Ada Limón has perfected a kind of lyric movement on the page, a passionate thinking, a stylized form of speech that—in her latest book, The Hurting Kind—is more intimate than ever, and puts me in mind of that old idea that poetry is “overheard speech.” That to get to the place of seeing or saying, the poet must create the illusion of sharing something with some particular unseen other, which we listen in on. In this sense, Limón is going back to the realm of the private, after the more public-facing recent collections, like The Carrying, a book partly about infertility, about speaking about infertility, about sweeping shame aside. The Hurting Kind takes its title from a poem that takes it title from a line about feeling, about being receptive as much as perceptive, being too easily pierced, too much aware—the possessor of a consciousness criticized as being “too sensitive.” The voice of the poem, though, embraces this. Articulates being “a weeper / from a long line of weepers. // I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.” Proof of what? Well, for one thing, proof that life means. The words seem spoken as if to herself, within herself, a whisper we overhear: “No one said it was my job to remember” but “I will not stop this reporting of attachments.”
Intimacy itself is the poet’s concern, and she likes to take a single word and bring out all its resonances and possibilities into an urgent braid of image and rhetoric. The poet comes from a family of artists and writers, and she grew up around horses. She also studied drama. She is an artist of the feeling of thought, in Eliot’s phrase, an artist of the sensual mind. In “Bust,” for instance, a startling and mesmeric poem in The Carrying, the poet thinks through that one word, moves us in the poem from a routine trip to an airport, feeling tired and bewildered, listening to “a shock jock’s morning jawing … in its exaggerated American male register” carry on about the story of a twenty-four-year-old Colombian who had, in her impoverished desperation, trafficked cocaine inside her breasts, which had then ruptured, and the poet moves us then to TSA and the “passive pat-down of my outline” and then to the IRS, the dentist, to the flight itself, to the body on the flight, her body, itself, in all its subjection to the public. “Intimacy,” in The Hurting Kind, speaks back, in a way, to “Bust,” or speaks with it, uses a similar method, riffing and singing outward from that single word, teasing out the resonances in the word, but here the poet turns the method inward, moving from the horse in the world, to silence, to a reflection on her mother’s nature, to a soul-crucible of ideas, like “smooth / indifference, a clean honesty / about our otherness that feels / not like the moral but the story.” This is how the poem begins:
I remember watching my mother
with the horses, the cool, fluid
way she’d guide those enormous
bodies around the long field,
the way she’d shoulder one aside
if it got too close, if it got greedy
with the alfalfa or the apple.
I was never like that. Never
so confident around those
four-legged giants who could
kill with one kick or harm
with one toss of their strong heads.
Many poems in this spirit in the book take a commonplace and make it luminous—“Obedience” or “The Unspoken” or “Sports” or “Privacy.” Other poems stake out arguments, like “Against Nostalgia.” Which ends in a rejection of any sentiment that savors hardships as some necessary road:
If had known, the truth is, I would have kneeled
and said, Sooner, come to me sooner.
A book, then, not only about feeling, about the power and the burden of feelings, about the depth of pain matching the heights of pleasure, but also a collection by a poet always wary of easy sentimentality, who knows it’s easy to fall for.
JESSE NATHAN: You studied theater as an undergraduate. You have a talent for dramatizing a situation, or a phrase, or a bit of language—for drawing out the intensities and layers and surprising hidden things in seemingly straightforward images or scenes, like an animal raiding your garden, for instance, or the word “obedience.” How does that education in theater inform your work, your words? What has it taught you?
ADA LIMÓN: Thank you for this question. I think studying theater at the University of Washington’s Drama Department all those years ago, and growing up with theater and dance as a part of my life, it’s hard for me to separate the mind from the body. They’ve always been linked up, part of the whole. Poetry, for me, is a full-body experience. Whatever state my body is in when I write a poem, that’s part of the poem, the full sensory experience, the heat, the smells, the breath. The same is true when I hear or read a poem for the first time, it’s a bodily response, a corporeal event. When I went to study poetry, I was always reading poems out loud, not necessarily performing them, but it’s the only way I knew how to really experience them. And the same is true for me today. That background in my training or education has always felt important to me in terms of how I experience all art, and indeed, life.
But in addition to that, I think that acting in plays and training in theater gave me some idea of the power of simple language, that it wasn’t always about ornate sounds or complicated syntax, but that sometimes the most urgent words, the most useful words, were the words that were simply trying to connect, communicate. That same thing is true of dialogue. I learned a lot about dialogue from my undergraduate training. Now, I love hearing dialogue in poems and I think it’s because it feels lived, it feels part of a larger world where people exist and interact, and that’s important to me.
Mostly, I think all the arts are in community. Theater helped inform my poetry the way dance and music did. It’s the sense that poetry isn’t different, it isn’t written in the ivory tower, or meant to be read in silence on a hilltop, it’s part of our chaotic and beautiful world.