For the poet Ada Limón, the evidence of poetry is everywhere. He connects big ideas – like fear, isolation, even death – to small details – like field sparrows, a box of matches or “the body moves / freely”.
The sixth and final collection of the award-winning poet, The hurtful kind, testifies to the power of such sensitivity. Limón enjoys looking at the world, and although she notices its imperfections, she also enjoys living in it.
As in his previous remarkable collections – Carrying won the National Book Critics Circle Award and before that, Shiny Dead Things was a National Book Award finalist – Limón is acutely aware of the natural world of The hurtful kind. And she has the gift of recognizing its little mysteries to fully grasp its history and its abundance.
As an example, the poem “The First Fish” stands out. The speaker is at the edge of a lake, reeling from her very first “big fish” and “immediately. Catastrophe on the rod”, writes Limón. She wants to release the fish but an “old man tree” screams at her to hang on. Then, “seeing at last / the black carp coming my way, black eye / black eye”, she asks:
Is this where I have to apologize? Not
only for the fish, but for the whole lake, the land, not just for me
but for generations of plunder and disappearance.
The speaker feels “barbaric” – apprehending not only the fish eye on her, but also the eyes of her “ancestors”. “I wanted to catch something, it wanted to live,” she wrote. So goes the hierarchy of the world. Yet, at the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledges the flaws of this order:
…I killed something because
I was told, the year I met my twin and buried
him without crying so that I can be called brave.
This form of attention, linked to the relationship between man and the natural world, is typical of Limón’s poems. The poet often directs this attention to herself – learning from nature how to interact with her feelings, reactions and memories. The power of attention, Limón conveys, is about discovering how an individual’s experience might fit into the collective experience.
But in The hurtful kind Limón pushes his method even further to ask: isn’t it enough to ask? The collection, divided into four parts, evolves from spring to winter. The reader’s attention is expected to follow through the seasons, guided by the poet on where to look and how.
Yet there is an instant break in this expectation. As in “The First Fish”, the poems also reveal that the reader is also regarded by the world.
In another poem, “Sanctuary”, she writes:
… I have already been
deceived into believing
I could be both a me
and the world.
This is Limón’s push – that to be “watched” by the world is to be an “I”. The poet draws attention to the act of being seen and simply asks us to let go:
to be made whole
by not being a witness,
So we tend to search for answers, as if our “integrity” rested on knowing our place in the world. And a poem, vigilant, tracks the feelings as if it were a job. Limón wonders, could the same poem revel in the simple fact of being?
In the titular long poem “The Hurting Kind”, she writes, “I’ve always been too sensitive, a mourner / from a long line of mourners. I’m the hurting kind. I keep looking for proof.”
Knowing one’s “gender” – one’s lineage – can answer a lot of questions for us. It can connect us to the world, make us feel less alone. At one point in the poem, the speaker’s mother says, “You can’t sum it up”, while the GPS reads directions to the destination:
So I turn left, happy to have instructions.
Tell me where to go. Tell me how to get there.
She means a life, of course. You cannot summarize.
Above all, The hurtful kind demands our attention to remain tender. Knowing that the world is there to guide us and lead us astray. Near the end of the long poem, Limón writes, “I won’t stop bringing back attachments. / There’s evidence everywhere.” So don’t stop looking. Just be open to what you might find. And know that the world is watching you too.