Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions, 2015; 128 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Reading Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things brings to mind a particular bit of wisdom from Richard Hugo: “The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another.” Though the book’s speaker is from Brooklyn, though she had a strained relationship with her stepmother, though she’s caught remembering her exes and fights with her husband over his, the poems resonate so deeply because of distance and time away from what was so familiar, so close. It’s in Kentucky, in the casual memories of, for example, “In a Mexican Restaurant I Recall How Much You Upset Me,” and in the love she has for her husband that speaker and poem find each other.
Despite the isolation she often feels, the speaker discovers strength and connection within her new community. In “Home Fires,” she witnesses:
The women of Appalachia [who] are watching
each home poisoned by bad air, deadly water,
their kin are losing teeth. Liver cancer,
gallbladders full of black coal sludge, and still
they stand for the mountains they loved, rage
in the coal muck for their blood-deep origin.
She marvels because “I am not that strong.” Because she can only wonder at how these women “stand the murderous fury.” Because, through it all, these women are “still singing.” Place has given them purpose, identity, and comfort, and it’s being gifted to her. In “Down Here,” she learns to translate the Kentuckian phrase “I hate it for you”:
It means, if the dog pees
on the carpet, I hate it
for you, Too bad for you.
It means, if you’re alone,
when love is all around,
We all tip our lonely hats
in one un-lonely sound.
There’s no way to oversell a book that has already received such praise, including recently being named a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, but even still, it must be noted how much the collection deserves the acclaim it’s gotten. These poems may not chronicle our hometown or our family, but Limón makes the book live within us too.