on Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Ada Limón’s poetry recognizes the ways shifting landscapes throw order into chaos. In Bright Dead Things, her fourth collection, the mutable settings—from New York to Kentucky to California—serve to underscore the speaker’s turbulent feelings of loss. Limón’s speaker ties her self-conception to landscape. She says, “This land and I are rewilding” and “Now, we take the moon / into the middle of our brains.” In these and many other moments Limón’s speaker integrates the natural world with her life to comprehend her own mortality.

Limón investigates identification with wildness and, in doing so, offers restorative glimpses of beauty. In the first poem of the book, she compares her “delicate skin” to that of “dangerous” horses, saying she is “giant with power, heavy with blood.” In the prose poem “Mowing,” she watches her neighbor cutting his grass and says, “I wish I could be silent more, be more tree than anything else.” Limón examines the natural world as a reflection of what she is and also a model of what she might be.

Both a National Book Critics Circle and National Book Award finalist, Bright Dead Things follows a sorrowful yet celebratory speaker through the loss of her stepmother and a disruptive move. In “The Last Move” Limón thinks about her former apartment in Brooklyn “where everything / was clean and contained” and in her new home in Kentucky she makes “the house so clean (shine and shine and shine).” Limón uses cleaning to demonstrate her attempts at reclaiming the past. And in “Down Here” she discusses an unfamiliar saying she hears in Kentucky: “I hate it for you.” Deciphering the meaning of this colloquialism, Limón sees a beauty in the connection it represents. She says,

It means, if you’re alone
when love is all around,
We all tip our lonely hats
In one un-lonely sound.

Limón’s narrator is both confident and proud: she finds consolation in surprise, seeks solace in the messy interpersonal, and is curious about the ways a desire for order can fail. “In the Country of Resurrection,” for instance, she describes an incident where she and her partner had to kill a dying possum that was hit by another car. Limón writes of how the morning after “the sun is coming alive in the kitchen. / You’ve gone to get us gas station coffee / and there is so much life all over the place.” Speaking to her partner, Limón tries to reconcile the hectic danger with the beauty she sees still “coming alive.”

Bright Dead Things connects intimate tragedy to urban environments as well as to the natural world. William Stafford says in his poem “On Being Local” that “All events and experiences are local, somewhere,” and in Limón’s poetry the “local” is experienced in her relation to place and personal history. In “The Riveter” Limón’s speaker assembles a “team” of “Rosies of know-how,” those who step up to the demands of witnessing death with a factory-like precision. Ultimately, she yields any notion of control to the disorder of her stepmother’s passing: “Her job, / her work, was to let the machine / of survival break down.” The speaker knows she will witness the absence of mechanized order, that her stepmother’s death is a return to wildness. The poem connects this loss to a twentieth-century archetype of feminine strength.

Limón’s depictions of singular power and chaos always strive toward celebration. In an interview published on the National Book Award website, Limón says she seeks to “[find] a language for joy,” asserting that “It was easier to go into the pitch-black caves, to plummet into the colder, harder core of the self, than to risk admitting that there is pleasure in this life, that being alive in and of itself is an ecstatic thing.” Limón is above all interested in the unexpected discovery of contentment and in the ways joy can agitate grief, if only momentarily. “What Remains Grows Ravenous” details a new love that coincides with the stepmother’s death: “I thought everything was behind me” and “Look at us, living!” The poem’s voice is astonished to find bliss within such darkness.

Estrangement and delight course through the poems of Bright Dead Things. In “Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston” disparate landscapes become connected through story. The speaker hears about the Boston marathon bombing and watches swallows building nests, noting “How / masterful and mad is hope.” Occasionally wry, Limón links time and distance. Moving through geography, her poems also embody youth and experience, demonstrating a layered grief. In “Field Bling” Limón says, “It’s been a long time / since I’ve wanted to die,” showing the passage of time; she also says she wants to see how her “light flies all / on its own, neon / and bouncy like a / wannabe star.” With such spare, crystalline language, Limón uncovers the mercies inherent to misfortune; the poems in Bright Dead Things endear themselves to the reader with their vulnerable astonishment and furious optimism.

 

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Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015. 128 pp. $16.00, paper.

 

Lindsay Tigue won the Iowa Poetry Prize for her first book, System of Ghosts (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She writes poetry and prose and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. Tigue, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholar and Vermont Studio Center fellow, holds an MFA from Iowa State University and is currently a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Georgia.