Whelm is part wildness and part witness, part love song and part lament. It is an elegy to former times and selves that admits fear of a future where humanity, community and strangeness are lost to manmade systems. It is also an ode to oddity and intricacy. These poems attempt to understand how difficult it is to be a thinking, feeling, speaking being in a largely impenetrable world—both wordless and written over with various conflicting narratives. In this book, people are engulfed by immense forces, from natural disasters to love, and equally overwhelmed by their own feelings, desires, and ideas. A central concern is figuring out how to live an authentic life or have real intimacy in a world that rapaciously wants to name, categorize, and commodify us. Herein, language becomes an intervention, is textured and complex in a way that frees us from abbreviation and generalization. This book suggests that there is violence in the ideal, that cruelty often arises out of category-become-hierarchy, and that perhaps the only conceivable solution to our flooding is flooding . . . to resist being capsized by giving into the roiling mess of our hearts and minds by admitting the endless cataclysms of our love, our inimitable eccentricities, and the ineffaceable plurality of being.
About the Author
dawn lonsinger’s poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Guernica: A Magazine of Arts & Politics, New Orleans Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, and four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, and holds an MFA from Cornell University and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah.
Recommended by Cynthia Hogue
Whelm by dawn lonsinger (Lost Horse Press, 2013)
In dawn lonsinger’s Whelm, received categories, genres, and generic expectations unfold and reformulate in ways that astonish and delight me. The volume is full of that most ancient of lyric genres, love poems—love found, lost and mourned—but the narrative thread is so subtle, the textual turns and linguistic swerves of the poetry so dazzling, that the “story” functions almost chorically. It tethers the soaring, dancing poetic voice like the kite’s string to the body’s hand. To give an example that comes early in the volume, I take Part I of “Why Deluge,” quoted below in full:
because fruits have no mouths
you follow me into the pelted fields
where there is no way out of this—
storm windows sparking,
the delta splintered within us like veins
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
my skirt soaks up the whole of the landscape,
ankles damp and root-like in love
there is no use
in asking why we are grown over, at this
somewhere the sloths so gloss
& grown-over & holding on
Is the deluge actual or emotional? The answer to such questions in a lonsinger poem is, as with the poet whose words give the volume its epigraph, Emily Dickinson, Yes. Readers will enter these poems for the texture of the story, the languaged matters of love. We enter to glory in the impassionate words, unexpected word choices (“pelted fields”), and the deep layering at the level of music (internal rhyming of pining and twine, for example, and the slant rhymes like use, this, and gloss, the assonance of sloths and gloss).
We enter as well for the way lonsinger mindfully reflects on all that has touched her. “Why Deluge” takes us through a magical deltic world of so delicately sustained metaphor that when “the whole of the landscape” of the poem stabilizes into image, we’re literally out to sea (see), where “ablution seeps into us // through wounds,” the water tangles “in a foreclosure of rocks,” and “the mind” has swayed “back and forth for 3,000 years” dusting off “our things/ with the promise of salt.” Such imagistic resonance proffers not determinative resolution, but an opening wide of thought that is characteristic of lonsinger’s best poems.
Also characteristic is the conceptual brilliance of Whelm, beginning naturally enough with the connotations that “whelm” activates: meaning both M.E. overwhelm and O.E. helma to handle (O.N. hjalm, rudder). Whelm suggests both to be deluged (hurricanes, floods, waters and seas roil through these poems) and to steer through that which would engulf us. To put it another way, these poems serve as rudders navigating us into the territory of terrestrial sublime, as both love and mourning naturally are, but soundings of climate change (“Aquaria”), 9/11 (“Hawaii of Mourning”), and man-made, industrial destruction (“Centralia, PA”) enlarge Lonsinger’s field of vision. As one poem muses about the evolutionary phenomenon that crying replaces speech,
Maybe when you cry you break
with form, end up rippling through . . .
(from “The Flood is a Figure of Speechlessness”)
Such poems bring into sudden focus moments of insight, not spiritual epiphany so much as trans-formative approaches to the representation of embodied emotional truths, the corporeal phenomenology that lonsinger so exquisitely tracks. The line break on “break” in the couplet above makes both formal and semantic sense, of course, casually revising Wright’s famously sentimental epiphany. In contrast, the ending of lonsinger’s line is annotated: the “break,” when it comes, is “with form” (emphasis added). This moment is a good example of lonsinger’s nuanced precision. The thinking-through of the poem’s formalism, as it impacts the poem’s emotional field, can be perceived at the level of such details as the idiomatic prepositional phrase. To “break with” form is at once formally to interrupt the line, to deploy form to create the break, and also to raise the spectral aesthetic (im)possibility of leaving form behind altogether—an ontological concern on which Whelm ruminates. In place of formlessness, lonsinger marshals formal investigations—at the level of morpheme, parts of speech, signification and substance. There are witty prose poems in Whelm, as well as formal homages to Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, which balance the more experimental investigations into what the poet Brian Teare has termed recently the “postmodern lyric.” A good part of the reason that Whelm is such an inspiring volume to read—the “whelm” of discovering a powerful new poet through the poems gathered and ordered into her debut collection—is what I will dub (tripling up the alliteration) lonsinger’s linguistic lightning, which supples the space of the poems and therefore the reading of them with ozone-like fresh air! I’ll close with a last example, the deliciously analytic, elegiac, and droll “Knee-Deep,” quoted below in full:
The body—god box—holds
the stuffing, blunt-winded plot,
until it doesn’t
tissue of tiny details
soaking up gestures of wedding
parties, neurons, steering wheel,
sugar bowl, the solarium
the nectar ebbs from the design
an autopsy, the openings filled with liquids,
already locked-out of the house, embarrassed
The river bank has been dented—
material ghost, the knees lock-kneed, knee-deep
What is left is fact and its antihistamine
Carry it to the river and drop it in. Watch it give in
like a vocabulary greased, the fish unlocked by their own
Echo the ocean of you when you (carrying the description)
are gone. So swam the surplus, blindingly bright, away
We mark in these poems the sweep of the wave (carrying the experiential description, the fact and its antihistamine) that is lonsinger’s poetic intelligence, comprising a movable beauty, the oceanic sounding lifting and moving us, which we feel somatically long after we have left the shores of Whelm.
[Published by Lost Horse Press, 2013. 108 pages, $18.00 original paperback]
Cynthia Hogue has published seven collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, both in 2010. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University.
Interview with dawn lonsinger
My project—a first poetry book—is out super-soon from Lost Horse Press (distributed by University of Washington Press) . . .
What is the working title of the book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
It would be disingenuous to say the book came from an idea. It was more like each poem was a slippery fish with its own dark beauty, and slowly, over much time, I started making them live together, and before I knew it they were a swarm. They were quiet but conspiratorial, suddenly saw in each other’s pelagic ampersand eyes that they have the same water-hunger, the same cipher-mouths, the same flooded-pulse, the same sedimentary dreams . . . which is to say the longer they lived together the more I started to see that they were made of the same material—like snails and humans and lemons and dark matter are made of the same material. There are alliances and shared concerns, tides and undercurrents, body-stanzas mirroring each other (sight & refraction) . . . but also—still—each poem knows it arose out of its own instance and is alone, like us. In the same way that poets in the 80s were asked to find their “voice,” as if deep inside some hidden cove was the real poetic self, I find that today we are so often asked to speak of our “projects” as if to be a poet without a project (an idea) is not to be a poet at all. There are many “project” books I love, but I resist the notion that it’s the only way to approach a book of poems. I very much believe in Derrida’s notion of the “poematic” vs. the poetic.
What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry / Lyric / Elegiac
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
There are not characters really, but Oooooooooo, how much fun is it to cast a poetry book?! Who is good at portraying being whelmed or whelming? Gael García Bernal, Marion Cotillard, Pam Grier, Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, Samuel Jackson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Isabella Rossellini in her spider or seahorse suit.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?The ghost isn’t out there; it’s in here.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first draft took 3 years, but the final draft is a very different river. The time lapsed between the oldest poem in the manuscript and the newest is 8 years. The manuscript was a revolving door in a strong wind . . . poems blizzarded-in, and either settled or churned. I kept the churning ones.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Whelm is, for me, part wildness and part witness, part love song and part lament. It grew, in part, out of the irreconcilability I feel with the many past-selves-still-with-me and out of the desire for us as a culture to be less amnesiac about history, to seek out the “blind field” of everything (that which falls outside of the frame/s, outside of inherited narratives). It arises, too, out of the tension between avoiding being engulfed and wanting to be engulfed, between the dangers of order and disorder. I found inspiration in post-romantic poets, such as Baudelaire, Dickinson, and Yeats, who turned the anarchy of grief into a humanizing force, and by what Czeslaw Milosz called “A Poetics of Hope,” wherein poets remain hopeful despite an intense awareness of the dangers menacing what we love. To be alive is to live in a condition of loss; to use language is to highlight this fact. This book was also inspired by Ovid (“at the last instant, she escapes his jaws: such were the god and girl”), John Keats (“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”), Sara Teasdale (“Nothing can tame me, nothing can bind, I am a child of the heartless wind”), Rainer Maria Rilke (“girl, all this came before you”), T.S. Eliot (“What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present”), Federico García Lorca (“Intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him.”), Langston Hughes, Fernando Pessoa, Roland Barthes A Lover's Discourse (“You are gone (which I lament), you are here (since I am addressing you)”), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Jack Gilbert, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Nest, Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” (“Soul is the place, stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind”), Richard Siken’s Crush (“Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.”) . . . the list goes on . . .
As simplistic as it might sound, words themselves were also a key inspiration. While language can be used to manipulate and oppress (dictate), Whelm keeps in mind/heart that it is also that which undermines propriety, linear productivity, and hierarchy because while it is supposed to be utilitarian it happens, also, to be beautifully rupturous and unwieldy, knotty and alive. I was also inspired by musicians (Nina Simone, Bill Withers, Leonard Cohen, David Byrne, Neko Case, Joanna Newsom, Coeur de Pirate, etc.) and artists (Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, etc.) who give great credence to feeling (& especially to those feelings that one cannot assimilate, but nonetheless feels deeply). I think we live in a world that has very little patience for deep or complex feelings, let alone the display of them; there is, we learn, not time to be productive and to feel deeply. Emotion is often relegated to the sentimental, the hysterical, the melodramatic, the romantic; it’s branded unwise, unprofessional, unsophisticated, etc. So, yes, all these whelm-poems—in one way or another—are motivated by an unyielding belief in and attention to the subversive & redemptive power & value of feeling.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If you are interested in how matryoshka everything is. If you are interested in the body as palimpsest & permeability. If you want to know about a town where smoke rises from the cracked asphalt of highways. If you are interested in emotion as its own animal. If you like rain . . . spread like a negligee over everything. If you think about how bones are ubiquitous, in us and around us, and don’t let us forget. If your name is Lydia. If you’re against plugging away. If you’re for the bright fission in the fist of a three-year old. If you’re interested in zeroes blooming or jellyfish as language. If you think about how nous avons dormi dans les beaux bâtiments. If you resist the “sadism of normalcy.” If you’ve worn a sundress. If you drink milk. If you’re interested in extremophiles. If you are grateful for the silence of celery. If you long for haptic interference. If you are knee-deep. If your lawn is aglow. If you’ve ever wanted to be an unbeautiful beast with a heavy heart and eyes as wide as the night. If you worry about birds running into glass because of light. If you are interested in time as touchable, drinkable, blitzed. If your tongue feels like a wild animal. If you ride the bus.
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.
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 eating deep-fried songbird
and Jenny talking to the stuffed parrot
hanging in her cage winding the alarm
clock she keeps in a basket because she
does not own a watch and birds twitter
in the skull of her hedge because the children
and their little feet running over every blade
are terrifying though at least one of those
children feels suffocated by the sadism
of normalcy knocks on her door to be
near the beauty of foible to see her hands
hold chocolate bars like hymn books
to begin to imagine that the codifiers
will not win the compliment of haunting
by way of the violence of conclusion
his mother gasps when the football players
on the television fall down because she
hates when they fall down because she
has known great loss it does not make
sense to replicate it even playfully
she gasps as humans do when
witnessing everyday obliteration
or when hurtling their bones into one
another during sex or conflict swoon
or wince inescapable cry at the origin
of the storied world prior to money
but not desire and water and tongues
carrying through with it inescapable heart
and pubis of darkness wherever you touch
the story it is not nice our journey began
in leisure and pleasure famine is a function
of fields that belong to someone the rape
of states untruth that conceals the rape of
individuals with telephones and the saddest
Jell-O molds a ghost like Yeats for every
decade to teach us to again walk through
© 2013 by dawn lonsinger