a review by Hailey Haffey
Lost Horse Press 2013
because time is all
about the drag
of water through
for semblance. it makes a lace
divisible, a lace pretty, a night
full of flickering hooks
(from “Why Deluge”)
In dawn lonsinger’s poetry collection Whelm, edges blend unexpectedly. Water dragged over time transmutes physics to aesthetics, as “it makes a lace / divisible, a lace pretty.” Consequently, we readers dangle like those “flickering hooks” over precipices of uncommon thought, to the dark and shining places lonsinger leads us in Whelm. For a poet to elegantly and comprehensively fuse as many disparate elements of life as lonsinger is capable of doing would seem obscenely overreaching for almost anyone. But this ability to create from fragments is the miracle of Whelm.
A “collection” in the truest sense of the concept, Whelm is a cabinet of curiosities. In it we move through a poetic portal where her technical diligence and riveting alertness to the fractures of daily life give pleasure that overrides pain. More, lonsinger sutures these life’s fragments in a way that enables a more gentle understanding of how brokenness infuses that which provides joy. Crucially, brokeneness does not dominate in Whelm, however thickly it pours onto the page. We might see lonsinger as a poetic healer whose words respond to the world’s inscriptions of violence with her much stronger art: compassionate representation of fragile things.
lonsinger’s surgeries begin in “Hurricane Birds,” where “in the eye of the storm we came / up out of basements and found sea birds in our yards—/gulls and terns stockpiling debris.” However, damage is not the ultimate vision of this site. In the devastation, “what glistened overwhelmed us,” and it is here where swallows fly up as a “sheet over the injured.”
Thus lonsinger whelms us, literally, in her renewing tides of alert artistry, her conscientious love of detail, and her overflowing empathy for even that which is wasted.
Consider a different wasteland, that of “Centralia, PA.” Here, “the ground is susceptible to suddenly sinking” and “a fire tunnels through the dirt.” A “highway through town” is “cracked open.” A charred and polluted coal-mining town, this place is rendered unlivable by underground conflagration, where “fire is saturated with fire.” In “Centralia,” Whelm’s flood conceit morphs elementally, and, tragically. The reader is drawn to the position of a family who stops to feel “the earth warm as pancakes” on the other side of “two feet of asphalt.” As the family moves to touch the burning ground, the reader also is brought to the road to experience the waste of the place as the earth itself. Its trees’ “curtains are drawn” and what remains of them disintegrates “in a float of sulfur.”
Sensorial interaction among vision, smell, taste, touch, are key in this poem, as elsewhere in Whelm. Ways of sensing are ways of linking, of creating circles of understanding. Likewise, lonsinger’s vector of empathy re-orients the reader toward those who leave the town with “government grants in hand” and “eyes vacant as old coal shafts, memory stripped to echoes.” We’re left with the image of those who remain. They stay “in single row homes without rows,” and come to resemble the earth for the “fire bleeding through their veins.” Despite the loss infused like earth-fire, the poem offers renewal through a ritual of creating empathy between the reader, melting earth, the family on the road, the families leaving and staying in town—even the fire that wasn’t of its own design.
In Whelm images of a wasted town become pivotal in relationships amongst people, land and forces of nature. In a world where we account for exponentially growing divisions and dissections, lonsinger uses a magic of the word to render this life affectively accessible to anyone who touches her page. As in “Centralia, PA,” lonsinger’s work is wholly multi-special: the poems narrate relationships global while local, invertebrate while mammal, terrestrial while liquid.
We see such crucial alchemies of species in “The Flood is a Figure of Speechlessness.” Here, along with shrapnel, lonsinger gives us blood and cells and “the gills of a sting-ray.” She muses that “the bomb contacts no one, but rattles / blood through catacombed cells,” then asks whether “maybe wet is another word / for without.” Wetness may be absence, just as the bomb’s lack of contact is flesh-rending.
Everything in Whelm is in dialogue and, in dialectical fashion, meanings are mutually-infusing, distinct through connection. Lovers are those continents that merge or split, as in “Tryst” where “we are all addendum, / the pangea of our bodies knotted / above linen facsimiles / of our movement.” We might imagine Whelm is able to continue its balanced abundance because of lonsinger’s intuition about the partners (not subjects) of her meditation. Indeed she is in constant conversation with those things few people hear speak. She knows that “lakes lean in to hear the earth’s alibi.”
Six hundred years before dawn lonsinger drew breath or lines, English mystic Julian of Norwich held a mysterious orb, something small like a hazelnut, in her hand and imagined with awe it was all her God had created. lonsinger’s poetic resonance is of that same mythic magnitude. She is able to imaginatively bind everything she contemplates delicately in her palm, and at the same time, to unleash that which is necessary to whelm us with its sun-on-the-water radiance. Indeed, Whelm ends in such abundance, with its final words: “O innumerable pollinated yeses.”
Hailey Haffey is a Ph.D. candidate in British and American Literature at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on relationships between gender, religion and childhood in literature. Haffey teaches in the Departments of English and Gender Studies, as well as the University Writing Program. Her recent courses include “Women Writers,” “Introduction to Feminist Theories” and “Gender and Contemporary Issues.”