This is a word that lumbers, or has at best a combo sound, somewhere between nimble and bimbo. And yet if you look closely you may find that it borders on something sublime. It may not seem an edgy word, but it is imbued with a limber liminality.
Come, come see what I’m talking about. Look into my eye. Or yours, in a mirror. Or your lover’s. The pupil is the core, the trunk. Around it is the iris, like so many limbs. Or it may be a head, and the iris a halo – a nimbus. Do you see the line where the iris meets the white? This is the limbus.
To be more accurate, the limbus is the border between the cornea and the sclera (the sclera is the white, and the cornea is the front of the lens). It is a ring, and on some people there is a pronounced darker band at the edge of the iris – a limbal ring, a youthful mark often imitated in coloured contacts. But that is not all a limbus is.
No, think of the eye as a volcano, about to erupt: a limbus is also the edge of a volcano crater. Drink deep of the eye and be intoxicated: the limbus is the rim of a wine-bowl. Or is that iris the beautiful fluttering petal of a flower? Its edge is, again, a limbus.
Limbus is Latin for ‘border, edge, fringe’, you see. It has gained these English uses from that. But the Latin word also has an inflected form that has become a word in English: limbo, that border region of hell, where the innocent unbaptized are (so it has been said) sent – little babies taken too soon. Not condemned to eternal damnation, but not allowed into eternal bliss; simply held in between forever by words unspoken. Like a look into an eye that does not reveal what lies behind: is it rejection or acceptance, volcanic fury or intoxicating bliss, halo or ring of fire? It is forever unanswering. Can you, trapped by the limbal ring, dance a limbo and pass underneath it?