Review by Adrianna Smith
I read Ada Limón’s fierce new book, Bright Dead Things, in one sitting. I have pressed her poems in the hands of many of my closest friends, and I will continue to do so. Limón is certainly not just a poet for women, but what most energizes her collection is her distinctly female voice.
Limón’s poems range in structure, shifting primarily between the prose and the shorter lyric line, but are almost all told in the first person, often directly to an addressee. This intimacy does not dull over the course of her sixty-two poems. The collection is divided into four sections, roughly following these themes: the thrills and trials of old and present lovers; caring for her dying stepmother amidst old angers never redressed; childhood and growing-into-adulthood memories; and grappling with encounters of race and place in America.
Originally from California, Limón now lives both there and in Kentucky. She received an MFA from New York University in 2001, so it’s no surprise when Brooklyn also makes its cameos in BDT. Place, particularly of images typical to Midwestern American landscapes such as wide skies and horses, consistently grounds her poems.
A Latina, Limón addresses some of the tension of belonging in an America of mixed and changing identities, portrayed most poignantly in her prose poem “Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs”: “I want to be something entirely without words”.
Limón also confronts the restlessness of contemporary America, especially through the lens of an inherited frontier culture. In “Roadside Attractions with the Dogs of America” she personifies herself as a homely house beagle with the “obedient eyes of everyone wanting / to make their own kind of America, / but still be America, too”.
“Somewhere Like Montana”, in addition to being an homage to old female friendship, is about deep-rooted desires to be elsewhere, and to find years later that those old desires of place have come true. Reflecting on what saturation means, Limón writes
of that feeling when you’re really full, or life is full
and you can’t think of anything else that could fit in it,
but then even more sky comes and more days
and there is so much to remember and swallow.
BDT was a finalist for the prestigious 2015 National Book Award. In an interview with the National Book Foundation, Limón recalls writing these poems out of a need to confront what she feared, which is evident in the vulnerability of her poems. “I’d go for walks or drives and ask, ‘What are you scared of?’ and when I found the answer, I’d find the poem”.
And Limón does take us to dark places. Assisting her stepmother, Ma, in the last weeks of her life, Limón remembers that her dying “was all that was happening and happening and happening…After it was done, I couldn’t go back to my life. You understand right?”
Yet even in the midst of death, Limón seeks out examples of resurrections. After unfolding an extended metaphor of the body as a machine, the speaker of “Relentless” corrects herself. “You see: light escapes from a body at night” she tells us, and in the morning, “light comes up/ over the mountains and it is and it is and it is”. This is one of many poignant moments where Limón connects the human with the wild.
The “bright dead things” of the collection’s title refer to the ripped-out carrots of her father’s crop, from “I Remember the Carrots”. Though Limón was scolded for the transgression, she ultimately feels in the right. Rather than be satisfied with “the contentment of the field” she writes: “there are days/ I still want to kill the carrots because I can”.
And this is confidence and spirit that electrifies the collection. Limón beautifully celebrates female swagger. Whether she’s marveling at the “huge beating genius machine” of a lady horse in “How to Triumph Like a Girl”, mimicking the territoriality of a female pit bull in “Service”, or reveling on a girl’s night out in “Nashville After Hours”, she succeeds in powerfully capturing female empowerment:
I won’t deny it: I was there,
standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror,
saying my name like I was somebody.
Limón’s poems are full of life, “glittery and blazing and alive”. Bright Dead Things from Milkweed Editions is Ada Limón’s fourth collection of poetry, which has already received wide critical acclaim in the States. It is my hope that her poems will be shared as and read as urgently in this country too.
Adrianna (Adri) Smith is completing an MLitt in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture. Originally from Washington, D.C., she graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Business Administration. In addition to writing poetry and freelancing, Adri loves to teach and has worked extensively with the Latino community of D.C.