“How Much That Want Matters”: On Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Lisa Higgs

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015. 128 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“Want” is a funny word. At its origins, want is fully negative, to be lacking or missing. To not exist. To be insufficient in degree. While want today retains its sense of lack, the word has stretched over time toward flippancy, as all too often our wishes and cravings can be easily met with a quick jaunt to the nearest convenience store. I want an apple. It’s in the fridge. I want some new shoes. Just a few keyboard clicks away. Luckily for readers, the wants layered throughout the poems of Ada Limón’s far-reaching fourth collection, Bright Dead Things, transform simple moments into dynamite capable of blasting the tops off mountains.

The needs and wants expressed by Limón in the four sections that make up her National Book Award nominated collection are anything but simple. She wants to retain her sense of self as she moves into the “we” of an abiding relationship. She wants life and death reworked into some spirit of “solve-able absence.” She wants the entirety of her physical past and its erasure. She wants to be her “own personal map of America,” love and wreck and all. Most importantly, Limón—a confessed autobiographical poet (see her 2014 interview at the online journal Compose)—wants readers to be intimately by her side, line after line. Reading this collection is like putting together each rung of a ladder that stretches toward the sky by sinking into its watery reflection.

How else to approach a poem like “The Last Move,” where Limón, transplanted from Brooklyn to wide Kentucky acreage for love of a man, cleans and cries through the first months of housewifery? In the first half of the poem, which is the third of the book, she washes dishes and waltzes in an apron, thinks of her grief, of her novel. Amid all the shine that Limón makes for her new home:

Somewhere I had heard that, after noting the lack
of water pressure in an old hotel in Los Angeles,
they found a woman’s body at the bottom
of the cistern.

Imagine, just thinking the water was low, just wanting
to take a shower.

After that, when the water would act weird,
spurt, or gurgle, I’d imagine a body, a woman, a me
just years ago, freely single, happily unaccounted for,
at the lowest curve of the water tower.

She is sinking, and we can imagine “a me” sinking, too, for who hasn’t experienced displacement or disorientation? A new home, a new lover, a new state. Yet Limón is not content to leave us at that “lowest curve”:

Yes, and over and over,
I’d press her limbs down with a long pole
until she was still.

To get what she wants, this man whom she loves, Limón drowns her “happily unaccounted for” self, and spends much of the rest of Bright Dead Things coming to terms with her necessary actions.

Part of her journey rests upon Limón’s familiarity with another body, that of her ill and dying stepmother whom she helps through a home death. Many of the poems in Bright Dead Things’s second section are controlled expressions of rage and fear of failure, so strong is Limón’s need to do whatever needs to be done right. Part of this instinctive reaching toward right at a time of death seems to be reconstructing her idea of what might be divine, and so Limón uses the imperative in two poems of appeal, the section’s brief opening poem “Bellow,” and “Torn,” a more substantial poem near the section’s end.

“Tell the range and all that’s howling,” opens “Bellow” as its next five lines create a litany of things that make “you go quiet again”: weeds, vulture, thistle, and “clowned-out clouds” harsh and uninviting. What follows is an imperative refrain: “tell them” over five lines all the things you didn’t come to do: fuss, break, growl, scream, disturb, “throw a fit.” Again, harsh consonants and the sibilant “s” create friction waiting for a release as the titular bellow called for in the final line: “get down in the dark and do it.”

By the time we reach “Torn,” Limón has grappled with the mechanics of a body in death, traversed the loss of a mother figure, and considered how haphazardly we muddle through life. Here, Limón reaches once more to the imperative, this time asking the implied “you” (as both reader and poet) to:

Witness the wet, dead snake,
its long hexagonal pattern weaved
around its body like a code for creation,
curled up cold on the newly tarred road.
Let us begin with the snake: the fact
of death, the poverty of place, of skin
and surface . . .

Incantatory, the poem makes us “See how . . .” and “Imagine now . . .” just as we must “. . . return to the snake” following Limón’s most pressing call:

Believe it is the mother and the father.
Believe it is the mouth and the words.
Believe it is the sin and the sinner—
the tempting, the taking, the apple, the fall,
every one of us guilty, the story of us all.

Here, the symbols of Christianity are writ into a different sort of trinity, where we are all the father Adam, all the mother Eve. (Those imperfect parents, who brought language in the naming and gave us a first utterly human story in the fall.) And more importantly, we are all the snake, a “pitiful dead / thing . . . that loves itself so much it moves / across the boundaries of death to touch itself / once more, to praise both divided sides / equally, as if it was easy.”

By now, it should be apparent that there is nothing easy about Limón’s poetry, despite its straightforward language and tone. Her attention to form, though not formal by strictest definition, shows obvious care, as in how another powerhouse poem from the second section, “Cower,” revolves (with two sets at twelve lines) around the single-stanza poem’s center, “You are crying in the shower. / I am crying near the shower.” In the first set of twelve lines, Limón, a “cold-hard / knot in the mountain buried / deep in the boarded-up mine,” opens herself up to death, whose breath is so close to her stepmother’s body. In the final set, Limón imagines herself as death:

. . . How could I
come to this house, come
to this loved being, see
the mountain’s power
and dare blast you down.
I dry you off and think,
if I were death come to take you,
your real-earth explosives,
I would be terrified.

Between what is buried in the mountain and what might explode are two women in an intimate cleansing of tears.

Everywhere, Limón’s imagery is visceral and easily visible to the mind’s eye—horses, mountains, water, dogs, owls and birds make repeat visits throughout Bright Dead Things, but in new guises with new intentions. Her use of sound and repetition strikes the ear as balanced, always seeming in proportion to the poem’s action. Limón cares for craft deeply, as she cares for her readers, offering us the chance, through her consistent use of direct address to enter into her poems as if we could be any of the different characters embodied in the collection.

As Limón’s journey nears its conclusion, her poems turn from physical expressions of want revealed in the book’s third section toward the idea of how to be yourself in relation not only to those close to you, but to the society in which you live. Limón travels, in her final section, in planes and cars. She is all over America, referencing California, Alaska, New York City, Appalachia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Boston. Yet she claims a home worth returning to, as seen in the final lines of “The Problem with Travel”:

Then, I think of you, home
with the dog, the field full
of purple pop-ups—we’re small and
flawed, but I want to be
who I am, going where
I’m going, all over again.

If a handful of the shorter poems in this section—like the above-mentioned—seem slight compared to the whole, it may be less the fault of the poems individually and more a result of the force that must be let out from the book’s more intense works. As with many poems in this section, you can almost hear Limón exhale, so great is the release that she seems to have gained by coming to terms with want. Her deficiencies. Her desires. Everything she has missed and longed for. Everything she needs moving forward.

Yet at her core the poet retains an energy that thrums, at times dangerously, as seen in “Home Fires,” one of the final poems of the book, where Limón addresses the women of Appalachia, the sort who sing through the poison and sludge of dying mountains, by fiercely crying: “I crave demolishing, to eat explosives.” The domestic Limón is not a vision of perfection, but a woman who wonders “. . . what this, this / would be like, to be wholly blown apart.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that a woman who desires as completely and honestly as Ada Limón has in the past by some been considered threatening. The poems in Bright Dead Things address this threat to convention obliquely, offering an alternate view on what is most likely to cut away at the individual woman. Namely, that shiny glaze that captures a woman not as she is but as some figurine better left to the curio cabinet. Limón instead gives us a female Icarus headed toward a fall from the moon. She gives us ice, its crack and crash, and from the disasters of life, she honors all the light that still comes through. In “After the Ice Storm,” Limón declares:

. . . The largeness of me, the hot
gore of my want and want, wants to disarm

the fixedness of this. I’ll be the strike anywhere,
the reckless match you can count on

to claim a life, or to save one.

Limón, in not fearing the part of her that wants to be unsettled, allows readers to let go of what binds them to their own confining spaces. Reading Bright Dead Things is a pleasure, not because the book in its weaving from discomfort to near-comfort is easy, but because by the end, we can believe that living any style or form of life is enough, no matter its final shape.

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