Ada Limón closes her sixth book, The Hurting Kind, with a poem called “The End of Poetry,” which first appeared in the New Yorker on May 4, 2020. The date is important, barely a month and a half after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a period so fraught with uncertainty and anxiety that it felt possible that all the old ways of existence might collapse and break apart. This is not to say that “The End of Poetry” is a COVID poem exactly, just that it achieves what the best verse has always sought to do: reflect its time, its moment—like a psychic snapshot—and explore, along with us, the precise state of the world.
“Enough,” Limón begins the poem, “of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot, / enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy / and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and tis / of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god / not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds, / enough of the will to go on and not go on or how / a certain light does a certain thing.” The effect is that of a lament or dirge, a litany of all that we have lost.
And yet, Limón, named the United States poet laureate in July 2022, is too smart to let it go at that. Or perhaps it’s better to say that she is too alive. “Enough”—don’t we all remember what that felt like? “Weary and desperate,” as the poet puts it, in the line where the poem turns. The “enough” shifts there, becoming less about what we have had to give up than about what we have been made to hold. When she reaches the final line, “I am asking you to touch me,” we understand that what we have just read is less a poem than a prayer.
Something similar might be said about The Hurting Kind, which came out in 2022, in its entirety; this is a collection that wears its longing on its sleeve. “I am the hurting kind,” Limón writes in the title poem. “I keep searching for proof.”
A sense of yearning, or of inquiry, motivates nearly every piece in the collection, from the pointed “The Magnificent Frigatebird” to the charming “Blowing on the Wheel,” which looks back from the present to a time that may or may not have been simpler but in any case feels more complete. “It’s been a year / since I’ve seen him in person,” she almost whispers in “My Father’s Mustache.” What Limón is addressing is memory, the way it changes as we turn it over, and never more than when we look back from a point of crisis at a past that no longer seems accessible to us. Sharply rendered, attuned to the vagaries of both nature and human relationships, The Hurting Kind examines if not loneliness per se then a particular kind of isolation, the one many of us experienced at the start of the pandemic, when to be together meant we had to stay apart.•