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“To Learn From the Natural World.” On Ada Limón’s Brilliant Poetic Project

Sara Franklin Talks to the Author of The Hurting Kind

In most of the world’s mythologies, spring symbolizes renewal, relief, and reprieve, a generative upswell of energy after the long, dark freeze of winter. But to rise, like sap, to meet the season requires reserves and hinges upon a period of rest and replenishment in the fallow, dark months. This year, though, spring has blown in on a wind of unease, edged by fear, the disorienting fog of worry, and a palpable, heavy weariness. Disease. Distance. War. We are shores denuded of our buffering wetlands, houses stripped down to our studs.

Into this moment arrives Ada Limón with her shimmering new collection of poems, The Hurting Kind. “My shards are showing,” Limón says in the titular poem of her sixth collection, published, this month, by Milkweed Editions. “I have always been too sensitive, a weeper / from a long line of weepers. / I am the hurting kind.”

The Hurting Kind has been surrounded by the kind of hot anticipation more commonly associated with major films or the latest from a bestselling novelist than a collection of poems. But Limón’s broadening fanbase has grown hungry in the four years since the poet published her 2018 collection, The Carrying, a book that reached and seduced a broad audience (I’ve heard many an avid prose reader—and writer—claim Limón as the first poet they’ve ever connected to, the first to make them feel they have access to the artform).

“Instructions On Not Giving Up” became the collection’s “breakout poem,” published on the Academy of American Poetry’s website as part of their poem-a-day feature. It was later published, alongside an original essay about the poem’s genesis, on OprahDaily. Of the poem Limón wrote, “Part of the work I am interested in during this life is learning what I can from the natural world. There are times where I can witness something happening in nature and feel all the human clutter wash off me.” “Fine then / I’ll take it” say the concluding lines of the poem, “I’ll take it all.”

Those eager for all Limón has to say have welcomed her more regular presence in their lives since she became host, last fall, American Public Media’s “The Slowdown,” succeeding former U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith. The program has also introduced Limón to many previously unfamiliar with her work. And it is a job Limón loves, despite its demanding production schedule, in its allowance of spending entire days on her couch, reading poems, looking for things that strike her. Five days a week, Limón offers thoughts on the world and her life, readying her listeners to receive a poem of her choosing. I listen every day, welcoming her musings like ministry, and the poems like prayers.

Though Limón inspires, she’s far from an inspirational poet. Critics have heralded Limón’s work for its playfulness in form; its sumptuous, accessible language; and the proximity into which she pulls her readers with familiar language and granular attention to detail. Tracy K. Smith called Limón “a poet of ecstatic revelation,” her poems “fast” and “full of detail,” and her voice “conversational.” The Carrying won the National Book Critics Circle Award. That same year, The New Yorker published “Envelopes of Air,” a series of thrummingly feminine and searingly intimate epistolary poems made in collaboration between Limón and Natalie Diaz; the project was made over the course of nine months in 2017, an apt gestation period given the explorations of womanhood coursing through the poems.

Limón does not come at truth with the slant of Dickinson; she is, rather, more inclined toward a direct punch to the gut.
The poet and critic Christian Wessels, stuck on these lines from Limón’s poem “Sway” (which originated in “Envelopes of Air,” but was included in The Carrying)—”I can’t stop / putting plants in the ground. There’s a hunger in me, // a need to watch something grow”—found himself lost in attempting to define Limón’s beguiling poetics. Might we call her a feminist naturalist poet, or a transcendentalist of yore deeply engaged in the resistance of today?

Writing in The Los Angeles Review, Gillian Neimark marveled at Limón’s “extraordinary and fearless ability to marry colloquial language–even consciously clichéd, threadbare everyday speech–with disciplined and gorgeous linguistic flight,” darting from the quotidian to the “deep and abiding and eternal.” Though it hit big, The Carrying wasn’t the first time Limón knocked the wind out of her audience: Her 2015 collection, Bright Dead Things, earned her a National Book Award finalist nomination.

For years, now, I’ve kept Limón’s books of poems on my bedside table, where I revisit them after I finally get my young twins to sleep and I’m feeling empty and used up; when I need tender love or a good cry; when I need a nudge to bring my body into the outdoors, to watch the birds, to walk the dog, or get into the garden where Limón likes, as I do, to lose herself in work and wonder. In the early days of pandemic shutdown, with the world taut with anxiety and my marriage teetering on the edge of collapse, I re-read The Carrying and Bright Dead Things cover to cover, night after night, refracting the cost of continuing to stay and fight or throwing in the towel through the prism of Limón’s words.

Her poems didn’t offer an answer or advice, but held up a mirror, the sort that puts you face to face with your own experience. Her poems are staked to realism, often pointed and matter of fact: “I will never be a mother. / That’s all. That’s the whole thought,” she writes in her new collection’s “Foaling Season.” “Every now and then, his / teeth come at me once again, /he wants to teach me something, to get me / where it hurts.” Limón does not come at truth with the slant of Dickinson; she is, rather, more inclined toward a direct punch to the gut. Somehow, I still experience her poems as soft.

I spoke with Limón in late March. She was at home in Lexington, Kentucky, where she’s lived with her husband, Lucas, for more than a decade. Before that, she put in 12 years—“about two years too many,” she said—in New York, working in magazines, earning an MFA at NYU, writing, roaming the city with friends, and falling in and out of love. She was raised in Sonoma, California, and spent her college years in Seattle, Washington. Lexington was never the place Limón thought she’d call home, and she relocated there with mixed feelings and not a little bit of ambivalence. The city, itself, has played a leading role in her three most recent collections, with Limón’s evolving relationship to it playing out in her attention to its greenness, its politics, its thick summer heat, and its horses. These days, she said recently on “The Slowdown,” she doesn’t feel torn; Lexington is where she lives, where she loves. Right now, it is home.

Surrounded by houseplants and books in her home office, Limón lit up the screen, her gaze open and inquisitive, her voice velvety in its inflections. Her dark hair cascaded down past her collarbone onto the soft peach of her blouse. I found myself wishing, desperately, we were in space together, wondering what it would be like to feel the presence of a poet who writes “the body / is so body.” You might call Limón something of a phenomenological poet—much of what she brings to her poems is the physical experience of being in the world—and I told her it felt like something vital was missing, meeting her this way.

In the background, curtains framed Limón’s windows, and bright, clear light poured through. From my kitchen in upstate New York, I asked her what the season was like where she is. “Spring is the most drama-filled time in Bluegrass,” she told me. “There’s a lot of action and movement; it’s a little chaotic, and you feel it. It’s not just the flowers, everything is moving, the earth feels alive.”

The matter of aliveness is at the very core of The Hurting Kind, a collection that feels as though it’s right on time, with verse that hews close-to-the-bone and is uncommonly relatable in its unflinching, but deeply compassionate, treatment of human pain. Rather than working to dodge the hurt, to make meaning of it so that it might be transmuted from wound into scar, The Hurting Kind is an invitation to sink into the ache, pressing willingly on the bruises wrought by “being a body in time, being a body alive.”

The Hurting Kind is an invitation to sink into the ache, pressing willingly on the bruises wrought by “being a body in time, being a body alive.”

Much of Limón’s earlier work is imbued with a sense of grasping and effort, of scrambling up the slope, pouring oneself into spaces of yearning and want in hopes of affecting outcome. In Bright Dead Things, we saw the poet ripping carrot sprouts from the soil, hellbent on giving in to selfishness; in The Carrying’s “Dead Stars,” we hear her, in one of her most tenacious moments, veritably pleading:

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

And, fatigued but not disheartened in the same collection’s “Trying,” “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.”

Those who’ve anticipated with this collection more of that forceful doing might find themselves surprised. For though The Hurting Kind still bears the mark of Limón’s celebrated lyricism, her emotional voluptuousness and linguistic sensuousness, it does mark a turn for the poet: This is a poetics of letting things be. In “Invasive,” we see Limón determining to leave a “weed,” a fig buttercup, alone in her garden rather than eradicating it “the way I’m supposed to according / to the government website, because, right now there’s a bee on it. / Yellow on yellow, two things / radiating life. I need them both / to go on living.”

The poet’s insights are no less awe-struck and galling in this new light; if anything, we see Limón’s care and carefulness deepening rather than abating in The Hurting Kind’s poems, as in “In the Shadow,” when she writes,

I am always superimposing
a face on flowers… It is what we do in order to care for things, make them
ourselves, our elders, our beloveds, our unborn.

But perhaps that is a lazy kind of love. Why
can’t I just love the flower for being a flower?

How many flowers have I yanked to puppet
as if it was easy for the world to make flowers.

As a reader, I was surprised at how much solace I found in Limón’s shift of stance in her latest collection, as if I’d been absolved of the responsibility to chart a path, to solve a puzzle, to fix and make right. Whereas, once, the poet told me she felt giving up the frenetic pace of fighting, making, intervening was to relinquish her “foothold on this world,” now she’s found, in the decentering of self, great relief. “Something in me believed in overcoming,” she says in “A Good Story,” “But right now all I want / is a story about human kindness.” “It gives me a feeling that I don’t need to know all the things, that it’s not dependent upon me,” she told me.

This, Limón admits, is not an easy perspective to arrive at, nor is she consistent in her habitation of it. “Some days you have a hissy fit because your jeans don’t fit and you’re crying in your closet, and you’re like what happened? I was at one with the world and now…You know, that’s true, too.” It is, she says, a constant practice, and to know she is still on her way somewhere is to feel, as a reader, that you have a place alongside her in her learning.

“Is it okay?” Limón asks in the opening line of “The Magnificent Frigatebird,” before flinging toward the enormous birds bushels of adjectives as “a kind of offering, a practice of deep affection and deep praise.” Speaking of the fullness and lack of conclusiveness of that poem in a 2021 interview with poets Franny Choi and Danez Smith, Limón said it was an experiment in what it means to “make the poem larger,” and to work against both simplicity and epiphany. “I wondered,” she told me, “if poems could be poems without the transformative move. Could that deep observation be transformative? I realized, I think it can.”

The Hurting Kind is a work of deep humanity, of recognizing all that’s asked of us—human, rock, bird, tree—in the world, the admission and naming of all the hurt and past and future and beauty we haul about.

None of this is to suggest Limón has become discouraged or passive, but the moments and ways in which she chooses to react and intervene have changed, both in her life and her poems. These days, she told me, she is deeply concerned with care-taking, and with being sure she isn’t doing any harm. Still, she admits, she sometimes longs for the pugnacious forward thrust of youth, the “fire-in-the-belly kind of thing” that is the wellspring of action.

Looking upon a half-burned madrone tree in the Mayacama mountains of Northern California, Limón writes in “Salvage,” “I am reminded / of the righteousness I had before the scorch / of time. I miss who I was. I miss who we all were, / before we were this: half alive to the brightening sky, / half dead already.” She ends the poem with an apology: “I am sorry. / I am sorry I have been so reckless with your life.”

In The Hurting Kind, Limón resists the hubris of ascent, the frequent inclination of poets and their poems to create the illusion of apex where there isn’t any. The Hurting Kind finds Limón meandering, stopping to catch her breath and even nap, her attention no less rapt and her pen no less precise for her slower pace; she walks in the ways of Nan Shepherd and Robin Wall Kimmerer, not of Peter Matthiessen.

The collection’s poems challenge the often assumed status of poet as sage, or the poem as a vehicle of wisdom; “I don’t think I have any wisdom,” Limón told me, laughing. Instead, this collection finds Limón exploring ongoingness, the collapse of linear time, the pursuit of longevity, and what it means to write into and from a place of unknowing. “I am very interested in how poetry has not just saved my life, but allowed it to flourish and deepen,” Limón told me. “Poetry constantly reminds me of what it is to be in the world, to both struggle with it and love it.” In The Hurting Kind, we seem Limón more at peace with being all of piece.

If much of Limón’s previous work spoke of the mighty effort of pulling oneself upward, The Hurting Kind sings of the journey downward, into the mortality and interdependence of our bodies and the convoluted opalescence of memory, an acknowledgement of the mulching layers beneath our feet and our sameness with every other animate thing.

The poem “If I Should Fail,” finds Limón “snakelike / on my belly” in her garden, staring “long into fractures / and it seemed to me / a mighty system of gaps / one could slither into glimpsing that knowledge of / a sleek nothingness.” These are poems of acknowledgement and surrender rather than gnash; not of making, but of being made. Not sky, but dirt.

The Hurting Kind is a work of deep humanity, of recognizing all that’s asked of us—human, rock, bird, tree—in the world, the admission and naming of all the hurt and past and future and beauty we haul about. A testament to the fortitude it demands, and an acknowledgement of the toll it takes. To see one another this way, the poet has said, “is a kind of mothering, too; a holding and a way of being in the world that is worthy of value.”

To witness and to behold, Limón says in this collection, is enough. To read Limón’s The Hurting Kind in this ravaged moment is to find refuge right where we are; to bed down with a beloved, to lay down on the moss with the rain on your face. It is to come to terms with our thingness, our wholeness, our oneness. It is, as Limón writes in “Intimacy,” “to reach / out your hand and stroke / the deep separateness / of a beast, / that long gap / of silence between you.” It is both familiar and strange, invigoration and balm. It is mercy.

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The Hurting Kind Ada Limon 

Ada Limón’s The Hurting Kind is available through Milkweed in May 2022.

Sara B. Franklin
Sara B. Franklin
Sara B. Franklin is a writer and professor of oral history, food studies, and non-fiction writing at NYU Gallatin. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Afar and Travel & Leisure. She is the editor of the acclaimed 2018 anthology, Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original; co-author of The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook; and is currently at work on a book about legendary editor, Judith Jones (forthcoming from Atria/One Signal Publishers, a Division of Simon & Schuster), for which she received a 2020-2021 NEH Public Scholars Fellowship. She lives with her twin children in Kingston, NY.





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