where everything

was clean and contained.

(Where I grieved my deaths.)

I took to my hands and knees. I was thinking about the novel

I was writing. The great heavy chest of live animals

I had been dragging around for years; what’s life?

I made the house so clean (shine and shine and shine).

I was suspicious of the monkey sounds of Kentucky’s birds,

judging crackles, rusty mailbox, spiders in the magnolia tree,

tornado talk, dead June bugs like pinto beans.

Somewhere I had heard that, after noting the lack

of water pressure in an old hotel in Los Angeles,

they found a woman’s body at the bottom

of the cistern.

Imagine, just thinking the water was low, just wanting

to take a shower.

After that, when the water would act weird,

spurt, or gurgle, I’d imagine a body, a woman, a me

just years ago, freely single, happily unaccounted for,

at the lowest curve of the water tower.

Yes, and over and over,

I’d press her limbs down with a long pole

until she was still.


The man across the street is mowing 40 acres on a small lawn mower. It’s so small, it must take him days, so I imagine that he likes it. He must. He goes around each tree carefully. He has 10,000 trees; it’s a tree farm, so there are so many trees. One circle here. One circle there. My dog and I’ve been watching. The light’s escaping the sky, and there’s this place I like to stand, it’s before the rise, so I’m invisible. I’m standing there, and I’ve got the dog, and the man is mowing in his circles. So many circles. There are no birds or anything, or none that I can see. I imagine what it must be like to stay hidden, disappear in the dusky nothing and stay still in the night. It’s not sadness, though it may sound like it. I’m thinking about people and trees and how I wish I could be silent more, be more tree than anything else, less clumsy and loud, less crow, more cool white pine, and how it’s hard not to always want something else, not just to let the savage grass grow.


What should we believe in next?

Daniel Boone’s brother’s grave says, Killed by Indians.

We point at it; poke at it like a wound—

history’s noose.

Below the grave, a cold spring runs.

Clear, like a conscience.

Now, I’m alone.

Only me and the white bones of an animal’s hand

revealed in the silt.

There remains the mystery of how the pupil devours

so much bastard beauty. Abandoned property.

This land and I are rewilding.

A bird I don’t know but follow with my still-living eye.

The day before me undresses in the wet southern heat—

flower mouth,

pollen burn,

wing sweat.

I don’t want to be only the landscape: the bone’s buried.

Let the subject be

the movement of the goldenrod, the mustard,

the cardinal, the jay, the generosity.

I don’t want anything,

not even to show it to you—

the beak grass, bottlebrush, dandelion seed head,

parachute and crown,

all the intention of wishes, forgiveness,

this day’s singular existence in time,

the native field flourishing selfishly, only for itself.


A bat cracks in the flickering background

and we’re dead tired from the horse track,

all those losing bets stuck crumpled up

in our cheap fedoras, but no one, not even

the dog, is unhappy. Baseball announcers

are trying to be funny about nothing, crowds

cheer on the momentum of the home team

and it’s not too early for pj’s, or promises,

or some low-sung lullaby that salutes

the original songs on the inside. I decide,

someday, to name a kid Levon, and you

agree, and outside the dark traffic groans by

on our curving country road making a sound

like the slow roar of applause when

the home team’s tide unexpectedly turns.


The dog does this beautiful thing,

it waits. It stills itself and determines

that the waiting is essential.

I suppose this eternity

is the one inside the drawer,

inside the buttonhole.

All the shouting before

was done out loud, on the street,

and now it’s done so shushing-ly.

There is a saying down here,

I’d never heard before,

I hate it for you.

It means, if the dog pees

on the carpet, I hate it

for you, Too bad for you.

It means, if you’re alone,

when love is all around,

We all tip our lonely hats

in one un-lonely sound.


So we might understand each other better:

I’m leaning on the cracked white window ledge

in my nice pink slippers lined with fake pink fur.

The air conditioning is sensational. Outside,

we’ve put up a cheap picnic table beneath the maple

but the sun’s too hot to sit in, so the table glows

on alone like bleached-out bones in the heat.

Yesterday, so many dead in Norway. Today,

a big-voiced singer found dead in her London flat.

And this country’s gone standstill and criminal.

I want to give you something, or I want to take

something from you. But I want to feel the exchange,

the warm hand on the shoulder, the song coming out

and the ear holding on to it. Maybe we could meet

at that table under the tree, just right out there.

I’m passing the idea to you in this note:

the table, the tree, the pure heat of late July.

We could be in that same safe place watching

the sugar maple throw down its winged seeds

like the tree wants to give us something too—

some sweet goodness that’s so hard to take.


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 a 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 the 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.


I haven’t given up on trying to live a good life,

a really good one even, sitting in the kitchen

in Kentucky, imagining how agreeable I’ll be—

the advance of fulfillment, and of desire—

all these needs met, then unmet again.

When I was a kid, I was excited about carrots,

their spidery neon tops in the garden’s plot.

And so I ripped them all out. I broke the new roots

and carried them, like a prize, to my father

who scolded me, rightly, for killing his whole crop.

I loved them: my own bright dead things.

I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong.

Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented

the contentment of the field. Why must we practice

this surrender? What I mean is: there are days

I still want to kill the carrots because I can.


The tree comes to me

for the first time in weeks.

When did all its colors,

like some commercial for dying,

start shooting out of its skin?

This morning, we fucked

each other into a regular

backyard bonfire—cold wood

turned to coal in the fine,

fine flame. And now, this tree

breaks into view, lurid red leaves

that demand a clanging,

screaming alarm, and I think—

this tree has been here

all this time, and I didn’t notice.

I swear, I’ll try harder not to

miss as much: the tree, or how

your fingers under still

sleep-stunned sheets

coaxed all my colors back.


For Trish

Now when I go to the grocery store,

I’m amazed at the wide aisles of bright

food and food-stuffs, and it’s nothing like

the bodega I shopped in for years,

in Brooklyn, between the bars we liked.

Once, when I was going for groceries,

I ran into T, and we decided we needed

to drink rather than shop, and we did.

There were a lot of beers on tap,

and the taps were all different like toys

in a dentist’s toy chest, so I said,

I’ll have what she’s having,

and maybe it was snowing out,

and it seemed to be at a time when

every shirt I bought at the secondhand store

would turn out to be see-through,

but I wouldn’t know it until I was out.

So, a lot of conversations would start,

Is this shirt see-through? And it was.

We talked for a long time, grocery bags

empty on the chair, and we both talked about

moving to someplace like Montana

and how sometimes it would be nice

to see more sky than just this little square

between the bridges and buildings,

but then we’d miss Brooklyn, and each other,

and we ordered another beer.

T was writing a play, also some articles,

and we both just needed some money,

and maybe to make out with someone

who wasn’t an asshole. But also, we wanted

to make great art. T was really good at naming

things so we decided she should be a Titleologist

and she liked that, so she agreed.

What would we do if we lived in

someplace like Montana?

We’d go for walks, and look at trees,

and write and look at the sky.

Yes, and we’d cook and go to those huge grocery stores

that have toy cars attached to the carts so kids

can pretend to be driving.

Yes, and we’d probably have kids, too.

All of this seemed really far off and not like us at all,

so we ordered another beer and said, Life is long.

Now, I’m walking around the grocery store

in Kentucky and I’ve just looked at trees, and sky,

and I should write something, so I ask T to tell me

what to write about, she says, Saturation, and I think

of that feeling when you’re really full, or life is full

and you can’t think of anything else that could fit in it,

but then even more sky comes and more days

and there is so much to remember and swallow.

I ask T what I should call the thing I write about

Saturation, because she’s a titleologist, and she says,

Someplace Like Montana.


Confession: I did not want to live here,

not among the goldenrod, wild onions,

or the dropseed, not waist-high in the barrel-

aged brown corn water, not with the million-

dollar racehorses, nor the tightly wound

round hay bales. Not even in the old tobacco

weigh station we live in, with its heavy metal

safe doors that frame our bricked bedroom

like the mouth of a strange beast yawning

to suck us in, each night, like air. I denied it,

this new land. But love, I’ll concede this:

whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,

the loud, obvious blur of song people point to

when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.


Six horses died in a tractor-trailer fire.

There. That’s the hard part. I wanted

to tell you straight away so we could

grieve together. So many sad things,

that’s just one on a long recent list

that loops and elongates in the chest,

in the diaphragm, in the alveoli. What

is it they say, heartsick or downhearted?

I picture a heart lying down on the floor

of the torso, pulling up the blankets

over its head, thinking this pain will

go on forever (even though it won’t).

The heart is watching Lifetime movies

and wishing, and missing all the good

parts of her that she has forgotten.

The heart is so tired of beating

herself up, she wants to stop it still,

but also she wants the blood to return,

wants to bring in the thrill and wind of the ride,

the fast pull of life driving underneath her.

What the heart wants? The heart wants

her horses back.


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


This is the cooling part of the fever,

when everything: the jumping girder

of the Golden Gate’s red limb, the tall

metal tree house of the Empire State,

the black rock cliffs off the Sonoma coast,

the drawer’s leftover pills, the careless

cut, the careening car, the crosswalk,

the stop/go, the give up, give up, done,

all of it, slows to a real nice drive by. A view

of some tree breathing and the mind’s wheels

ease up on the pavement’s tug. That tree,

that one willowy thing over there,

can save a life, you know? It saves

by not trying, a leaf like some note

slipped under the locked blue door

(bathtub full, despair’s drunk),

a small live letter that says only, Stay.


All these great barns out here in the outskirts,

black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.

They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.

You say they look like arks after the sea’s

dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,

and I think of that walk in my valley where

J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,

No. I believe in this connection we all have

to nature, to each other, to the universe.

And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,

low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,

woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.

So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,

its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name

though we knew they were really just clouds—

disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.



Tell the range and all that’s howling,

the flickers of life beyond the weeds,

the vulture’s furrowed brow of flight,

the blasted sticky Canadian lawn thistle;

tell the clowned-out clouds and the rain,

and all that makes you go quiet again,

tell them that you didn’t come here

to make a fuss, or break, or growl, or

scream; tell them—crazy sky and stars

between—tell them you didn’t come

to disturb the night air and throw a fit,

then get down in the dark and do it.


I’m afraid that I won’t do the right thing

in the face of disaster.

Or, I’m afraid I will be stupidly brave.

I’ll pull the helmet off the fallen when you’re supposed

to leave it on, in case it’s holding things together.

Also, I like to discuss my feelings too much.

The only thing I’ve learned about a home death

is that it requires a lot of washcloths.


When we started to make a home together,

he liked a lot of washcloths,

the small, cheap kind

for every day you’re alive.

Sometimes I would have dreams

that she was still alive, and I couldn’t find

enough washcloths to help her,

to clean her face,

the tumor’s foul, black spit-up.

I’d wake and fold all our new towels as neatly as I could,

and pile them in high piles so you could see them,

in case there was an emergency.


What I didn’t like was how people talked to me

now that I was no longer single; they were nicer.

Men who never looked at me would start up a conversation,

like I was suddenly some safer form of fire.

When my dad became a widower, women brought meals,

and wine, and pies.

The word widower looks like window.

Something you can see yourself in, in the dark.


We fell in love around the same time, which seemed right.

And also wrong. Look at us, living!

They met at the same time: his and mine.

I didn’t realize it, but I was wearing

my dead stepmom’s sunglasses.

His new love was stunning and kind and I tried

to imagine I was seeing her through her eyes,

like looking up from the bottom of a pool.


No one wants to be remembered

for their death, or rather,

I don’t. So why do I remember hers

and remember hers?

I think I did everything right.

Someone told me that I should have told her all the things

that she had done to hurt me before she died.

But I didn’t. Still, I lost her face.


Months later, when we went on our first date, I tried to seem

put together, I wore a shawl she had given me.

And her ring.

I thought everything was behind me:

death, and dying, and sickness.

I didn’t know I was changing my life—

that I would have done anything,

that what was left of me would become

so ruthless to survive.


Tonight over casual conversation,

words brought you up or out

from where I keep you,

and you were my stepmom again

and I was telling some of his family,

my family now, how it was

to have you as a mother figure

all growing up: you the keeper of lists,

you the flag in the moon, and the moon,

you the garden and the grave,

you who I held as the last air left.

And then you were what? What then?

Oh body where do we keep it?

Oh how I don’t offer enough.

In one sentence, in a Mexican restaurant,

you were alive, and then dead again,

and then we had a margarita. That can’t be

enough, can it? What do you want me to say?

Sometimes you were mean.

Sometimes I was angry:

you left me when I was 15,

you sent my dog to the pound,

you hung up on my brother.

But love is impossible and it goes on

despite the impossible. You’re the muscle

I cut from the bone and still the bone

remembers, still it wants (so much, it wants)

the flesh back, the real thing,

if only to rail against it, if only

to argue and fight, if only to miss

a solve-able absence.


I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard

knot in the mountain buried

deep in the boarded-up mine. So,

I let death in, learn to prospect

the between-dreams of the dying,

the one dream that tells you when

to throw up, the other, when

you’re in pain. I tell you

I will love someone that you

will never meet, death’s warm

breath at the mouth

of the body’s holler.

You are crying in the shower.

I am crying near the shower.

Your body a welcomed-red

fire-starter in steam and I think,

How scared I would be

if I were death. How could I

come to this house, come

to this loved being, see

the mountain’s power

and dare blast you down.

I dry you off and think,

if I were death come to take you,

your real-earth explosives,

I would be terrified.


Sun in the cool expressway underpass air

and Ma calls, says it’s nice out today

during her long walk through the vineyard

where spring’s pushed out every tizzy-tongued

flower known to the valley’s bosom of light.

I say, Look, we’re talking about the weather,

and she says, You know, it does help you

see the person you’re talking to. (The difference

in a wind-blown winter’s walk in January cold

and the loose steps of sun on far-off shoulders.)

Then I say, Now, we’re talking about talking

about the weather. It’s very meta of us.

Yes, she says, we could go on like this forever.

And it’s been exactly two months since

C died, my hands holding her head, odd

extraordinary February sun gone down

on the smooth slope of green grass, and

all my father and I had done all day was

talk about two things: the weather and her

breathing. (That machine-body gone harsh

in its prolonging and the loud gasping sigh of dying,

thick as a hawk’s cry, breaking out in the cloudless

atmosphere.) Some impossibly still moment,

we stood looking at the long field’s pull

and we wanted her to die, for her sake,

wanted the motor of body to give up and go.

How strange this silent longing for death,

as if you could make the sun not come up,

the world’s wheeling and wheeling its seasons

like a cruel continuation of stubborn force.

But that’s not how it happens. Instead, light

escapes from the heart’s room and for a moment

you believe the clock will stop itself. Absence.

You see: light escapes from a body at night

and in the morning, despite the oppressive vacancy

of her leaving’s shadow, light comes up

over the mountains and it is and it is and it is.


What I didn’t say

when she asked me

why I knew so much

about dying was that,

for me, it was work.

When Dad called to say

we had a month, I made a list.

I called in my team

to my office in a high rise,

those Rosies of know-how,

those that had lost someone loved,

those that had done the assembly line

of a home death, and said,

What’s this about not keeping

her on TPN? One woman,

who was still soft with sadness,

said, It depends on whether

she wants to die of heart failure

or to drown in her own fluids.

I nodded, and wrote that down

like this was a meeting

about a client who wasn’t happy.

What about hospice? I asked.

They said, They’ll help,

but your dad and you guys

will do most of it.

I put a star by that.

We had a plan of action.

When this happens, we do this.

When that happens, we do that.

But what I forgot

was that it was our plan,

not hers, not the one doing the dying,

this was a plan for those

who still had a next.

See, our job was simple:

keep on living. Her job was harder,

the hardest. Her job,

her work, was to let the machine

of survival break down,

make the factory fail,

to know that this war was winless,

to know that she would singlehandedly

destroy us all.


I can almost hear the kudzu growing. The rain is hitting the pavement hard, and across the street, in the bunch of tangled woods where I think the owl lives, though I’m not terribly sure, I can hear the kudzu creeping. Is it weird to say that I could hear you dying like that? Slowly, but viciously, inching your way toward the gray sky, tongue out to catch what was left of the world. You floated in the sea for a bit before, swam with the dolphins off the coast before, you drank mai tais before, and smoked pot under a palm tree before, but the before was always that, the before. And underneath you could hear it coming, not like a train or something metal, but something clearly unstoppable, and it made a sound, like wet leaves, a weed spreading its runners, stretching out to meet what was next, feeding delightedly, unaware it was about to darken our whole world with its rapid climbing toward the sky.


When she was dying, it was impossible to see forward to the next minute. What was happening—for whole weeks—was all that was happening and happening and happening. Months before that, I got the dumb soup wrong. How awful. It was all she wanted and I had gotten it wrong. Then, in the airless days when it was really happening, we started to power panic that we didn’t know enough. What should we do with her ashes? Water or dirt. Water or dirt. Once, she asked to just be thrown into the river where we used to go, still alive, but not living anymore. After it was done, I couldn’t go back to my life. You understand, right? It wasn’t the same. I couldn’t tell if I loved myself more or less. It wasn’t until later, when I moved in with him and stood outside on our patchy imperfect lawn, that I remembered what had been circling in me: I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.


Careful of what I carry

in my head and in my hollow,

I’ve been a long time worried

about grasping infinity

and coaxing some calm

out of the softest part

of the pins and needles

of me. I’d like to take a nap.

But not a nap that’s eternal,

a nap where you wake up

having dreamt of falling, but

you’ve only fallen into

an ease so unknown to you

it looks like a new country.

Let me slip into a life less messy.

Let me slip into your sleeve.

Be very brave about my

trespass, the plan is simple—

the plan is the clock tower

and the lost crow. It’ll be rich.

We’ll live forever. Every moon

will be a moon of surrender

and lemon seeds. You there,

standing up in the crowd,

I’m not proud. The stove

can’t boast of the meal.

All this to say—consider this,

with your combination of firefly

and train whistle, consider this,

with your maze and steel,

I want to be the rough clothes

you can’t sleep in.


Now, we take the moon

into the middle of our brains

so we look like roadside stray cats

with bright flashlight-white eyes

in our faces, but no real ideas

of when or where to run.

We linger on the field’s green edge

and say, Someday, son, none of this

will be yours. Miracles are all around.

We’re not so much homeless

as we are home-free, penny-poor,

but plenty lucky for love and leaves

that keep breaking the fall. Here it is:

the new way of living with the world

inside of us so we cannot lose it,

and we cannot be lost. You and me

are us and them, and it and sky.

It’s hard to believe we didn’t

know that before; it’s hard to believe

we were so hollowed out, so drained,

only so we could shine a little harder

when the light finally came.


Ma’s in the wind-pummeled double-wide

waiting for the retired policemen

to bring their retired police horses

to the ranch. She’s at the window now

describing the rain, the two-horse trailer,

and also, how sometimes she and my stepdad

talk about death for a long time.

How imagining death can make it easier

to live and I agree and say, It’s called die

before you die. What is being delivered

here is a horse who’s had a hard life.

A large quarter horse named Seattle—

a horse with a city name who protected a city,

who was spooked outside the baseball stadium

when a shopping bag wrapped around his leg,

a plastic thing versus a muscle-bound animal

in a busy crowd and a flash accident killed

a man. But then, I wonder, what for the horse?

Never to be ridden, stuck numb in a stall,

lightning bugs torturing the poor blood?

I bet that horse might have wanted to

die before he died. But not yet.

What is being delivered here is release.

Today, his officer-rider is finally retired, too,

with an old badge on the dashboard

and a fine plan to drive all the way to Montana,

where the rider has bought a ranch for his horse,

Seattle. The rider and his horse, with his city-name,

and his forgiven city-mistakes, are charting

a clear new territory of absolution, and it makes

Ma and me happy. How good it is to love

live things, even when what they’ve done

is terrible, how much we each want to be

the pure exonerated creature, to be turned loose

into our own wide open without a single

harness of sin to stop us.


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.


Witness the wet dead snake,

its long hexagonal pattern weaved

around its body like a code for creation,

curled up cold on the newly tarred road.

Let us begin with the snake: the fact

of death, the poverty of place, of skin

and surface. See how the snake is cut

in two—its body divided from its brain.

Imagine now, how it moves still, both

sides, the tail dancing, the head dancing.

Believe it is the mother and the father.

Believe it is the mouth and the words.

Believe it is the sin and the sinner—

the tempting, the taking, the apple, the fall,

every one of us guilty, the story of us all.

But then return to the snake, pitiful dead

thing, forcefully denying the split of its being,

longing for life back as a whole, wanting

you to see it for what it is: something

that loves itself so much it moves across

the boundaries of death to touch itself

once more, to praise both divided sides

equally, as if it was easy.


Nights when it’s warm

and no one is watching,

I walk to the edge

of the road and stare

at all the fireflies.

I squint and pretend

they’re hallucinations,

bright made-up waves

of the brain.

I call them,

field bling.

I call them,

fancy creepies.

It’s been a long time

since I’ve wanted to die,

it makes me feel

like taking off

my skin suit

and seeing how

my light flies all

on its own, neon

and bouncy like a

wannabe star.


Last night we killed a possum,

out of mercy, in the middle of the road.

It was dying, its face was bloody,

the back legs were shattered. The mistake

I made was getting out of the car

(you told me not to), but I wanted to be

sure, needed to know for sure, that it could

not be saved. (Someone else had hit it.)

The sound it was making. The sound

folded me back into the airless car.

Do it, do it fast, I lowered my head

until the thud was done. You killed it quiet.

We drove home under the sickle moon,

laundry gone cold and dry on the line.

But that was last night. This morning

the sun is coming alive in the kitchen.

You’ve gone to get us gas station coffee

and there is so much life all over the place.



In the black illegible moment of foolish

want, there is also a neon sign flashing,

the sign above the strip joint where my

second big love worked as a bouncer

and saved the girls from unwanted hands,

unpaid-for hands. Thin-lipped ladies

with a lot on their minds and more on

their backs, loaded for bear, and for

the long winter’s rain, loaded for real,

and I’ve always been a jealous girl,

but when he’d come home with a 4 a.m.

stomp in his boots and undress to bed,

he was fully there, fully in the room,

my sleeping body made awake, awake,

and there was a gentleness to this,

a long opening that seemed to join us

in the saddest hour. Before now, I don’t

know if I have ever loved anyone, or if

I have ever been loved, but men have

been very good to me, have seen

my absurd out-of-place-ness, my bent

grin and un-called-for loud laugh

and have wanted to love me for it,

have been so warm in their wanting

that sometimes I wanted to love them, too.

And I think that must be worth something,

that it should be a celebrated thing,

that though I have not stood on a mountain

under the usual false archway of tradition

and chosen one person forever, what I have

done is risked everything for that hour,

that hour in the black night, where one

flashing light looks like love, I have

pulled over my body’s car and let

myself believe that the dance was

only for me, that this gift of a breathing

one-who-wants was always a gift,

was the only sign worth stopping for,

that the neon glow was a real star,

gleaming in its dying, like us all,

like us all.


After we tumbled and fought and tumbled again,

he and I sat out in the backyard before his parents

came home, flushed and flowered and buzzing

with the quickening ripples of blood growing up

and I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed

from the new touching that seemed strikingly

natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.

Oh my newness! Oh my new obsession, his hands!

I thought I could die and be happy and be humbled

by luck of a first love and a first full-fledged fuck.

I wanted to tell my ma. I wanted to make a movie.

I wanted to blast out of my bare feet to sky-town

as we passed the joint in the soupy summer’s air

too-spiced with oak leaves, eucalyptus, and smoke.

I thought I might have a heart attack, kind of craved

one, kind of wanted the bum-rush of goodbye

like every kid wants when they’re finally on fire.

Then, out of the stoned-breath quiet of the hills,

came another animal, a real animal, a wandering

madrone-skinned horse from the neighbor’s garden,

bowed-back, higher than a man’s hat, high up

and hitched to nothing. He rustled down his giant

head to where we sat, baked and big-eyed at this

animal come to greet us in our young afterglow.

He seemed almost worthy of complete devotion.

We rubbed his long horse nose, his marble eyes turning

to take us all in, to inhale us, to accept our now-selves

and he was older, a wise, hoofed, grizzled, equine elder

and I thought, this was what it was to be blessed—

to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond

the body and its needs, but went straight from wild

thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.


The strange crying sounds

of the peacocks on the private

school grounds echo on perfect

lawns, and I remember the unruly

feathered fowl of my earlier years

that draped the flimflam landscape

of the home of the first girl I ever kissed.

The students today make a vow

of silence to honor gay and lesbian kids

who’ve been bullied, so when we visit

and read poems, they can’t speak,

they are silent for those that are silenced.

And I’m thinking now of making out

with Sarah, and how later we made

pickle and mayonnaise sandwiches

and sat by the edge of her empty pool—

our legs swinging into nothingness,

the sun’s heat at our backs, the sounds

of peacocks screaming, at first harmless,

then like some far-off siren.


Valencia in the nineties, nowhere

were the oranges, except one slight

site from the train’s blur. I burnt

my nipples right off the bat. No way

you could be as pretty as the girls

in Valencia, topless and tanned

all over. Pale blue hostel sheets

were barely bearable. All night

I thought I’d die when the moon

came in and I’d wake to the pinching

skin. But I didn’t die. I went right

back the next day, but in a t-shirt

and didn’t try to be pretty, just

swam like something ordinary,

something worthy of the sea.


Up above a bar in their first apartment,

my ma and my dad are in some whorl

of late ’60s haze in the Castro District

of San Francisco where the jukebox

below played the same Frankie Valli song,

Sherry, Sherry baby, Sherry, Sherry baby

until they go almost mad with their

paper floors and cheap wall hangings

swinging in the falsetto of the city’s

changing swirl of hips and hopes

and I love them so. She’s in the window

crying because the city is too big, and also

because we are at war, and he goes to work

in tough schools that need teachers,

Spanish-speaking teachers not scared of much

except how to make rent and make the world maybe

better or easier or livable. Nights, they get stoned

in small apartments and eat enchiladas

in the warm corn-filled kitchens

and she’s going to paint and have big ideas,

and he’s going to save the world with curriculum,

and no one knows how much that want matters,

how much the ordinary need to make some real life

was enough to give them the drive to make

some real nice mistakes. How years later,

some might say that their love was not a love,

or was not the right kind of love, but rather

a sort of holding on in order to escape another

trapped fate of desert heat and parental push,

but I want to tell you, nothing was an accident.

Not their innocence or their ideals, not their

selfish need, not their dark immortal laughter,

not the small place with the roaring traffic, not

the bus rides, or riots, or carelessness and calm,

not the world that wanted them in it, that needed

their small, young faces united in kiss and weep,

not the song that surrounded them in a good fight,

that repeated, Come, come, come out tonight.


In this, the current recasting of the great plummet,

it is I, and not the other grand-eyed cows off Leveroni Road,

who watches the two cloudy youths climb into the backseat

of the long boat-like car during the plunging dark hour

of no turning back. I am not folded into its tongue-red

interior watching the headlights of the passing traffic

trance the windows like far-off lighthouse lights pulsing

at us, lost in our swollen inky sea. In this version, I am

the still bovine beauty staring into Carriger Creek, hungry

for nothing but what comes every day: grass and sky,

and the silvery creek water reflecting the grass and sky.

By the bend in the clean zipper of stream, by the gate

of my life, a metal animal’s insides steam up and I understand—

so many dolorous selves in each of us dissolving into fog.


My ex got hit by a bus.

He wrote me in a text to tell me this.

Now will you talk to me? I got hit by a bus.

He even sent me a link to the blurry footage on the news.

I never wanted to see him come to harm, or watch it.

Oh maybe a little cockroach infestation.

Little aliens all over the clean, misleading counters of his life.

My ex, a few exes before that, died

of a heroin overdose.

After someone hurts you, it’s easy to imagine

him fading into the background of the bad film’s revenge plot.

It’s the joke, right? I hope you get hit by a bus.

I swear I never thought it. No seed of transportation deviance.

No tampering with the great universal brake wires.

I wanted this rusty mailbox,

out here in the boondocks, this man, and this dog,

a little money now and again, some good news.

I’m the hidden bug in the tall weeds,

lighting fires no one can see.


When we moved out here together, I kept apologizing

for everything, like a poor orphan in the film about my shame.

He had to tell me to stop. And for days, (maybe weeks?)

I’d hear it in my mind and have to hold it there,

stuck like a cockroach under a glass,

waiting for someone braver to kill it.

Mostly, I enjoy my failings. Until I don’t.

In the text from my ex about the bus, he sounds almost funny.

Like isn’t it ironic that I got hit by a bus, when all I ever

wanted was to

disappear without a trace.


When the plane went down in San Francisco,

I thought of my friend M. He’s obsessed with plane crashes.

He memorizes the wrecked metal details,

the clear cool skies cut by black scars of smoke.

Once, while driving, he told me about all the crashes:

The one in blue Kentucky, in yellow Iowa.

How people go on, and how people don’t.

It was almost a year before I learned

that his brother was a pilot.

I can’t help it,

I love the way men love.


I used to pretend a lot. I’m very good at it.

I bought a creamy corn-colored rotary phone

and I was so fabulous.

I’d sit and tell you about my phone, but the truth was

it didn’t work very well. It made me not want to talk to anyone,

but rather be in a picture, holding the phone, pretending to talk.

That’s not unlike some of the people I have claimed to love.

I’d rather tell you about them, stranger, in hot words

than tug the cold satellites closer for warmth.


I imagine the insides of myself sometimes—

part female, part male, part terrible dragon.

What I saw in the men who came before,

sometimes I don’t want to say this out loud,

was someone I could hold up to my ear

and hear the ocean, something I could say my name into,

and have it returned in the inky waves.


Why are we forced into such small spaces together?

This life in a seedpod.

I remember once, my ex and I, driving in his van.

He pointed out his ex-wife walking.

She looked like me—not her blue hat, or her smallness,

but how deliberately she was walking away from the speeding vehicle.

Now, there’s a twisty summer storm outside,

and I desire nothing but this storm to come.

The calm voice on the TV tells us to stay safe.

Says, Stay safe and seek shelter.


Somewhere outside of Albuquerque, I was all

fed up with the stories about your ex-girlfriend’s

Guess billboard in New York City, and to make

matters worse, I had to pee like a racehorse, or

like a girl who’d had too much to drink way

too far away from home. You stopped at a friend’s

body shop to talk about a buddy who was stuck

someplace in Mexico. You were talking, pulling

strings and taking pulls off a brown bottle, and no

one told me where the restroom was, so I walked

back to where the hotrods were displayed like dogs

ready for a fight, baring their grills like teeth.

I was hungry, the air smelled like hot gasoline

and that sweet carnation smell of oil and coolant.

A girl pit bull came and circled me as I circled

the cars; she sniffed my ankles like I was her kin

or on some kind of rescue mission. You were still

talking, not a glance in the direction of me

and the bitch working our ways around

the souped-up Corvettes and the power tools.

The pit was glossy, well cared for, a queen

of the car shop, and when she widened

her hind legs and squatted to pee all over

one of the car’s dropped canvases, I took it

as a challenge. That strong yellow stream seemed

to be saying, Girl, no one’s going to tell me

when to take a leak, when to bow down,

when not to bite. So, right then, in the dim lights

of the strange garage, I lifted my skirt and pissed

like the hard bitch I was.


I bet the steady well never complains

about all the flash dipping in, coins,

coins, and more coins. This life is a fist

of fast wishes caught by nothing

but the fishhook of tomorrow’s tug.

I shoved my money in the water once,

threw it like a guaranteed ticket to cash;

it never came true, not the wish,

nor the towering person I was bound to be.

But the back-of-the-throat thrill was real,

when the surface’s shine broke. It was enough

to go back again and again, and throw

my whole jonesing body in.


What’s the real story?

I had to hurt someone. A woman.

I had to hurt someone who had loved

him before I did, 6 years earlier.

I had to do it with a knife in my teeth.

[Pulls out the knife, turns it in her palms.]

My knife said, I’m so sorry, and I love you,

and Please understand. And You’re married.

And Give me this.

How did you do it?

I crawled on my hands and knees,

and there were dead bodies on the rocks,

all over the rocks, on the red rocks,

picked apart by the seagulls, and I didn’t care.

And before?

We were friends. Close.

[Looks out the window, watches storm.]

Maybe I’ve done it before; maybe I’ve hurt a woman

and maybe it’s fitting that I’d be the low ugly

alive thing doing my living all over the place.

You knew it would hurt her?

Yes and I knew there would be bodies.

Yes and I knew that I’d lose her forever.

Yes and I chose that and I chose to lose her.

How do you love?

Like a fist. Like a knife.

But I want to be more like a weed,

a small frog trembling in air.

[Cries a little.]

Did you live?

Even better, I lived. Even more, I lived.

Even better, I am living.

And fear?

I’m not afraid of hate anymore.

What do we do with grief? Lug it; lug it.

I would do it again.

And later?

I had to come to terms

with how they loved, that they loved.

I couldn’t cut it out of me.

And now?

I thought after the first stab, I’d learn to take it,

but even now, I hold the hot blade in the mouth

in case anyone comes to destroy the bloom.

[Puts the knife in her teeth.]

See? The knife I carry?

It cuts my smile even wider.


Some blur of a bird makes

a kid-like laugh out of sea air

and we, heart-hardy, kick

a crack-up back at it like

the opposite of throwing stones.

Like releasing tiny hot air

balloons up, moon-bound

and hell-bent on defying

the usual gravity of this spin.

Sky, here, we toss a bone

into your open endlessness,

the sound of crackle, a timbre

of animal-warmth. Oh let us be

a bird flying wholly for the sake

of flying, to be that breath-

machine that even the anchored

earth-bound wavers want

to root for, want to look up

and say, Rally, rally, win.


The sun is still down and maybe even downer.

Two owls, one white and one large-eared,

dive into a nothingness that is a field, night-beast

in the swoop-down, (the way we all have to

make a living). Let’s be owls tonight, stay up

in the branches of ourselves, wide-eyed,

perched on the edge of euphoric plummet.

All your excellences are making me mouse,

but I will shush and remain the quiet flyer,

the one warm beast still coming to you in the dark

despite all those old, cold, claustrophobic stars.


Late night in a honky-tonk, fried pickles

in a red plastic basket, and it was all Loretta

on the heel-bruised stage, sung by a big girl

we kind of both had a crush on. Nashville

got the best of us, in a bar shootin’ Fireball

with the band that just roused the Ryman.

Good grief we were loaded, shotguns,

and the soft-hearted. It’s like this:

sometimes the buried buzz comes back,

and soon the kid that cut the lunch line

ain’t nothing; and the cruel tongues licking

your insides are gone; the bully girl who

kicked you out of the city is no one, no rotten

crumb left, just a dizzy river of nonsense

in the waxy light under the bright signs and

look here, I won’t deny it: I was there,

standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror,

saying my name like I was somebody.


We were crossing the headwaters of

the Susquehanna River in our new car

we didn’t quite have the money for

but it was slick and silver and we named it

after the local strip club next to the car wash:

The Spearmint Rhino, and this wasn’t long

after your mother said she wasn’t sure

if one of your ancestors died in childbirth

or was struck by lightning, there just wasn’t

anyone left to set the story straight, and we

started to feel old. And it snowed. The ice

and salt and mud on the car made it look

like how we felt on the inside. The dog

was asleep on my lap. We had seven more hours

before our bed in the bluegrass would greet us

like some southern cousin we forgot we had.

Sometimes, you have to look around

at the life you’ve made and sort of nod at it,

like someone moving their head up and down

to a tune they like. New York City seemed years

away and all the radio stations had unfamiliar

call letters and talked about God, the one

that starts his name with a capital and wants

you not to get so naked all the time.

Sometimes, there seems to be a halfway point

between where you’ve been and everywhere

else, and we were there. All the trees were dead,

and the hills looked flat like in real bad landscape

paintings in some nowhere gallery off an interstate

but still, it looked kind of pretty. Not because

of the snow, but because you somehow found

a decent song on the dial and there you were,

with your marvelous mouth, singing full-lunged,

driving full-speed into the gloomy thunderhead,

glittery and blazing and alive. And it didn’t matter

what was beyond us, or what came before us,

or what town we lived in, or where the money came from,

or what new night might leave us hungry and reeling,

we were simply going forward, riotous and windswept,

and all too willing to be struck by something shining

and mad, and so furiously hot it could kill us.



It was, for a time, a loud twittering flight

of psychedelic-colored canaries: a cloud

of startle and get-out in the ornamental

irons of the rib cage. Nights when the moon

was wide like the great eye of a universal

beast coming close for a kill, it was a cave

of bitten bones and snake skins, eggshell dust,

and charred scraps of a frozen-over flame.

All the things it has been: kitchen knife

and the ancient carp’s frown, cavern of rust

and worms in the airless tire swing,

cactus barb, cut-down tree, dead cat

in the plastic crate. Still, how the great middle

ticker marched on, and from all its four chambers

to all its forgiveness, unlocked the sternum’s

door, reversed and reshaped until it was a new

bright carnal species, more accustomed to grief,

and ecstatic at the sight of you.


It’s a day when all the dogs of all

the borrowed houses are angel-footing

down the hard hardwood of middle-America’s

newly loaned-up renovated kitchen floors,

and the world’s nicest pie I know

is somewhere waiting for the right

time to offer itself to the wayward

and the word-weary. How come the road

goes coast to coast and never just

dumps us in the water, clean and

come clean, like a fish slipped out

of the national net of longing for joy.

How come it doesn’t? On a road trip

through the country, someone saw

a waitress who walked in the train’s

diner car and swished her non-aproned

end and said, Hot stuff and food too.

My family still says it, when the food is hot,

and the mood is good inside the open windows.

I’d like to wear an apron for you

and come over with non-church sanctioned

knee-highs and the prettiest pie of birds

and ocean water and grief. I’d like

to be younger when I do this, like the country

before Mr. Meriwether rowed the river

and then let the country fill him up

till it killed him hard by his own hand.

I’d like to be that dog they took with them,

large and dark and silent and un-blamable.

Or I’d like to be Emily Dickinson’s dog, Carlo,

and go on loving the rare un-loveable puzzle

of woman and human and mind. But

I bet I’m more the house beagle and the howl

and the obedient eyes of everyone wanting

to make their own kind of America,

but still be America, too. The road is long

and all the dogs don’t care too much

about roadside concrete history and postcards

of state treasures, they just want their head

out the window, and the speeding air to make them

feel faster and younger, and newer than all the dogs

that went before them, they want to be your only dog,

your best-loved dog, for the good dog of today

to be the only beast that matters.


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


I don’t even know how to get to Alaska,

or how to talk about race when the original tongue is gone.

Imagine a woman at the edge, at the border

of the universe waving without an idea

of where to wave, into emptiness, into a bliss?

I moved to New York City once with cash money

I’d saved from being a receptionist for the county and a box

of books I’d never read.

No one tells you how old you’ll be one day, or rather,

no one can tell you. Generations are forgotten with their real letters.

Right now, he is trying to explain to me

why whales don’t get dizzy, something

about the caves of the inner ear,

but all I see is this spinning, icy black water,

enormous rush, mammalian greatness beneath me,

and how maybe I could swim to Alaska?

I heard about a woman once, maybe she was my mother,

who wanted to move to Alaska, but the bears were trouble.

They gave her a goat to take to the outhouse.

(Not for protection, but for offering.)

It had a little gold bell, the goat,

that rang out in the air like a cannon.

I still worry, even now, about the goat.

Did it know what its job was? Ringing on like that?

I prefer not to make a sound. Will the idea of race go away

if we all stop talking?

No, we require the goat.

We send people before us, scouts

of air, of water, of fire, of earth,

to tell us how to live.

I want to be the largest animal that ever existed.

The one blue mother—

I’d save the goat, and the bear.

Did you know giant whales have a spindle cell

making them capable of attachment

and of great suffering?

I want to ride around gently and wave

at the colorful human parade, especially at you,

but in the end I want the watery under.

Evolution, of course.

(Don’t think of the trash the size of Texas.)

Did you know that whales returned to the water?

It went like this: water, land, water. Like a waltz.

I once had a record of whale sounds,

I swear I understood.

It didn’t matter what worlds they were under,

what language,

what depth of water divided,

the song went on and on.

What I mean is: none of this is chaos.

Immigration, cross the river, the blood of us.

It goes like this: water, land, water. Like a waltz.

I am in no hurry to stop believing we are supposed

to sway like this, that we too are immense and calling out.


After Jose Dávila’s cut-outs and for Francisco Carlos Limón

Where do you keep your sharp tools of history?

Shattered black spikes wedged in the rigid spine?

What did the spikes hold up? Whose puny flag?

When was the border just a line in the dirt?

Whose dirt? Whose line? Where do the ghosts

go when we refuse to spit out their clouds?

It’s true, he smudged oranges in Canoga Park

and lived in a chicken coop, yes, oranges.

Now, there are no oranges at all in the whole

of San Fernando Valley, no oranges, just names

of streets: Orange Boulevard, Orange County.

The way we do. Naming what’s no longer there.

Here was an orange grove; here was a brown boy.

I bow down, in my suit of hand-me-down spikes,

into the coop where the warm fowl slept against him.

The hens do not love him. Neither do the oranges.

But they survive together: fuel for the future:

A picture of a feather without the bird,

A picture of an orange without the tree,

A picture of a shadow without a boy.


For Michael & Adam

My own personal map of America on the back of the airplane seat where the cartoon plane tells you where you’ve been and where you’re going, is, for some reason, in Spanish. So it reads Montes Apalaches. And I like the way it sounds. But the shape of Nebraska is still the same despite the translation; it looks like a sad animal with his head hangdog low. Just countable days ago, we drove through that glum dog place and the boys wanted tattoos of the state’s outline. Nebraska! Nebraska Forever! Yeah! I love the keeping of it, the wanting to keep it, but maybe not on my body. What if I love another state more? What if I love the Montes Apalaches? What if I stop remembering? What if here’s where I want to keep it? Here’s my permanent puncture, here’s my unstoppable ink.


Every time I’m in an airport,

I think I should drastically

change my life: Kill the kid stuff,

start to act my numbers, set fire

to the clutter and creep below

the radar like an escaped canine

sneaking along the fence line.

I’d be cable-knitted to the hilt,

beautiful beyond buying, believe in

the maker and fix my problems

with prayer and property.

Then, I think of you, home

with the dog, the field full

of purple pop-ups—we’re small and

flawed, but I want to be

who I am, going where

I’m going, all over again.


Big blue horizon wakes me

from a car catnap and the boys

tell me about Boston, the bombs.

Soft edges of sleep turn sharp

and point inward to the terrified

heart. Out the window, ancient

horses and trees bent over

like the wisest crones. Under

the overpass a flittering swarm

of mud swallows have built

careful nests with prairie clay.

How do they do it? Demand the

sweet continuance of birth and flight

in a place so utterly reckless? How

masterful and mad is hope.


That we might walk out into the woods

together, and afterwards make toast

in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s

wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our

legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix,

jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,

I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley

when you first see it—the small roads back

to your youth—is so painfully pretty at first,

then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just

another place your bullish brain exists, bothered

by itself and how hurtful human life can be.

Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days

full of crow and shine, and then someone

has put engine coolant in the medicine

on another continent and not even crying

helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.

What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?

I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,

how he never told us, just stopped drinking

and sat for a long time in the low folding chair

on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes

soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only

subject. When he drove me to school, we decided

it would be a good day if we saw the blue heron

in the algae-covered pond next to the road,

so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,

he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when

he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just

taken off when we rounded the corner in

the gray car that somehow still ran, and I

would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.

Heard the whoosh of wings over us.

That’s the real truth. What we told each other

to help us through the day: the great blue heron

was there, even when the pond dried up,

or froze over; it was there because it had to be.

Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone

for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn

with all my private agonies, but then I saw you

and the way you’re hunching over your work

like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,

I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,

still want to slow the car down to see the thing

that makes it all better, the invisible gift, what

we see when we stare long enough into nothing.


I lied about the whales. Fantastical blue

water-dwellers, big, slow moaners of the coastal.

I never saw them. Not once that whole frozen year.

Sure, I saw the raw white gannets hit the waves

so hard it could have been a showy blow hole.

But I knew it wasn’t. Sometimes, you just want

something so hard you have to lie about it,

so you can hold it in your mouth for a minute,

how real hunger has a real taste. Someone once

told me gannets, those voracious sea birds

of the North Atlantic chill, go blind from the height

and speed of their dives. But that, too, is a lie.

Gannets never go blind and they certainly never die.


Even the grass

smells like horses

that smell like

sex and sweat,

and it makes

the whole day

feel sticky wet

with what’s next.

He’s betting

in the living room,

which T calls

the drinks room,

and I don’t know

if I’m made up

of mama material.

The race goes off.

I take the dog out

so I can’t hear

who wins. Either

money or none,

but we’ll still be

animals shoving

our bodies in air,

racing no one

but ourselves,

the grass thick

and trembling

at our speed.


—After “The Wreck of the Hesperus”

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There is a spreading frost

trilling its white agony on the inside of the window,

where my guitar has been frozen for days,

the heated song gone out of the instrument.

Let me start here: I am as cold as I have ever been.

Two days ago, a week? A mythic wreck came—

such was the wreck of the two of us.

I’m such an ignorant boat—

a lost sea-tossed daughter pierced by time’s spiked icicles,

begging for the original mouth’s thawing water.

Isn’t it funny? How the cold numbs everything but grief.

If we could light up the room with pain,

we’d be such a glorious fire.

Clock: turn back, turn back—

everything you’ve dialed to black.

What was it I wanted?

The captain to sail safely? To land alive and, like survival, loved?

But colder and louder blew the wind.

And still there were books to read, and dishes, the dog’s needy tongue.

What good is bravery—

on the rocks and the hard sea-sand?

If I can have a child. If I cannot have a child. If you do not care.

I am gleaming. Promise you’ll see me gleam.


Crowned newly with a fearsome cutting,

I fold the aqua blanket twice to stay alive.

Headstones in the heart’s holler, sludge

of what’s left after the mountain’s blasted.

Not a kid anymore, there are no pretty victims

or greasy cavernous villains spitting blazes.

Just a week ago, I wondered what this, this,

would be like, to be wholly blown apart.

The women of Appalachia are watching

each home poisoned by bad air, deadly water,

their kin are losing teeth. Liver cancer,

gallbladders full of black coal sludge, and still

they stand for the mountains they loved, rage

in the coal muck for their blood-deep origin.

What must it be like, I wonder, to fear the fall

every day? Might come a flood. Might come death.

To look out at the coal fires burning

every hour endlessly for fifty years and to know

your land may be condemned, razed, and not want

to simply lie down and die. I am not that strong.

Wickedness has leaked into the home I made,

and I want to burn it down. Sister, tell me

how you stand the murderous fury. You there

still singing, I crave demolishing, to eat explosives.

How could I have imagined this? Mortal me,

brutal disaster born out of so much greed.


I point out the ice on the power lines,

dripping wet into clean frozen plumes.

Look how solid, how still (oh us!)

in the swinging blast of this epic chill,

and yet, we both know they crack,

(don’t we?) break, drip, give up, crash, come

down and turn to earth again. Gone

the sparkle, the dazzling spike of shiver

that threatens to stick around forever,

like agony. I want to see it die: unfriendly

numbness. The largeness in me, the hot

gore of my want and want, wants to disarm

the fixedness of this. I’ll be the strike anywhere,

the reckless match you can count on

to claim a life, or to save one.


Nights, I wonder about the sanity of Icarus,

wax and wings both wasted on the sun’s scorch.

If I’d a handmade, fanned out, feathered set, me?

I’d choose the moon, always the sister moon.

Cold, comely queen of the sky. Pockmarked

with craters, pummeled by meteors and still

shining. Imagine, the gathering on the shore,

you, holding my coat for a warm come-back.

We mean a thing is impossible when we say

we’re shooting for that great orbital puller.

How hard can you glow? asks the owl’s eye.

What radiant part of you wishes to dynamite?

I used to think it was like a light bulb, life,

dangling in the chest, asking to be switched on.

But it’s not the light that’s ever in question,

rather, what’s your brilliant, glaring wattage?

What do you dare to gleam out and reflect?

If I were to fall (sabotaged wax, torn pinion),

I’d want to fall from the terrifying height

of her, the dust of my years crazy and flashing

lit up by the victory of my disastrous flight.


Say tomorrow doesn’t come.

Say the moon becomes an icy pit.

Say the sweet-gum tree is petrified.

Say the sun’s a foul black tire fire.

Say the owl’s eyes are pinpricks.

Say the raccoon’s a hot tar stain.

Say the shirt’s plastic ditch-litter

Say the kitchen’s a cow’s corpse.

Say we never get to see it: bright

future, stuck like a bum star, never

coming close, never dazzling.

Say we never meet her. Never him.

Say we spend our last moments staring

at each other, hands knotted together,

clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.

Say, It doesn’t matter. Say, That would be

enough. Say you’d still want this: us alive,

right here, feeling lucky.


My gratitude goes to the editors of the following journals, in which the poems in this book, sometimes in earlier versions, first appeared:

American Poetry Review: “The Rewilding” and “Home Fires”

Buenos Aires Review: “The Problem with Travel” and “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds”

Catch Up: “During the Impossible Age of Everyone” and “In the Country of Resurrection”

Compose: “We Are Surprised,” “The Noisiness of Sleep,” and “Torn”

Conduit: “Relentless”

Connotations Press: “The Wild Divine,” “The Long Ride,” and “Play It Again”

Copper Nickle: “The Whale and the Waltz Inside of It”

Descant: “The Quiet Machine,” “Day of Song, Day of Silence,” “Lashed to the Helm, All Stiff and Stark,” “The Vine,” and “Miracle Fish”

Dream the End: “Someplace Like Montana”

Guernica: “Downhearted”

Gulf Coast: “How to Triumph Like a Girl” and “Down Here”

Hell Yes Press, 21 Love Poems Mix-tape: “Oh Please, Let It Be Lightning”

Hick Poetics Anthology: “Field Bling”

Los Angeles Review of Books: “Call to Post” and “Long Ago & the Cow Comes Back”

Luminosity Project (Lexington Arts League Commission): “The Other Wish”

Poecology: “What it Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use”

Poem-A-Day, “Roadside Attractions with the Dogs of America,” “The Conditional,” and “Before”

Poetry Daily: “Tattoo Theory”

Provincetown Arts: “Mowing”

The New Yorker: “State Bird”

New York Times: “Oranges & the Ocean”

Thrush Poetry Journal: “The Tree of Fire,” “The Saving Tree,” “Drift,” and “Cower”

TriQuarterly Online: “In a Mexican Restaurant I Recall How Much You Upset Me” and “Tattoo Theory”

The Tusculum Review: “Glow”

Two Bridges Review: “How Far Away We Are” and “I Remember the Carrots”

Typo: “The Last Move”

Waxwing: “After You Toss Around the Ashes,” “Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs,” and “The Riveter”

ZYZZYVA: “Midnight, Talking About Our Exes”

The poem “How to Triumph Like a Girl” was awarded the Pushcart Prize (2015).

The poem “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” was chosen by Ted Kooser for his newsletter, American Life in Poetry.

I am beyond grateful for the advice and support of my teachers, friends, and family who made this book (and life) possible. I’d especially like to thank those people who consistently read my poems before they are even poems: Brady T. Brady, Stacia Brady, Jennifer L. Knox, Jason Schneiderman, Adam Clay, Michael Robins, Alex Lemon, Trish Harnetiaux, and Heather Grossmann. Giant thanks also goes to Diana Lee Craig and Jeff Baker who gave me a place on the mountain to write. And to my father whose constant love and support have given me the permission to write. To the good folks at Milkweed Editions and my editor, Wayne Miller, you are a light in a storm. And to Lucas & Lily Bean, we dream as a team.


ADA LIMÓN is the author of the poetry collections Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Daily, and American Life in Poetry, among others. She has contributed nonfiction essays and articles to a variety of publications, such as Oxford American, Hemispheres Magazine, Guernica, The Poetry Foundation, American Poetry Society, and VIDA. She lives in Kentucky and California.

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