Over the past couple of years after having decided to commit more time to the part of myself that writes poetry, I have read a lot of poetry books. I have noticed that I often have trouble appreciating poems whose main goal is to move the reader emotionally. I would get to a certain poem and I would think, "This is supposed to move me, got it." Or, I kind of faintly experience the emotion, suspecting that the poet is just more gentler, more capable of introspective emotions than I am.
I really admired Limon's earlier book Bright Dead Things, though I felt like I couldn't appreciate the book as much as it deserved because of my weirdness surrounding moving poems. When I read a few pages of The Carrying in the bookstore, I was really excited by the first poem in which the speaker thinks about Eve naming the animals and whispering to them, "Name me, name me." How interesting to put the reader on the receiving end of those words in the same position as one of the animals! We can't of course name the poet and hence the need to name herself through the writing of the book. As I read on, Limon's poems didn't just give me emotions I could do; they helped me get on a personal level what the experience of being moved could have to do with reading poetry. That's what has inspired me to write a blog post about it. One poem in particular:
The Real Reason
I don't have any tattoos is not my story to tell. It's my
mother's. Once, walking down Bedford Avenue in my twenties,
I called her as I did, as I do. I told her how I wanted a tattoo
on the back of my neck. Something minor, but permanent,
and she is an artist, I wanted her to create the design, a symbol
a fish I dream of every night. An underwater talisman, a mother's
gift on my body. To be clear, I thought she'd be honored. But do we
ever really know each other fully? A silence in the hospital room; she
was in tears. I swore then that I wouldn't get one. Wouldn't let a needle
touch my neck, my arms, my torso. I'd stay me, my skin the skin
The lines of this poem are long, which slowed me down, but I think what really enabled me to stay with the poem emotionally was the enjambment. Often surprising line breaks emphasize the end of the line, foregrounding the independence and impact of each one. This maximizes the number of jolts and helps make poetry stimulating.
In "The Real Reason," I was struck by the instances where the enjambment is softer, drawing attention not to the end of the first enjambed line but to the beginning of the second, preparing us to hear the impact of the words that arrive after the slight pause. An example is the first line "It's my / mother's." There is one way to read this poem which draws attention to the "my," noting that the speaker has just said that it's not her story to tell but then kind of contradicts that. She is after all telling this story of her mother in the poem she is publishing. But I think letting the preposition "my" stay softer, assuming that we know that a word other than "story" is to follow, is more in tune with the poem. Then we notice how taking out the "my" enables "mother's" to stand by itself at the beginning of that next line. Once "my" is removed, "mother's" feels more dignified and also lonelier. The enjambment forced me to feel that difference. Another example is "do we / ever really know each other." The enjambment enables us to see the potency of the ever with its slight echo with "honored." The line break enabled me to feel in the "ever" the sadness of the speaker's failure to honor and maybe of our more general failure to honor one another when we can only ever do what we think would be honoring.
That enjambment at the beginning of the poem sort of helped me calibrate emotionally to the particularly moving poems that followed, reminding me that I could always calibrate myself emotionally just by pausing in the right places. In fact I have to do this if I want to be able to interpret poems sensitively.
This poem really helped me appreciate how the power of a poem to move does not need to depend just on the subject matter or word choice, but on how words are arranged. I tend to read poems to appreciate all the things form can do to language, and it turns out that one of the things it can do is make language more moving.