Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Another Place Your Bullshit Brain Exists

reviewed by Luther Hughes 

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pump
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

-Ada Limón, “How to Triumph Like a Girl

Bright Dead Things (Milkweed, 2015) is a beautiful tale of home and belonging. Ada Limón sings her song, expressing her ache for the capacity of what the heart can handle. We are alone. We are together. Things are picked up. Things are put down. And yet, we cannot help but love the way Limón is able to transform a scene, a metaphor, and a language in order to express the consistent change in daily life. How one yearns to control everything. How beautifully human it is to want; to desire.

The first section introduces us to shameless desire and confession. In the poem, “The Quiet Machine,” a great feeling of loneliness settles in: “I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way. There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street, there’s another way because I’m farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone.” Everything is quiet here. Every action is about being alone. It further launches us into these nuances. There is a truth to all of this: the repetition of the word, “there,” the prose block form encapsulating us—making us feel trapped, the language—how it moves slowly between each moment. Everything speaks in a rhythm. The line, “sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works,” comments on the way loneliness works. The external world seeping into your every being and it becomes the only thing you are able to hear. And then you cannot take any more of it. You are fed up. You are ready to move on.

After You Toss Around the Ashes

When she was dying, it was impossible to see forward to the next minute. What was happening—for whole weeks—was all that was happening and happening and happening. Months before that, I got the dumb soup wrong. How awful. It was all she wanted and I had gotten it wrong. Then, in the airless days when it was really happening, we started to power panic that we didn’t know enough. What should we do with her ashes? Water or dirt. Water or dirt. Once, she asked to just be thrown into the river where we used to go, still alive, but not living anymore. After it was done, I couldn’t go back to my life. You understand, right? It wasn’t the same. I couldn’t tell if I loved myself more or less. It wasn’t until later, when I moved in with him and stood outside on our patchy imperfect lawn, that I remembered what had been circling in me: I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.

The poem, “After You Toss Around the Ashes,” is my favorite piece from the second section. Limón expresses the feeling of guilt after a loved one has passed. When the speaker is discussing what to do with the ashes, it is real. And yet, simplistic in the way guilt and longsuffering is expressed. But to me, the most gut wrenching thing in this piece is the question, “You understand, right?” This single utterance directly speaks to us and the loved one who passed. As if trying to make sense of all of it, Limón reconciles with this feeling—the teetering thoughts of confusion—in order to get to the very end lines: “I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.” We are left with this feeling of being all of these things after one passes away. Somehow, we find beauty in the death.

This feeling follows us as we travel into the third section; a section about the external and how one interacts with it. The line, “Why are we forced into such small spaces together? / This life in a seedpod,” from the poem “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds,” speaks fervently towards the smallness of life. It is both rendering and elongated how Limón is able to craft lines like, “But I didn’t die. I went / back the next day, but in a t-shirt / and didn’t try to be pretty,” from “Oranges & The Ocean,” in order to break down one’s thought process about solitary environment. Or how the line, “Like a fist. Like a knife. / But I want to be more like a weed, / a small frog trembling in air,” from the poem, “The Good Fight,” urges us to find safety in the world’s ugliness.

This ugliness, this cultivation of how one sees the world when lonely, sets us up for the final section of the collection. A section that “is so painfully pretty at first, / then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just / another place your bullish brain exits, bothered/ by itself and how hurtful human life can be,” as said in the poem, “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road.” In this poem we see many of the collection’s themes; loneliness, the desire for the external while striving to understand oneself, a question of beauty, and the constant reminder of a physical body. When the poem asks, “What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?” we notice the process of trying to understand oneself. Even so much that the speaker is questioning womanhood next to manhood; it becomes apparent that the only thing that matters is humanhood.

The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road

That we might walk out into the woods together,
and afterwards make toast

in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s
wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our
legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix, 
jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,
I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley
when you first see it—the small roads back
to your youth—is so painfully pretty at first,
then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just
another place your bullish brain exists, bothered
by itself and how hurtful human life can be.
Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days
full of crow and shine, and then someone
has put engine coolant in the medicine
on another continent and not even crying
helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.
What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?
I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,
how he never told us, just stopped drinking
and sat for a long time in the low folding chair
on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes
soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only
subject. When he drove me to school, we decided
it would be a good day, if we saw the blue heron
in the algae-covered pond next to the road,
so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,
he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when
he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just
taken off when we rounded the corner in
the gray car that somehow still ran, and I
would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.
Heard the whoosh of wings over us.
That’s the real truth. What we told each other
to help us through the day: the great blue heron
was there, even when the pond dried up,
or froze over; it was there because it had to be.
Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone
for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn
with all my private agonies, but then I saw you
and the way you’re hunching over your work
like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,
I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,
still want to slow the car down to see the thing
that makes it all better, the invisible gift,
what we see when we stare long enough into nothing.