Poem of the Week: Forsythia
As spring progresses (slowly here in Maine), yellow bursts of forsythia are one of the earliest colorful patches in the post-winter landscape. While we wait on our lilacs, our crabapples, and so much more to delightfully come into full bloom, we can look around us and see forsythia in abundance. In a prose poem, shared at the end of this post, Ada Limón explores this splash of color while simultaneously ruminating on how we carry others with us. This melding of the interpersonal and the natural world is characteristic of Limón's recent poetry, as is a melding of sorrow and hope. Though there is an element of sadness in "Forsythia," there is also a sense of abundant joy with the insistent repetition of "More yellow." There is, too, a comfort in knowing that the way we come to know the surrounding world is saturated with the presence of people we have known.
Ada Limón's fourth book of poetry, The Hurting Kind, was released this week, a volume that undeniably reflects the mental, physical, and emotional journey of the pandemic without once mentioning the dreaded virus. It runs as an undercurrent—her feeling of isolation at times, doing things "with" friends yet not in body, and, most consistently, seeking solace in nature. Limón's award-winning work has often probed very really struggles with devastation: infertility, heartbreak, and the difficulties of being a Mexican American woman in a frequently hostile world. These ideas are not gone from her consciousness in her new volume, but the poet has clearly developed her perspective. In a recent interview with LitHub, she shared, “I am very interested in how poetry has not just saved my life, but allowed it to flourish and deepen... Poetry constantly reminds me of what it is to be in the world, to both struggle with it and love it.” This effort to love the world is reflected in The Hurting Kind's opening poem, "Give Me This," where Limón writes, "Why am I not allowed / delight? A stranger writes to request my thoughts / on suffering. Barbed wire pulled out of the mouth, / as if demanding that I kneel to the trap of coiled / spikes used in warfare and fencing. Instead, / I watch the groundhog closer and a sound escapes / me, a small spasm of joy I did not imagine / when I woke." Do we expect our poets to address only the harsh realities of the world in order to be relevant? Or can poetry offer something else?
The Hurting Kind does not live purely in the pandemic world. Limón reflects on childhood ventures to spot whales, on long drives with friends, and memories of her stepfather's kind gestures when she was a heartbroken young girl. Throughout, though, there is a thread that anchors the book to this moment: an insistence on finding the good and in telling that "good story" instead of reflecting only on suffering. What is particularly effective about Limón's poetry is that she is so far from pretending that there is no suffering, yet she is offering her words both as a reflection of pain and darkness and a laser beam on the paths out of despondency... acts of kindness, moments in the garden, reveling in memories of family. How might Limón respond to the current devastation of war in our world that has become even more harrowing since she wrote the poems in this book? Her philosophy seems to be not that we should ignore or deny but rather that we can still say: Here is this struggle, and here is my antidote. Here is a flower. And that will get me through this moment.
To explore Limón's work, watch the Milkweed Editions book trailer for The Hurting Kind, view her reading of "A Good Story" on Oprah Daily, and read the prose poem, "Forsythia," found below.
At the cabin in Snug Hollow near McSwain Branch creek, just spring, all the animals are out, and my beloved and I are lying in bed in a soft silence. We are talking about how we carry so many people with us wherever we go, how even simple living, these unearned moments, are a tribute to the dead. We are both expecting to hear an owl as the night deepens. All afternoon, from the porch, we watched an eastern towhee furiously build her nest in the wild forsythia with its yellow spilling out into the horizon. I told him that the way I remember the name forsythia is that when my stepmother, Cynthia, was dying, that last week, she said lucidly but mysteriously, More yellow. And I thought yes, more yellow, and nodded because I agreed. Of course, more yellow. And so now in my head, when I see that yellow tangle, I say, For Cynthia, for Cynthia, forsythia, forsythia, more yellow. It is night now. And the owl never comes, only more of night and what repeats in the night.
- Ada Limón