a poetry collection by dawn lonsinger, Lost Horse Press
Reviewed by Sandra Simonds
Whelm by dawn lonsinger is a book of poems dominated by the forces of water where water is made mysterious, terrifying and strange. The book is a kind of cataloging of water’s various powers both symbolically and materially. Her primary concern is the world flooded and the poems play with ideas of saturation as well as consider the possibility of apocalyptic purification, a world renewed. These ideas are all imagined within an elegant ordering of abstract language. For example, in the poem “The Flood is a Figure of Speechlessness,” she wonders if “wet is another word/ for without” then suddenly shifts to “Adrift. Our shoulder blades// are perfect flotsam—rest your head here.” Bodies in Whelm feel as if they are threatened by the floodwaters, which overwhelms (in a good way), the poems. “I am split,” the speaker of “Afternoon Ether,” says, “underwater, wearing/ a bracelet of fish bones, wet sand filling up my ankles.” Just when these poems seem to get be too “inside the head,” of the poet, closed off from the real world, there will be a wonderful moment to ground the poem. The speaker of “Afternoon Ether,” for example, sees “an ATM/ floating by, the ether locked inside it, wet.”
One of my favourite poems in Whelm is “Forage” which appears in first section. This poem combines much of what I admire in lonsinger’s poetry—her imagination, unusual linguistic play, and the ability of her images to subtly critique the confines, problems and crises of the contemporary world or what she calls the “sadism of normalcy.” The poem begins:
Before barbed wire it was easy to walk
away from cruelty and hunger to move
like wind over the nearly uninhabited earth
bursting with fruit the wheezing of deer
mushrooms expanding inside of wet nights
trout gliding knives downstream but cutting
nothing to the next best thing forage
and forget there is nothing primal about
hoarding about the anonymity of faces
in houses about the stress of holding on
to clout to brandishing now every prostitute
knows how to simulate a prostitute make
itty Os in motel darkness nobody
speaks of the wildness of farmers someone
somewhere is eating deep-fried songbird
The poems continues to unfold brilliantly. Again, water signifies a world fallen but also the possibility of renewal. Another element that I really enjoyed about the collection is that many of the poems were formally different from one another which signifies this poet’s willingness to experiment with form. She doesn’t write the same poem twice. The collection also has a number of surrealistic prose poems add a kind of narrative element to the collection.
Love, however problematic and slippery, is what seems to be the poet’s answer this flood that comes from both language and nature. The final stanza of the final poem directly addresses love and speaks to the idea of “repair” which I interpret to be the repair of a world tenuously existing on the brink of social and ecological collapse. The impulse at the end is undeniably sincere, and if this passage was put at the beginning of the book, I don’t think the reader would have believed her. But the poems in the collection make her case and you get the feeling that she earns that last stanza of the last poem and thus the book feels complete and really well-executed.
dawn lonsinger is the author of two chapbooks: the linoleum crop (chosen by Thomas Lux as the winner of the 2007 Jeanne Duval Editions Chapbook Contest), and The Nested Object (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). Her full-length collection of poems, Whelm, won Lost Horse Press’s 2012 Idaho Prize in Poetry. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, Columbia Poetry Review, New Orleans Reviews, Cincinnati Review, Poetry East, The Massachusetts Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere.
Sandra Simonds grew up in Los Angeles, California and earned a BA in Psychology and Creative Writing at U.C.L.A and an MFA from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. Simonds received a PhD in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2010. She is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: The Glass Box (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009) which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series. She is also the author of several chapbooks including Used White Wife (Grey Book Press, 2009) and The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, Written from Land & Sea (Cy Gist, 2006).
Simonds’ poems have been published in many journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Believer, the Colorado Review, Fence, the Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Volt, the New Orleans Review and Lana Turner.