If Ada Limón stopped writing poetry today–hard to imagine as that is–she would probably be remembered for Bright Dead Things and her most recent collection The Carrying. However, I want to mention her 2010 collection sharks in the rivers because–as with many singers, for example–a writer’s earlier words are often created and executed through raw, wild power that, in time, often becomes more polished as the years go by. I think this searching, magical volume will always stand out as a primal voice that time will always be trying to tame.
In his review in The Brooklyn Rail, Jeffrey Cyphers Wright wrote,
“Rivers and sharks are grand metaphors in these ruminative soliloquies—as much about going with the flow as facing down your demons. Bravery and fear, like opposing eyes peering through the murk, inform Ada Limón’s vision. Not one to be obsessively reductive, minnows, angelfish, and barracudas round out “the City of Sharks” she navigates.
“Limón allegorizes other creatures as well: owls, sparrows, cormorants, and butterflies. ‘Every one of us with a bear inside.’ This penchant for mixed metaphors could be disastrous in a more rigid, less expansive treatment, but here it is compelling. Candor and artifice intertwine with (human) nature and Surrealism—think Sharon Olds (her teacher) dancing with Pablo Neruda.”
“The speaker in this extraordinary collection finds herself multiply dislocated: from her childhood in California, from her family’s roots in Mexico, from a dying parent, from her prior self. The world is always in motion — both toward and away from us—and it is also full of risk: from sharks unexpectedly lurking beneath estuarial rivers to the dangers of New York City, where, as Limón reminds us, even rats find themselves trapped by the garbage cans they’ve crawled into. In such a world, how should one proceed? Throughout Sharks in the Rivers, Limón suggests that we must cleave to the world as it ‘keep[s] opening before us,’ for, if we pay attention, we can be one with its complex, ephemeral, and beautiful strangeness. Loss is perpetual, and each person’s mouth ‘is the same / mouth as everyone’s, all trying to say the same thing.’ For Limón, it’s the saying—individual and collective — that transforms each of us into ‘a wound overcome by wonder,’ that allows ‘the wind itself’ to be our ‘own wild whisper.'”
As you read these poems, you might not always be sure whether the lines are magical realism or metaphor. Or both. Or, just how the speaker has seemingly merged with that about which she speaks.
“I saw myself by the Rio Grande watching
a crane swoops down over the collection pond.
I was the fish in the drainage ditch,
you, the crane’s scissoring shadow.”
“Every one of us has a sparrow
underneath her tongue,
bouncing and burrowing.”
“(Sharks are listening right now, I’m sending out signals.)
I’m dreaming of them. I’m wrapping my arms
around their cold, gray, magnificent bodies.
We’re both sleeping
with our shark-eyes open”
The object (or critter) and the observer become one and the same.