Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, short-listed for a National Book Award, gazes unflinchingly at death. In “The Riveter,” for instance, the speaker appeals to tragic authority—the “Rosies of know-how, / those that had lost someone loved, those that had done the assembly line / of a home death”—in search of a series of procedures that might help manage the decline and death of her stepmother. But her attempts to formalize death are doomed no matter how scrupulous their design. After all, it is the body’s job
…to let the machine
of survival break down,
make the factory fail,
to know that this war was winless,
to know that she would singlehandedly
destroy us all.
Limón’s striking evocation of human life as entropic, destructive decline into death is not one-dimensional, however. These same ravenous forces animate life—pastoral, emotional, and lyrical—as well: the green grass is “savage” in its incessant growth; a woman wearing her dead stepmother’s shawl and ring into the uncertain possibility of a first date is “ruthless to survive.” In “Relentless,” Limón identifies a Bishop-like accumulation in the light that returns each morning: “and it is and it is and it is.” Life, it turns out, is as ceaseless, muscular, and inventive as death.
Limón is intent on meeting those forces on their own terms and on their own scale, and in the collection’s first poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” she issues and accepts just such a challenge—her “huge beating genius machine / . . . knows it’s going to come in first.” Such competitions are not always happily won, however. The desires of the stampeding heart often prove at odds with easy, or easeful, fulfillment, and Limón acutely chronicles the struggle to stake out an identity in a new marriage—to balance personal needs and personal impulse with interpersonal compromise. The poems throughout Bright Dead Things exist in silent solidarity with the speaker of “Service” who, tired of waiting for a man, pisses in the dirt outside a service station “like the hard bitch I [am].”
In the end, however, the forces at work in Limón’s poems eschew flight (the airport itch to “drastically / change [one’s] life”), take root, and evolve a vivid, vibrant form. The “problem,” and it is a welcome one, is that the thought of her partner “home with the dog, the field full / of purple pop-ups,” breeds something like fulfillment: “I want to be / who I am, going where / I’m going, all over again.”