How to Triumph Like a Girl
I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to tug my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.
“How to Triumph Like a Girl” was first published in Gulf Coast and is from Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Ada Limón. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org. Order Bright Dead Things here.
Listen to the author reading “How to Triumph like a Girl” here.
Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.
I wrote this poem about the day before the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, which is the most important race for three year-old fillies. The poem began from the idea of how strange it is to find yourself rooting for a female animal simply because it was female. But the kinship I felt was undeniable. When I’m feeling the most lost, or at my weakest, animals ignite a sense of much-needed power in me, a fierceness I desire. So, in many ways, this is a poem for women, for girls, or for anyone who’s in need of a reason to fight their way across that finish line.
Notes on “How to Triumph Like a Girl“
This week’s poem is from Bright Dead Things, a finalist for both the National Book Critic Circle Award and the National Book Award in 2015; the poem itself won a Pushcart Prize the same year. Bright Dead Things is arranged into four untitled sections of poems that focus on: the challenge of moving from an urban setting in New York City to a decidedly rural one in Kentucky; the death of Limón’s stepmother; relationships, love, and sexuality; and the interface of geography and identity. The book explores how we build our identities from where we live and whom we live with, and makes a claim on life, juxtaposed always with death. The poems speak in a voice as natural and intimate as a conversation between friends, an effective counterpoint to the doubt, regret, grief and even despair also expressed in the book.
Critics love Bright Dead Things, calling it musical, emotional, and honest in poems that are muscular and unflinching. Like them, I appreciated Limón’s accessibility and willingness to buck the contemporary trend of a poetics that is too often ironic, impersonal, and difficult to the point of opacity. Unabashed about wearing her heart on her sleeve, Limon says outright in one interview: “My confession: most of my poems are autobiographical. The strange, twisty narrative of the inner voice, the voice underneath the voice, is always what fascinates me and keeps me writing.” [Interview by Compose Journal, on 4/21/14.] This is not to say the poems lack texture, vivid imagery, or depth. The voice in Bright Dead Things speaks with quiet authority about universal issues like identity, home, love, and death in moments observed with intensity, precision and complexity. As we saw in Jane Hirshfield’s poem a few weeks ago, what is said is not simple even though how it is said may seem so.