flying high (and low) with ada Limón
by Beth Moore
When I first read Ada Limón’s latest poetry collection, Bright Dead Things, I was thirty-thousand feet in the air. My plane had just taken off from Boston for Virginia, and I was on my way to visit my husband, who had been away for several months for an army training. Excited as I was, I am a nervous flyer. While the flight attendant stood between the whirling death blades of the propellers and went over the safety procedures, I opened Bright Dead Things to calm my nerves. Halfway down the runway and still imagining all that could go wrong, I came across Limón’s poem, “The Problem with Travel”:
[…] I think of you, home
with the dog, the field full
of purple pop-ups—we’re small and
flawed, but I want to be
who I am, going where
I’m going, all over again.
It helped. Safely airborne, I found myself looking out the window and appreciating everything I knew and loved on the ground, everything “small and flawed.” In Bright Dead Things, Limón writes honestly about such heights of love and how they draw meaning from our being, ultimately, earthbound. “I am full of love,” she writes in “After You Toss around the Ashes,” “I am dying.” Like the doomed snake depicted in “Torn”—cut in half and trying to stay alive—we are each a bright dead thing, a meeting place for high and low alike:
Imagine now, how it moves still, both
sides, the tail dancing, the head dancing.
Believe it is the mother and father.
Believe it is the mouth and the words.
Believe it is the sin and the sinner—
the tempting, the taking, the apple, the fall,
every one of us guilty, the story of us all.
But then return to the snake, pitiful dead
thing, forcefully denying the split of its being,
longing for life back as a whole, wanting
you to see it for what it is: something
that loves itself so much it moves across
the boundaries of death to touch itself
once more, to praise both divided sides
equally, as if it was easy.
Bright Dead Things is in itself an attempt to praise divided sides equally, and many of its poems lend themselves to variations on this theme, whether discussing nature, race, relationships or religion. In “Mowing,” Limón describes a man “mowing 40 acres on a small lawn mower” while also acknowledging how difficult it is to do the opposite, how hard to escape the wish to “be less clumsy and loud, less crow, more cool white pine” and “just to let the savage grass grow.” In “The Quiet Machine,” she writes about “learning so many different ways to be quiet,” but life is loud and insistent—there is an undeniable “silence that comes back,” and it “wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore.” Limón’s poetic voice does not ultimately “stay safe and seek shelter” like “the calm voice on the TV” in “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds.” It goes out into the world and it lives, and in doing so it finds life and love in everything, even in life’s ending and love’s losses:
I thought everything was behind me:
death, and dying, and sickness.
I didn’t know I was changing my life—
that I would have done anything,
that what was left of me would become
so ruthless to survive.
(from “What Remains Grows Ravenous”)
The last poem in Bright Dead Things, “The Conditional,” takes us to the ultimate low, inviting us to look up from the ground into an apocalyptic sky as it burns. But it also encourages us to own our living, fragile, earthbound selves, to speak aloud the truth that we are here:
Say we spend our last moments staring
at each other, hands knotted together,
clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.
Say, It doesn’t matter. Say, That would be
enough. Say you’d still want this: us alive,
right here, feeling lucky.
By the time my plane came in to land, the sun was going down and the sky turned fiery. I hugged my husband, and his arms around me were warm and familiar and transient. In a little less than a week I would have to let him go again, for several more months of training. But in that moment, we were there—alive, in love, and lucky—and it was more than enough.
Beth Moore was outreach coordinator, volunteer coordinator, and festival assistant to the wonderful January O’Neil for the 2012 Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem. Her poetry has appeared in Pangyrus, and her first work of fiction, The Truth and the Life, was published by Alternative Book Press in 2014. She currently works in books marketing at The MIT Press, and lives not too far away in Medford, MA with her husband, Nathan. You can find her online at elizabethmooreauthor.com.