Reviewed by M. Roberts
In a world increasingly cynical about love and where form seems to dominate function, Ada Limón argues for sincerity. She conceives a man in a gray suit and makes him her hero, navigating his battle against artificiality in life and love (and even hardware). In her storybook in poetry This Big Fake World, Limón weaves a hopeful narrative about finding purpose in a dysfunctional world, begging the question: why not write a story?
Broken into three sections and sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue, This Big Fake World bears a clear narrative arc, requiring an investment (even on re-reading) similar to that of a short story. Limón’s prologue prepares readers to meet her characters, and reveals her hand from the beginning:
and let these small people rise up
and recover, let the man in the gray suit
be our hero for once, the woman
at the hardware store, the drunk,
and make each one of them remind us
that we have all come out of basic need,
some gnawing thing, some hunger.
Keep in mind, though, that the woman at the hardware store is not a drunk. Rather the drunk is a separate character (Lewis, who in an injection of absurdity into Limón’s work, mainly appears through letters to Ronald Reagan). Limón prepares us for a story of love and angst, where the domestic-heroic man in the gray suit’s failing marriage keeps him at arm’s length from his attraction to the equally damaged hardware store lady.
The three parts of the story follow typical narrative pattern: our characters are introduced, their crisis revealed, their solutions found. To do this, Limón invokes a familiar tone, inviting readers into her community of observers. The man in the gray suit is “our hero,” and thus the story becomes universal. The drama is familiar, Limón’s insights not singular. This works both for and against Limón. Her story is ultimately accessible, her call for meaning answerable, but at the same time the poetry itself in This Big Fake World risks being overshadowed by its own sense of allegory.
Limón does an excellent job weaving the theme of appearance and reality, questioning notions of form and function. For the man in the gray suit, it seems a matter of control. Nails become a recurring image in Limón’s book, as our hero uses his purchase of nails as an opportunity to get close to the hardware store lady. In “Between Her and Her Friends He Was Known as Mr. Hammer,” the man in the gray suit pretends to do work on his roof while watching her:
He wondered why he needed
to pretend to hammer,
and not just hammer.
One made him feel dirtier than the other,
the hammer noiselessly
avoiding the nail.
At the beginning of the third part, where the hero’s marriage unravels to his benefit, Limón reveals his growing inner-tension:
Our leading man is worried about the number of nails he keeps
buying from the lady at the hardware store. His garage is full of
every kind of nail you can imagine, and he with nothing to fix, but
maybe himself. He starts a note to his wife that he later crumples.
It starts, “Being I have so many nails, I wish to be useful to
Here Limón tries to show us what it means to find function in a world composed of facades.
The strength of Limón’s voice is its familiarity. She is casual in her diction, which at its best enables her reader access to powerfully simple images. Her most beautiful moments come from brief observations that keep the mind’s eye moving and allow the story to progress without becoming predictable. For instance, as the hero and Lewis sit at the bar discussing his wife’s leaving, Limón takes us to the streetscape with deceptively simple but captivating beauty:
Our hero watches a small yellow dog
outside, its leash wrapped too tightly
around the No Something sign.
It begins to snow as a banjo plays
from the radio and the dog looks up
awfully surprised at his luck.
Simple moments like these capture the best of Limón’s conversational style, creating an artful image with rhythmic texture distinctive from her more expository moments.
This Big Fake World wraps up nicely, giving it a storybook feel that jaded adults might find soothing. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, Limón tells us in an epilogue that seems a little heavy-handed:
The object is to not simply exist in this world
of radio clocks and moon pies, where holidays
and lunch breaks bring the only relief from
the machine that is our mind humming inside . . .
She begins, then calling for all of us to “make a fire out of / everyday things . . .” Limón wants us to revel in this world, in its seeming junk and clutter. In the end, she says, “Somewhere along the banks of this liquid world / let all of us hold close to the lost and the unclear, / and, in our own odd little way, find some refuge here.” This is good enough, but what of the reader? With the hero finally approaching the hardware store lady and his friend finally safe at rehab, things seem nicely wrapped up, leaving us to wonder where the lost and the unclear might actually be found in This Big Fake World. For its moments of beauty and universal insights, Limón’s book still seems driven by its overarching narrative message rather than the poetry itself.