Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
2015, 101 pages, paperback, $16
Limón starts strong, explicit: “How To Triumph Like a Girl.” The first poem in Bright Dead Things prepares us for a collection concerned with nature, womanhood, and power. The speaker watches the Kentucky Oaks horse race, the sister race of the Derby. She is in awe of the horses, their “lady horse swagger” and how effortlessly it seems to come to them. She feels “as if this big / dangerous animal is also a part of me” and knows she’s “going to come in first.”
But throughout the collection, the speaker has to acclimate to spaces in which she can’t be the big dangerous animal. After leaving New York City for Central Kentucky, she feels trapped in her new home. She spends her time cleaning, wanting for more, feeling unimportant. The speaker also copes with the coming death of her stepmother. She calls in a team of Rosie the Riveters until realizing that even they can’t change the situation. She struggles with her identity and examines her relationship to her Latina heritage when her brother points out that they don’t know “anything about any culture except maybe Northern California culture.” She wades through these issues, at times muting her anger, wanting “to be without tongue or temper.” Often she looks to nature for answers.
The dog does this beautiful thing,
it waits. It stills itself and determines
that the waiting is essential.
Many of Limón’s poems are able to accomplish that. They question, they wait, they allow themselves time. But Bright Dead Things is a balancing act. Free of difficult language and imagery, the collection is driven instead by waves of emotion—grief, love, displacement. She seeks stillness, rejects it. “This land and I are rewilding.”
After “imagining how agreeable [she’ll] be,” the speaker remembers the “bright dead things,” carrots plucked too soon from her father’s crop. She writes:
Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented
the contentment of the field. Why must we practice
this surrender? What I mean is: there are days
I still want to kill the carrots because I can.
She writes about love that is non-possessive: “And I thought, this was what it was to be blessed—to know a love that was beyond an owning,” but also of one more brutal: “How do you love? / Like a fist. Like a knife.”
She comes down again in “The Saving Tree,” a poem of survival: “This is the cooling part of the fever…” This collection won’t move you neatly through a linear narrative of adapting to or overcoming hardship. It moves like real emotions do, in perpetual flux. But this is not a work of angst. The speaker never strays too far into the depths. She is someone who wants to connect, to engage with the world.
I swear, I’ll try harder not to
miss as much: The tree, or how
your fingers under still
coaxed all my colors back.
The tree and her colors; this big dangerous animal; the land, rewilding. This speaker is deeply connected with both animal and earth. In an interview with Kaveh Akbar, Limón says, “It seems very strange that we don’t think of our instincts and our problems and our stress and all of these things we build our lives around as animal issues at all. And so I think that dichotomy has always played a role in my work, bringing myself back to the animal realm.”
There is a quiet strength in Bright Dead Things, resurfacing just when it’s been forgotten. Ada Limón’s power is in speaking plainly, giving her ideas enough space to breathe, and ending poems with potent last lines. This collection’s greatest asset is its accessibility. “It means, if you’re alone, / when love is all around, / We all tip our lonely hats / in one un-lonely sound.” Through the speaker’s personal trials and triumphs, she makes a call for connection, for mindfulness, for presence.