Reviewed by Laura Van Prooyen
“I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief,” declares the speaker in the opening poem of Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s third full-length collection, Echolocation. In this book, however, we discover the speaker’s struggle is less about measuring grief and more about locating it. As the book’s title suggests, the speaker navigates through suffering by calling out to it to hear what bounces back. She senses the echoes of loss within her environment, sounds that stir in the leaves and slice like metallic rain. These attentive, image-driven poems reveal landscapes, creatures, and everyday objects infused with emotion. Divided into four sections, the book begins the history of the deceased father and diminishing mother. Section II examines the speaker’s childhood and ends with the mother’s death, while Section III shifts to the speaker’s life in the aftermath, and Section IV broadens the scope to address concerns of the wider world. These observant, often meditative poems highlight Bliumis-Dunn’s gift of creating tight, lyrical moments activated by surprising comparisons.
Melding past and present sadness drives Section I. The speaker cares for her ailing mother whose attention, when captured, is “faint as a moth’s weight”. The mother’s slow decline amplifies the speaker’s sense of loss, having already endured her father’s death. In “Heart Attack,” we find her father left his family “with his heart— / by then, a pale weak thing we never got / to tend before he died.” While the speaker regrets not having the chance to tend to the father’s heart, the poem resists wallowing in it, offering a refreshing matter-of-factness: “and it is useless / to be sad, though I am sad.” The blunt simplicity of this statement rings with clarity and truth and highlights the speaker’s frustration with the inevitably and futility of grief.
Section II opens with the speaker reflecting on her childhood-self in contrast with the adult-self who has “a wrecking ball / swinging loose inside.” We come to understand the close relationship between the speaker and her mother who was so modest her “neck would flush…at any hint of sex.” Yet, despite her reserve, the mother would approach personal topics with her daughter, including masturbation and childbirth. Taken together, the poems in this section create a moving portrait of the mother/daughter relationship, while a few poems point to a darker undercurrent of potential abuse and family secrets, though the references are oblique and the thread of thought could have been more fully developed. For instance, the poem “For the Child Molester” is jarring and feels out of context when the surrounding poems only hint at what might have been going on and with whom. The disruption caused by the serve in subject, however, is corrected when the lens shifts back to the mother, the daughter, and to grief. In “A Cutting,” one of the strongest poems of the book, Bliumis-Dunn expertly weaves the literal and the figurative, intertwining the past and present to reveal the final moments of the mother’s life:
Back when I was seven,
you offered me a cutting—
I could not imagine
white nubs appearing
then growing into roots
that float as an old crone’s hair
might float in the bath,
not like your auburn bangs,
the only part of you unchanged,
talisman of the mother we knew,
from our hands
as we stroked your forehead
your last days.
The arresting image of “white nubs” that would grow “into roots / that float as an old crone’s hair / might float in the bath” fuses the natural world with the human/supernatural world, and highlights the difficulty of imagining our own decline. The child “could not imagine” those “growing roots” or the eerie suggestion of an “old crone’s” hair fanned out in the tub, a complex figuration that suggests both life, but also death with the body in a coffin-like tub. Yet, here we are with the image, offered to us through the lens of the adult who contrasts the figurative hair with her mother’s “auburn bangs” that suggest liveliness, an unchanged robustness despite the reality of her imminent death. The mother’s ruddy hair serves as a “talisman,” a totem that brings strength and hope to the speaker, even if she knows what she is about to lose. This tightly woven series of images showcases the poet’s keen eye and evident skill. The scene resonates literally and figuratively, affirming and process the intensity of sorrow and the urge to chronicle specific details to access later in memory.
The intricate and complicated process of grief becomes more reflective in Section III. The speaker shifts perspectives, offering insight into her own role as a mother. She drives through her town with her own troubled son where “the world…quietly falls apart” and she doesn’t “know how to help [her] child.” Sadness permeates the landscape, and the weather becomes analogous for the speaker’s ache, as we discover in “Pond”:
the pond’s banks,
each day, a little deeper.
This is where
the sadness goes.
This is how
it tunnels the body.
We understand on a visceral level the pain of suffering, the “blades” “cracks” and “tumble.” The meditation speaks with a voice of certainty and authority, particularly in the final two couplets where syntactically parallel statements emphasize the all-encompassing power of sadness: “This is where / the sadness goes.” Sadness is so forceful it even “tunnels the body.”
Section IV widens the concerns of the collection to consider her personal grief in the context of news stories and historical events. While the speaker still grapples with her individual loss, she also considers “bullet scars on buildings” in “Berlin” and the tragedy of the “Titanic” where “shoes / still lie in pairs // on the ocean floor.” This fourth section mixes global and personal concerns, always with the eye turned toward our place within the natural world, and the collection’s final poem recognizes how sadness permeates the speaker’s every day experiences. “Ode to Autumn” locates the speaker in the yard where the colors and branches are infused with the mother’s presence and memories of “evenings after school.” However, the season also reveals flowers “browning on the vine” and highlights the mother’s absence:
…along the fence,
your favorite lilies, wilted,
the hungry bees.
The speaker’s ache and hunger buzz around the “wilted” lilies, and around all the reminders of her suffering, even as memory works against despair.
Echolocation creates a world defined by the vibrations of grief, where the landscape of the every day is infused with the complexity of emotion informed by loss. These carefully wrought poems show both sophistication and economy and feel deeply personal, but universally relevant. Bliums-Dunn creates a voice we can trust, a woman of sharp senses who speaks to the multiplicity of meaning in what we can observe.
Sally Bliumis-Dunn teaches Modern Poetry at Manhattanville College, Personal Essay at the 92nd Street Y and conducts individual manuscript conferences at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Her poems have appeared in The Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day, Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry, New Ohio Review, The New York Times, Nimrod, the Paris Review, PBS NewsHour, Plume, Poetry London, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Verse Daily, and Garrison Keillor's The Writers Almanac. Her first book, Talking Underwater, was published by Wind Publications in 2007. Her second book, Second Skin, was published by Wind Publications in 2010. Her chapbook Galapagos Poems was published by Kattywompus Press in 2016. She lives in Armonk, New York, and Harpswell, Maine, with her husband, John. They share four children, Ben, Angie, Kaitlin and Fiona.
Laura Van Prooyen is author of two collections of poetry, Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press 2015) nominated by Philip Levine and winner of the McGovern Prize and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press 2006). Her poems also have appeared in Boston Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and The Southern Review among others. Van Prooyen teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Miami University, and she lives in San Antonio, TX.