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With a New Anthology and National Parks Tour, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón Declares “Nature Is Who We Are”

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One morning this March, Ada Limón looked out the window of her home in Kentucky and saw a bird unlike any she’d ever seen. Limón, the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, has loved birds since childhood and takes pleasure in learning their names. Yet the one clinging to her feeder was unfamiliar. “Of course, I didn’t have my glasses on,” she says. Suddenly she realized what she was seeing: an upside-down female cardinal, made strange by its inversion. “I just started laughing.” 

That Limón’s discovery yielded delight, not disappointment, might speak to her work as a poet, helping readers perceive anew what they could easily dismiss as commonplace. Likewise, when she chose the name for her signature project as Poet Laureate, she picked a phrase well-known to anyone who has ever perused a trail guide or museum map: YOU ARE HERE. The declaration serves as the title for a series of poetry installations in National Parks that Limón will preside over this year, as well as an anthology of new nature poetry she edited, published this month. 

Ada Limón. Foto: Lucas Marquardt

As Limón shares in the introduction to You Are Here, she encountered those three words on a sign while hiking, on a day when the world’s many crises weighed painfully on her. Beyond revealing her location, the pronouncement struck Limón as a reminder. “It’s a recognition of the present moment,” she says, “but also the incredible gift of being alive in a body on a spinning planet.”

Though it could have been a hefty tome—“I would have loved to have the book be 5,000 pages long,” Limón says—You Are Here is a slim volume of 50 poems, all the better to slip into a daypack. Limón reached out individually to poets she admires, including such luminaries as former Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Camille T. Dungy, and Hanif Abdurraqib, inviting them to write poems for the collection. “When they came in, it felt like they were gifts,” she says. “Each one felt like such an offering, not to me, but to the natural world itself.”

A whale-watching tour off the coast of Washington state was the inspiration for Donika Kelly’s poem, which she was excited to contribute to the anthology. The group did see a humpback, but a highlight for Kelly was the Bald Eagles, flying and feeding on a remote island in the Salish Sea. Earlier in her life and career, Kelly says, she often looked to animals for clues about how to lead her own life (as a queer person baffled by dating, she was especially impressed by what seemed like the clarity of birds’ courtship rituals). But on the boat that day, Kelly wanted to appreciate the eagles for their own sakes. Like the speaker in her poem about the experience, Kelly now turns to animals “not to explain something about what humans do, but to understand that there are just other ways of being in the world.”

Limón herself has returned to birds again and again in her work, sometimes leaning into the impulse to interpret, at other times resisting. She doesn’t see the inconsistency as a problem. “I actually love the idea of the wondrous unknowing that animals provide us,” she says. “We name and identify, but we can never own and we can never completely know.” Tensions and contradictions are also present in You Are Here, which pleased Limón as she edited and arranged the collection. “The poems really started talking to each other,” she says. “There was a mix of hope and despair and complicated feelings when it comes to nature that to me felt like a very authentic response to where we are right now.”

Before Limón’s invitation to contribute to the book, Ashley M. Jones had never thought of herself as a nature poet. But the Alabama Poet Laureate had recently had an experience in the woods that many can relate to: finding solace for a heavy heart in the natural world. Two years after her beloved father’s death, Jones arrived at moment of respite beside the Sipsey River, in a wilderness area in northwest Alabama—after a rather treacherous hike that she realized had mirrored her passage through grief. “I didn’t really know if it was going to end well for me, if I would come back with scars,” she says. What she found, though, was a moment of peace, even as she mourned. Unseen birds called, and she heard reassurance in “their promise of song.”

“As a Black poet, there’s two things you’re always fighting in your mind,” Jones says. “For one, people assume that you can only write about Black suffering. On the other hand, people are like, why can’t you just write about roses?” Jones’s poems often do both, chronicling beauty as well as speaking urgently to injustice. She sees You Are Here as part of an ongoing effort in the literary world to expand notions of who is expected and allowed to write what kind of poems: “No genre is off limits for any of us.” Jones might even write about roses. But if she does: “It definitely won’t be looking at a petal and only the petal,” she says, “I’m going to zoom out to who’s growing the flower.”

In You Are Here, the poems’ speakers walk city streets as well as quiet trails. They muse on moons and trees—but also pharmaceutical companies and Ellis Island. It’s all part of Limón’s mission to “reimagine what a nature poem is and what a nature poem can do.” At the heart of that pursuit is her conviction that humans aren’t separate from what we call the natural world. As she writes in the introduction to the anthology: “Nature is not a place to visit. Nature is who we are.”

Though National Parks are often a destination, the same idea animates the other You Are Here project Limón is spearheading as Poet Laureate. Throughout 2024, Limón will visit seven parks to celebrate a new work of public art at each: inscriptions in picnic tables of poems she calls “iconic,” each linked to the surrounding landscape or ecosystem. Mary Oliver’s words will adorn Cape Cod National Seashore, for example, while visitors to Everglades National Park can take in June Jordan’s “Ecology,” about an encounter with a marsh hawk (now called Northern Harrier). 

The installations aren’t just for viewing; they will serve double-duty as functioning tables, where they might take park-goers by surprise. Limón envisions the works as invitations—to slow down and tap into what she calls “a more alive alertness”—addressed to anyone who finds them. “I’m hoping that people will read the poem, and then start to think about a different way of looking at the world,” including their place it, she says. “Maybe it will make them want to write a poem, which would be wonderful.”

As she visits the parks, Limón will meet with local tribes, youth, and community groups, continuing her work of bringing poetry to the American public. She also plans to do a little birding: “I will be bringing my binoculars.”

You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World, edited by Ada Limón, 176 pages, $25.00. Available here from Milkweed Editions.

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