Ada Limón, Sharks in the Rivers

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

2010, 96 pages, paperback, $15

Though entitled Sharks in the Rivers, Ada Limón’s most recent book is as full of sky as it is of water, of birds as it is of fish. Readers are invited into the lonely world of New York City and the longing it creates for a deeper connection with nature. Limón finds that connection in unlikely companions—rats trapped in trashcans, birds nesting on high-rise windowsills, and the gray bodies of sharks that fill her dreams. Indeed, Limón writes, “I’ve got this big city in me.” And it is that iconic, urban landscape that creeps into these poems as they sing of waxwings and blue jays, Skagit County and Sonoma, California:

I cannot stop looking at the bird out the window. [. . .]

I want him to live somewhere else, but it’s not my decision.

He likes the rooftop of the high-rise,

the hot soft tar grasped in his claws. He likes the danger.

He likes the dirt on his beak. He likes it rough.

What she calls “The City of Sharks” and “the valley of neon and no-crying” and, at the end of the book, “The City of Skin” is the same place artists have flocked for decades. However, this is no typical account of a New York poet’s life. Limón abandons the familiar urban landscape of bright lights and brick buildings for the less seen. She writes of ghosts and the craving for friends lost to suicide in “Marketing Life for Those of Us Left.” She comforts the homesick in the “The Same Thing” and jests:

You sit on the balcony,

which is really a fire escape, but you call it

the balcony
to make it sound better.

The reader is constantly delving deeper into the mind of the poet. Though Limón’s verse carefully constructs beauty without unnecessary difficulty, her poems are given added depth with specific phrases in parenthesis and italics. These moments act as the connective tissue between stanzas—like a snapshot of the rapid associative thought patterns that lead to a new idea or the internal mutterings we assume no one wants to hear. In “The Crossing,” she writes:

The trees stand up straight for now and

the old barbeque is gone, but a whole cement

village has bricked the land over in its place.

Every neon sign says, Stop.

Every market sells a season

(poor black-capped chickadee trapped in its rafters).

The medication has made your face different,

your skin’s not the same you’ve lived in,

we wait at the train tracks as a new

deluge comes, a bold blundering sky of fresh

water. (A single leaf on a tree,

one bigleaf maple-child, a wet dog on a cement heap.)

With every poem, the reader is enticed to follow Limón through concrete cities, infested waters, and her own, concerned mind. The book itself is a single road, or a solitary river, full of the chaotic splashing of bodies and waves. There is a direction, but it is never without layers or pause:

One woman stands in the middle of the street and looks both ways

for along time, until she continues to walk that yellow line straight

into the river. [. . .]

Perhaps the woman believes she can walk on water,

or that the road is just the river deadened by factories and footprints.

There is a wildness about this book. There is naked sadness and honest searching. Ada Limón writes with a special flavor of hope flanked by the recurring disappointments of reality. In “Ways to Ease Your Animal Mind” she tells us:

This fevered mess of world

is well-done. Lean in and nuzzle

its exceptional need to be yours.

Sharks in the Rivers is the perfect book for a warm afternoon, long layover, or lonely urban evening. It comforts the lonely, provokes connection, and makes the reader laugh unexpectedly. Ada Limón’s newest book should be kept on the shelf and returned to regularly.

—Kelsey Shipman