Beginning with her first book Lucky Wreck, published almost ten years ago now, questions have been a dominate feature in Ada Limón’s poetry. Questions that explore memory and identity. Questions used as points of departure. There are sixteen questions in the first ten pages of Lucky Wreck, to give you an idea about the frequency of the poet’s interrogation of the world. Here she is in a long poem “A Little Distantly, As One Should” from that first collection, after a few questioning, self-reflexive stanzas, she directly addresses her uncertainty:
I am obviously unsure of the usefulness
of inevitable things. Even the word
inevitable is awkward and hard to spell.
In her latest collection, the National Book Award finalist Bright Dead Things, it is the answers, sure and hard won from experience, that take center stage. The curious world previously unfolded before her with infinite paths of thought, but now some of those dreaded inevitable things are in the rearview, experienced, known, and articulated.
“The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road,” one of the longer poems towards the end of the book, recounts a tradition with her step-father in which it was the sign of a good day if they spotted a heron on the way to school. Over time, they both began to pretend to see the bird regardless. Now with many bad days behind her, Limón, or Limón’s speaker, knowing that some illusions are worth maintaining, still wants to “point out the heron like I was taught, / still want to slow the car down to see the thing / that makes it all better, the invisible gift, what / we see when we stare long enough into nothing.”
In Bright Dead Things, Limón has moved away from the troubles of the quarter life crisis—finding love, finding oneself, finding one’s way in New York. Somewhere between the landscapes of California and Kentucky, her feet have found the hard earth. She gives us a true, but not uncomplicated love and the brute simplicity of nature and country life, while carrying on her themes of the complexities of ethnicity, desire, and dreams changed mid-course in poems like “Prickly Pear & Fisticuff” and “The Whale & the Waltz Inside of It.” Here she is in “What Remains Grows Ravenous” which chronicles falling in love shortly after the death of a parent:
I thought everything was behind me:
death, and dying, and sickness.
I didn’t know I was changing my life–
that I would have done anything,
that what was left of me would become
so ruthless to survive.
In many senses, these are Blues poems. They confront and acknowledge harsh realities and decide to keep going forward with hope, finding joy and strength in the terrifying reality that we do move on. The poem “In the Country of Resurrection” describes the mercy killing of a possum on the road and ends with these lines:
But that was last night. This morning
the sun is coming alive in the kitchen.
You’ve gone to get us gas station coffee
and there is so much life all over the place.
In Bright Dead Things, we have Limón, who up until this point has proven to be a consummate seeker, instead reveal in plain terms what she has found. It’s not that she has stopped asking questions, though we’re down to only four in the first ten pages of this book. Poems like “The Last Move” are set up on big questions (“What is it to go from a We to an I?”), but go on to attempt an answer. The poem “The Good Fight” is structured entirely around a series of questions and answers.
The seriousness of her inquiries and her thoughtful, often lushly rendered responses point to a shift in confidence and a maturity in her work that is both arresting and beautiful. From the start, Bright Dead Things opens with bravado and wonder. In the poem “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” which describes the power of female racehorses, Limón writes:
d …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.
Don’t you want to believe?
Across Bright Dead Things, Limón proves that heart is there. There is no doubt that she has many more books in her and if her latest is any indication, she will continue to explore new territories both physical and philosophical with a searching mind and transforming sense of understanding.