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

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.

The Simple and the Sublime in “Ice Storm” by Robert Hayden

Read “Ice Storm” here.

Robert Hayden’s posthumous collection American Journal is filled with secret pains and guilts, remembrances, and tributes as Hayden reflects on his life and builds a collection which ultimately interrogates life itself, death, spirit, God, and the dubious possibility of continuance after death.

I think the framing of this book is supported by some of the larger, more epic or elegiac poems such as “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” “Boneflower Elegy,” and “[American Journal].” Poems between these pillars are like the foliage, the life-giving green, and I found “Ice Storm” to be one such, powerful in its carefully crafted simplicity.

“Ice Storm” is deceivingly simple—there’s not much there on the page, and what is there is mainly in plain, Germanic language. But the shortness of the words, paired with the lyric structure and reined-in form, creates poem not soon forgotten.

An average conversation in English will yield at least 1.5 syllables per word. “Ice Storm” has just 62 words, comprised of 83 syllables, or 1.33 syllables per word. The diction here is not flowery, Latinate, nor academic—not at all what one might think of as “poetic language.” In fact, it is even less florid than the average conversational diction would be. What this means is that Hayden didn’t pick simple words because they were what first came to mind; he deliberately simplified his language as much as he possibly could. This sparseness mirrors the sparse imagery in the poem: the moon and winter trees, the ice and snow. The landscape is bare. So is the language. This parallel wouldn’t necessarily be noted just in a first reading of the poem, but it is felt as an emptiness, perhaps tinged with despair, and creates a vivid tone.

In the final stanza, the first two lines have a higher syllable-per-word count, which serves to build some energy before the epiphanic and lyric last two lines, which contain almost entirely one-syllable words and releases the energy in a final prayer. This prayer takes on greater significance considering the first lines, “Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand / by the window looking out.” Only after seeing the ice storm can the speaker find prayer:

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?

Only here in the last two lines are we removed from imagery into the speaker’s mind. As in many great image-rich poems, this final, ungrounded, and rather metaphysical pondering is only able to engage the reader because of the great image-building done throughout the rest of the poem. I think here of the ubiquitous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, which employs the same technique. Only a poet with meticulous craft can pull off this type of lyric poem without sounding moralistic or proselytizing.

An additional strategy Hayden uses in this poem is adherence to form. Although the poem is free verse, each stanza follows a pattern of syllables: lines one and three are long (seven to nine syllables), line two is slightly shorter (six to seven syllables), and line four is about half the length of lines one through three (two syllables). The shorter final lines create a jagged, ungrounded sense to the poem, and unfinished-ness which references the speaker’s unease. Death is an unknown, God is silent but for the ice on trees. The speaker hopes for salvation, hopes to “thrive” as do the trees, but the hope goes unanswered.

Yet, at the same time, I hear in the poem a parallel to the biblical parable of the lilies of the field in which Jesus asks his listeners to consider how God cares for the flowers: “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). Perhaps these two questions echo through each other into eternity, the perpetual interplay between faith and mortality.

Hayden, Robert. “Ice Storm.” Collected Poems, Liverlight Publishing Corporation, 1996, p.175.

Questions Without Answers In “Is It True?” By Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Toward God is obsessive in that best of ways which all the best poetry is. Every poem contributes to the theme of the book, which creates an extremely satisfying whole. But calling this book “satisfying” may be misleading: it’s a book of hungers and questions. In the middle of the book is Sexton’s long poem “Is It True?” This poem is strategically placed as a centerpiece for the manuscript, illumining the central questions and themes of the book. A closer look at this poem is a good way to get a sense of Sexton’s big questions and feelings on this most existential question which the book poses: Is there a God? How can we know?

“Is It True?” is rife with repetitions. The poem swirls and circles. It moves us in and out of questions which never resolve, which is just how uncertainty presents itself in life. Sexton captures exactly how an existential crisis feels: the worry that we are not good enough, the search in every part of life for an answer that feels satisfying, the return again and again to that same question: “Is it true?”

The words “is it true” are repeated thirteen times in the poem. All but once Sexton creates couplets of “Is it true? / Is it true?” Every time the speaker seems to be approaching understanding of a sort, this refrain echoes. Interestingly, a little over halfway through the poem Sexton has these lines which break the refrain:

If religion were a dream, someone said,
then it were still a dream worth dreaming.
True! True!
I whisper to my wood walls.

Sexton’s speaker searches everywhere for answers and the only one she seems sure of is that the search is worth it, even if the answers continue to elude.

Sexton repeats phrases within a stanza in ways that reference mantra, liturgy, or religious text. Three times she includes sections of blessing; first, blessing women’s rights; second, blessing “all useful objects”; and third, blessing animals and plants. Additional sections that feel like sacred texts include the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra, a section of praise (“Let me now praise / the male of our species”), and the following intriguing section which reads like a prophesy:

In heaven,
there will be a secret door,
there will be flowers with eyes that wink,
there will be light flowing from a bronze bell
there will be as much love as there
are cunners off the coast of Maine,
there will be gold that no one hides
from the Nazis,
there will be statues that the angel
inside of Michelangelo’s hand fashioned.
I will lay open my soul
and hear an answer.

The answer which follows I’ll examine later; for now, I am interested in how this section moves from enigmatic to specific. The first five of these lines could be pulled from the Bible or another religious text—maybe Hindu scriptures. Then, Sexton gets specific: “Maine” and “Nazis” put us firmly in the modern era and the new world. The prophet here is transformed from sacred mystery to something tangible and possible in contemporary times.

Sexton creates motifs which, in their insistence, begin to feel obsessive. One major theme in this poem is hunger and eating. In fact, the prophetic section quoted above concludes,

I will lay open my soul
and hear an answer.
Hello. Hello. It will call back,
“Here’s a butter knife,” it will say.
“So scrape off your hunger and the mud.”

Before this prophesy, Sexton has mentioned hunger, eating, or food at least five times. A notable example is when the speaker is asked “Whose God are you looking for?” and responds, “a starving man doesn’t ask what the meal is.” The idea returns another five or more times. “Eggs” specifically are mentioned three times, and “butter” is mentioned twice. The first mention of butter is above; it returns in the poem’s denouement:

Maybe I’m dead now
and have found him.
Maybe my evil body is done with.
For I look up,
and in a blaze of butter is
soiled with my tears,
a lamb that has been slain

The repeated “maybe” keeps the conclusion from holding the satisfaction of an unequivocal answer, but Sexton allow here for the possibility that the hunger—for answers, for something to truly fill the soul and body—is sated in Christ as meal, of sorts.

I must backtrack here to explain another motif throughout, a countermelody to the hunger and the blessings/praises: the body as evil and poisoned. Early in the poem, Sexton relays a conversation the speaker has with a priest about how she is evil. The priest doesn’t understand at first: “Do you mean sin? he asks,” and the speaker says, “What I mean is evil, / (not meaning to be, you understand, / just something I ate).” While the speaker is hungering after God, she seems also to be filled with evil. At other points, the evil is refenced as the devil, who “has crawled / in and out of me” and as shit, which “was poison / and the poison was all of me.” Just as the speaker longs to be filled with goodness, she feels filled with evil. This tension heightens the need for answers:

Because to one, shit is a feeder of plants,
to another the evil that permeates them
So much for language.
So much for psychology.
God lives in shit – I have been told.
I believe both.
Is it true?
Is it true?

Again here, all that can be repeated is the deepest question of the soul, “Is it true?” The tension between these differing viewpoints remains unresolved, leaving room for subjective truths.

Sexton ends this poem by returning to the book’s motif: the rowing of a boat upon the sea toward, as she calls it in the book’s final poem, “the island called God.” Here are the final lines of “Is It True?”:

a lamb that has been slain,
his guts drooping like a sea worm,
but who lives on, lives on
like the wings of an Atlantic seagull.
Though he has stopped flying,
the wings go on flapping
despite it all,
despite it all.

If the speaker is upon the sea rowing, and God is the island, Jesus becomes here a third party, one who was blessed to be able to fly above the sea and island, separate. From his vantage, perhaps he knew the answers. But he also fell, was slain, became a meal for the speaker. Jesus, though, is not yet dead. Something continues to beat. And the book goes on, and the rowing goes on, and the questions remain unanswered in the poem, as they are in life.

Sexton, Anne. “Is It True?” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 48-57.

Sexton, Anne. “The Rowing Endeth.” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 85-86.