Whelm by dawn lonsinger
(Lost Horse Press, 2013)
reviewed by Kate Rosenberg
The book is a red hibiscus mouth. The book is a shadow box with another shadow box tucked into it. The book is waves and rain and rotting apples. The book is a transparent shirt over transparent skin over a transparent heart. The book is violence and regeneration.
dawn lonsinger’s poems will tell you that the book is something you will find out it is not. These poems disarm you by not giving you the metaphor(s) you expect. Try to grab hold of Whelm and you will find that it will tumble ahead of you, its language revealing a new moment of emotional, physical, or intellectual clarity while it doubles back and loops through what’s been revealed before. We find trees made of money, a river teeming with hippos, a town with fire alive in the mines beneath it, and a quiet, gentle elegy to a bus driver. To point to lonsinger’s language as lush, rich, or sumptuous in the landscapes of these poems, though not inaccurate, is to prettify/simplify the work of the language—to get to the edge of what is unsayable, that ravenous corner of the psyche that longs for connection.
The poems in Whelm aren’t easy, though there are moments when it almost feels as if we’re off the hook—that we can lounge through a poem and enjoy the sights without being asked to notice its multiplicity. One of the pleasurable frustrations in reading Whelm is in the way it does not allow one to be able to address smart, complicated work on the nature and limitations of language at the same time one addresses the poignancy of image, the potency of the visceral, the masterful structures of the poems. I’m thinking, in particular, of the way in which sound and image merge in the first two lines of “La Fille Fragile”: “Her silver waist went out to sea/ like petal debris, rain-tattered ma chère parfois.” Maybe for a moment we’ve bought a ticket to a French film starring a lovely, delicate woman seen in silver and the glisten of rain. As pretty as the alliteration of silver/waist/sea/petal/debris is in these lines with their sweet s’s and long e’s—lonsinger gives us more than lovely footage. “La Fille Fragile” is the poem in the collection that most directly addresses the self as an ever-shifting presence that is not entirely aside from the body and which, in fact, is maybe wholly the body. La fille fragile is not just fragile, but fractured; “mon autre moi” is in slippery, ethereal pieces: “her eyes afloat,” and “fingers scatter like lightning.” The book generally rejects an imagination that would put all the puzzle pieces together to approximate comprehensiveness. Like skillful collage, poems like “La Fille Fragile” retain the electricity generated by disparate (material or linguistic) elements rubbing against each other, contained within a recognizable form.
The poems in Whelm vary in shape and length, but remain within the realm of what we expect from poems. lonsinger does not choose to make her mark with experimental formal structure. That is to say, lonsinger’s potently wrought language is contained within somewhat expected forms, while not being limited by them. Perhaps the most compelling and revealing poems, “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” and “Why Deluge” are two of the longer poems in the book. “Why Deluge” is the most formally inventive; split into seven sections, each lineated very differently from the next and yet (again, collage) they are stitched together seamlessly. “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” feels much looser insofar as the stanzas range widely and the speaker is more colloquial and urgent in its forceful “I”:
I am lonely. My body is lonely. I sit outside and let the wind
tangle my hair. I understand that this is nothing like a relationship.
I understand that relationships take time
and hack it into bits. I understand that while we’re not looking
time slithers back together, wins.
“Why Deluge” is quieter; the only notable syntactic repetition is the “because” at the start of each section. Though lonsinger’s “I” is present here as well, there is a “we” and “you” that carry a significant amount of the poem’s emotional heft:
we touch our flinty skins together, but nothing
leaks inside aftermath, my pining deep enough
to trawl, my knees caught in the damp twine
of our historic sleeping
In this brief passage, the “I” pines deeply, her knees caught in history. One of my favorite moments in “Why Deluge”, and in the book, is emblematic of the artistic work lonsinger is doing. The last line of part VI reads, “When I try to speak red hibiscus unfolds from my mouth.” Her deftness here is subtly displayed in the drama of the bloom of a vibrant, monstrous flower from a woman’s mouth as she yearns to speak. The choice of the hibiscus is luscious in its intimations of tropical heat and humidity, qualities of feminine desire, even as the conspicuous golden stamen erupts from the petals. There is hardly anything speechless about this image. The declaration is about how the self is expressed, if not in words. Here is where lonsinger begins to walk/write the finest line—the one that exists on the edge of the abyss of the inexpressible, desirous self. This “I” tries language and it doesn’t work, but this incredible flower just might. It is a noteworthy quality of the hibiscus that its blooms last only one day. If one catches that flora fact, it is doubly rewarding to follow the recurrences of ripened, pollinated flowers and fruit, especially in “Fall of Falling” and other poems in section iii of the book.
Nonetheless, don’t expect that the language of Whelm will be less than or easier to parse than a magnificent flower at any turn. “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” underlines this visceral nature of language and expression that is rife in Whelm: “Touch me, dear goddess of inevitability, with your giant mouth./ Let me inside of that mouth where it’s warm with ferment and finishing.”
It feels easy these days to discuss a book of poems by a woman in terms of how it deals with “The Body.” The body often feels like a thematic cop-out in poorly written work and in easy conversation about (especially) women’s art. It is when I encounter complicated, raw, finely honed, and (yes!) beautiful collections like Whelm, that I believe in the absolute relevance of writing about the body and how it desires and loves and hurts and withers and aches and pulses and sleeps. Because Whelm’s body doesn’t do any of those things glibly, we are given a chance to reimagine our own worlds as lonsinger does hers. In “Ithaca Falls,” the next to last poem in the collection, she writes,
Shining translates into soft moss clinging
to rock, green gratis. I dip my foot in, watch the water plunge into itself,
contradict the notion of a self separate from what it wades through
And it is with this splitting that is not splitting a self that is not individuated, that dawn lonsinger begins the close of Whelm, which is, as ever, a slippery, lush place that will simultaneously illuminate and wash away.