Pretty Birds Past the Strip Mall

Ada Limón’s field guide for life on a damaged planet.
A bird hovers against a white backdrop crisscrossed with a faint grid. A purple shadow is visible below the bird.

To praise a book as luminous or dazzling is usually to resort to a blurber’s cliché. However, Ada Limón’s sixth collection of poetry, The Hurting Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2022), really does shimmer, albeit in the specific sense of the word the late anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose employed. This shimmer is essentially the radiant pulse of life across ecologies, as understood by the Aboriginal Yarralin people of Australia, among whom Rose conducted research on flying foxes. In her 2014 lecture “Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed,” Rose outlined her desire “to draw our attention to the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere and the terrible wreckage of life in this era.”

Like Rose, Limón concerns herself with all that’s being trashed and how to persevere—or even laugh—in the face of that awareness. She precedes her poems with an epigraph from the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik: “Though it’s late, though it’s night, / and you are not able. // Sing as if nothing were wrong. // Nothing is wrong.” Attuned to seasonal ebbs and flows, as well as to the collective human behaviors that alter those cycles, Limón organizes her latest book into sections titled “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter.” Surfing a brainwave similar to Rose’s, Limón seeks to spot the shimmer amid ongoing and undeniable ruin and wrongness, to see “past the strip malls and the power plants, / out of the holler, past Gun Bottom Road” as she puts it in “Drowning Creek,” to spy “the prettiest bird I’d seen all year / the belted kingfisher.” Crucially, shimmer, as it is understood by both the indigenous people who conceived of it and by Rose as she brought the worldview into Western use, is relational. Shimmer operates as a shout and an echo, a call and a response, an ethical and aesthetic web that enmeshes both the observer and the observed.

In the book’s complex and gorgeous six-part title poem, an elegiac meditation on the mortality of her grandparents and entire ways of pre-digital and agricultural life, Limón lays out what she means by “the hurting kind.” In the poem, she asks her grandfather about the breed of horse he had as a child, and he replies, “Just a horse. My horse, with such tenderness it / rubbed the bones in the ribs all wrong.” Limón adds, “I have always been too sensitive, a weeper / from a long line of weepers. // I am the hurting kind.”

Limón’s new work continues and expands the vulnerability and ecstasy of her previous collections, The Carrying (2018) and Bright Dead Things (2015). In The Carrying, she infuses her narratives with environmental details, especially details that contrast the Brooklyn milieu she was then leaving and the fields of the rural South she was heading toward. In Bright Dead Things, she meditates on the wonder and fragility of life overall, especially as seen through the experience of infertility, not quite accepting but not quite rejecting the grief that comes from knowing she likely won’t fulfill her desire to be a parent. She currently splits her time between Sonoma, California, where she grew up, and Lexington, Kentucky. Wild and domestic, the landscapes and animals of both places come to life in her work.

Late though it is in the game of human sentience, science is catching up to the intuitive understanding that many cultures and individuals have already had when it comes to life on Earth: everything is mutual, and nothing goes only one way. From the first poem in this collection, “Give Me This,” Limón draws her—and readers’—attention to precisely this mutuality, writing of a groundhog “slippery and waddle-thieving my tomatoes”: “I watch the groundhog more closely and a sound escapes / me, a small spasm of joy I did not imagine / when I woke.”

Limón’s publisher, Milkweed Editions, describes the book as being about “interconnectedness,” a buzzy concept in these sort-of-post-pandemic, definitely Anthropocene days, but Limón renders that term concrete, not conceptual. In “Where the Circles Overlap,” for instance, she writes of how the very glory of this overlapping can push the one who experiences it to the point of physical and spiritual pain: “At the top of the mountain / is a murderous light, so strong // it’s like staring into an original / joy, foundational // that brief kinship of hold / and hand, the space between // teeth right before they break / into an expansion, a heat.” 

Later in the same poem, she declares, “Bottlebrush trees attract / the nectar lovers, and we // capture capture capture,” evoking reciprocal capture, a key idea in the field of environmental humanities that denotes an event or a meeting “in which neither entity transcends the other or forces the other to bow down,” as Rose writes. “It is a process of encounter and transformation, not absorption, in which different ways of being and doing find interesting things to do together.”

To engage in reciprocal capture is to take a risk and be creative. As the philosopher Isabelle Stengers puts it, “we can speak of reciprocal capture whenever a dual process of identity construction is produced: regardless of the manner, and usually in ways that are completely different, identities that coinvent one another each integrate a reference to the other for their own benefit.”

The Hurting Kind offers insight into that process and how one can feel its benefit creatively and ethically. The encounters described—from “three guys I met in a Spanish hostel” to Rosie at the Hillside Cemetery to “Captain / Rhonda and her charred pontoon boat”—may at first seem inconsequential, but Limón reveals them to be deceptively vast, a basis on which to contemplate this question: “What is it to be seen in the right way? As who you are? A flash of color, / a blur in the crowd.”

Limón practices an ethics of care—not only of caring herself but also of trying to get others to do the same. That risky endeavor can easily implode into self-righteousness or sanctimony. In “Not the Saddest Thing in the World,” for example, Limón writes of finding a dead fledgling “too embryonic” to properly identify and notes, “Before I bury him, I snap a photo and beg / my brother and my husband to witness this // nearly clear body.” Such a sentiment might otherwise seem cloying, but here, Limón's imagistic clarity, directness of voice, and keen self-awareness pull her back from that brink.

In “Intimacy,” a poem about her mother’s calm and confident way with horses, Limón writes, “There is a truth in that smooth / indifference, a clean honesty / about our otherness that feels / not like the moral but the story.” Her triumph in these poems is that she never moralizes at the expense of story. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also funny, as when, in “The Magnificent Frigatebird,” she writes, “When I looked it up, I learned it was the Magnificent Frigatebird. / It sounded like that enormity of a bird had named itself.” In “Proof,” she writes of the pleasure of meeting the eyes of a kestrel: “A surge of relief comes like a check in the mail. / Look, I have already witnessed something other than my / slipping face in the fogged mirror.”

When the poetry of witness, as Carolyn Forché termed it, is invoked, critics often counter that even when it’s political, poetry doesn’t do or change anything and that lyrically recording trauma, whether personal or—in the case of much of Limón’s work—ecological, is mostly impotent. These ripostes are sometimes accompanied by a line from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” by W.H. Auden: “poetry makes nothing happen.” But in the practice of a poet such as Limón, the poetry of witness is not a passive way to make the witnesser feel a sense of hollow achievement but a way to create, as the title of one of her poems puts it, a “Sanctuary.” In that poem, she writes, “The great eye // of the world is both gaze / and gloss. To be swallowed / by being seen. A dream. // To be made whole / by being not a witness, / but witnessed.” Though Limón never uses the term reciprocal capture, her depiction of that phenomenon flips the script by which humans all too often position themselves at some hierarchical apex.

Her poems enact the reciprocal capture not only between humans and the natural environment but also between the living and the dead. “Why,” she asks, “do we quickly dismiss our ancient ones? Before our phones / stole the light of our faces, shiny and blue in the televised night, // they worked farms and butchered and trapped animals and swept houses / and returned to each other after long hours and told stories.” Here, she not only tells stories but also asserts values and makes arguments, her rhetoric gently apprehending readers, asking questions that invite deeper engagement, as when, in the aforementioned title poem, she concludes, “Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?”

Praising artists for their authenticity can be perilous given that art itself is constructed and artificial. Yet, in all of her books, Limón radiates a profound good faith. Even when she’s being critical—of human behavior, of unfavorable circumstances—she’s nonetheless constructive, issuing not condemnations of some permanently abased state but rather delivering astute observations and implying that readers might dig into their own best impulses and do better. For example, in “Hooky,” one of the funniest poems in the collection, she writes about skipping her college classes because “we decided to get as high as we could / and lie down under the cherry trees.” This small adventure starts out hilarious, then turns into a more momentous experience of self-examination when they realize, “The true and serious beauty / of trees, how it seemed insane that they should / offer this to us, how unworthy we were, bewildered / how soon we were nearly weeping at their trunks.”

In these decidedly pessimistic and chaotic times, Limón’s radical sincerity and goodwill feel revolutionary. Even the acknowledgments reflect her belief in a shared existence. “Thank you also, and always, to the trees and animals,” she writes. She oscillates between the natural world and human beings as entities often placed in a position to exert what might be considered dominion. She even celebrates species that have done their invading largely because of human activity. In “Invasive,” she writes, “I am trying to kill the fig buttercup / the way I’m supposed to according / to the government website,” but she stays her hand temporarily when she sees a bee on the plant: “Yellow on yellow, two things / radiating life.”

In a 2018 interview, Limón said, “The concept of intersectionality isn’t new for writers and poets; it’s where we live. We live in the liminal spaces where things are connected and where the threads of the universe show up in our hand like life lines.” The warmth of Limón’s poetic handling of these threads illuminates these life lines for her audience. In “Blowing on the Wheel,” she declares that her “secret work” is “to be worthy / of […] this infinite discourse / where everything is interesting because you / point it out and say, Isn’t that interesting?” Having set herself the goal of pointing out innumerable interesting things in every poem, she succeeds.  

In 1988, Philip Levine—who taught Limón at NYU, where she earned her MFA—observed that much American poetry “seems totally without people. Except for the speaker, no one is there.” If that landscape seems more populated today, it's due in part to a cohort of poets, including Limón, who emerged in the following two decades, emphasizing individual consciousness less than communities and collective circumstances. The Hurting Kind teems not just with other humans but also with animals and plants: the neighbor’s cat; cockroaches; the wild pansy; the fox, her “closest confidant”; “some raggedy squirrel”; “young whiptail lizards”; to name but a few.   

The shimmer that Rose describes invites a greater understanding of responsibility and obligation. As she explains, she is trying to figure out “how I might live an ethic of kinship and care within this multispecies family,” acknowledging that with this effort “comes a burden: the commitment to bear witness to the shimmering, lively, powerful, interactive worlds that ride the waves of ancestral power.”

The Hurting Kind is also a field guide for living on a damaged planet—for acknowledging the suffering inflicted by human choices and the way people often unmake ecologies and also the way people could choose to preserve and remake them. In “Cyrus & the Snakes,” about her brother and his entanglements with those slithering reptiles, Limón concludes, “I want to honor a man who wants to hold a wild thing, / only for a second, long enough to admire it fully // and then wants to watch it safely return to its life, / bends to be sure the grass closes up behind it.” Life-affirming can be another blurber’s cliché, but Limón’s affirmations shimmer so brightly they cannot be denied.

Originally Published: May 9th, 2022

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...