On Ada Limón’s “Cannibal Woman”

From Ada Limón, The Carrying

There’s nothing but this sailboat inside me, slowly trying to catch
a wind, maybe there’s an old man on it, maybe a small child,

all I know is they’d like to go somewhere. They’d like to see the sail

straighten, go tense, and take them someplace. But instead they wait,
a little tender wave comes and leaves them
right where they were all along.

In this lovely extended metaphor, the poet never reveals the metaphor’s tenor. What is the sailboat? An emotion? An inner capacity to hold and move elsewhere? The imagination? Memory? Longing? And yet if there is a sailboat, there is also a body of water, and by implication a changeful energy inside the speaker. The speaker doesn’t know the sailboat’s occupants—maybe there’s an old man, a child. The boat holds both old age and childhood, both longing and longing to leave, to journey outward. But it’s the tender wave that pleases: the wave that won’t move the child into adulthood or the old man toward death. The two imagined personas will remain together and where they were all along—in an imagined space filled with uncertainty and doubt, desire and desire denied, youth and age, but also tenderness and resistance. The speaker thwarts the desires of these imagined lives. The speaker can leave them as they are. They won’t be injured or lost. They are safe from storms, suggesting why we need stories and the consolations of imagination.

“Cannibal Woman,” from Ada Limón, The Carrying, Milkweed Editions, 2018

JNH