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Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Reviewed by Stephanie Glazier

May 28, 2016

Bright Dead Things

Bright Dead Things

by Ada Limón

Milkweed Editions, 2015

I’ve felt the strange envy Ada Limón names in “I Remember the Carrots,” the poem from which her fourth collection draws its title: jealousy of the wild order on earth. Recounting that she pulled up her father’s carrot crop, she writes: “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.” Throughout the book, Limón struggles between oneness with nature and fury that she cannot ultimately, fully, have such a peace.

In Bright Dead Things, we read poems of present grief, of her as a young besotted woman, stories of domestic happiness, of failure in and gratitude for love: the poet seems a woman in the middle of her life, reckoning her desires, for belonging, for victory, for getting the dead back. Limón’s poems read as if written by the daughter of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry—spiritually attuned and redolent with blood. Instead of the poems ending in any settled wisdom, there’s consistently an uplift at the end of her works: as if a breath in. Here in “The Wild Divine” is a teenaged couple sitting in a yard after sex, when the neighbor’s horse wanders over: “and I thought, this was what it was to be blessed— / to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond / the body and its needs, but went straight from wild / thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.” I’m thinking now too of the poem that brought me to Limón’s work years ago: “Return to Rush and Flutter,” a beautiful sonnet which closes, “Go bury / your head in the tough and wasted / weeds so you can hear the beating / deepen, the blazing suddenness of / a wound overcome by wonder.” “State Bird” (in this collection) works similarly, and is one of the highly crafted poems of brevity the New Yorker (where the poem first appeared) loves to publish. “But love, I’ll concede this: / whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird, / the loud, obvious blur of song people point to / when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.”

I know her as a poet of strange lyrical play, heavy internal rhyme that’s idiosyncratic to be sure but also bewildering: it shakes up my ideas of poetic diction; the language in Limón’s poems is more than surprising, it’s often dissociative. It’s what we need more of in contemporary American poetry, it has no formula but rather, each poem asks itself what it wants and goes to its own limit. “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road” has the song-like cadence and anti-climax of Larry Levis, whom Limón has taken the book’s epigraph from. The book’s longer poems, as in “Someplace Like Montana” and “What Remains Grows Ravenous,” are a bit anecdotal and read like emotional patchwork—not all of the poems are tremendously successful, but I’m consistently attracted to their freedom of voice.

There are many poems in the volume that seem to be flights of fancy and then deepen—“Field Bling” describes fireflies at her road’s edge: “I call them, / field bling. / I call them, / fancy creepies. / It’s been a long time / since I’ve wanted to die, / it makes me feel / like taking off / my skin suit / and seeing how / my light flies all / on its own, neon / and bouncy like a / wannabe star.” The poem isn’t one of the book’s stronger pieces, but I’m attracted to it for its simplicity and emotional breadth—and the bit of relative levity it provides next to a poem called “In the Country of Resurrection.” In a recent post on her blog, Limón says she wrote this book for people who don’t usually read poems. And while there are many poems where her formal excellence shines, there are many like the above that rely simply on observation and turn. And these poems satisfy me: the revelations in Limón’s work are often self-revelatory, and are accordingly intimate, so that the experience of reading them feels nicely voyeuristic. The book’s opening poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” invites us to imagine her a “lady horse”: “Don’t you want to believe it? / Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see / the huge beating genius machine / that thinks, no, it knows, / it’s going to come in first.” I adore this intimate pride—more of this in my life.

Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat says she is unable to make a work that doesn’t contain both beauty and violence. Bright Dead Things, as the title suggests, holds closely the weight of the dark and the light. In “Torn” we have a dead snake on a road, which she uses as an allegory for the human condition. Here again is her signature strangeness of sound that we hear incrementally throughout the collection and here, in a triptych, imploring us to “Believe it is the mother and the father. / Believe it is the mouth and the words. / Believe it is the sin and the sinner— / the tempting, the taking, the apple, the fall, / every one of us guilty, the story of us all.”

In a moment of extreme loneliness last year I called my closest brother and he told me, “You live where there are mountains now, go put yourself next to one and remember that you belong to something.” Limón’s poetry returns me to this most cathartic advice. She puts us in congress with her, with the field: all of us, striving animals.

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Stephanie Glazier’s poems appear in the Iraq Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Fourth River and others. She has been a Lambda Fellow in poetry and holds an MFA from Antioch University LA. You can learn more about her work at stephanieglazier.com. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.