Thursday, April 03, 2008

this big fake world: a story in verse by Ada Limón

Pearl Editions, 2007
Reviewed by Sea S. Perez

This big fake world, Ada Limón’s second book and winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize, begins with a hypothesis:

      If this place that we live in includes
      the kid with the chemicals and the lot
      of old boats and carpet squares covered
      with a sea of rocks from any given river,
      wouldn’t two people deserve to meet here,
      somewhere down the street before the light
      turns green, or before their hearts explode
      from one dumb tragedy or another. (1)

Limón’s “story in verse” proves that a woman at the hardware store, a man in the grey suit (our hero), and our hero’s friend, Lewis (the drunk), can remind us “that we have all come out of basic need, / some gnawing thing, some hunger” (1).

The narrative revolves around our hero, a traveling businessman in an unsatisfying marriage. What separates this big fake world from most stories of middle class dystopia is Limón’s unique way of crafting the inner life of her characters:

      His wife said, “If you were a movie star,
      you’d be Mark Harmon.”

      He got up then, left the door open
      and walked down toward the river.

      Mark Harmon wasn’t really
      a movie star—and she knew it.

      He felt safe among the warehouses
      with all their “wares” so useful.

      One warehouse said IDEAL FIRE
      in the color of wheelbarrow rust.

      He thought it was strange
      that what they made were fire

      extinguishers. The “ideal fire”
      being the fire one could easily put out. (14)

Our hero, to escape his passionless marriage, becomes infatuated by the hardware store woman and expresses this passion by buying nails from her. His garage fills will every kind of nail, yet he has “nothing to fix, but maybe himself.” He even begins a note to his wife (which he later crumbles) that began: “[b]eing I have so many nails, I wish to be useful to someone” (51).

That someone, ironically, is the hardware store lady, who shares our hero’s sense of loneliness and alienation. In “A Particular Fast Food and Its Particular Brand of Melancholy,” Limón sketches our heroine’s life:

      It only happens when she passes
      Kentucky Fried Chicken, especially
      Kentucky Fried Chicken in other countries
      with long lines and bright posters
      that make things look familiar,
      but not necessarily appetizing.

      Then she wonders, What part of the human
      body is kindness stored in,
      where is it situated in the bone?
      When will she be able to wish her ex-husband
      good luck and mean it,
      be a well-wisher, a do-gooder, get wings?

      Is it something she could see, some sharp
      bony mass sticking out of the ribs?
      If it was fried, could she eat it?
      The neon signs in Kentucky Fried Chicken
      make it simple, but more hurtful in a way,
      saying, it’s just been too long since she’s
      had a family bucket, a biscuit,
      been called a good girl. (21)

While this big fake world follows a typical narrative arc, there’s no other poet that so naturally weaves story and verse, humor and sadness. The “familiar” story becomes unexpectedly appetizing through Limón’s singular ability to “make a fire out of everyday things” (66).

The main tension in this collection is between our hero and our heroine, but the most interesting character by far is Lewis, the drunk and our hero’s friend. Limón depicts Lewis through letters he writes to Ronald Reagan:

Dear Ronald,

I was watching the Discovery Channel a couple of weeks ago and learned about the whale shark […] Ronald, its mouth is six feet across. That’s just an inch taller than I am. That mouth could swallow me lengthwise. Ever since I’ve learned about that mouth, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. […] I have been wanting to be swallowed whole, Ronald. I have not told my best friend or the people at the beer distributors. I feel phenomenally selfish about it. I want that swallowing-mouth all to myself. I want it to take me in, in its big mouth, and keep me there until I grow old in its warm, warm belly, floating in this big fake world. (58)

Limon creatively shows us the emotional contours of her characters as they make their way through “this big fake world.” Granted, Limón’s epistolary shift is rather strange, the letters are convincingly humorous and sad, which is to say they are convincingly human.

This big fake world builds into a parable about redemption and refuge. In a world that doesn’t fit into a manageable snow globe, the characters learn to deal with their own uselessness, emptiness, sadness, and “other big dumb words in the dictionary” (37). I don’t want to spoil the story, but rest assured that the characters find small ways to satisfy their basic need for love—that gnawing thing, that hunger. Limón’s story in verse teaches us to “hold close to the lost and the unclear, / and, in our own odd little way, find some refuge here” (66).


Ada Limón is originally from Sonoma, California. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, she won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry and has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She works as the Copy Director for GQ Magazine and is teaching a Master's class for Columbia’s MFA program in Spring 2008. Her first book, lucky wreck, was the winner of the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her second book, this big fake world, was the winner of the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize.


Sea S. Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press and author of several
chapbooks, including constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, 2007), all with ocean views (Overhere Press, 2007), and preterrain (Corollary Press, 2008). His first book, from unincorporated territory, is forthcoming this year from Tinfish Press. He blogs at