716: Without

716: Without

716: Without


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

This is a unique episode today because, instead of telling you a story, or waxing on about nature and poetry and how we must find ways to survive despite the constant chaos of our world, I have some big news. Big news, that as of today, I can finally share. And, I suppose it’s a story too.

About a month ago, I was asked to join a mysterious Zoom meeting for an unknown reason. I was told to log on at a certain time, and I did. There in the virtual room was the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. Along with her team, smiling around her, she offered me the chance to serve as the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States.

Mind you, I was recovering from strep throat, and a little foggy from being sick, and I could barely speak. There are times when words fail even me, and this was one of them. I immediately thought of the Poets Laureate I had known of, read, looked up to in my lifetime: Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, Natasha Trethewey, Juan Felipe Herrera, Tracy K. Smith, and most recently, the powerhouse that is Joy Harjo. A veritable pantheon of poets. Mentors and teachers all.

How does one fathom such a role? To have the chance to serve poetry on such a scale. When I found my words again, I said, yes, of course yes. Soon after, I visited the three enormous buildings of the Library of Congress for an orientation. I saw the ceremonial office in the Jefferson Building and Elizabeth Bishop’s sturdy, but small desk. Orientation felt more like disorientation, but there I was in the largest library in the world that holds more than 173 million items. In my overwhelm, I felt myself searching for something to anchor me. And of course, what anchored me, is what always has: poems.

Today’s poem is by Joy Harjo, the incredible poet and human who served as Poet Laureate for an unprecedented three terms.

by Joy Harjo

The world will keep trudging through time without us

When we lift from the story contest to fly home

We will be as falling stars to those watching from the edge

Of grief and heartbreak

Maybe then we will see the design of the two-minded creature 

And know why half the world fights righteously for greedy masters 

And the other half is nailing it all back together

Through the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless 

Human industry—

Maybe then, beloved rascal

We will find each other again in the timeless weave of breathing

We will sit under the trees in the shadow of earth sorrows 

Watch hyenas drink rain, and laugh.

“Without" by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2021 by Joy Harjo. Originally published in The New Yorker. Used by permission of the poet.