“One of the many things I love about poetry is that it’s slippery; it can move in between worlds, it doesn’t have to offer clarity or hope or vision, it only has to make us pay attention to the world,” says poet Ada Limón. “Right now, when so much of the world is full of chaos and suffering, poetry can ground us again and remind us that beauty and wonder and imagination matter. We need to be reminded that awe is essential to our human lives.”
Limón was one of the poets featured in our 2019 edition of the Poetry Project, which centered on the Museum’s reopening. Now, at another moment of reopening for New York City, and acknowledging how much we need awe in our lives, we commissioned Limón to select nine distinguished American poets to respond to artworks from the Museum’s collection. Limón explained that these are “poets who are not only talented and thoughtful, but who care deeply about how poetry enters the broader world, how it connects with its audience. I’m deeply honored to have been part of this important project.”
Every week we’ll publish an original poem, along with audio of the poet reading the poem and a short interview about the artwork they chose. We launch this Poetry Project with Limón’s own contribution, a poem inspired by Leonora Carrington’s And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur from 1953.
Leonora Carrington. And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur. 1953
Not at All What We Expected
—After And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur by Leonora Carrington, 1953
We thought we knew the myth,
fearsome beast safe from
us inside the labyrinth, we thought
we understood terror trapped
inside the secret chambers
snaking into more chambers.
What is dangerous is always
in between and in the dark.
But how wrong we were.
To come across a room where
no bright blood bathed the walls
or bones littered the granite floor,
but instead, the Minotaur, small,
gray around the eyes, human hands,
watching us as we saw something
that was not fear at all, but radiance.
And what did we learn of fear?
In the heart of the labyrinth,
where all things hidden stay hidden,
there is a powerful strangeness,
an odd overwhelming light
that does not shudder
in the ongoingness of time,
but waits for someone to witness
this fine and elaborate conjuring.
What we thought we were frightened
of, our ghosts, our dancing ghosts,
our futures in so many crystal balls
rolling around without us, is not
in fact frightening. What did we learn
of fear but at the center of the story
there is something almost feminine
and untamed making even
an endless cage glow?
Why did you choose this work of art?
I have always been drawn to the Surrealists, the way they can change the rules of reality and make the inner world of imagination come to life. This painting haunted me from the first time I saw it. I thought there was something almost revolutionary about it. Distinctly feminist and strong. The painting seemed to be changing the myth of the Minotaur entirely and showing us something we’d never seen before, a feminine side. I couldn’t get over the sense of power this painting holds.
What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I wanted to describe what it might be like to be one of those children who came to the center of the labyrinth. I wanted the idea of fear and cages to be there and then, to mimic what Carrington paints, turn those preconceived notions inside out. I kept thinking of the labyrinth as our own bodies or our own brains and how we think we know who and what we are and yet aren’t we always surprised? What if what we were afraid of this whole time wasn’t scary at all?
Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Her book Bright Dead Things was nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Her work has been supported most recently by a Guggenheim Fellowship. She grew up in Sonoma, California, and now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she writes, teaches remotely, and hosts the critically acclaimed poetry podcast The Slowdown. Her new book of poetry, The Hurting Kind, is forthcoming in May 2022.