NA: I wanted to start by asking you to post the title poem and say a few words about it.
The whales can’t hear each other calling
in the noise-cluttered sea: they beach themselves.
I saw one once—heaved onto the sand with kelp
stuck to its blue-gray skin.
Heavy and immobile,
it lay like a great sadness.
And it was hard to breathe with all the stink.
Its elliptical black eyes had stilled, were mostly dry,
and barnacles clustered on its back
like tiny brown volcanoes.
Imagining the other whales, their roving weight,
their blue-black webbing of the deep,
I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief.
And this one, large and dead on the sand,
with its unimaginable five-hundred-pound heart.
“Echolocation” became the title poem very early on in the book’s eight-year evolution. Echolocation is, of course, the way whales locate themselves through the sounds that they bounce off the ocean floor, corals, other sea creatures. A poet too locates her/himself through a particularizing of sound. If the poem reaches a reader, then the speaker and the reader are located for each other precisely. I guess that is a goal anyway.
NA: I just realized that like me, you spend a lot of time in Maine, and I was wondering what, if any, influence the beautiful Maine coastline might have on your poetry?
SBD: The room where I write looks out on a tidal reach that is always changing as the waters rise and fall. The shape and speed of the small waves is in constant transformation as is the water’s color in relation to the sky—emerald green, sage, brown, robin’s egg blue. A friend once called the view from our windows, water television. I find looking at Long Reach, which is the name of this body of water, creates a mental state quiet enough for my mind to slow and gather words; the water’s motion too seems to prevent a kind of stale stasis. At eventide, the water is still, but this too has its own reflective way of calling up poems.
My mother died in the Spring of 2017 and during the summer following, I wrote many of the more elegiac poems from this room in Maine. The spot where we live in Harpswell is also very quiet, but for the wind. The wind through the oaks and pines is affecting as well, invisible but for when it moves the trees, the water.
NA: I especially love the way your poems address the mother/daughter relationship in particular as well as the spoken and unspoken questions that arise between loved ones. Your mother's discomfort in talking about sexuality is an example. It mirrors the tension, present in so many of your poems--between what can and cannot be said—or known. I wondered if you could say a few words about that tension?
SBD: I think tension, opposites pulling on each other, creates a mirror of how our minds often work, all the ambivalence we carry, how two or three or four opposing feelings can all be true.
I am very interested in looking at my subjects closely while knowing there is a point at which I can’t perceive further. The closer I get to that point, the happier I am with the poem. I think this is another reason why “Echolocation” became the title poem, the lines, “I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief./ And this one, large and dead on the sand, with its unimaginable five-hundred pound heart.”
As far as my mom, there were many tensions and joys in our relationship. As she grew more frail, I found that writing about her allowed me to understand and appreciate more fully what there was between us. In the poem, “Diminution,” I was able to discover a loving impulse behind my mother’s overuse of cliché, which isn’t to say that I did not find them confining and irritating, just that writing the poem allowed me to experience their inadvertent humor and her love.
I think writing the poems that chronicled her physical and mental deterioration made losing her more bearable by attempting to transform the loss into art. Octavio Paz said something about needing to write in order to transform pain, that joy does not require transformation and is therefore more difficult to tether.
NA: I am just so in love with this book, I don’t want to say or even ask. It is so achingly beautiful. I wondered if you could just talk a little more about the backdrop of the book, the occasions that inspired this particular collection poems.
SBD: Nin, I think so highly of you and your work… I am thrilled that you like ECHOLOCATION and have spent so much time with it! Thank you!
Many of the poems concern the natural world. I am not a religious person at all, but I do find that nature holds answers for me and soothes. Just by looking closely at an animal or plant something shifts and a weight is lifted. I don’t really know how to explain it any further.
The first poem I ever wrote was about my father’s death when I was ten or so. His death long ago but more my mother’s recent death figure prominently in ECHOLOCATION. The book is dedicated to her. In a way, the book is a chronicle of losses and the poems are an attempt to wrap words around them, make these losses communicable to others.
Sally Bliumis-Dunn teaches Modern Poetry at Manhattanville College and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Her poems appeared in New Ohio Review, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, PLUME, Poetry London, the NYT, PBS NewsHour, upstreet, The Writer’s Almanac, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day, and Ted Kooser’s column, among others. In 2002, she was a finalist for the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize. Her two books, Talking Underwater and Second Skin were published by Wind Publications in 2007 and 2010. Galapagos Poems was published by Kattywompus Press in 2016. Her third full-length collection, Echolocation, was published by Plume editions Madhat Press in March of 2018.