I am driving to work with the radio tuned to NPR. It’s the only thing that keeps my attention during the long drives to and from my factory job in Mentor. When I turn it on, I hear the voices of two women beneath the crackle of radio static. One voice, distinctly beautiful, is reciting a poem so think with imagery, I almost choked on it. I mean that is the most flattering way possible. This woman’s voice coupled with the lines she read transfixed me.
The host chimed in to remind the listeners that they are listening to Here and Now on NPR’s Cleveland affiliate. She is interviewing the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey – who is coming up on the end of her time in that position. Ah! That makes sense.
The poem that had my attention was titled “LIMEN”, it’s from Domestic Work: Poems, a collection I now feel I must obtain. A Limen, Natasha explains, is “the physical threshold of a door, but it’s also the threshold to an emotional or physiological state”. You can hear her smile when she makes this little caveat: “I didn’t know what the word meant until I wrote the poem, which is one of the joys of writing poetry.” The poem lingers on this image of a woodpecker, outside the narrator’s window:
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line — each one
a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else — not simply
the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.
“Limen” from “Domestic Work: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey.
Copyright © 2000 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.
There’s not a lot for me to analyze here. The poem is very beautifully written, and yet very straightforward and accessible. You can see a lot of craft in it, but you can’t see any of the seams. She compares the woodpecker to a doorknocker, and in this way, this woodpecker and the tree it is “worrying” provide that threshold the title is referencing that lies between the narrator, presumably Natasha herself, and her dead mother. She shows us how the clothes hanging on the line, act as a veil between the two worlds, a “thin white screen”.
The woodpecker, like Natasha’s narrator, is looking for something more than what the tree can provide. The woodpecker’s tireless work flutters not only the green hearts of the catalpa tree, but also Natasha’s heart as well, which is green and fluttering because it is renewed by the pleasant memory of her mother being brought back to her.
The poem lingers within me all day long. I keep returning to that image of the woodpecker as a doorknocker, thinking about limen. As I piece together the plastic cardboard in front of me into its desired shape, my mind is in the world of this gorgeous poem. I can’t shake the thoughts about the wonderful poet with a beautiful reading voice. I must learn more about this woman, and her work. For now, I am happy with the one gift I found when I gazed through the static, but like Natasha’s determined woodpecker, I will keep digging…