The Unexpected in the Overknown – Ada Limón’s Spring poem from “The Carrying”

American poet Ada Limón, winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for Poetry for her collection The Carrying. Photo Credit: National Book Critics Circle.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

About this poem:
It was a hard winter. My whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back. I wanted to praise that ordinary thing as a way of bringing myself back too.”

— Ada Limón from Poem-a-Day, the Academy of American Poets, May 15, 2017

This must be, for me, Ada Limón’s month – April! I featured her and the poem above included in her collection The Carrying during National Poetry Month last April. But now March is her month as well since it was the month when she won the U.S.-based 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for The Carrying. A huge accomplishment for any American writer. To read my post from last April please click here.

This poem has even greater currency for me this year in light of the death of friends and also so many great poets who have gone in the past year including Lane, Rosenblatt, Merwin, Hoagland, Oliver and Gregg. The grace of the resilience caught in the poem and in its title especially! And the phrase: I’ll take it all. The courage of that declaration.  In spite of it all, I keep on keeping on! Now here is an excerpt from last April’s post:

“Ah, spring. A late one here in the Cowichan Valley but spring nonetheless. So many spring poems it’s hard to write one that seems fresh and unexpected. After all, Spring and All, the 1923 book and poem by William Carlos Williams are looming presences still, after almost one hundred years.

And yet, Ada Limón has pulled off a cliché-busting spring poem. And its intrigue for me begins with the title, no spring in sight! Limón, who just turned forty-two, has become a rising force in American poetics after her 2015 book Bright Dead Things was a finalist for two of the top U.S. poetry awards.

Just try reading the first lines of Limón’s poem out loud. It’s not easy. Challenging line breaks that create a sense of disorientation, a breaking of regular rhythms, that reflect the confusion and disorientation suggested by the poem’s title: Instructions on Not Giving Up. And the disruption that spring is!

And how in the poem Limón mixes showing and telling in such a robust way! As she does here:..Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say…

And I am struck by how it is the coming of the slow green leaves that gets to Limón. Not the showy, gaudy blossoms, the world’s baubles and trinkets. And in this I am reminded of Jack Gilberts’s astonishing poem, The Abnormal is not Courage. His line that echoes her thoughts: It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment. Ah, the long less showy accomplishment of leaves. And as Limón says: More than the fuschia funnels breaking out/ of the crabapple tree…”

Here, this year another late Spring. yes, the cherry blossoms are doing their extravagant thing but the leaves are only now beginning to show on the other trees and shrubs. Nothing showy but the green skin is coming in! A lovely reminder from the winter of grief that has not yet released me. The death of Andy Parker, poet/priest this past December and Patrick Lane almost a month ago. Thank you Ada: this reminder! I’ll take it all.

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