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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: “The Hurting Kind: Poems,” by Ada Limón

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By Ada Limón

The poet Ada Limón is a welcome companion at this stage of the pandemic. She writes to counter isolation and to usher in change. Her poems presume aloneness and reach out to the reader to seal a sort of virtual communion. Her hope is tentative, hedging. Limón’s consolations are small but strong, and when her poems look to the future, it’s usually in the service of creating a connection in the here and now: “Could you refuse me if I asked you / to point again at the horizon, to tell me / something was worth waiting for?” That “you” is all important in Limón’s work — a wide-open beloved who is us, of course. Such a capacious embrace is a consolation, and it’s no mean literary feat.

After publishing her first two books with very small presses, Limón hit the national scene with “Sharks in the Rivers” (2010). Her next collection, “Bright Dead Things” (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Carrying” (2018) won the latter prize; it’s a gut-wrenching book, Limón at her most vulnerable, facing a parade of life’s major and minor disappointments, such as the inability to conceive a child, with resolve, wisdom and generous openness. In response to a friend who espouses the miracles of parenthood, Limón writes, “we’ve tried a long time, been sad, been happy, / that perhaps the only thing I can make / is love and art.”

“The Carrying” was an obvious breakthrough, in which Limón mastered her unflinching gaze and put her considerable powers of empathy at the service of her readers. Her new book, “The Hurting Kind,” strikes me as a transitional work, less certain of itself and its purpose than its predecessor, but also trying some new things, including longer poems. As a pandemic book, “The Hurting Kind” has a bit of fuzzy focus, and a small population — a partner, a dog, a cat, and the squirrels, birds and groundhogs visible through the window. There are a few poems that don’t quite fly, landing too soon on a sentimental or overly hopeful conclusion or overreaching for emotional heft, as in these lines about fishing: “Is this where I am supposed to apologize? Not / only to the fish, but to the whole lake, land, not only for me / but for the generations of plunder and vanish.” The apology is too broad — yes, we are guilty of great harm, but “the fish” isn’t the right confessor.

And yet, I soon find myself forgetting my little qualms, so grateful am I for Limón’s powerfully observant eye. There are many wonderful poems here and a handful of genuine masterpieces. For instance, the book’s long title poem makes something utterly startling out of a brush with sentimentality:

Before my grandfather died, I asked him what sort
of horse he had growing up. He said,

Just a horse. My horse, with such a tenderness it
rubbed the bones in my ribs all wrong.

I have always been too sensitive, a weeper
from a long line of weepers.

I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.

This should fall flat — I don’t know this guy; why should I care? — but I just can’t walk away from that phrase: “Just a horse. My horse.” It’s music — Limón’s excellent ear for the rhythms of speech and the sounds of sentences, the repetition of “horse,” the five stressed syllables grouped into three and two — that elevates this above sentimentality, that lets us feel his longing, and hers. Sometimes, the deepest truth one can admit is that the past is irretrievable, though it never seems very far away.

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