So Much Bastard Beauty
Bright Dead Things
By Ada Limon
Milkweed Editions, 2015
Before she moved to my dead-end town to be with me, my wife asked me how long we’d have to live here.
“She graduates in 12 years,” I told her.
“12 years,” she said, and looked at my hand lying on hers on the arm of the large chair I inherited from my grandmother, a piece of furniture older than either of us. “I can do 12 years.”
My daughter finished second grade this spring, so we’re down to an even decade. 120 months. A little over 521 weeks. Counting smaller units than that just gets depressing.
Because Here is the middle of nowhere. Here is a small town in an agricultural county in Ohio in which the poultry outnumbers the people. Here there are full page ads for gun shops in the Sunday paper, but not a single bookstore. And Here is where we’ll find ourselves until we’re the parents of a legal adult.
Ada Limon’s 2015 collection Bright Dead Things begins with a poem in which she compares herself to a female race horse, imagines an “8-pound female horse heart” beating in her chest, and knows she’s going to come in first. It’s a lovely piece on its own, but it isn’t until we find ourselves knee-deep in the long field grass of northern Kentucky as Limon describes her life in that rural state that we begin to understand the deeper resonance of the poem.
Limon grew up in a small town in northern California and moved to Brooklyn as a young adult. She lived in New York most of her adult life before moving unexpectedly to the bluegrass region of Kentucky with her boyfriend in her mid-thirties. The first section of Bright Dead Things is rooted very deeply in a sense of place, a new place, a rural spread viewed with eyes that have been accustomed to buildings and people, a heart and mind that aren’t quite sure what to do with so much open horizon, so much silence, so much untamed wild. There is a strong ambivalence here, but one that is trying to calm itself, to lean toward hope, to see beauty.
In “During the Impossible Age of Everyone,” one of the book’s early poems, Limon describes Kentucky’s pioneering past and the long line of people who have settled there before Limon and her partner, she strips away the commonness of rural life with this simple conclusion: “People have done this before, but not us.” The fact that countless millions have lived in settings like the one in which she finds herself is meaningless, except perhaps to confirm it can be done. This rural life, a life many would consider boring, is a singular experience for her, an unexplored land, an unmapped coast. Limon is intent upon pushing through her own misgivings and fully taking in what is around her in this foreign place. As she says in the same poem, “I’d like not to be traffic, but the window shaking.” She’d like to let the river of human and mechanical noise flow past; she’ll dip her toes in, and watch the light on the water. What she begins to take in is the terrible beauty in and around wild, beat-down places where humanity has, at times, barely clung on to a living. In the poem Rewilding, she says:
There remains the mystery of how the pupil devours
So much bastard beauty. Abandoned property.
The land and I are rewilding.
This beauty does not, however, wash away her misgivings. She is still a city artist in a wild place, and a brown person in a white state. This will never be completely home, however much loveliness she takes in, however much she “rewilds.” In the central poem of this section of the book (and perhaps the book as a whole), “State Bird,” Limon begins by telling her lover, “Confession: I did not want to live here.” By the poem’s end, she has qualified the emotion: “But love, I’ll concede this: / whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird.”
My wife grew up in Chicago, the granddaughter (on her dad’s side) and great-granddaughter (on her mother’s side) of Mexican immigrants. She spent her life in the city, went to college there, worked there as an adult, and had no real plans of leaving or marrying until we realized we were going to choke on the air in our lungs if we didn’t start breathing it in the same house. Unfortunately, that had to happen here, in the small Ohio town I’ve lived in since childhood. I have a daughter from a previous marriage, and my ex-wife and I share equal time with her. If my wife and I were going to have a life together, it couldn’t start in Chicago or any other city we might pine for. It would happen in a small town where it’s common to get stuck behind monstrous farm equipment on the county highways, the county fair is the biggest event of the year, and the seasons are marked off by planting and harvest. This alone would be a change for her; that the town was 96.7% white at the 2010 census was another. We had a conversation early on about the years we would have to spend here and when we could leave, the years till my daughter graduates from high school, a conversation we relive often. My daughter is eight-years-old. There is a decade left to our time here, a decade that can feel fleeting when we stare over a field at sunrise or walk down a railroad track into the cool gust of a storm and wonder at the beauty of this place, a decade that can feel eternal when yet another rebel flag waves from a pickup truck, yet another Trump sign stakes from a front yard, yet another transphobic or homophobic or racist comment is overheard in a public place. We drive an hour to the nearest art theater.
Reading Limon’s reflections of the transition from city life to rural resonated loudly in these spaces. My wife moved here for love, and doesn’t charge that to me. We’ll move away some day, and this knowledge leads me to try to see this place while I’m still here, to try to quiet the angst that can so easily drown the young in a place like this and try to see it, to see its wildness and praise it for that.
In the book’s second section, Limon explores grief in a series of poems that deal with her stepmom’s death. Like her relationship to her new landscape in Kentucky, her emotions toward her father’s wife are mixed. She loved her, she was hurt by her; she loves her still, she hurts still. She is present at her death, holds her as she dies. She rages, and she seeks to forgive. In one especially affecting poem in which she talks to her mother on the phone not long after the death of her stepmother, she remembers the moment of death, its anticlimax, the way it was defined at the moment of passing more by absence than occasion. She concludes this with a statement of fact and a grasp for peace through the shadows of night: “light comes up / over the mountains and it is and it is and it is.”
Part three of the book is the collection’s spiritual adolescence, a series in which Limon shakes off the mature circumspection of the opening pastoral passages and the gravity of the section on grief and entertains nostalgia, mischief, confession, and a bursting and flowering into life. She remembers an old lover coming to bed at 4 a.m. and finding a welcome there, and remembers the first time she had sex as a teenager and the kinship she felt with wild things as she and her boy sat in the yard in their stoned, euphoric afterglow. The poems here are disheveled and unquiet; she and they will not behave. Here we get the imagery of wild nature in its fury juxtaposed against her own teenage and young adult missteps and triumphs. In “The Wild Divine,” the poem in which she tells us about her first sexual consummation as a teenager, her language is breathless, tripping over itself with full and reckless feeling:
After we tumbled and fought and tumbled again,
he and I sat out in the backyard before his parents
came home, flushed and flowered and buzzing
with the quickening ripples of blood growing up
and I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed
from the new touching that seemed strikingly
natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.
As they sit in the headrush of this awakening, the neighbor’s horse wanders into their yard and sidles up to them. They rub his nose and feel his strength,
and I thought, this was what it was to be blessed—
to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond
the body and its needs, but went straight from wild
thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.
In “Oh Please, Let It Be Lightning,” the final poem of this section, Limon writes of traveling through the mountains with her partner, heading toward their new home in Kentucky and their life ahead, reflecting on everything they’ve left behind–the bright lights, the bustle. The atmosphere above their car punctuates the transition they’re living through with thunder and ice. “New York City seemed years / away and all the radio stations had unfamiliar / call letters and talked about God,” she tells us. And as they hurtle toward a quiet more jolting than any screaming city, she yearns for the lightning to strike and sizzle on the surface of their lives, “shining / and mad, and so furiously hot it could kill us.” The full-lunged fear and joy in these lines is palpable, and brings to mind the long drive across Indiana in the middle of the night after I’d driven to Chicago to pick up my partner and bring her back to Ohio. We got pulled over by bored cops in a deadbeat town in the middle of the Hoosier state around 2 a.m. for having too much baggage in the backseat, driving a little too fast. The cops fumbled over her passport card, unsure whether it counted as legal identification. A couple days later we signed my daughter out of school and went to the courthouse in another town, slipped candy ring pops on our fingers, and told a very nice judge we’d do all the things we promised. It was reckless, and it was the surest I’ve ever been about anything.
The book’s fourth and final section moves toward peace, recognizes the adaptability and knack for survival that tells us we were once wild things. This is not a clean acceptance; the poet is not past ambivalence. She speaks of her heart at the outset here as “a new / bright carnal species, more accustomed to grief, / and ecstatic at the sight of you.” We can marvel at the beauty of a wild space without denying the decay that testifies to its hopes long since dashed. We can love without denying the hurt that has brought us to it. As she finishes one poem here,
…we’re small and
flawed, but I want to be
who I am, going where
I’m going, all over again.
The book takes its title from an early poem in which Limon recounts having been fascinated as a child by the colorful tops of carrots growing in her father’s garden, so fascinated she snapped off every single root and carried them to her father, expecting approval rather than the justified scolding she received. “I loved them: my own bright dead things.” The artistic uncertainty principle runs through this poem, the sense that what we observe, we change; what we love, we hurt. What the poet holds in this collection, she knows will show the weathering of that child-like clutching at beauty, but is worth holding nonetheless. Life and love, for Limon, are worth the loss that delivers them to us after the long night. Soaring with eyes wide is worth flaming out in the upper atmosphere, “lit up by the victory of my disastrous flight.”
David Nilsen is the editor and lead critic for the Fourth & Sycamore lit journal, and works as a librarian in Ohio.