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A Guide to U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s Poems

Melissa Baron

Staff Writer

Melissa is the author of TWICE IN A LIFETIME from Alcove Press and represented by Laura Cameron at Transatlantic Agency. She lives in Chicago and works as a technical writer to pay the bills. She is a former English major, and has never met a semicolon she didn’t accidentally abuse in some fashion. In her spare time, she explores Chicago, writes a lot, and hangs out with her fiancé and two cats. You can find her on Instagram and TikTok @melissabaronwrites.

The Library of Congress has named 23 U.S. Poet Laureates since the position was renamed in 1985, and they have named their 24th: Ada Limón, author of six poetry collections, five of which have either won or been nominated for a multitude of awards. Limón is only one of eight female poets laureate, and the seventh poet of color to hold the position. She is preceded by Joy Harjo, who served three terms.

Limón began her term in late 2022, and has not yet declared what project she will work on while she holds the position (part of what a Poet Laureate does). In the meantime, she has an impressive and gorgeous body of work to pour over, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. If you’ve never ready any of Adam Limón’s poems, this is the primer to start with.

Who is Ada Limón?

Before we dive in, a little background on one of the greatest contemporary poets of our time.

Ada Limón grew up in Sonoma, California, and now lives in rural Kentucky with her husband, their pug Lily Bean, and their cat Olive. She holds an MFA from the creative writing program at New York University, worked at various magazines during her time in NYC, and teaches poetry remotely at Queens University of Charlotte. She also happens to write lusciously beautiful and arresting poetry.

The recurring themes that Limón infuses her work with center around nature, our relationship with it and our observation of it; relationships, especially with her parents; identity; and chronic illness. She grounds her poetry in places: in the California of her childhood, the years she spent in New York, her life now in rural horse country. Her knowledge of growing things is so vast that she, at times, feels like a patient teacher showing us what flourishes in her garden and what flora and fauna live and thrive around her. She reminds us that we are part of a greater world that existed before us and will exist after us. Her work is heavily autobiographical, and she excels at plucking out a mundane aspect of life and polishing it to a shine, calling attention to that moment’s beauty.

The best Ada Limón poems + collections

Let’s explore all of Limón’s available poetry collections, from newest to oldest: what awards they’ve won, what themes they explore, and provide a sampling of some of the loveliest poems in each collection. Note: Limón’s very first book, This Big Fake World, is a story in verse that is out of print. She hit the ground running with this one — it won the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize.

Book cover of The Hurting Kind by ada limon

The Hurting Kind

Longlisted for the Brooklyn Public Library Book Prize

The Hurting Kind is Limón’s newest poetry collection, published in May of this year. Right from the start, her vivid and lush descriptions of the natural world and all that live in it drip from each line. This collection is divided into the seasons, starting with spring and ending with winter. It also lightly touches on the pandemic, the enduring we have all collectively done, and the longing to “sneak into the cities of the world.”

Excerpt From Sanctuary

Suppose it’s easy to slip
              into another’s green skin,
bury yourself in leaves
and wait for a breaking,
              a breaking open, a breaking 
out. I have, before, been
tricked into believing 
            I could be both an I
and the world…

Excerpt From It Begins with Trees

Two full cypress trees in the clearing
intertwine in a way that almost makes

them seem like one. Until at a certain angle
from the blue blow-up pool I bought 

this summer to save my life, I see it
is not one tree, but two, and they are

kissing. They are kissing so tenderly
it feels rude to watch, one hand

on the other’s shoulder, another
in the other’s branches, like hair.

When did kissing become so
dangerous? Or was it always so?…

Excerpt From Instrumentation

If I could ever play an instrument for real I like the idea of playing the jawbone, that rattle of something dead in your hands, that thing that beats back at the sky and says, I’m still here, even though clearly the donkey isn’t here or the horse isn’t here, just the teeth and the jaw making music like resurrection or haunting or just plain need…

book cover of the carrying by ada limon

The Carrying

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

The Carrying came out in 2018, and it is a collection that lovingly, painstakingly documents the natural world and our relationship with it, for better or worse. It is also about the relationship between mothers and daughters; the lengths her own mother went through to shield and protect her. This morphs into exploring her feelings regarding infertility and coming to terms with it after trying for a child. Limón stated in an interview that The Carrying terrified her, because it was the first time she really explored the “frailty of [her] own body.” She also examines what it means to upend expectations, and as a Mexican-American poet, refusing to let the world dictate what she should write poetry about.

Excerpt From 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…

Excerpt From The Carrying

The sky’s white with November’s teeth,
and the air is ash and woodsmoke.
A flush of color from the dying tree,
a cargo train speeding through, and there,
that’s me, standing in the wintering
grass watching the dog suffer the cold
leaves. I’m not large from this distance,
just a fence post, a hedge of holly.
Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,
mares look for what’s left of green
in the pasture, a few weanlings kick
out, and theirs is the same sky, white
like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut…

Excerpt From The Raincoat

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it…

Excerpt From The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual

 When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please

the funders. Will you check this
box; we’re applying for a grant.

Do you have any poems that speak
to troubled teens? Bilingual is best.

Would you like to come to dinner
with the patrons and sip Patrón?

Will you tell us the stories that make
us uncomfortable, but not complicit?

Don’t read the one where you
are just like us. Born to a green house, 

garden, don’t tell us how you picked
tomatoes and ate them in the dirt

watching vultures pick apart another
bird’s bones in the road. Tell us the one 

about your father stealing hubcap
after a colleague said that’s what his 

kind did…

bright dead things by ada limón book cover

Bright Dead Things

Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award

Bright Dead Things is Limón’s 2015 collection, and if I’m being perfectly honest, my favorite. This collection deals heavily with loss, grief, and identity. It explores the jarring shift from living in an urban city center like NYC to living in rural Kentucky and grapples with mortality as Limón cared for her dying stepmother and then grieved her when she passed. These poems invoke empowerment, self-exploration, vulnerability, and raw grief.

Excerpt From How to Triumph Like a Girl

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies…

Excerpt from Cower

I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard
knot in the mountain buried
deep in the boarded-up mine. So,
I let death in, learn to prospect
the between dreams of the dying,
the one dream that tells you when
to throw up, the other, when
you’re in pain. I tell you
I will love someone that you
will never meet, death’s warm
breath at the mouth
of the body’s holler.
You are crying in the shower.
I am crying near the shower.
Your body a welcomed-red
fire-starter in steam and I think,
how scared I would be
if I were death…

Excerpt From How Far Away We Are

So we might understand each other better:
I’m leaning on the cracked white window ledge
in my nice pink slippers lined with fake pink fur.
The Air Conditioning is sensational. Outside,
we’ve put up a cheap picnic table beneath the maple
but the sun’s to hot to sit in, so the table glows
on alone like bleached-out bones in the heat.
Yesterday, so many dead in Norway. Today,
a big-voiced singer found dead in her London flat.
And this country’s gone standstill and criminal.
I want to give you something, or I want to take
something from you…

Excerpt From Downhearted

Six horses died in a tractor-trailer fire.
There. That’s the hard part. I wanted
to tell you straight away so we could
grieve together. So many sad things,
that’s just one on a long recent list
that loops and elongates in the chest,
in the diaphragm, in the alveoli. What
is it they say, heart-sick or downhearted?
I picture a heart lying down on the floor
of the torso, pulling up the blankets
over its head, thinking this pain will
go on forever (even though it won’t)…

book cover of sharks in the rivers by ada limon

Sharks in the Rivers

Sharks in the Rivers is Limón’s 2010 collection, and although the intense, close observation of the natural world is still present, these poems peel back the surface to reveal what threatens underneath. At the same time, she also fervently revels in the total experiences of being alive; of our bodies, our passion, and our drive. This collection also touches on and celebrates Limón’s Latina heritage.

Excerpt from Sharks in the Rivers

We’ll say unbelievable things
to each other in the early morning—

our blue coming up from our roots,
our water rising in our extraordinary limbs.

All night I dreamt of bonfires and burn piles
and ghosts of men, and spirits
behind those birds of flame.

I cannot tell anymore when a door opens or closes, I can only hear the frame saying, Walk through.

It is a short walkway—
into another bedroom.

Consider the handle. Consider the key.

I say to a friend, how scared I am of sharks.

How I thought I saw them in the creek
across from my street…

book cover of lucky wreck by ada limon

Lucky Wreck

Winner of the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize

Lucky Wreck is Limón’s first poetry collection, and unique in that it is the only collection that features a handful of haiku-like poems, as well as poems that are vast and segmented into separate sections, reminiscent of Walt Whitman. Whitman is an apt parallel, as both of them closely bear witness and write of our relationship with nature. This first collection is the first prime example of Limón’s stunning depictions of the natural world with clever wordplay and dreamy observation, along with a few quietly beautiful moments of introspection.

Excerpt From Little Kindness

My kindness is wrapped around my ankles
and it is too heavy to fit in this door…

Excerpt From Little Commitment

Is it bad to want to commit
because one is so tired?…

It will be exciting to see what project Ada Limón creates during her time as Poet Laureate, although she has already given the world so much in these poetry collections. For further reading, explore the works of past U.S. Poet Laureates: