Reviewed by Jeremy Paden | August 17, 2022

Ada Limón’s most recent collection of poems, The Hurting Kind, opens with the delightful “Give Me This” and closes with the masterful “The End of Poetry.” Both are lyric poems, but they are vastly different kinds. The opening one, while not narrative per se, displays Limón’s skill with story, setting, and dramatic tension, along with her ability to wrest insight from small, daily incidents—a trademark of her poetry. As the first in the collection, it promises more poems that contain stories where close attention to the world engenders revelation. The closing poem is more abstract and conceptual, a list poem built of fragments, one that delays the use of the first person until the end. It gathers up the strands and threads of the book (and poetry at large) and names poetry’s project as the desire for a little human touch. These are poems, to quote Limón’s “Drowning Creek,” that witness the solitude of the world. Yet—and this is another laudable attribute of her poetry—they also invite readers to witness the poet’s own inner life.

The Hurting Kind, like most of Limón’s books, is divided into four sections. Yet, in this case, she has named the sections (“Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter”) rather than leave them untitled. The poems in each group make overt reference to their respective seasons. Foals, foxes, and flowers fill “Spring,” while a different kind of abundance, that of grackles, snakes, scorpions, and blackberries, makes up “Summer.” Rain and ice, loss of leaf and life come in the “Fall” and “Winter” sections. Life is complicated, though, and loss does not respect things like seasons. Thus, in the “Summer” poem “Thorns,” along with a cornucopia of blackberries, a dead goose hangs from a fence. Loss and healing, loneliness and communion with others run through the whole collection. This calendrical organization speaks to the linear passage of time, the seasons and the years follow one another as we age, as grandparents and parents die. Yet, like the cycle of the seasons that return and repeat with difference as the world flowers and turns green before turning brown and cold again, memories of loved ones also return. Or, as Limón writes in “Forsythia,” “we carry so many people with us wherever we go, how, even when simply living, these unearned moments are a tribute to the dead.”

This echoic, repetitive structure plays out through the whole book. The complicated feelings around motherhood and barrenness that surface in “Foaling Season,” from “Spring,” return in “The Unspoken,” from “Winter.” Repetition with difference can also be seen in “Anticipation” and “Against Nostalgia,” also from “Spring” and “Winter,” respectively. These are love poems that play with the planting of gardens and with complex grammatical conditions. The adverbial clause, “Before I dug / the plot / in our yard…,” which sets up the continuous past of, “I was / planting my / secret seeds / inside you…,” in the first poem, is complemented by the past hypothetical of the later one that begins, “If I had known, back then, you were coming….” Despite the grammatical differences—certainty versus subjunctive wishing—both express strong affirmations of love.

These echoes can also be seen in “First Lesson” and “What Is Handed Down,” poems about parents teaching a child how to see and how to be in the world. In “First Lesson,” a young girl watches her mother, a painter, attentively study a hawk’s wing and, in turn, learns how “to watch / closely the world.” The poem is particularly instructive. As the mother pulls apart the wing to study it, she tells her daughter “not to be / scared.” Limón puts to use this lesson throughout the collection—itself a kind of a bestiary that carefully observes the natural world. Indeed, the prose poem, “Calling Things What They Are,” even registers a complaint lodged by a former boyfriend, “Limón, you’re all fauna and no flora,” an accusation that leads her to learn the names of trees.

There is a temptation when writing about others, whether human or animal, to project onto the subject of one’s meditation one’s own thoughts and feelings in ways that turn them into an object manipulated by the poet rather than subjects full of their own glorious difference and strangeness. Part of the wisdom of Limón’s poetry is how she lets the world be the world, how she dances right up to the point of turning tree and bird, groundhog and fox into allegory, but resists. In “Privacy,” the poem that opens “Fall,” she notes that the two crows that have landed on the linden “do not / care to be seen as symbols”—they neither bring nor give any message—“only / their great absence and my sad privacy.…” Similarly, earlier in the book, a fox streaks across the lawn, “takes only what he needs / and lives a life that some might / call small.…” But, in the end, he “never cares how long you watch / never cares what you need / when you’re watching, never cares / what you do once he’s gone.”

“Give Me This” anticipates all these interactions with and observations of nature. The poem stages a moment of anagnorisis, a movement from ignorance to insight. What was thought to be a cat turns out to be a happy and green-tomato-thieving groundhog in whom the speaker takes delight. As with all matters of attention, this focus on the groundhog as groundhog is complicated. Worry, in the form of a stranger’s question about suffering, interrupts the joy of watching the animal. “Why am I not allowed / delight?” the speaker asks in the middle of the poem, a turn that moves beyond the intrusion of the backyard visitor into images of war and violence. Yet the speaker holds her focus on the animal until an unconscious squeal of recognition erupts. The realization that the groundhog is “a funny creature and earnest, / …doing what she can to survive,” though cast in the third person and presented as a description of the groundhog, is a recognition about the speaker herself.

Not all the poems are about backyard animals and plants, however. Many—even a good number of the animal poems—are populated by the people we carry with us—family, friends, ex-lovers, and current partners. In the titular poem, “The Hurting Kind,” she pushes against the snobbery around “too many grandparent poems.” In “Heart on Fire,” “Runaway Child,” and others, she writes about her grandparents. This allows her to take up stories about racism, about borders, about how those of Mexican heritage are perceived, while also telling stories of the resilience of ancestors overcoming abandonment by parents in such ways that they can provide care and love for their own wounded families.

Though acts of witnessing and being witnessed by others are presented as ways to move into wholeness, as ways of overcoming solitude, there is a difference between looking at and witnessing. The poem “How We See Each Other” puts on display the differences between two kinds of gaze—the more threatening and sinister male gaze of strangers circling her like sharks and “the solid gaze of a woman who has witnessed me as unassailable.” In the healing gaze of Aracelis, Ada is known by another who loves her and is returned to herself.

Although most of the poems employ setting and story in ways that nod toward narrative poetry, even if they are predominantly lyrical poems of private emotion and thought, not all flirt with narrative. Some, like “Swear on It,” “Where the Circles Overlap,” and “When It Comes Down to It,” to name three, show Limón’s comfort and ease with the more abstract, modernist lyrical voice, emancipated from time and space. These are poems more focused on the play of language, on music, and on image. The tour de force among these is “The End of Poetry,” a catalogue of the themes, reasons, and images that make up the poetic impulse. The use of the word enough as a refrain ties together the many fragments and images and leads the poem to its conclusion. “Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower,” it begins, and then continues, “enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy….” Part of the genius of the poem is that Limón uses enough in all three of its senses: as determiner, as pronoun, and as adverb. Thus the word repeats at uneven intervals, breaks up the monotony of the list, and appears in different senses throughout. The poem moves through images and language that point to nature, psychology, philosophy, family dynamics, and politics as reasons for writing. It expresses a certain exasperation toward the enterprise. “Enough with this and all the rest of it,” the poem seems to say. Once the first person finally makes an appearance in the fifth-to-last line, the poem reads:

enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.

No poem in this collection explicitly names the COVID pandemic. Still, it is hard not to understand some of these meditations on loss, loneliness, and human connection within the context of the isolation we have all endured. It is hard not to read the lines, “And now the world is gone. No more Buenos Aires or Santiago. / No tango, no samba… / Now we endure. // Endure time, this envenomed veil of extremes—loss and grief and reckoning,” from “Banished Wonders,” as a reference to the quarantine and lack of human touch during these years of confinement and lockdown.

In The Hurting Kind, Ada Limón, our 24th poet laureate, has given us the gift of her own gaze. In her eyes, through her eyes, we see our suffering and loneliness and we see moments of humor and human connection, we witness her and are witnessed by her, and her vulnerability helps us endure.

The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón Milkweed Editions, 2022, 128 pp cover painting by Stacia Brady

Photo by Lucas Marquardt

About Ada Limón

Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Her book Bright Dead Things was nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Her work has been supported most recently by a Guggenheim Fellowship. She grew up in Sonoma, California and now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she writes, teaches remotely, and hosts the critically-acclaimed poetry podcast, The Slowdown. Her new book of poetry, The Hurting Kind, is out now from Milkweed Editions. She is the 24th Poet Laureate of The United States.