To speak of wildness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive. That’s something that Gary Snyder tells us in The Practice of the Wild. It’s a charge Ada Limón takes up in her work—“This land and I are rewilding,” she writes— and we see it in the following example, a poem from the recently published book, The Hurting Kind.
On the black wet branches of the linden,
still clinging to umber leaves of late fall,
two crows land. They say, “Stop,” and still I want
to make them into something they are not.
Odin’s ravens, the bruja’s eyes. What news
are they bringing of our world to the world
of the gods? It can’t be good. More suffering
all around, more stinging nettles and toxic
blades shoved into the scarred parts of us,
the minor ones underneath the trees. Rain
comes while I’m still standing, a trickle of water
from whatever we believe is beyond the sky.
The crows seem enormous but only because
I am watching them too closely. They do not
care to be seen as symbols. A shake of a wing,
and both of them are gone. There was no message
given, no message I was asked to give, only
their great absence and my sad privacy
returning like the bracing, empty wind
on the black wet branches of the linden.
By identifying us as “the minor ones underneath the trees” and so granting primary importance to the world itself; by here—and all throughout her poetry—describing her own experience as an engaged mutuality with the non-human; by pointing “to the earth as witness,” as she writes in “Notes on the Below,” Limón responds in her poetry to what she identifies as an ecological imperative to re-describe our relationship to “nature” in a manner that isn’t merely instrumental. The moving personal dramas that her poems detail can never be separated from the landscape in which they occur. Not only is she involved in the landscape, but she admits she is so implicated in what we have done to it that in more than one poem, Limón apologizes “for the generations of plunder and vanish." Consequently, her poetry, which can feel so intimate and self-revealing, is almost constantly political at the same time.
Most of you scanning this are, presumably, accomplished readers of poetry, and you hardly need my gloss on Limón’s exemplary poems. And since the general themes of her books have been extensively articulated in reviews in both the US and the UK, what I might contribute, at the expense of seeming geeky, are some comments on the technical brilliance of Limón’s work, as it is seldom mentioned elsewhere.
For instance in “Privacy,” above, let’s notice, in the first three lines, the run of l’s in the words black, linden, still, clinging, leaves, late, fall, land, and still again. The sound information immediately registers if not in our conscious minds, then subliminally, in our bodies, in our nascent physical/emotional response to those first three lines. We take in a sonic pattern that signifies a non-speech mode, an aestheticized language. And yet most of the lexicon and sentence patterning throughout this poem— and Limón’s other poems— could easily be spoken in conversation. It’s characteristic of Limón’s style that her language reads as both speech and as heightened “non-speech.” It’s a difficult balancing act.
In “Privacy,” the word “Stop” near-rhymes with “not” and “tox” from “toxic.” The similar sounds are just far enough away from each other that they don’t call attention themselves. The poem doesn’t strike us as “rhymey.” But they’re close enough for our memories to link the echoes. We pick up unpredictable traces of other sound patterns as the poem continues: “scarred” and “parts”; “ones” and “comes”; “still” and “standing”; those long o’s in “crows,” “closely,” “both,” “no,” “no,” and “only.” “Wind” and “linden.”
Meanwhile, the poem seems to make shadowy reference to other poems. (“Books come from books,” Cormac McCarthy once said). Limón’s first line, “On the black wet branches of the linden,” might make us recall the first lines of Federico García Lorca’s “Casida of the Dark Doves”: “Through the branches of the laurel/ I saw two dark doves.” In Limón’s poem, like Lorca’s, the first line is repeated as the last line. Or Limón’s “black wet branches” might make us think of Ezra Pound’s “Petals on a wet black bough.” Limón’s “More suffering/ all around” might invoke Auden’s “About suffering they were never wrong.” And Limón’s “empty wind” and her refusal of “symbols” (as well as the argument she sets up between “seem” and be) will call to many of our minds “The Snowman” or “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens. To wit, Limón isn’t a naive writer; her poetics are informed and slyly in conversation with a historical body of literature.
It might seem curious, even contradictory, that in the same poem in which the author, overtly looking for meaning, finds “no message” but “empty wind”—thereby encouraging us to “see the thing itself,” as W.C. Williams put it—Limón hears crows speak to her. But I think this is one of her radical ecological gambits. She risks personification—not only in this poem but in many poems—in order to grant agency to the non-human. Her insistence on doing so runs current with recent ecological theory and its claims that the sthenic Western objection to personification and anthropomorphism goes so far as to encourage us to divorce and elevate human experience from the experience of other creatures, and to inhibit, categorically, the perception of commonalities. The critic John Shoptaw, among others, calls this “anthropomorphobia.” Limón will have none of it. “I am always superimposing/ a face on flowers,” she writes in “In the Shadow."
Likewise, in the opening poem of The Hurting Kind, the speaker observes and identifies with the perceived joy of a tomato-eating groundhog. But in the very next poem, “Drowning Creek,” Limón makes clear that she isn’t taking a purposively innocent or sentimental point of view. Here, she acknowledges that birds don’t, of course, talk to us, and that she “cannot pierce” the otherness of the world (just as some would say we cannot even pierce, comprehend, or truly get inside of the mind of any other person). Again, in the poem “And, too, the Fox,” she notes that, unlike fellow humans, a fox “never cares/ what you do once he is gone.” And in “Sanctuary,” Limón disavows the dream that she “could be both an I / and the world.” But at the same time, she says, it is only the world’s agency, the world witnessing her, that allows her “To be made whole.” That intuition is repeated in other poems such as “Open Water” in which a dying woman, taking one last swim in the Pacific, is restored to her “original skin” by the fact of being “beheld” in the one-eyed gaze of an enormous fish. Limón’s expression of subjectivity is always an intersubjectivity.
The poems in all four sections of The Hurting Kind cultivate wisdom in domesticity. We are introduced to a tender “beloved,” a brother with a snake, a trip to Argentina, a childhood fishing experience, a father, stepfather, and grandfather, two girlfriends who leave behind, for strangers, a jar of their captured scorpions—labeled “Jar of Scorpions.” There is a tonal directness throughout all of Limón’s work that reminds me at times of Sheila Heti’s casually philosophical books. Limón allows herself to ask, in front of us, basic questions like “Am I suffering now? Or now?” Or “What is lineage/ if not a gold thread of pride and guilt?” There are endless things to say about the articulate, complex emotional resonance of the poems in this book. Still, what Limón says about “a life” is true as well for her book: “You can’t sum it up.”