Friday, November 03, 2006

Author of a new Autumn House poetry book, Lucky Wreck

Thursday, November 2nd: Ada Limón and Ellen McGrath Smith read to a modest-sized but alive and attentive crowd, at lunchtime in University of Pittsburgh’s Book Center. Limón was (is) visiting from Brooklyn and Smith is a local writer; the poets were hosted by the South Side publisher, Autumn House Press.

Each poet had a talent for marrying outer observations with an inner life both lived and image-ined, and translating the resulting fusion into writing that wants to be read and heard. In each writer I enjoyed witnessing a similar struggle-—the struggle to illuminate the (necessarily-dark) inner world, and the struggle to articulate the negotiations of moving through the world in a (dynamic, fragile, female, thinking, feeling) body.

Smith made me laugh out loud when she read a poem about the 1960s, when (she claims) everyone but everyone smoked cigarettes. She gave us a list of smoking types, the usual suspects and the unlikely (like dancers), and read it in a sort of jaded, motherly, what-we-didn’t-know-then way, but after she ended the poem commented, “I still haven’t quit.”

In another set of poems she read (these will be included in an Autumn House anthology on poetry and prayer), “I wrote about [yoga] positions that reminded me of different alcoholic beverages,” she said. She took both of these themes to another place entirely, combining in one work the images of Rolling Rock’s brew-factory in (nearby) Ligonier, drinkers imbibing the green pastures of Western Pennsylvania, and her body’s position releasing her energy like a stampede of wild horses inside her.

Some other lines of Smith’s I particluarly liked: “Crush the weak/ The Hum-Vee’s on the street declare.” Speaking to a stranger (“like Jesus, he didn’t look respectable”) who would help her after her car died (“a white corpse on the side of the road”), she asks, “Can I trust you?” While they drove, “He told me August Wilson’s real name.”

Limón was a warm and generous reader, who started by thanking Smith and expressing her delight in discovering her as a writer, and in being in Pittsburgh for the first time.

Limón’s poems often circled back on themselves with a drunken, dream kind of logic. (Indeed, one set of poems actually was a set of sonnets linked by the first and last lines, a seven sonnet “crown.”)

In one work, she “dreamt the word ‘Philadelphia,’ ” and she wonders aloud what that dream-word could mean. “ want to cry or pray but because you’re no good at either, you tell everyone to leave you alone...., maybe she could call that feeling, ‘Philadelphia.’ ”

In a poem to her lover: “I want to know some things for certain, and other things for vague.” She tells him that she doesn’t want to know his zip code, his state bird, or anything that could helpher pinpoint his whereabouts, because when she finds him, she knows “for certain” what she’ll want to do with him.

Yet another poem spoke of the pleasures of longing to be somewhere else vs. the luxury of wanting to be where you are, which she did once when swimming in a particular river: “But how do you hold a river in your head/ before it turns straight and black/ like some mean road rolled out before you.”

You should keep your eye out for Ellen McGrath Smith, who’s sure to read in town again, and you should go see Ada Limón, who is “unsure if I am jealous of the web or the fly,” read tonight at Gist Street. And if you go, you should go early. I’ve heard this reading series is getting so popular that they sometimes have to lock the doors a half an hour before start time.

Ada Limón reads with Richard Jackson: 8pm Friday, November 3rd, at the Gist Street Reading Series, 305 Gist Street, Uptown, Pittsburgh, PA

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