September 7, 2008

Review by Paula Marafino Bernett

TALKING UNDERWATER
Sally Bliumis-Dunn

Wind Publications, 2007
600 Overbrook Drive
Nicholasville, KY 40356
ISBN: 978-1-893239-69-2
103 pp. $15.00
www.windpub.com

There’s beauty, intelligence and a keen poetic eye at work among the 77 poems collected in Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s Talking Underwater. But too often the poems feel as if they’ve been transmitted from an underwater place (the title poem isn’t happened on until page 85), only infrequently bursting through the surface to present the reader with an accomplished, realized poem.

There’s aspiration too, evident in a wealth of strong phrases, ambitious ideas, and pulses of energy that promise much, but often fail to deliver.

In Section I, the poem “Not Seeing” begins with this strong opening: “…everything is too much/ what it has been/ and not enough/ what it is.” These lines are obliquely supported by the example of the leaf, which does not do them justice. Then comes the line “… I see nothing/ in your hand…” and as I’m struggling to connect this thought to the opening, an inchworm wrapping itself in a leaf enters the poem, arguably very much what it is, and I’m lost.

“Leaving for College” gives us another strong set of lines:

Poor slow heart, busy gathering
all the sadness it has ever known,
in its plain and simple language,
regardless of time or place:
whether I am two and afraid to go to sleep,
ten, above my father’s grave,
or now as you are leaving.

Such good concluding lines demand more of the poem that supports them than Bliumis-Dunn gives us with the set of rhetorical questions, albeit provocative, that comprise the preceding couplets.

And in the last stanza of “With the Help of Strangers,” this:

though somewhere inside he knows,
as he walks back up the hill,
that neither he nor the stranger is right
…as he slides into the space between
his father and sister…

Here lies the considerable strength of this ambitious poem, but it comes too late, following some cluttered stanzas including this off-the-mark metaphor: “…the effectual ball of his body bouncing up and down…” And this odd sentence: “…he runs after it…a staccato whine in time with his pounding feet.”

In this as in other poems, it seems that a tangential thought of greater immediate interest has entered the poet’s mind distracting her from the work the poem has set out for her, and leaving the reader to fend for herself.

But all is not lost. There are some rough gems here, though overall I’d wish for more challenging subject matter–among them “In the Women’s Locker Room, In a Station of the Metro” (yes, we know it’s Pound, but attribution is still required), and “Conversation” that closes Section I.

In Section II, a group of eight nature poems, we find “Herring Gulls,” an effective 3-part poem with a spot-on simile: “…a thin black line around the injured leg, like a ring marrying it to its own vulnerability.” And consider “Holding On,” admirable in its achievement for the example of the seahorse, illustrative of the “finite and small” to which it seems the poet will turn her attention. But in the next few lines she abandons it to focus on the starfish and the seagull and their ways of holding on.

Section III is a collection of poems that anthropomorphize elements from nature–but for the puzzling inclusion of “Dead Woman”–written as all of Bliumis-Dunn’s work in the first person.

Section IV, a journey through separation, divorce and re-marriage begins. In “Stillness,” the opening poem of the section, the poet veers haphazardly through a landscape, groping for the right metaphor, and finally, it seems, abandoning the quest. But again in “Heart,” one finds these gemlike lines requiring only a worthier poem to support them:

I remember the first time I saw it–
veined, and shiny
as the ooze of a snail–if this were what
we had been taught to draw
how differently we might have
learned to love.

Section V opens with two graceful small lyrics–“Snowfall,” a meditation on loveliness, and “Wedding Ring,” built on the metaphor (“the rest of me–…/ a mirror hanging/ on the wall/ of someone else’s life”), followed later in the series by “Block Island Morning.” Between are several poems that disappoint–“Beach,” for its overdone romanticism, and “Packing,” for this off-putting line: “Underwear, white as moths drawn blindly toward the light…” “Parting,” disappoints for the hackneyed “…I see your blue eyes vanishing/ into the sky,” as does “The Return,” for the forced metaphor of bedroom as ocean and bed as “…a bed of oysters, gray tight-lipped oysters.”

Then comes the title poem, “Talking Underwater,” a lament built on an extended metaphor. Here, the tendency to explain too much, more pronounced in other poems, is restrained, and to better effect. The line “…it was dark and cold” might be deleted the second time it appears, including the explanation “…I say this because I/ am forgetting,” hardly believable given the clearly remembered details of the preceding stanzas. In its second appearance, coming at the moment of turn, it seems a talking down to the reader for whom the darkness and coldness has already been so effectively evoked.

The balance of the poems demonstrate the uneven achievement of the book: the disappointing ultimate metaphor, “…the door suddenly dark like the sky during an eclipse” in “The Lilacs You Gave Me,” balanced by the arresting metaphor in “Dream”: “I needed/ to be something held/ a bell in a blue hand of sky.” The odd inclusion of “Visitation” –who is the spectral visitor? the poet’s father?—against a lovely line in “Stone”: “The past falling through our bodies like a stone.”

The collection concludes with “Mianus River Gorge,” an extended reflection deftly concluding with, “And how/ still it stood in the water.”

In search of a lyric sensibility, Sally Bliumis-Dunn sacrifices the very elements that would make her lyrics sing–the songs that would feel to the reader as if heard for the first time. The elements? Lean, original language (take risks!), fresh, developed metaphors and a fierce commitment to digging deep into the matter of the poem and sticking with it, without sacrificing style or sensibility. These of course are particular to Bliumis-Dunn as they are to every poet. Even so, with lyric work such as Talking Underwater, the reader does not want to be tagging along behind, warily circling the subject, but rather wishes to be dashed directly into it, baptized in it, transformed. Of course, few poets exist who can work that life-changing magic on their readers, but, as in Talking Underwater, aspiration is a great place to begin.

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A poet living in Taos, New Mexico, Paula Marafino Bernett often works with painters Dinah K. Worman and Lee Heartwell. Her poetry has been featured in several collaborative shows at Act I Gallery in Taos. She is a member of The Ekphrasis Collaborative, whose installation proposal, called EyeSpy, a fusion of visual and verbal elements, was chosen by the New Mexico Arts, Art in Public Places program and permanently installed at the Taos Center for the Arts. Paula has been awarded two fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center and holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published in Rattle and The Hiss Quarterly.

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