The Hurting Kind
By Ada Limón
128 pages. Milkweed Editions, 2022.
…Could you refuse me if I asked you
to point at the horizon, to tell me
something was worth waiting for?
In her momentous sixth collection of poetry, Ada Limón presents a speaker who sustains the bold posture of watching and waiting. A neighbor’s cat pilfering tomatoes, a groundhog, the mountain lion caught on camera, her mother with the horses, dead birds in need of burial and witnessing, the very act of living (which also necessitates witnessing)–she sees it all and begs for the miracle in the everyday. It’s a posture we know all too well. Deprived of movement in public spaces, we contend with the here and now in the frightening abstraction of What if and What to come? But Limón presses her reader to consider the quiet celebrations, the surprising discoveries of the self, the unshakeable reality of love in the landscape of suffering. Even death does not have the final say in the human narrative that insists on cleaving to joy. The Hurting Kind reckons with the cost of love and living, as the title alludes to the invitation for vulnerability. Elsewhere the speaker admits she is “too attached to this life” (“My Father’s Mustache”). Her collection encompasses both the microcosm of a jar full of scorpions and the epic proportions of the mythic Fireball and Eden’s expulsion. She interweaves legendary La Llorona with stories of her grandmother fiercely proud of her Mexican progeny and a lover in whose steadfast presence the speaker finds solace. The solitary Romantic on the craggy cliffs, she is staring intently at all the world has to offer.
The Hurting Kind is divided into four seasons, a progression in growth and self-realization. “Spring” celebrates songs of innocence, so to speak, as most of the poems are charged with juvenile wonder in watching the world, staged in the present (as young children operate mostly in the present). Her “Summer” poems darken in maturity, as the perspective shifts to retrospection and departs from innocence. Several poems feature frightening encounters with snakes or an abusive ex. The first poem in this collection showcases a watching that now feels censored, and the speaker comes away with lessons “unshelled by curiosity and terrible youth” (“Cyrus & the Snakes”). Her songs of experience expose her to suffering: “How funny / that I called it love and the whole time it was pain” (“Calling Things What They Are”). The lesson is primordial, as the speaker adopts more defensive animal instincts in order to “Lose my number, sadness. Lose my address, my storm door, my skull” (“I have Wanted Clarity in Light of My Lack of Light”).
By “Autumn” the speaker is guarded, cynical, and damaged. She bears scars, is privy to “stinging nettles” and “toxic / blades” (“Privacy”), perhaps the same blades that show their malice in ice-sheathed grass and boat propellers slicing manatees. Moving through loss and separation, she enters the reckoning of the final season: a reckoning with death, the end of love, atonement, the remorse, disenchantment, and resolution that comes with lifelong hindsight. She is “bound to the blades, bound to outrun them” (“Forgiveness”).
Limón’s most prominent theme is that of witnessing. Almost every poem alludes to watching of some kind. The first two poems dialogue specifically with the natural world, and the speaker wistfully finds herself lacking in her human situation. Why am I denied delight? Why can I not pierce the solitude of the world? She watches for the Eastern towhee, the trees she can finally name, the owl that never comes and the fox that does: in essence, she is watching nature at work. It moves (or doesn’t move) regardless of her. Her omnipresent “Eye” recalls the watchmaker theory of a creator who set the world in motion and then reposed, a passive audience to human activity, and Limón calls forth “the great Eye” who sees that she “could be both an I / and the world” (“Sanctuary”). She ventures:
To be made whole
by being not a witness,
The eye appears later watching a friend in the deep sea, in this sense a comfort, and Limón suggests perhaps most explicitly a maker in “The First Lesson,” in which a girl finds a dead hawk on Arnold Drive (the consonance recalling Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”) and “pulled it apart / to see how it worked,” the mechanism of the world.
Like Eden’s exiles working out their own atonement, so, too, does Limón instruct us to “bury yourself in leaves / and wait for a breaking” (“Sanctuary”). In “Not the Saddest Thing in the World,” another dead bird, unnameable this time, is found and buried matter-of-factly. She witnesses the event, but unlike Dickinson’s angry gardener who rails against God over the body of a bird, the speaker holds that the “breaking” (of which she had earlier asked for an attendance) perhaps has no witness. This directly subverts the biblical claim that no sparrow should fall from the sky without God the Father seeing the event, but in a year “huge and round and awful,” it is not a stretch to ponder how commonplace the global horrors of death and sociopolitical divisions have quickly become. A “new normal” readership in the wake of an incendiary past presidency may appreciate such lines like “The American linden sways nonplussed by the storm” (“Banished Wonders”) and long for some rare glimpses of tenderness. This Limón graciously offers us. She is held in “the solid gaze of a woman who has witnessed me as unassailable” (“How We See Each Other”). It is an empowering experience for a speaker who early on is taught to flinch from kindness, as it is oftentimes repaid with evil, but then she catches the lyric mercy of cherry trees.
…The true and serious beauty
of trees, how it seemed insane that they should
offer this to us, how unworthy we were …
Are cycles, then, a kindness or an evil? Amid their inevitable movement, the constant example of yet another area where we humans have so little control, the speaker asserts agency by thwarting, challenging, resisting the life that hurts her. She is deliberate in choosing, naming, declaring her own magnificence, but at the same time, she refrains from leaving an indelible mark on the world. Is it a timid withdrawal, like Eliot’s Prufrock hesitant to disturb the universe, or is it more a celebratory reverence, like St. Vincent Millay’s gladdest thing under the sun? The speaker does pick the flowers, but then counts the cost of the earth that produced them. Still, the earth offers up flowers each new spring, a potent reminder to which Limón directs our gaze that death is not the end: the cat of a deceased previous owner can still receive caresses, conversations with friends are beautifully endless. We are hurt by the world and hurt by living in it in this complicated symbiosis, and the speaker wants to resist the heartbreak of a grieving mare over a dead foal, but she doesn’t. In the titular poem she declares, “I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.” It is an anthem, an invitation to gather at Ada Limón’s side in a traumatic age fraught with potential for rediscovery:
She told me not to be
scared. I watched
and learned to watch
closely the world.
(“The First Lesson”)
Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A former Fulbright recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Wichita State University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Follow her on Twitter @shanviolinlove.