Like much of A. R. Ammons’s poetry, “The City Limits” explores the uneasy relationship between modern civilization and the natural world. The images that Ammons uses in this poem, such as his consideration of the sound of “birds’ bones” or of the “glow-blue” of the bodies of flies, make readers aware of the subtle things in the natural world that ordinarily would go unnoticed. He also draws readers’ attention to dark, fearsome, and unpleasant aspects of the world around them, such as the “guts of natural slaughter” that flies feed on and the “dark work of the deepest cells,” an allusion to cancer. It is typical of Ammons’s poetry that he is able to show the duality of the way that humans view nature. After making his readers uncomfortable, Ammons ends by making a convincing case that understanding can make fear of nature “calmly turn to praise.”
This poem was first published in 1971, when Ammons’s reputation as a major American poet was already established. It is available in his Collected Poems, 1951–1971. For the following thirty years, before his death in 2001, Ammons continued to be an innovator, changing styles and producing a varied legacy of poems ranging from book-length to just a few lines long. Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, he was considered to be a central figure among the growing number of poets who embrace the spiritual aspects of science and nature.
The first stanza of “The City Limits” does not consist of just one unit of language: it starts with a conjunctive phrase, “When you consider,” and finishes that idea in the middle of line 3, starting another phrase, again with the words “when you consider,” before the stanza’s end. By compiling one incomplete thought upon another before coming out with the main grammatical point, the poem goads readers to guess what they are supposed to find out in the end after they have considered all of the things being listed.
In this first stanza, readers are told that the poem’s point will come out after they have considered a phenomenon that is defined as “the radiance.” Radiance can be used to refer to light, and it can also sometimes refer to heat. It is first clearly identified as light in line 3, which says that the radiance is excluded from areas that are “overhung or hidden.” Since the radiance is blocked out by overhangs, readers can assume that it comes from above, like sunlight.
The second phrase submitted for readers’ consideration has been introduced in line 3, but it is fully realized in lines 4 through 5. Here, the poem brings up the image of “birds’ bones.” It mixes sensory images by bringing up the sound of the bones in line 4 and considers how that sound exists within the visual realm of light. The understatement “no awful noise” seems to imply that the beating of birds’ wings does make a sound, and that it is in fact unpleasant, but that it just does not reach the level of “awful.” This is just one way in which the poem shows an acceptance of the harshness of nature. In line 5, there is a contrast drawn between the heights that birds could reach in flight and the fact that they spend their time in the sun low near the earth.
The end of this stanza repeats the phrase that started the poem, “When you consider the radiance.” It changes direction after that one introductory phrase, though. Instead of going on to identify the radiance, as it did in the first line, line 6 brings up a moral judgement, guilt. Ending with the phrase “the guiltiest” draws attention to the concept of guilt, and it calls on readers’ curiosity to find out what guilty thing or things this radiance is examining.
In saying that the “radiance” that shines from above can look into the heart, this poem plays with the idea of mixed metaphors. Before this stanza, the radiance has been used to mean the sun; the heart, however, is not exposed to sunshine. Therefore,...
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