Pushcart XLII: Ada Limón, “The Leash” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

Image from Rachel Visser's animation of the poem

Image from Rachel Visser’s animation of the poem

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.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

Context – the time, place, mental state, the overall gestalt in which a piece is read – has been a frequent theme for me as I’ve been reading this volume. Given that years, decades, centuries may pass between when a piece is written, and when it’s read, and the infinite different postures of the human mind and heart, it’s kind of a miracle we can connect to written work at all. This poem was published over two years ago – who knows when it was written – but I feel like it was written today just for me. I probably would’ve felt that way yesterday, too. And most of the yesterdays – oh, hell, all of them – from the past year-plus.

I’m so captivated by content I haven’t even worked on the rhythm or sound qualities (though the opening lines have a particularly frictional and explosive alliteration well suited to the content). I looked at it as more of an essay, opening with the state of things-as-they-are, the anger and despair so many of us have been feeling for so long, we forget it isn’t normal. Nods to, what, drone attacks, school shootings, rampant pollution written off as the cost of modernity (including the electricity with which I write these words, nudging me with an elbow of guilt right in the complicity), it’s too much, too much, and she knows we fear, that we “want to lick the creek bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into our own lungs” because this can’t be survivable.

But, of course, it is survivable.

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?

And suddenly I’m comforted, as if a quilt is tucked around me, or someone is holding my hand. I’m reminded of the music of the spheres, all the things that are still good and beautiful in the world. It’s very personal; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a poem address the reader as Reader, though I’m sure they exist (it isn’t like I read much poetry outside of Pushcart), as sometimes fiction or essays will in various forms (Gentle Reader, Dear Reader). It’s like the poet – not the speaker, somehow, though they need to be kept distinct in theory, at least – is right here in the room with me.

Then she admits “I don’t know”. This is even more comforting, to be around someone who doesn’t have everything figured out, but who has faith that we’ll get through even this.

The leash metaphor comes into play via her dog, who loves to chase pickup trucks, running after them, “she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud roaring things will love her back”. And the speaker (yes, here I feel a difference, probably just because I’m less a miserably sick child and more of Reader, having been healed by just those few words) keeps her dog safe because she knows the trucks may not love her dog back, so she pulls on the leash. Anger and despair, the dog; faith, the leash. Don’t ever let go of the leash.

Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
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.

So we move from the terrifying, frantic opening, via a turn of direct address, to a calm, thoughtful ending. Both speaker and dog are still here, enjoying the walk, but there is no denial or delusion: the leash is ready for the next time it is needed.

Would this poem have meant as much to me in another time? It was published in January, 2016, so it could it be completely unrelated to the context in which I see it. Like the poet, I have to admit: I don’t know. But at this time, literally this afternoon, in the context of today, it was what I needed. It was my leash, keeping me from spiraling down.

In preparation for this post, I did quite a bit of listening to her read other poems via youtube recordings of various poetry readings, and I remember “How to Triumph Like A Girl” from Pushcart 2015. I think Limón would be a favorite poet of mine, if I could focus on poetry enough to have a favorite: her works aren’t so obscure as to make me feel stupid, yet have a quality I hear as beauty, and even though I’m not trained enough to parse it, it pulls me in.

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