In the first poem of the much-anticipated new collection from poet Ada Limón, The Hurting Kind, Limón wonders: “Why am I not allowed / delight? A stranger writes to request my thoughts / on suffering”. The collection that follows is Limón’s response to the stranger, and an exhortation to the reader: as much about the delights of our convoluted existence and universe as it is about the suffering that all living entities endure.
This collection is divided into four sections—seasons—which immerse us in the natural world and underscore the circularity of life. Thematically, this is ground that Limón has covered in past collections, yet—again like each season—it feels decidedly new, and deeply generative. Limón calibrates exteriority and interiority to great effect, shifting in and out of distance and proximity, from the vast span of nature to the minutiae of our lives. Some experiences look clearer in the moment, and others from a distance, as in this excerpt from “Joint Custody” she re-examines sensitive memories of childhood:
“…But let me say, I was taken
back and forth on Sundays and it was not easy
but I was loved each place. And so I have
two brains now. Two entirely different brains.
The one that always misses where I’m not,
and the one that is so relieved to finally be home.”
That Limón is able to inhabit both past and present in the same moment is part of what makes her poetry so evocative; that she can express it so finely is what makes her an exceptional poet. We imagine that time is linear, but for the poet—for all of us—much like memory, it is a trickster that directs us, bemuses us, regardless of our efforts to control or contain it.
At this juncture in my life—which some might generously call midway though the untrod path ahead is much shorter in relation to what is behind—there are bittersweet moments that call up recognition like a brutally honest magnifying glass to the face. In “Salvage” the speaker stares at a tree, contemplating the “scorch of time” and how it changed her “righteousness,” and how:
“…I miss who I was. I miss who we all were,
before we were this: half-alive to the brightening sky,
half-dead already. I place my hand on the unscarred
bark that is cool and unsullied, and because I cannot
apologize to the tree, to my own self I say, I am sorry.
I am sorry I have been so reckless with your life.
Through lyrical, accretive repetitions—yet another callback to seasons—Limón often uses names as incantations: categorizing flowers, detailing memories, kaleidoscopically elegizing our lost ones and keeping them alive. In “Forsythia” she writes of:
“…the way I
remember the name forsythia is that when my stepmother, Cynthia, was dying,
that last week, she said lucidly but mysteriously, More yellow. And I thought
yes, more yellow, and nodded because I agreed. Of course, more yellow. And so
now in my head, when I see that yellow, tangle, I say, For Cynthia, for Cynthia,
forsythia, forsythia, more yellow. It is night now, and the owl never comes. Only
more of night, and what repeats in the night.”
Where are the owls, those harbingers of protection and predation, symbols of death and wisdom who carry messages from the spirit world to ours? And what repeats in the night? Our fears, repetitions of memories we can’t forget, and the ghosts of what haunts us, and who we miss the most. Limón expertly mines—and divines from—ancestry, asking at the outset: “What is lineage, / if not a gold thread of pride and guilt?”
In all her work, Limon examines language, often questioning rubrics and those who establish them. She is both icon and revolutionary, breaking arbitrary rules, especially if they seek to contain what is poetry, and who it is for; here in a section of the title poem:
“A famous poet said he never wanted to hear
another poem about a grandmother or a grandfather.
“After her husband of seventy-six years has died, my grandmother
(yes, I said it, grandmother, grandmother) leans to me and says,
Now teach me poetry.”
Perhaps none of us are ready for—can truly comprehend—poetry, until we resemble trees: the long-lived, the resilient, the survivors, whose ragged external barks hide the many scars of years gone past; brutal winters, delicate springs.
There is a gorgeous irony in her artful and heartful work: she eloquently expresses the limitations of language to capture the most complicated aspects of our existence, whether it is nature or love or grief. In “Drowning Creek”, the speaker reflects upon the incertitude of our existence, but in a manner that goes directly to the core:
“…The bird doesn’t call the creek
that name. The bird doesn’t call it anything.
I’m almost certain, though I am certain
of nothing. There is a solitude in this world
I cannot pierce. I would die for it.”
In the final poem of the collection, “The End of Poetry”, Limón interrogates both the profession of being a poet and the occupation of being a human being, buffeted by external forces and the demands to categorize, to strategize, to endure. The tension of this struggle feels particularly familiar given what we have experienced thus far in the twenty-first century. Limón articulates, as a poet and person, so much of what I’m feeling now—what I dare say we’re all feeling—and offers up a solution:
“and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.”
Is it as simple as that? Communion? Physical contact? I don’t know, but it’s spring here now, and walking across Central Park while on the phone to a beloved murmuring ease to my sore heart, water-soaked blossoms fell on me and I overheard a little boy entreating his father to jump in a puddle. In that moment, I was nominally in this difficult, so often awful, world of ours, and simultaneously in the broader universe where I am connected to more than the details of a day or the entirety of a life. The contents of this intimate invocation of a collection offer a similar engagement. Limón explores the inevitable losses of our lives—like those soggy buds—but is equally engaged with hope, growth, renewal and always, love. I found myself returning to this excerpt from the end of the title poem, after yet another brutal news cycle, with an uncertain future ahead of us all: “You can’t sum it up, a life. […] Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?”
Through this stunning collection, throughout her brilliant career, Limón manages the impossible—summing up life—from a multitude of perspectives, unforgettable images, and with verse and silence. The seasons end, lives end, love ends, and then it all begins again. Therein lies our grief. Therein lies our hope.
The Hurting Kind
by Ada Limón
Published May 10, 2022
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.