Clearing the Bar with Care and Complexity: Ada Limón’s The Hurting Kind
Since the appearance of her debut collection in 2006, Ada Limón has made herself a consistent presence in the small yet voluminous world of American poetry. Releasing a new book every three to five years, each of which has been met with increasing critical acclaim, the newly appointed Poet Laureate now occupies the tricky position of an artist on a hot streak, for whom continued success is expected as a matter of course. Into this atmosphere of eager anticipation comes The Hurting Kind, her sixth collection and a confident follow-up to 2018’s award-winning The Carrying. Fans of Limón’s previous work won’t be disappointed by the new, which adeptly lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors; the collection brims with the kind of highly polished, emotionally resonant, and musically dynamic poems characteristic of their creator, who seems to have developed her creative process into something like a personal science. The upshot of such rigorous craftsmanship is a certain dependability on the part of Limón’s poems, an assurance that each one will have something valuable to offer, whether that be a potent image or a delectable turn of phrase or a particularly impactful catharsis. Inherent to this dependability, though, is the risk of becoming so entrenched in a given style that the poems, for all their ability to awe and spark epiphany, themselves become formulaic. It’s this risk that haunts The Hurting Kind from start to finish, even if Limón’s writing is often dazzling and deliberative enough to obscure it.
The commitment throughout her recent volumes to a specific poetic style is complemented by Limón’s equally steadfast commitment to a handful of subjects as universal as they are inexhaustible: memory, grief, love, nature. Typically, these strands are interwoven in ways that both reinforce and complicate one another, resulting in taut, melodious mosaics that, in the most successful cases, give one the impression of having discovered something urgently beautiful about existence, or at least about Limón’s. The currents of her personal life provide the premises for most of the poems, with narrative elements from previous collections reappearing in updated form: a cat formerly owned by the ex of the speaker’s husband and adopted by the couple upon her passing (documented in The Carrying’s “After His Ex Died”) leads Limón into an oblique meditation on death, memory, and affection in the early poem “Glimpse,” while animals more generally continue to function as favored Muses. Horses in particular elicit powerful responses from the poet, as in “Intimacy,” where a memory of the speaker’s mother tending horses culminates in a recognition of “a clean honesty / about our otherness that feels / not like the moral but the story,” and in “Foaling Season,” where she connects “a sea // of foals, mare and foal, mare and foal” standing “[i]n the dew-saturated foot-high blades / of grass“ to her own foiled desire for motherhood. Elsewhere, focus lands on the varieties of birds and trees also found in the rural Kentucky hills that Limón has now called home for several years, along with those from her cherished California past. The insights mined from such encounters are wide-ranging—some, like that regarding the entwined cypress trees central to “It Begins With the Trees,” are about love, and others, like that belonging to “The Magnificent Frigatebird,” concern the ever-important act of naming. But no matter the differences in their subject matter, the poems of The Hurting Kind are all linked by an immense and undiscriminating tenderness, the bestowal of which once again proves to be Limón’s great strength.
Though in her past work this tenderness has manifested most frequently as an ultra-perceptive rumination on the natural world that rivals even Mary Oliver, here we find Limón taking a more overtly ethical posture. “Is this where I am supposed to apologize?” the speaker asks in “The First Fish,” having recalled how, as a girl, she “pulled that great fish up out of Lake Skinner’s / mirrored-double surface” and killed it at the behest of “the old tree of a man” accompanying her. Shame ripples palpably through these lines, especially those that follow, which widen the poem’s purview “[n]ot / only to the fish, but to the whole lake, land, not only for me / but for the generations of plunder and vanish.” Humanity’s capacity for inflicting hurt on nature emerges as a focal point of the collection, as does the dereliction of responsibility this hurt implies. Consider another reflection on casual childhood violence found in “Cyrus & the Snakes,” where a young speaker and her brother crack open an egg they’ve stolen from their family’s chicken coop. The poet renders the event in her by-now familiar couplets:
[…] Where we
expected yolk and mucus was an unfeathered
and unfurled sweetness. We stared at the thing,
dead now and unshelled by curiosity and terrible youth.
My brother pretended not to care so much,
while I cried, but only a little. […]
By poem’s end, her grown brother has renounced his childishly aloof facade, instead desiring “all to stay as it was, even if it went undiscovered,” a shift that highlights the abiding possibility of redemption in our fallen world. Still, it too often remains a possibility unfulfilled, as represented by the venerable mulberry tree of “Power Lines,” whose destruction at the hands of municipal workers leaves “just a ground-down stump / where what felt like wisdom once was.” In a masterful display of Limón’s instinct for sequencing her poems, we further appreciate the weight of this loss in the immediately subsequent “Hooky,” an ode to carefree college days that soon becomes a celebration of “[t]he true and serious beauty / of trees, how it seemed insane that they should / offer this to us . . . .” Taken together, these and other instances present a vision of ethical engagement with our environment rooted not in diminishment of the human, but in reverent elevation of the non-human.
Crucial to any vision of this sort is a method for bridging the illusory divide between the non-human and the human, a way of making the non-human legible to the human, so that the respect and compassion necessary for the survival of both can be extended from the latter to the former. The method Limón has adopted—punctilious use of the proper names for each and every organism she includes in her poems—is not a new one, having been employed in her previous volumes and almost certainly by other poets. But in The Hurting Kind her efforts assume a new centrality, as the urgency of the threat posed by the climate crisis to human and non-human alike only grows with time. As useful as her method is for the non-human, however, its limits are revealed by her attempts to render comprehensible the inscrutable vastness of the human. “You can’t sum it up, my mother says as we are driving,” Limón writes in the collection’s titular poem, an existential grappling with the death of the speaker’s beloved grandfather. “She means a life, of course. You cannot sum it up.” Here in the realm of the human, there are things like lives and selves that remain forever inexpressible through words, the usage of which always carries the risk of misrepresenting the subject. Implicit in this formulation is the role of the watcher, separate and distinct from the watched. Limón dwells on the objectifying quality of the interpersonal with a determination that makes it another central theme of The Hurting Kind. The near-worst-case scenario is explored at the start of “How We See Each Other,” when she recounts the following disturbing incident.
I forget I am a woman walking alone and wave
at a maroon car, assuming it’s a neighbor or a friend.
The car then circles the block and goes past me five times.
One wave and five times the car circles. Strangers.
Counterposed against this injurious gaze is that with which Limón ends the poem, “the solid gaze of a woman who has witnessed me as unassailable, / the clarity of her vision so clean I feel almost free.” The evolution of the other’s gaze from maliciously constrictive to borderline liberatory demonstrates both the raw power vested in it and the responsibility that it demands of its wielder. Limón alludes to as much in the wonderfully disjunctive “Sanctuary”:
[…] The great eye
of the world is both gaze
and gloss. To be swallowed
by being seen. A dream.
To be made whole
by being not a witness,
The full complexity of interpersonal relations is here condensed into just a handful of lines, and it’s a testament to Limón’s ability as a poet that we can also recognize in them the many valences left unwritten. Whether she’s considering the human or the non-human, her ethical values are consistently generative of a poetry whose vigor and music make it more than the sum of its parts.
That achievement is primarily owing to the content of Limon’s poems, rather than their forms. Like its predecessors, to read The Hurting Kind is to cycle through a series of the same four or five formal templates, which, despite each poem’s unmistakable singularity on the levels of meaning, emotion, and sound, comes to impose something dangerously similar to monotony on not just this collection, but on the past decade of Limón’s poetic output. Opening her three most recent volumes at random, the reader is most likely to find a poem consisting of a single unbroken stanza, ten to forty-odd lines in length, with each line ranging from eight to sixteen amorphously rhythmic syllables. Or they might find one in couplets, or even tercets, the lines indented to give a sense of movement, maybe a few one-line stanzas interspersed throughout for variety. Other less common formats include a paragraph of prose and a type of poem written in short, highly enjambed lines. The majority of The Hurting Kind’s entries fall into one of these categories, excepting certain laudable outliers like “Where the Circles Overlap” and “The Hurting Kind,” though even these more irregular cases tend to cohere into stanzas of two to three lines. None of this necessarily detracts from the collection’s overall caliber—Limón is clearly invested in these forms, and they offer sturdy, dependable structures for the contemplative reveries at which she excels. But after reading what appears, at a glance, to be the same poem for the twelfth time, one might be forgiven for having trouble distinguishing one from the other in their memory. Stretch this out over at least three volumes, and the suspicion of artistic stagnation seems not unreasonable. Limón’s gift for spinning dynamism out of her subjects keeps that danger always at bay, but her lack of experimentation in the formal dimension leaves uncultivated an entire axis of poetic potential. A stylistic evolution that incorporates her existing virtues will be the challenge of her next collection.
Excitement for such a follow-up promises to be great, given the predominant success of The Hurting Kind in continuing Limón’s hot streak. The poems in it tread familiar ground, yet they do so with a keener, more consciously ethical attitude than her earlier work, the payoff of decades spent fashioning memory, impression, and nature into the beautiful words appropriate to them. Formal inertia notwithstanding, Limón has once again proven her powers both as an artist and as a witness of our increasingly endangered world, handling her materials with a uniquely palliative tenderness. Combined with her poetry’s characteristic musicality, this more than justifies The Hurting Kind’s epigraph, a quote from Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik imploring us to “Sing as if nothing were wrong. / Nothing is wrong.” When we read Limón, we can almost believe that.