National Poetry Month: ‘Sharks in the Rivers’

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.”

Publisher’s Description

“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.


Adventuresome writing – following the poem or story

“My main rule for writing is to follow the poem. You always start with the poem you want to write, but that’s not always the poem. The poem is usually smarter than you and it wants to go someplace that most likely will surprise you. If you give in and give up to the idea of following rather than forcing, the threads are easier to pull, and the poem allows you inside of it. It’s one of my favorite things about writing; I never know what’s going to happen.” – Ada Limón

When you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when you begin a new poem, short story, or novel, anything can happen. Once you try to force it, rather than follow it, you limit the possibilities of the work.

Not a fun way to drive, but this kind of tangle has wondrous writing possibilities.

Following the work doesn’t mean opening it up to chaos or something so experimental, few people will read it–unless that’s what you like to do. When you follow, you are turning your imagination and curiosity up on high and just writing. You are just letting the characters say and do what seems the most natural thing for them to say and do.

You can polish things a bit as you go or you can wait until the work is done. I tend to polish as I go whenever a character says or does something other than what they intended; or when I have stepped in out of nowhere and forced something to happen.

Like Limón, I like not knowing what’s going to happen. I like being surprised when I begin to see where the plot is heading. I usually have an idea when I begin whether I’m writing realism or magical realism, but things can change. I also tend to have a sense whether the story lends itself to a rather unemotional, straightforward approach or an exuberant and lyrical style. Yes, that might change, too, but it seldom does.

When authors try this approach for the first time, they’re not only surprised about the wild and wonderful things that happen, but that at the end of the first draft, the story or poem is more cohesive than they thought it would be.

I also hear authors saying that even if they really prefer outlines and storyboards, writing several stories this way helps free up their writing. Its scope increases as the writer takes more risks. Relax, I want to say. These risks aren’t life-threatening. The worst that can happen is having a story turn into a writing exercise. If you end up with something you don’t like, toss it in a drawer and start something new.

When writing is an adventure, you will never get bored or stuck. Writing is always hard work, but following the story also provides you with a sense of play.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism stories and novels, including the new collection of short stories, “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”