(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015)
Every so often, I come across a poem that I share with everyone, even those not familiar with contemporary poetry. “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” the opening poem in Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, is one of those poems. Well, it was—until I read “State Bird,” and “Miracle Fish,” and just about every piece in this collection. By the end of the first part I realized I might have been better off gifting the book to everyone for Christmas. Content is typically the driving force for my mass poem-picture-text messages, but I wanted people to hear this voice. It’s not one of a particular person, but of a consciousness. It’s the voice people ignore in the in-between moments of life that races through sensations, emotions, memories and predictions. Aptly fit into verse, all of these silenced flashes of human experience get their play time.
Poems (and thoughts) are independent by nature so it’s easy to gloss over the importance of order in a collection. Limón’s meticulous placement of every piece appears chronological, but in an almost surreal way. I first felt that we were following the journey of a female speaker towards womanhood and beyond, but quickly realized that this book could span a moment, a day, a month, or a lifetime. The confidence in “How to Triumph Like a Girl” sounds youthful, as a woman describes why she prefers female horses—“how they make it all look easy, / like running 40 miles per hour / is as fun as taking a nap, or grass”—but confesses that it’s mostly because “they’re ladies.” She ends the poem with, “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.” This is incredibly mature, empowering, and a little bit uncomfortable. The movement in this piece alone from quiet observation to a bold declaration shows the timelessness that is so essential to the collection, and immediately the reader is curious to discover what race this speaker intends to win.
The speaker navigates her faith, her past, and the world around her with this same innocent yet confident voice throughout the collection. She makes these connections between everyday moments and her deepest anxieties, each written in a stream of consciousness that is so organic, it feels like the speaker surprises herself. In “The Quiet Machine” she explains that she is “learning so many different ways to be quiet,” until she shares, “there’s the silence that / comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones / and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s / how this machine works.” The poem is set in one single block stanza, helping contain this mental claustrophobia as the speaker struggles with passivity. Again, she seems genuine, yet increasingly sarcastic, as she lists all of her silent moments until the end. These self-aware, unapologetic moments pop up everywhere in the collection. Here it’s ironic, almost as if the speaker is checking if the reader is still listening. And how can one not listen? These poems unfold the way human thoughts do, and they allow these images to evoke emotion without saying too much.
The second part of this collection focuses on the death of the speaker’s mother, or rather the collective experience of anyone that has lost someone. Her poem “Cower” opens:
I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard
knot in the mountain buried
deep in the boarded-up mine. So,
I let death in, learn to prospect
the between-dreams of the dying,
the one dream that tells you when
to throw up, the other, when
you’re in pain. I tell you
I will love someone that you
will never meet, death’s warm
breath at the mouth
of the body’s holler.
You are crying in the shower.
I am crying near the shower…
I’ve always found it difficult to write a narrative poem about death without being overly sentimental or heavy handed, but Limón nails it. This structure cinematically directs the reader’s visual focus to pitch blackness in the first three lines. It is almost redundant, but it effectively sets the tone for what’s to come. Suddenly, as if a light is turned on in this cave, the speaker decides to examine death and dying with this bizarre metaphor of coal mining. But the speaker finds it necessary, or at least as essential as mining is, to “prospect the between dreams of the dying.” One could argue this is more beneficial than necessary. This acute detail to every metaphor in this collection leaves me in awe. The comparisons are clear at face value, but they shine when you investigate why the speaker’s imagination jumps to these places. The poem ends:
I dry you off and think,
if I were death come to take you,
your real-earth explosives,
I would be terrified.
Limón’s writing has a Whitman-esque quality to it in the way the speaker weaves back and forth between abstract language and concrete images, all while sharing her present experience with her readers. Still immersed in the metaphor, this conversational language and clean syntax rounds out her story. Somehow, describing a dying person with “real-earth explosives” becomes endearing and painfully honest. This poem is a delicate but dangerous piece that explores the unknown both within and outside of one person’s own mind, and it’s quite representative of the collection as a whole.
But as with the first poem, it’s not fair to say that “Cower” even begins to cover everything there is to experience in Bright Dead Things. I felt like I was watching a movie full of surprises, and when the title appeared subtly in one of the poems (the ‘bright dead things’ are what?) I couldn’t help but feel invested in this speaker’s narrative and suddenly aware of my own mindfulness. Admittedly, I was not aware that this is Limón’s fourth collection, but I am wildly excited to explore more of her metaphors, stories, and humor. This book has roused some of my deepest emotions, begging me to confront them. Unbeknownst to her, Limón describes her own collection best in “The Vine”:
“And under- / neath you could hear it coming, not like a train or something metal, / but something clearly unstoppable.”
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Timothy Lindner is an MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University who currently works as the Planning & Resourcing Specialist within Content Management for John Wiley & Sons, Inc.