THE WONDERFUL KIND
By Ada Limon
The poet Ada Limón is a welcome companion in this phase of the pandemic. She writes to combat isolation and to usher in change. Her poems presume loneliness and reach out to the reader to seal a kind of virtual community. Her hope is tentative, hedging. Limón’s comfort is small but powerful, and when her poems look to the future, it usually serves the purpose of creating a connection in the here and now: “Would you refuse me if I asked / pointed you to the horizon again? , to tell me/something was worth waiting for?” That ‘you’ is all important in Limón’s work – a wide-open lover that we are, of course. Such a generous embrace is comforting, and it is no small literary achievement.
After publishing her first two books with very small presses, Limón hit the national scene with “Sharks in the Rivers” (2010). Her next collection, “Bright Dead Things” (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Carrying” (2018) won the last prize; it is a heartbreaking book, Limón at her most vulnerable, confronted with a parade of life’s disappointments large and small, such as the inability to conceive a child, with determination, wisdom and generous openness. Commenting on a friend embracing the wonders of parenthood, Limón writes, “We’ve been trying for a long time, been sad, been happy, / that maybe all I can make is / love and art.”
“The Carrying” was a clear breakthrough, in which Limón mastered her unwavering gaze and put her considerable empathy at the service of her readers. Her new book, “The Hurting Kind,” strikes me as a transitional work, less sure of itself and its purpose than its predecessor, but it also tries some new things, including longer poems. As a pandemic book, “The Hurting Kind” has a bit of blurry focus and a small population — a mate, a dog, a cat, and the squirrels, birds, and groundhogs visible through the window. There are a few poems that don’t quite fly, land too quickly with a sentimental or overly hopeful conclusion, or go too far for emotional weight, as in these lines about fishing: “Do I have to apologize here? Not / only for the fishes, but for the whole lake, land, not only for me / but for the generations of plunder and disappear.” The apology is too broad – yes, we are guilty of great harm, but “the fish” is not the right confessor.
And yet I find that I soon forget my little scruples, I am so grateful for Limón’s powerfully attentive eye. There are many wonderful poems here and a handful of real masterpieces. For example, the book’s long title poem turns a brush of sentimentality into something utterly surprising:
Before my grandfather died, I asked him what kind?
of the horse he grew up with. He said,
Just a horse. My horse, with such tenderness it
rubbed the bones in my ribs all wrong.
I’ve always been too sensitive, a cryer
from a long line of howlers.
I’m the hurtful kind. I keep looking for evidence.
This should fall flat – I don’t know this man; why should i worry? – but I just can’t walk away from that sentence: “Just a horse. My horse.“It is music – Limón’s excellent ear for the rhythm of speech and the sounds of sentences, the repetition of ‘horse’, the five stressed syllables grouped in three and two – that elevates this above sentimentality, which leaves us his desire and hers. Feeling Sometimes the deepest truth you can admit is that the past is irreparable, although it never seems far away.