Ada Limón’s poem “The Rewilding” is confusing in an irksome rather than invigorating way, and is unable, finally, to give the speaker’s serious ideas the voice they deserve. On first read, one senses a politics that wants to break out, a problem seeking to be solved rather than merely beautified. Approaching the piece again, one senses only that the various directions the piece tries to take aren’t, individually, given the room they need to develop, nor the time they deserve—ironic for a poem about ‘rewilding.’
This will be the key rub for Limón’s speaker, and for us as readers: how closely must form attend subject(s) in a poem that wants to ‘make wild again’?
The title and the setting of the piece want a reader to critically recall the elements of the pastoral mode that have, perhaps too easily, matched human subjects to their landscape—land-idolatry; a focus on sites of symbiotic relationships between people and the earth (the turned field, the bleating flock of sheep driven by dogs and the shepherd’s staff); and admiration of the ‘fecundity’ of the world play major parts. In Limón’s case, a confused rhetoric, a penchant for a too-neat syntactic regularity, and the typical vagueness of our poetic moment don’t undermine our expectations as much as they simply underwhelm, everywhere. Indeed, the moment in the poem where that pastoral tradition’s ‘retrograde’ or ‘conservative’ ‘liabilities’ (as they’ve been called) might turn towards a more complex reworking is, unfortunately, the exact moment where our confidence in the speaker collapses:
This land and I are rewilding.
How so? And will the poem mark the process? Why this land and not others? The primness of tone in the speaker’s claim is counterintuitive to giving oneself to the wildness of unmanaged land; and flavored, I think, with just too much rhetorical performativity. Certainly rewilding isn’t marked in the field-like uniformity of the lines which, however they vary in length, always break only after the completion of a phrasal or clausal whole. Listen for the regular meeting of phrase and line end:
[. . .] Only me and the white bones of an animal’s hand
revealed in the silt.
[. . .] so much bastard beauty. Abandoned property.
[. . .] Let the subject be
[. . .] I don’t want anything,
not even to show it to you—
Notice that this unity flattens tone. These are declaratives, but they don’t pop or strike the way declaratives can and, in fact, their commonness in the poem fatigues the ear, lulls the reader by making every turn expected and unsurprising. Compare Limón’s lines, say, to William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”—perhaps the Ur-example in American poetry of the poem of competition between human and Natural:
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-
I pay particular attention to the irregular syntax and the texture created by consonants and repeated sounds; the line breaks give opportunity to consider what Ellen Bryant Voigt calls the ‘half-meaning’ created between the end of one line and the start of the next, and these breaks seem especially good at representing the sudden bursting forth of the strange, tough flora of a cold spring. That is, in part, how the material in “Spring and All” becomes mimetic in a way Limón’s “The Rewilding” never does, and the reader is sorry for it.
The rhythmic flatness, in fact, finds counterpart in the litany of uninflected images and evocations that follow the introductory question, ‘What should we believe in next?’—itself not so much hovering between the rhetorical and the interrogative as not meeting the conditions of either—and infects nearly the whole piece:
Daniel Boone’s brother’s grave says, Killed by Indians.
We point at it; poke at it like a wound—
Below the grave, a cold spring runs.
Clear, like a conscience.
Everything is just slightly ajar, and those first two lines are too bulky to be so lacking in heft. The nod to our colonial past—’Killed by Indians’—is insufficient to the politics it suggests (those of insular critique, embarrassed reckoning with a ghastly past; a politics we’re much in need of today). The sound, too, of ‘point at it; poke at it like a wound— / history’s noose’ is allowed to trump the necessity for precise imagery. The plosive beat of ‘point’ and ‘poke’ seem reiterative (but, mark, not mimetic) of the action, a move repeated later with ‘bastard beauty.’ And though the o-sounds in ‘wound’ and ‘noose’ force the mouth to make ropy loops of sound, surely the notion of history’s being a noose is one of the more confusing images a reader might work with—its employment here can’t counterbalance the connotative power the image of a noose has in the American imaginary, so the word seems imprudent even as the line seems without purpose. The mismatch between the attempt at rhetorical weight, and the image deployed to imply it—’Clear like a conscience’—is dull, and a move too common to “The Rewilding.”
Limón’s approach to metaphor knocks the poem askew. That ‘cold spring’ brings the echo between ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’ a little too quickly to mind, ghosting the phrases ‘stream of consciousness’ and ‘clear conscience’—remarkable only for proximity of cliché. As with ‘noose’ and ‘Killed by Indians,‘ the language seems insufficient to the ideas asking for representation. The content balanced on these images dovetail with the later lists and declarations of the speaker, and make for a saccharine read; the tone never persuades.
Even the poem’s most successful moment—the refined lyric eroticism of ‘flower mouth, / pollen burn, / wing sweat’—is bookended by said tonal compromises. A too-facile prurience and underwhelming politics precedes the tercet; and, as we approach a day ‘undress[ing]’ in ‘wet Southern heat,’ we’re lead to a defensive approach to the too-common equation of the female body and the landscape: ‘I don’t want to be only the landscape.’ The tone is reflexive, positing a speaker that is already there, already equated with the landscape and is, in a politically weighted sense, ‘resisting.’ The indecorous ‘buried bone’ successfully brings any synaesthetic momentum generated by the tercet to a halt, and branching off begins again.
The neatness of the lines hushes the piece in a way that undermines the intensity the content (once again) deserves. The content, too, is diminished by the speaker’s trying various approaches rather than perfecting one; the erotic, the pastoral, the political, and the confessional are all ‘there’ in the poem, but no one mode or approach receives devoted attention. The speaker’s attempt to manage making wild again in subject with conveying what makes wild in content puts the elements of her poetry in conflict rather than concert. In an orchard abandoned, the unpruned trees lean under the weight of their unimpeded, erratic branching—something similar has happened in “The Rewilding.” The piece is at once cluttered and unfruitful. Does one see again that the managed and sculpted tree bears the fullest peach?