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Book Review: Ada Limón elevates pain, compassion through metaphor and observations of the natural world in ‘The Hurting Kind’

Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry, including “The Carrying,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Limón was also the host of 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.  (Randy Toy

A well-curated meditation on the human experience, Ada Limón’s “The Hurting Kind” follows a speaker who grapples with the complex throes of everyday life.

We’re carried poem by poem through the poet’s sixth and most recent collection as Limón elevates what some may otherwise see as small, meaningless moments and transforms those observations into lines. Through its four parts – beginning in spring and ending in winter – we encounter themes of grief, loss, love, family and nature on a journey toward understanding ourselves and the world.

The more I ruminate on Limón’s work, I find myself thinking about the way the poet builds on metaphor by stacking events to create connections across time and place and her ability to layer events as a means to string ideas, experiences and symbols together.

Such as in “Power Lines,” in which a speaker observes “Three guys in fluorescent vests” taking down a mulberry tree at a fence line. The 50-year-old tree hangs dangerously near the power lines, but the tree “didn’t care one bit about power.”

It’s, at first, a simple observation, as we’re introduced to a metaphor that examines the power individuals hold within themselves, while it also examines the power one may hold over others.

Then the poet introduces another figure into the poem through a recollection from a past interaction with a friend who “climbed a towering palm / right in the center of town” because he wanted “palm fronds for his patio.” The friend relays, “No one questions a Mexican in an orange shirt,” taking advantage of an occupation-related stereotype as he exercises his power to take control of it.

In contrast, the mulberry tree becomes a symbol of one who succumbs to another’s power as well as one of loss. “Now the tree is gone. The men are gone, just a ground-down stump / where what felt like wisdom once was” – the removal of the tree is fleeting, yet the memory of its 50-year existence remains, paralleling our own need to cope with the death of a loved one.

In another poem, “A Good Story,” we encounter a speaker who struggles to bring herself to tidying the home:

“My head is packed with cockroaches, / dizziness and everywhere it hurts. Venom in the jaw, behind the eyes, / between the blades.”

But the poem isn’t necessarily about an untidied home, headache or bodily pain. In the following lines the speaker recalls a story:

“My stepfather told me a story about when he lived on the streets as a kid, / how he’d, some nights, sleep under the grill at a fast food restaurant until / both he and his buddy got fired. I used to like that story for some reason, / something in me that believed in overcoming.”

The need to overcome adversity, Limón then writes, is the need for “a story about human kindness,” such as “when I couldn’t stop / crying because I was fifteen and heartbroken, he (the stepfather) came in and made / me eat a small pizza he’d cut up into tiny bites until the tears stopped.”

Now, it is unclear exactly what these final lines of the poem have to do with the speaker’s head being “packed with cockroaches.” But poems don’t need to be tied up with a bow. Limón leaves room for interpretation, giving readers the agency and space to contemplate its meaning for ourselves.

“A Good Story,” could be understood as a metaphor for the duality between pain (a head “packed with cockroaches”) and kindness, and the causes and effects of human interaction.

Such moments in Limón’s poetry are easily relatable because they draw so closely on lived, human experiences. And the success of her poetry may come from just that: As readers, we are able to substitute the speaker with ourselves. This coupled with an easy-to-follow diction makes Limón’s writing widely accessible.

But what I find truly moving within in “The Hurting Kind” is Limón’s efforts to address the natural and human worlds within the same breaths. In doing so, Limón invites us to seek a deeper understanding of empathy and compassion as she juxtaposes the human experience with various natural imagery such as water, trees and animals.

For example, in “It Begins with the Trees,” Limón personifies two cypress trees with humanlike characteristics that parallel two lovers:

“Two full cypress trees in the clearing / intertwine in a way that almost makes // them seem like one” and “They are kissing so tenderly / it feels rude to watch, one hand // on the other’s shoulder, another / in the other’s branches, like hair.”

In “And, Too, the Fox,” the “Fox / lives on the edges, pieces together / a living out of leftovers and lazy / rodents too slow for the telephone / pole.” Life, for the fox, is easier when existing on the periphery of an otherwise challenging world. The fox does not care “how long you watch” it or “what you need when you’re watching” or “what you do once he is gone,” as if the fox exists in a world without judgment contrasted against our own fears of what others may think. We then cannot help but become the fox, in a way, and wonder what it would be like to be so carefree of the world’s troubles.

And in “Open Water,” in her search to understand loss and grief, Limón equates a “body” with the body of water: “the sound of a body so persistent / in water I cannot tell if it is a wave or you / moving through.”

Limón’s “The Hurting Kind” asks us to consider the minutest of experiences through observing and connecting with the natural world and everything within it, whether a bee on a buttercup fig or the swelling of oceans or the branches of trees. We observe a constantly moving world in which humanity co-exists and, too, partakes in life’s experiences – the joys and sorrows, the good and the bad, and love and grief, while we must also consider ourselves and the compassion we place on friends, family and strangers.