Crafting the Primal: Danusha Laméris’s Bonfire Opera

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…