Time, Air, and the Body in “Sway” by Ada Limón

Read “Sway” here.

Many of the poets I admire most—poets like Marie Howe, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, and Ada Limón—have a way of speaking in plain English with a needlepoint precision that reaches the center nerve of feeling. Limón’s book The Carrying is full of such poems. I decided to look a bit more closely at the poem “Sway” from this collection because it exemplifies simplicity of language paired with intellectual/emotional precision. (An interesting note about this poem is that it was written to and in conversation with another excellent poet, Natalie Diaz. For more poem-letters between Diaz and Limón, check out the anthology They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.)

Nothing about the spoken language of this poem is especially striking, except for the rather large matter of arrangement. I’m reminded in this poem that interesting verbs/nouns only take a writer so far. Surprising images and lyric leaps are what this poem relies on to vivify the language. Take for example this personification from early on in the poem: “I slept again once the Pink Moon / moved off a little, put her pants back on, let me be.” Who else has imagined the waning crescent as a woman putting her pants back on? I mean, it makes total sense: we all know what “mooning” means. But I’ve never seen it put so comically and informally in a poem.

Maybe this letter is to say, if it is red where you are,
know there is also green, the serrated leaves of the dandelion, lemon balm,
purple sage, peppermint, a small plum tree by the shed.

Another way Limón builds interest with simple diction is with color. Color, in fact, is very important to the poem. Named colors include pink, red, blue, green, and purple. The poem takes place in spring, and these colors lend to thoughts of the coming flowers. But the color which dominates the poem is red. Red becomes metaphor here, a way to talk about anger and pain: “Red, // like our rage. The red of your desert. Your heart too.” This thread is an undertone, a bass beat, to which Limón returns in a list of plants filled with the senses. Some I can taste or smell, all create a sense of peace for me, and the colors evoked create a full color palette:

Limón also manipulates two very common words into complex ideas: air and time. Limón speaks of the body throughout this poem—“my body feels at ease,” “will throw my body toward him,” “a body on a bridge,” “a body of air.” The body is approached in two directions, first, physically, through the senses as they experience the natural world, plants and color—air—and second, through conceptual thought and ethereal experience—time. These two directions seems to be inextricably linked. Limón writes: “What is it about words that make the world / fit easier? Air and time.” Air seems to be the medium through which feeling flows, an easiness with the physical world. Time is an integral part of the speaker, perhaps what she focuses on most as she moves through the world. A neighbor says to her, “When I see you, I become very aware of time.” Of herself, she says, “I was alone and I was time.” As the speakers focuses more fully on time, she seems to be in opposition to air. Here is a longer quote from the close of the poem:

…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.

Time seems to be distracting the speaker at the start of this quote, and she is woken to her immobility, her inflexible nature, by the sound of the train and the sense of the air moving around it. This final metaphor is a tying together of the concepts of time/air and the red of anger. The speaker wishes not for the red, the “heart berry,” to disappear, but rather to be open to its passing through, to be capable, like air, of bending around this emotion that is so dense it feels physical.

I think what astounds me most in this poem is how much Limón is saying. Nothing here is erudite or overly complex, but the more I explore it, the more I see the deep pool of this poem. The waters are calm, but the layering of meaning dives far into the cool darkness. The passion is understated and unadorned, not exclamatory. But richness abounds in the simple words, carefully ordered into a nuanced depiction of the human experience.

Limón, Ada. “Sway,” The Carrying, Milkweed Editions, 2018, pp. 76-77.