Notes on the Below
—For Mammoth Cave National Park
Humongous cavern, tell me, wet limestone, sandstone caprock,
bat-wing, sightless translucent cave shrimp,
this endless plummet into more of the unknown,
how one keeps secrets for so long.
All my life, I’ve lived above the ground,
car wheels over paved roads, roots breaking through concrete,
and still I’ve not understood the reel of this life’s purpose.
Not so much living, but a hovering without sense.
What’s it like to be always night? No moon, but a few lit up
circles at your many openings. Endless dark, still time
must enter you. Like a train, like a green river?
Tell me what it is to be the thing rooted in shadow.
To be the thing not touched by light (no that’s not it)
to not even need the light? I envy; I envy that.
Desire is a tricky thing, the boiling of the body’s wants,
more praise, more hands holding the knives away.
I’ve been the one who has craved and craved until I could not see
beyond my own greed. There’s a whole nation of us.
To forgive myself, I point to the earth as witness.
To you, your Frozen Niagara, your Fat Man’s Misery,
you with your 400 miles of interlocking caves that lead
only to more of you, tell me,
what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing.
Ruler of the Underlying, let me
speak to both the dead and the living as you do. Speak
to the ruined earth, the stalactites, the eastern small-footed bat,
to honor this: the length of days. To speak to the core
that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s
shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.
Copyright © 2016 by Ada Limón. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 29, 2016, this poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.
“This poem came out of a recent, almost urgent, need to point back to the earth. We have done so much harm in this life—to one another, to the ground we think we own—and I wanted the chance to speak directly to a sacred place and look for answers, or to simply lay my buzzing mind down at the mercy of the earth’s core.”