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

The poem is free verse, organized into three five-line stanzas called cinquains. Meter is irregular, with two to six beats per line, but the pattern is iambic, unstress/stress units that sound and feel like te-tum, te-tum, te-tum and mimic the cadences of ordinary English speech and of, some say, the human heartbeat. Diction is simple, with mostly single-syllable words (“whales,” “sea,” “breach,” “kelp,” etc.) and no words that are unusual or arcane. It’s straightforward and accessible and means to be; that is part of its power.

From the start, the whales are in trouble in this poem. They “can’t hear each other calling”— a consequence of noise pollution generated by human beings, not just the expected static of engines and radio waves, but also the competing sonar waves using by the navies of various countries. As we know from periodic news reports, the result is catastrophic: whales get confused and lost, beaching themselves, sometimes by the hundreds. In the poem we see one such whale, presented with great particularity and restraint, laying “like a great sadness,” with its “elliptical black eyes” gone “dry” and tiny barnacles encrusting its desiccating skin.

From this sad spectacle, the speaker moves to muse on other still-vital whales, wonderfully evoked in language that reminds me of the “whale-roads” of Old English poetry, an example of the hyphenated joinder of two nouns to produce a third called a “kenning.” That reminder enlarged the historical perspective of the poem for me, just as thinking about other whales in literature did.  Being adjectival, the terms “blue-black,” “noise-cluttered” and “five-hundred-pound” in today’s poem are not quite kennings, but I am guessing that the poet is familiar with the term and meant for me to think of it.

It is not until the last three lines of the poem that the first-person speaker enters. It happens when her focus moves from the whale before her to living whales in her imagination and finally to herself, drawing a parallel between what she sees and imagines and what she feels:

Imagining the other whales . . .
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.

It’s a move we’ve seen in other “nature” or “pastoral” poems presented in this column—the poet observing a natural phenomenon, then meditating upon it to find some connection between it and herself or between it and some human condition. In this way we feel the great weight of the speaker’s pain, feel it viscerally in that unforgettable image of the great whale heart.

How does the poem achieve its effect? To begin with, it approaches its discovery about the speaker’s own grief elliptically and gradually. The poem begins with the whales’ predicament—confused by naval sonar and other noise pollution—then moves to one example of the consequences of that predicament, reported with horrifying specificity of detail. The contrast between the dead whale’s great size and those tiny barnacles and dark eyes creates a striking, even wounding, paradox. Next the poem returns to other whales still plowing the depths in those images that so powerfully convey immensity and beauty: “their roving weight, / their blue-black webbing of the deep.” It is not until the very end that the speaker makes herself known and reveals the poem’s crux, or raison d’être: her discovery of an image able to convey something about the enormity of her own suffering. Perhaps the speaker’s personal loss is eclipsed by the loss of the creature stranded before her, or perhaps that image of the great heart has finally given her a way to express a pain before unable to be articulated.

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