The Depths We Don’t Have Words For: Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s Echolocation
In the first and title poem of Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s wise and graceful Echolocation (Plume Editions, 2018), the speaker admits, after coming across the body of a beached whale, “I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief.” Observing the whale’s body with heartbreaking precision—the kelp stuck to its skin, the dry, unmoving eyes—the speaker comes, in the last line, to something she can’t see or understand: the whale’s “unimaginable five-hundred-pound heart.” The poems that follow clarify the speaker’s state of mourning. Both of her parents are dead, and the poems describe the struggle to integrate these, and other, griefs. Throughout the collection, the whale’s huge and mysterious heart serves as a resonant symbol of the speaker’s own deep, interior life.
In Echolocation, the natural world—the “more-than-human world,” in naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s phrase—illuminates the speaker’s experience. In “Everything I Know About Writing Poetry: Notes for a Lecture,” the poet Jane Kenyon quotes Ezra Pound: “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Like Kenyon, Bliumis-Dunn looks to the natural world as a teacher—one that sometimes mystifies, but ultimately consoles and supports the poet in her quest for meaning and solace. Bliumis-Dunn’s poems, like Kenyon’s, are suffused with natural imagery: they move seamlessly between the “more-than-human” world and the speaker’s complex, delicately rendered inner landscape. And like Kenyon, Bliumis-Dunn sees in nature a way to understand this inner world, and a container in which to hold it. The whale of the title poem, and the animals and plants in the poems that follow, are both entirely themselves, and lenses through which the poet views her emotional realm.
Echolocation is divided into four sections, and the book proceeds like a spiral, looping back on itself, introducing and then returning—each time differently—to its core subject matter: loss and impermanence, family, and female experience. The poems are generous both with what they know and what they don’t—and can’t—know. Spoken with clarity, they point toward the unseen and unimaginable: the depths we don’t have words for. Echolocation returns again and again to the ocean, which provides the perfect metaphor for Bliumis-Dunn’s work: reading these poems feels like looking down into deep water, being able to see only so far and no farther.
A mother’s death is the grief at the heart of Echolocation, though the speaker faces other losses. This mother-daughter relationship, the focus of multiple poems, is multi-faceted and moving. In some poems, the speaker’s mother appears as loving and protective, as in “Mid-Winter,” where she’s presented as a mother bear, licking “our wounds with wordless / tongue.” In the spare and beautiful “Half-Dome, Yosemite,” the mother knows instinctively when and how to let go of the speaker in order to nurture her growth. And in other poems, the mother is withholding or avoidant, though not always consciously or by choice: she uses language to stay on the safe surface of life. Here, for example, is “Pregnant at the Beach”:
My mother could take anything—
stitches on the knee,
and bleach out
the colors—blood-reds, blues—
until there was nothing left
of the hospital room
but a lavender vase
on a mahogany table.
When she told me
that she didn’t remember
any pain in childbirth,
I laid out my beach towel
on the soft sounds of her words,
my friends’ tales of labor
like freighters in the distance—
any pain. And I lay there
basking, eyes closed.
Here the speaker seems to accept her mother’s version of experience, though more difficult truths loom like “freighters in the distance.” In other poems, though, the mother’s inability to speak honestly contrasts sharply with the speaker’s desire to see and know, and to tell what she knows as clearly as possible. The schism between them is crystallized in “While We Weren’t Talking About Masturbation,” which begins:
I could feel the split
when my mother looked
in the rearview and told me
that I should wait until I was older
for feelings I’d already had during “naps.”
That painful split—between the well-behaved daughter aiming to please, and the poet who knows her truth and needs to speak it—plays out as the mother continues to talk of other things while the speaker sits silent in the backseat of the car, “my words obediently // wandering off to find that place / in the future I should wait for.”
Sexuality, life in a female body: the speaker examines these mysteries as she matures, becomes a parent, and grapples with her mother’s silence. For example, in “Sea Turtles Mating,” the speaker watches for “signs” to show her whether to read the female turtle’s experience as “luck” or “trial,” but sees only the turtle’s “hooked mouth // closed, her green eyes / unchanging.” Here, the speaker faces a similar wall of silence to the one her mother presented. The power of this poem resides in both the luminous clarity of Bliumis-Dunn’s images and the conflict within the speaker: she longs to understand, and ultimately realizes that she can’t. The turtle’s heart is as unimaginable as that of the whale; her experience is both visible and hidden, near and impossibly distant. It’s to Bliumis-Dunn’s credit that she never presumes an understanding she doesn’t possess: of any of the creatures, human and not, that inhabit her poems.
In “What’s Missing,” another poem that takes up the theme of silence and speaking, knowing and not-knowing, the speaker cares for sick child while displaying, as she’s been taught to do, an “outward quiet.” Yet “all the while a wrecking ball / [swung] loose inside me.” Here the speaker herself has become like the turtle—and, in a way, like her mother. She remains silent and polite while a complicated inner life rages, un-guessable from the outside. Like so many poems in Echolocation, the calm surface of “What’s Missing” gives way to swirling, complicated depths.
Echolocation also probes questions about being a parent, given what the speaker has and has not been taught by her own mother. Several poems grieve, directly or indirectly, for children and the pain of childhood. In one of my favorites, “Drive,” the speaker ponders, from her car, the sight of a little girl jumping rope, then steps back to find a razor-sharp and personal revelation:
We drive through the world
as it quietly falls apart.
I don’t know how to help my child.
The gray highway like a dead river,
how is it we continue to move?
The leaves are maple, mostly yellow.
They do not fall like rain.
It is late. We should stop
and eat before it turns dark,
but we don’t.
It’s hard to know where to begin to explain what I admire about this poem. There’s the way it offers—as so many of Bliumis-Dunn’s poems do—clarity of language and image and thought, and at the same time, un-answerable mysteries: how can we help the people we love? How do we continue to live our lives while things tear and fracture around us? There’s the seamless movement between the speaker’s interior space and the physical world around her. There’s the way the poem, in only eighteen lines (few of the poems in Echolocation are longer than a page), opens from one small, briefly observed image to enormous questions of care, family, and the damaged, impermanent world. Amid the mostly end-stopped lines, there’s the striking enjambment after “stop,” and the way it briefly allows the hope that there is something that the speaker could stop doing in order to make things right, though the poem quickly returns to the impossibility of this. And—maybe most of all—there’s the poem’s compassionate seeing, which enfolds the specifics of the moment and the enormity of the larger world’s pain.
The book’s final poem, “Ode to Autumn,” circles back to the speaker’s mother’s death. The speaker’s immersion in the natural world, her examination of memory and loss, family and the interior, seem to have brought her, in this poem, to a place that’s both familiar and changed:
So many colors abandon the earth,
and go skyward to the trees
like origami birds,
scarlet, orange, creased
and folded into the mind
where these paper birds come alive,
the trees quiver a little—
this is where I can
still see you
in these gray branches
with brightly colored
birds that are not birds—envision you
the heels of Jimmy’s socks
those evenings after school
at the kitchen table when
you’d run your finger down our list—
not here in the duller green
where the last of the pink roses
are browning on the vine,
and along the fence,
your favorite lilies, wilted,
the hungry bees.
The speaker’s grief remains, and yet the poem pivots on a quiet transformation. The mother is both not-here and, somehow, here, present in the birds which are not birds, the poet’s seeing that includes both what is literally present and what is given shape by imagination, memory, language. In the poet’s mind, where paper birds come alive, the dead return. This sense of consolation feels earned through the poet’s exacting observation of her outer and inner landscapes. The reader is returned, too, by these poems: to intimacy with the poet-speaker, the “more-than-human” world, and the complicated, unimaginable heart.