In the myth of La Llorona, she drowns her children
to destroy her cheating husband. But maybe she was just tired.
from “The Hurting Kind”
Award-winning author Ada Limón is at her best in her most recent collection, The Hurting Kind, from Milkweed Editions. Poetry readers have come to expect greatness from Limón, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award, and that is exactly what the author offers in The Hurting Kind. Limón utilizes various forms to explore everything from the loss of loved ones to the impact of divorce, often juxtaposing these experiences with images of nature that act as a conduit for the author’s philosophical awakening.
Let me first admit that this collection stopped me in my tracks. I cannot pretend to be objective about it, in large part because I have been flooding text messages with lines from Limón’s poems for weeks. Every time I promised a friend that I wouldn’t send another poem, I broke that promise within minutes. My most brief statement on the quality of this collection is this: If you have space to teach just one book of poetry, make it The Hurting Kind.
As an educator, one of the first things I consider when I read a collection is whether or not it’s accessible to students. What Limón manages with The Hurting Kind is rare; the poems are at once highly specific and yet broadly relatable, both technically masterful and easily comprehensible. In sum, this collection works equally well for both the avid poetry enthusiast and the reluctant reader. If I was going to try and convince someone that poetry is our most important verbal art, I would start with The Hurting Kind.
“Sanctuary” begins with a speaker who considers the possibility of slipping “into another’s green skin” as an entry into the relationship between the observer and the observed. She admits that she was once “tricked into believing/I could be both an I/and the world. The great eye…” Ultimately, the speaker concludes with the power of being truly seen: “To be made whole/by being not a witness,/but witnessed.” This poem typifies Limón’s ability to ground poems in finite moments while also pushing ever outward toward profundity. Another poem, “The Magnificent Frigatebird,” returns to the notion of the gaze, decentering the trope of men looking out windows and placing a woman there instead. Like “Sanctuary,” the poem subtly engages with feminist theory around the function of the gaze while remaining accessible to even the most casual readers.
Limón also considers the impact of divorce on a child from the distance of adulthood in “Joint Custody,” beginning with a question for the younger self: “Why did I never see it for what it was:/abundance. Two families, two different/kitchen tables…” Though the poem is relatively short, Limón deftly captures the complexities inherent to being a child of divorce, the speaker offering that “I was taken/back and forth on Sundays and it was not easy/but I was loved each place…” Despite the awareness of that love, the speaker battles the difficulty of constantly missing one home while also being relieved to be home. This is a vital and rare foray into how children process divorce, and how the experience of two homes shapes us well into adulthood.
The Hurting Kind is a collection that begs to be shared, and one that will inevitably show signs of wear as readers carry it with them for weeks at a time. Almost every page offers lines that I am compelled to share with those around me, but I will close with the final lines of Limón’s jarringly honest prose poem, “Calling Things What They Are.”
I like to call things as they are. Before,
the only thing I was interested in was
love, how it grips you, how it terrifies
you, how it annihilates and
resuscitates you. I didn’t know then
that it wasn’t even love that I was
interested in, but my own suffering. I
thought suffering kept things
interesting. How funny that I called it
love and the whole time it was pain.