Poetry

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

Let’s take a closer look on what I consider the poem’s most challenging line: “I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief.” The verb tense of “stopped” tells us that in the past the poet did know or thought she knew how to measure her own grief, and the meaning of “stopped” tells us that she did such measuring habitually. What does it mean to measure one’s own grief? One meaning may be in the sense of “taking the measure of,” defined by The Free Dictionary online as “the act or process of ascertaining the extent, dimensions, or quantity of something.” So, in the past the speaker had a habit of analyzing her grief, trying to ascertain its size and dimension, perhaps as compared to some standard.

But she does not just stop measuring her own grief; she stops “knowing how to” do it. The movement from a state of perceived certainty to one of uncertainty fascinates me. As the parent of a son on the autism spectrum, I sometimes fail to express my grief and fear around other parents whose kids are more severely disabled, figuring that compared to them I have less to worry about. This dismissal is, of course, just another way to focus upon the grief, and it hides a truth I’m reluctant to examine: that I can even know the extent of my loss and can assess it as less than the loss suffered by others. Feeling luckier than other parents is a form of schadenfreude, that ugly term meaning pleasure in another’s pain. And, feeling unluckier than other parents of neuro-typical kids may itself be an odd kind of pride. In any event, neither schadenfreude nor pride is the same as feeling the grief itself and can become a way of hiding from it. Just as analyzing and comparing one’s grief can also become a way of cherishing it, of holding it close.

Perhaps at first the speaker does some of what I’ve just described, measuring her personal grief against the senseless loss of one of earth’s greatest creatures and finding it dwarfed in comparison. By the end of the poem, though, seeing the dead whale on the beach and imagining others still roving the waves seem to give her a way to let go of that damaging calculus. When she stops knowing how to measure her grief, she acknowledges her grief as unmeasurable.

Does the process bring the speaker any relief? Perhaps at least the need to try to quantify her grief is banished now that she’s found a metaphor that can contain and express it, that “unimaginable five-hundred-pound heart.” The word “unimaginable” is interesting because it contradicts itself; the speaker is in fact imagining (as are we readers) that heart at the same moment she calls it unable to be imagined. Great grief always presents such a paradox, doesn’t it? It feels too large to express, and yet we go on and on trying to express it. In calling the heart “unimaginable,” I think the speaker describes her own grief and the inadequacy of language to express it. Words fail us, but when we do find them they can provide a kind of balm. Perhaps the poem sets the speaker free, if not from the pain itself, at least from continual attempts to give her pain dimension and expression.

Part of the success of “Echolocation” derives from the poet’s refusal to name her grief or its source. This exercise of restraint allows readers, as I did, to think about our own greatest encounters with grief, the kind least able to be measured or expressed in words, and it is what makes the poem both uniquely personal and powerfully universal. All this reminds me of how poetry can express the ineffable and give voice to emotions too vast for words, or at least words in prose. Some call it what exists between the lines, and others call it poetry’s magic and power; in any event, it’s a source of solace. And I, looking forward this week to Thanksgiving, am grateful for it.

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