Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Echolocation,” by Sally Bliumis-Dunn

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Becky_author+photo_cropped_7-12-14I’m partial to whales in general and to poems about them, in spite (or because) of the fact that I grew up in the landlocked state of Pennsylvania and saw my first whale on a visit to Cape Cod when I was 19. Maybe that is precisely why the sea and its creatures have always seemed mythical to me, especially the whale, with its larger-than-life presence in life and literature, from Nineveh swallowing Jonah in the Bible to the hunted and hunting leviathan that roams the pages of Moby Dick.  

My Google search for “poems about whales” did not yield much in the way of results. Lots of poems mention them, of course. Moby Dick has been called one long prose poem about whales, a description I agree with when I recall the chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” In Milton’s Paradise Lost, God creates whales first among the earth’s creatures, and they turn up with some regularity in poems by Melville, Whitman, Donne, Heaney, Lowell, and others. I had better luck typing “whale” into the search boxes of the Poetry Foundation and American Academy of Poets websites, finding a few poems I knew like “Whales Weep Not” by D. H. Lawrence, “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee” by Howard Nemerov, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” by Robert Lowell, and that wonderful old chestnut, “Sea Fever” by John Masefield (“To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s a whetted knife”). I was delighted also to discover some I didn’t know, like “To Ailsa Rock” by John Keats and Marianne Moore’s feminist “Sojourn in the Whale.” More contemporary examples include the wrenching “Inside the Blues Whale” by Afaa Michael Weaver and the hilarious “Rules for Captain Ahab’s Provincetown Poetry Workshop” by Martín Espada, a fiery poet whose Provincetown class was my first poetry workshop in 2009. Others are W. S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” and British poet Clare Pollard’s meditation on evil, “Leviathan.”

I’ll never forget my amazement upon seeing them for the first time, a pod of gray whales including a mother and calf that swam up next to the boat and entertained us for an hour — spouting, breaching, showing their flukes, and exhibiting the elusive behavior called “spy-hopping” with the whale suspending itself vertically with just its head out of the water and turning in a complete circle. I’m fascinated by these mammals, their enormity and grace, their intelligence and sensitivity, and of course, their means of navigation and the title of today’s poem, “Echolocation.”

As its name implies, echolocation is a “sonar-like system used by dolphins, bats, and other animals to detect and locate objects by emitting usually high-pitched sounds that reflect off the object and return to the animal’s ears or other sensory receptors” (dictionary.com). Even before “Echolocation” begins, we are signaled by the title that the poem is going to involve finding one’s way, and we are not surprised to see its first two words, “The whales.” What is surprising is our realization, at first anyway, that the poem is less about echolocation than the failure of that system. I say “at first,” because I believe the poem offers readers a second, deeper realization offering the means of finding one’s way through grief, even perhaps even a great ocean of it.

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