The Conditional—Poems for the Future Unknown

By Gillian Kessler:


Poet Ada Limón seems to come to me in times of need again and again. When my mama was dying, Limón’s most recent collection, The Carrying, was the only book I thought to grab before I jumped on the plane. When she was lying in the hospital bed, I read Limón’s The Raincoat” to her, each word exactly perfect for that moment. At that point, my mama was on her way. We spent the better part of a week holding her, talking to her, playing her favorite songs, reading to her. She was unresponsive due to a massive showering of stokes, but my sisters and I know that she was with us for every word, every note.


Ada Limón - Image: Christopher.Michel on Visual Hunt

I recently taught a creativity workshop roughly organized by the ideas of past, present, and future. While the first two days of writing provocations came clearly, the third day, the future, was tough. We are in the midst of a global pandemic and social revolution; everything is wild, and sometimes it’s hard to trust the correct response. I read through various poets, had a smattering of ideas, but none of them felt quite right. A few hours before the workshop, it came to me—Ada for the win, once again. “The Conditional” is a poem that uses repetition and a series of repetitive statements starting with the word “Say” to set a tone of anxiety and unknown.



The Conditional

By Ada Limón


Say tomorrow doesn't come.

Say the moon becomes an icy pit.

Say the sweet-gum tree is petrified.

Say the sun's a foul black tire fire.

Say the owl's eyes are pinpricks.

Say the raccoon's a hot tar stain.

Say the shirt's plastic ditch-litter.

Say the kitchen's a cow's corpse.

Say we never get to see it: bright

future, stuck like a bum star, never

coming close, never dazzling.

Say we never meet her. Never him.

Say we spend our last moments staring

at each other, hands knotted together,

clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.

Say, It doesn't matter.

Say, That would be enough.

Say you'd still want this: us alive,

right here, feeling lucky


The images and repetition get you in the gut, the ending slays with visceral precision. And the structure would be perfect for my adult students looking to take creative risks in via Zoom.  


In class, the responses were beautiful, powerful, and full of the angst and uncertainties of this strange, surreal time. I will post mine plus two more from Weldon Garrett and Elizabeth Gracen.


Inspired by Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”


Say the masks stay forever.

Say you can’t understand a damn word.

Say another star’s stabbed on his way home from the shelter,

His arms flailing to the music with bounce and bop.

Say the wildfires swallow the hillsides and we have to clutch it all and 

Run to the river.


Say the job ends and we fold,

Or the school is always just a giant Zoom and we’re nothing but

Bytes and blips and “Turn your sound on!”


Say the tides rise and the earth falls into the sea and

We’re left lifting each other

Just below the flotsam,

Say we then begin to drift slowly

Down and

Down, 

Say that was all—

Would we be enough?  

The way we come together when the slow finally sets,

The way this time has shown us that 

We are all we have.

—Gillian Kessler




Inspired by Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”

Say I can’t step my next step.

Say I am unable to stop moving uncontrollably. Say I can’t feed myself. And say I can’t keep food in my mouth. Say I know why my family is crying, and I can’t affirm their sadness. Say that I am still and trapped in stillness. Say that, through all this, I never stop reaching for connection. Say that, however it is possible, my loved ones are there beside me accepting me as I am. Weldon Garrett



Inspired by Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”


Say there will never be any good news ever again. Say how that makes you feel like hell. Say that it isn’t true; please say it twice more. Say that the dust of sleep will change it like new fallen snow in the morning .

Say that we get a “do over.” Say that we’ll get it right this time and love each other like we were supposed to.

Say on your mark . . . get set . . . go—and we’re off to start again.

—Elizabeth Gracen

Gillian Kessler is a poet, teacher, and a regular writer for Flapper Press. Her first published book of poems, Lemons and Cement, is available for purchase.

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