Diving in Despite Ourselves

A Review of Ada Limón’s Sharks in the Rivers

Sharks in the Rivers
Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions 2010, 95 pages
Reviewed by Karen Pickell

Ada Limón has woven inner and outer worlds into her third full collection of poems, Sharks in the Rivers. This is a book that upon first reading seems murky, filled with fragments of grief, despair, and mortality. You sense a search for meaning in the undulation of ordinary days. The world is at odds with itself—the urban vs. the natural, the electronic vs. the organic. Constant motion makes it difficult to grab hold of anything solid, though you want badly to cling.

Read it again. You begin to see under water, to make sense of the various particles floating around. These poems have depth, and it takes more than one try to get to the bottom.

Rivers flow through these pages, from Washington’s Stillaguamish and Snolqualmie, to California’s Russian River, down to the Rio Grande (“There are whole areas of that river where you can still hear drumming”), and across country to the East River (“Sharks bite fewer people each year than / New Yorkers do”), while rivers of blood pulse inside writer and reader. At times, it seems the narrator of these poems might drown. Loves have gone missing or been pulled under, the madrones of home are only a dream, and “everyone essentially wants /  the same thing as everyone else, a sense of belonging, a coming home.”

Danger lurks about: sharks roam the streets. Not even the rivers are safe, as the bull shark breeds in the “brackish waters of a river’s mouth.” Above it all, a hummingbird flies up to find out “what was beyond the blue sky,” to bring back messages from the “afterworld.” And the bird teaches us to weave, and weaving saves our lives.

The strength of these poems is in their layers, like rocks formed by the continual deposit of minerals over the course of many years. Words take on new meanings as they are turned over and over again in varying degrees of light. A reader can spend days here, digging for truths, and return again after some time to rediscover these stones as if he’s never seen them before.
Both of Ada Limón’s first two collections of poetry earned prizes: Lucky Wreck won the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize, and This Big Fake World took the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize. She earned an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University in 2001. Limón has been granted fellowships at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and also won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry. She is originally from Sonoma, California, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

In the end, Sharks in the Rivers is a volume of hope, a reason to continue. The narrator dives in again in “Drowning in Paradise,” saying “I want the big bite, one / restless, tooth-filled mouth to take me down.” The world is alive and it calls to us to join in the living, to feel the tug and exclaim, “I’m going under.”

Karen Pickell is an assistant editor at Flycatcher.

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