On the bookshelf
The hurtful kind
By Ada Lemon
Mlikweed: 112 pages, $22
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Ada Limón opens her sixth book of verse, “The Hurting Kind,” with an epigraph by Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik: “Although it is late, although it is night, / and you are not able. // Sing as if nothing had happened. // Nothing is bad.” It’s a striking set of lines, especially in the present day, where reality itself seems to have slipped. The lingering effects of the pandemic, the fallout from the 6 January, the draft decision that could upset Roe against Wade – it seems impossible to imagine that we will ever experience anything but upheaval or worse.At the same time, what other choice do we have but to live?
The poems in “The Hurting Kind” embody such existential tension: the terror of dislocation and loneliness, the intention to record (or see) things as they are. Divided into four sections, each representing a season, the book offers reflections on nature; about love and family; and more particularly on isolation, including that of confinement. “I’m the wounded type,” Limón acknowledges in the outstanding title poem. “I keep looking for evidence.” For proof, yes – proof of life, on the one hand, but also proof of life, the commitment to face each day, each circumstance, as it presents itself.
“It’s been a year / since I’ve seen him in person,” she recalled in “My Father’s Mustache.” “I miss the way he points / to his apple trees and his smooth face / which no longer has the mustache I loved. / As a child, I cried once when he shaved it. Even then, / I was too attached to this life. The name of the poem is instructive: it is an elegy to absence in its many forms. And yet, what is absence if not a different presence? , I was brave, but I got so tired of the danger,” says Limón in “I Wanted Clarity in Light of My Lack of Light,” whose title borrows a line from Pizarnik. amid the constant sounds of war.”
The subtext here is difficult. Pizarnik died by suicide in 1972, aged 36. It makes her just one more ghost in a collection imbued with them. “Today is a haunting,” writes Limón in “The Magnificent Frigatebird”. And: “We swallow dead things.” At the same time, “The Hurting Kind” is a book of living language – and nowhere more so than in the way the words bring the poems to life.
“The Magnificent Frigatebird” represents a typical example; it begins with a question (“Is it good to start with the obvious?” and a warning (“A mentor once said, You can’t start a poem with a man looking / out the window. Too many men looking out the window”) before becoming specific and pointed. The key is the language, which saturates the poem as nuance and also breath.
The title, for example, refers to the “great seabirds…with an eight-foot wingspan and gigantic in their assured soaring flight” that Limón once observed in the South Atlantic; she only learns their name afterwards. “It looked like this enormity of a bird had named itself,” she says, emphasizing the magnificence of both the creature and its name. “What a pleasure to say, I am wonderful. … It makes me want to give all my loves the adjectives they deserve.
All his loves, yes – grandparents and in-laws and relatives, friends and partners, romantics and otherwise. “I think of road trips / from Brooklyn to Cape Town”, writes the poet in “Blowing on the Wheel”, “…or to Stockbridge this winter / with H and his sister and his cousin / … And j accidentally said, Have a Norman Mailer / Christmas and not a Norman Rockwell Christmas / and we laughed at the sadness of a Norman Mailer / Christmas.
It’s a living riff, especially because it’s funny; I love a poem that makes me laugh. But let’s not forget the technical prowess: the flow of images, one inside the other, the echoes that almost resonate like oblique rhymes. All these “Christmas”, all three… they are added to a series of refrains. The effect is to anchor us in the specificity of the moment, the specificity of the scene.
I know: scene is a strange word to use when it comes to a poem, but for Limón’s work, it seems right. It may be related to the prose she wrote both as a freelance writer and journalist. She called her National Book Award shortlisted 2015 collection “Bright Dead Things” “the by-product of a failed novel.” Her 2018 follow-up, “The Carrying,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, is a multi-part meditation on fertility and caring for aging parents, among other issues: life in its most concrete terms. Throughout his work, the language is direct and unadorned while being playful and full of unexpected turns. Something similar is true of “The Hurting Kind,” which is a quieter book — but no less ferocious for being.
All of this comes to a point in the closing poem, the (perhaps) aptly named “The End of Poetry”. Here Limón complicates much of what has come before in this collection, his attention to nature and distance – to expectation, really. Now she returns to the consolations of “bony and titmouse and sunflower,” as well as “kneeling and rising and gazing/inward and gazing up, …enough/of mother and child and child.” father and child / and enough of pointing at the world, weary / and desperate, enough of brutality and frontier, / enough of can you see me, can you hear me.
It’s an amazing way to end the book, because of the language again – could there be a better pun than ‘world, tired’? — and also because of the insistence that language is no longer enough. When Limón exclaims, in the last line of the poem and the collection, “I ask you to touch me”, she is writing in the darkness of the pandemic, but she is also touching on something more universal and profound. What are words worth if they can’t help bridge the gap between us? It’s a question many of us ask ourselves as we try to navigate this fallen world.
Ulin is the former editor and book reviewer of The Times.