March 2016

Adam Ford


Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Bright Dead Things is the fourth book of poetry by US author Ada Limón, a collection of autobiographical lyrics peppered with the occasional prose poem, and one or two poems with less linear layouts. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, and its first poem, "How to Triumph Like a Girl," won a 2015 Pushcart Prize:

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as easy as taking a nap, or grass.

The poems' relaxed, conversational tone makes them a pleasure to read. Though often the end of a poem arrives more quickly than expected, the overall ease of reading encourages re-readings that reveal the complexity of thought and imagery.

Limón's poetry shares its stories and observations with a whispered honesty that commands attention. Her voice is as natural as a shared conversation, beguiling with a musicality that belies the weight of its revelations. In "The Quiet Machine" she begins by telling us: "I'm learning so many different ways to be quiet," then later in the poem hits us with: "There's how I don't answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I'm not home when people knock."

It's as though there are two voices at work: a public voice relating anecdotes about friends and family, past misadventures and moments of epiphany, and a private voice that holds on to these things in a dogged search for what these things really say about her.

Limón's light touch is an enjoyable counterpoint to the tone of sadness and confusion, of doubt, grief, regret, and wistfulness that permeates these poems. In the face of this loss and uncertainty, however, Limón keeps moving forward, even though she seems unsure why she is doing so. She looks back and reflects on what has gone before, carrying her failures, her doubts and uncertainties with her.

The parenthetical asides, pauses, reversions, clarifications, inexactitudes, and outright lies that are scattered throughout her poems are a tangible manifestation of these doubts and uncertainties. In "In the Country of Resurrection," about finding a half-dead possum on the side of the road, she writes:

The mistake

I made was getting out of the car
(you told me not to), but I wanted to be

sure, needed to know for sure, that it could
not be saved. (Someone else had hit it.)

Bright Dead Things is arranged into four untitled sections that orbit common themes. The book begins with a section focusing on the challenge of moving from New York City to the quiet, wide-open spaces of Kentucky. The second moves on to a sequence about the death of Limón's stepmother, followed by the third, which presents a series of meditations on past relationships. The final section concludes with a series of poems that consider the way geography interfaces with identity.

This arrangement into "chapters" is a common feature of contemporary poetry books, but it would be interesting to know how this collection might have read if these four themes were interwoven instead of being corralled into their own individual components. The loose themes bleed easily into each other thematically when scrutinised. Allowing the poems and themes to commingle within the book as a whole might have captured an even more authentic portrait of the self-second-guessing and confusion Limón depicts.

This is a highly confessional, autobiographical work that can at times feel slightly uncomfortable in a too-much-information sense, but still it feels like there is an element missing from the picture as presented. In stark contrast to the amount of data Limón provides about herself -- her doubts and anxieties, her old relationships, her struggles with the death of family members, her relationship with her brother, past mistakes she's made, lies she's told and still regrets, etc. -- there is little information about her partner, who stands out in the absence of details like a missing tooth whose gap you can't help trying to fit your tongue into.

It seems curious that Limón hasn't put her own tongue into that gap. Bright Dead Things features many poems about the people around her, her friends and family, but there is no poem directly about her strangely missing partner. The most explicit references to her partner are probably in "State Bird," a poem about the house that they share:

whatever state you are, I'll be that state's bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you've gone.

and "The Tree of Fire," in which they make love:

I swear, I'll try harder not to
miss as much: the tree, or how
your fingers under still
sleep-stunned sheets
coaxed all my colors back.

Even these references, though, are described in terms of absence.

Given Limón's decision to open this book with poems that create a palpable empathy for her doubts about the decision to transplant herself from city life to rural, it is curious that none of the poems present a convincing reason for Limón's choosing to stay in the place that seems to make her so sad.

One answer (though not the only one that Limón's poems suggest) would be that it's her love for her partner that keeps her there, but aside from his tangential appearances in absentia, there is nothing here that makes that case directly. Whether this omission is deliberate or not, it creates an intriguing tension throughout the book.

Perhaps she didn't stay. Perhaps, when Limón's bio states that she "lives in Kentucky and California," it is referring to events that happened after the poems in this collection were written, and to a balance between city and rural life that she has achieved for herself after the deep consideration of her life in the country that is reflected in these poems.

None of this is important, or even relevant. The poems in Bright Dead Things are what they are regardless of what is happening in the undocumented part of Limón's life, but this kind of speculation about "how it's going" is a direct manifestation of the empathy that well-executed autobiographical poetry can inspire.

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions
ISBN: 978-1571314710
128 pages