By Dion O' Reilly
Danusha Laméris’s second book, Bonfire Opera (Pittsburg Press, 2020) continues many of the themes of her debut collection, Moons of August (Autumn House Press, 2014). In both her books, the poems are often radiant with precise descriptions, which work to make sense of loss, passion, and desire. The losses recounted in this book are profound: a dead child, a brother lost to suicide. Often, the speaker grapples with her impulse toward physical love and connection— the dangers of it and the joy. Ultimately, however, the descriptions lead to an uneasy acceptance of elemental emotion.
In Best Words, Best Order, Stephen Dobyns writes: "If the poet can get us to believe about a small thing, we will be more likely to believe the poet about a big thing. One of the quickest ways to establish the reader's trust is through precise description of physical setting.” Laméris’s evocative imagery consistently relaxes the reader into the sensory experience. Then the poet asserts her metaphorical claims—that the speaker is like a ravenous coyote or a bird striving to free itself. In this way, a unity is achieved. She deftly convinces us that emotions, and our responses to those emotions, are an element of the natural world.
To trace how Laméris’s descriptions lead to nuanced re-imaginings of human urges, let’s examine “Coyote,” which, like many in the text—especially in the first sections—ponders the complexities of desire and grief. As usual, the reader recognizes familiar terrain at the start of this poem—thanks to sensory descriptions which are alluring, curious, and grounded in concrete details:
The coyotes are wilding again, a frenzy of high-pitched yelps
and quick staccato yips that waft up to my windows after dark.
I thought they'd howl like wolves, or dogs left out too long
in the backs of trucks, not this otherworldly keening, sound
that stirs up dust, slips through the black boughs of the pine,
careens through the muck of the creek, its stony bed,
through the fetid water and old trestles, their thin sheen of rust…
Throughout this text, Laméris is not content with a limited account of any scene or event. Her language is not wildly metaphorical, does not strain for heavy-handed language. Still, her diction is possessed of a kind of clear Dionysian abundance. In this poem, she relentlessly chronicles a haunting sound and landscape, telling us not only what coyotes sound like, but also what they do not sound like—“dogs left out too long in the back of trucks”—an image that suggests a schism between the domestic and the feral, foreshadowing the speaker’s own chafing against constraint.
In her leisurely fashion, the writer allows her readers seven lines to meander the territory, to listen to its restless inhabitants. We hear them in the onomatopoeia of “quick staccato yips.” We learn the song is a pervasive and inescapable “keening” through a world of dust, muck, fetid water, and rust. Clearly a landscape in need of some refreshment, some fresh blood.
After a full immersion in this night-world of “ruckus” and “fury”—a volta. She states: “I do not care for the coyote’s voice. It’s like someone singing the blues in another dimension.” We learn that something in the song is too broken for this speaker—too much like the resigned and familiar melancholy of the blues. Her reference to another dimension speaks subtly of regret, other lives she might have led, parallel possibilities lost to the speaker’s view. She gives us four strong lines arguing her case against the “feral riffs gone out of tune,” and then, reverses herself, saying,” But when it’s quiet, I miss the way their voices echo off the hill…”
At this point, the reader becomes aware of the strata of description. Beyond the illustration of the wild animals, the land outside her “high window,” the speaker is describing an ambivalence toward her own wildness. We see the attraction and hesitation of the narrator. Then, as she does in the opening, Laméris offers several lines describing the outside world inhabited by these beasts. This time, seen through the eyes of the coyote, nature is less moribund, less rotted: “through the thicket, past hemlock and horsetail, through/buck brush and oak.”
Through parallel descriptions, we understand the speaker is transforming—a little like a werewolf under a full moon—-into her own beast. But Laméris is seldom obtuse. Because of the power of her showing, she earns her telling:
There is an animal inside me that wants to tear
into the body of something soft and luscious, cracking
its small bones. To prowl the church of the dark, ragged
and dangerous, wearing my grief like a fur jacket.
She gives us four long lines describing her need, upping the metaphoric drama. The night becomes a “church”; grief becomes a “fur jacket.”
This is poetry doing what it should: through metaphor, unity is achieved. Human religion is conflated with the ecosystem of a predator. Human emotion, grief, in particular, becomes an animal cloak for survival. As in many of the poems in Bonfire Opera— we are brought back into the dark paradise of our original selves.
But she is not done; the speaker again reverses herself. Does she have permission to let loose? Like a child begging a parent, she asks: “Haven’t I been good long enough?-- kept my sorrows/tucked in a back pocket, folded like a Swiss blade?” Her question is poignant. Sometimes, it seems, there is no reward for restraint, for civil behaviour. No amount of abstemious resolve removes grief or a desire that lives like a sheathed weapon in the clothes we must wear.
But wait, yet another turn, even if given the opportunity, could she go feral? Although we know we are a part of nature, we also know we are apart— fallen from that paradise. Is this fall yet another burden of grief?
We are left wondering how they do it, those wild coyotes, how do they sing of this deep loss? Laméris’s speaker leaves us on the verge of releasing her “own terrible noise,” inviting us, the readers, to consider how to produce such a scream: “Is this how they do it?-- when they open/their trick jaws, tilt their heads up?” We answer the question for her— in this poem, we have heard her terrible song. We now see the poem as an ars poetica. Furthermore, by implication, poetry is akin to the coyote call.
Like much of the work in this collection, Danusha Laméris captivates with the snake-like charm of her description. Ultimately, however, the writer’s metaphors and rhetoric serve to expose complex girders of thought regarding the paradox of living in a human-animal body. Undaunted, she explores the vastness of experience without guilt, shame, or punishment—how to accept losses, transform passions to song, then release them with a full voice—to be both the bonfire and the opera.
Dion O’Reilly's first book, Ghost Dogs, was published in February 2020 by Terrapin Books. Her work appears in Cincinnati Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Narrative, The New Ohio Review, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Sugar House Review, Rattle, The Sun, and other literary journals and anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for several Pushcarts and been shortlisted for a variety of prizes. She is a member of The Hive Poetry Collective, which produces podcasts and events, and she teaches ongoing workshops on a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains--now on Zoom.