Book Review: Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is musical, emotional, and honest, its verse muscular and unflinching. Limón’s wears her heart on her sleeve, and in this collection that heart takes the form of a huge, pounding horse’s heart. In fact, images of horses and hearts, often together, appear multiple times in the collection, perhaps most notably in the opening poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl:”
…………………….As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Moments like this underscore what appears to be a key source of tension in the collection’s work. The poems are interested in the balance between internal and external loci of control, how someone may want to be known and identified on their terms, not lumped into categories and stereotypes. In “The Last Move,” another early piece in the collection, the speaker seems to be conflicted about the role she’s found herself in. With her significant other in Kansas, she attempts to reconcile her own ambition with the accoutrements of domesticity she finds herself surrounded by. The poem is in turns self-mocking (“I put my apron on as a joke and waltzed around carrying / a zucchini like a child”), and earnestly introspective—here, reflecting on a story wherein a woman’s body was found at the bottom of a cistern:
After that, when the water would act weird,
spurt, or gurgle, I’d imagine a body, a woman, a me
just years ago, freely single, happily unaccounted for,
at the lowest curve of the water tower.
Yes, and over and over,
I’d press her limbs down with a long pole
until she was still.
Limón’s poetry regularly rebukes the ironic mode commonly employed by a number of her contemporaries, and opts for unabashed and strong emotional language. This is not to say that her verse lacks texture or vivid imagery; rather, moments in Limón’s poetry are heightened by the combination of lexical playfulness and emotional depth: “The word widower looks like window. / / Something you can see yourself in, in the dark” (from “What Remains Grows Ravenous”). Some of Limón’s most striking music happens when speaking about loss:
to have you as a mother figure
all growing up: you the keeper of lists,
you the flag in the moon, and the moon,
you the garden and the grave,
you who I held as the last air left.
Later in the above poem, titled “In a Mexican Restaurant I Recall How Much You Upset Me,” Limón reins in two powerful emotions and wrestles them together into a illuminating, physical (and affecting) metaphor:
…………………………………You’re the muscle
I cut from the bone and still the bone
remembers, still it wants (so much, it wants)
the flesh back, the real thing,
if only to rail against it, if only
to argue and fight, if only to miss
a solve-able absence.
Bright Dead Things is organized into four untitled sections, each of which contain a number of poems that seem to revolve around common themes or ideas. “In a Mexican Restaurant…” takes place in the second section, which deals largely with loss; the third section includes poems on love, relationships and sexuality that crackle with honesty, vulnerability, and strength in equal measure, and humor (“I imagine the insides of myself sometimes— / part female, part male, part terrible dragon,” from “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds”); and the fourth is populated with travel, as well as thoughts about family/heritage—and the connection between the two is treated with significance.
The opening section comes at a blistering pace, concerned heavily with identity and self-actualization, as in the stunning “I Remember the Carrots,” which gives the collection its title:
And so I ripped them all out. I broke the new roots
and carried them, like a prize, to my father
who scolded me, rightly, for killing his whole crop.
I loved them: My own bright dead things.
I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong.
Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented
the contentment of the field. Why must we practice
this surrender? What I mean is: there are days
I still want to kill the carrots because I can.
Limón acknowledges the unstoppable forces of nature, but is not afraid to try and harness them in a poem, making her verse regularly hum with energy. In “The Riveter,” where the speaker finds some comfort in learning about and planning how to handle the practicalities of various stages of her stepmother’s impending death, Limón is able to show us past what we can control, and channel something of acceptance:
But what I forgot
was that it was our plan,
not hers, not the one doing the dying,
this was a plan for those
who still had a next.
See, our job was simple:
keep on living. Her job was harder,
the hardest. Her job,
her work, was to let the machine
of survival break down,
make the factory fail,
to know that this war was winless,
to know that she would singlehandedly
destroy us all.
We can’t go more than a few weeks lately without a new literary “think-piece” lamenting the state of today’s poetry, criticizing contemporary work for being disaffected, complacent and un-ambitious—and while there are many reasons we can (and should) pity the authors of those articles, a big one is that they clearly are not familiar with Ada Limón’s poetry. The poems in Bright Dead Things give off their own light, moving with terrific force and speed. Without sacrificing a terrific eye for detail and image, they draw out the emotions that charge us and the landscape we cover between homes: the mountains, the desert, or the “clear zipper of stream.”
Brandon Amico is from New Hampshire. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Booth, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, New Ohio Review, Phoebe, Slice, Verse Daily, and other journals. You can follow him on Twitter, @amicob, or visit him at www.brandonamico.com.