Sophia Anfinn Tonnessen’s debut collection, Ecologia, is a wild ride, its wildness built on joy and anger and desire and I’ll-have-no-more-of-this-ness. No more negation; no more dead-naming; no more isolation, even though the poems speak through and about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which they call “the era of .” The ride begins with “Compass Rose,” which locates the speaker’s birth or births in the north, the west, and the east. Each direction is a petal, and each petal is flattened from the promising image of a flower into the abstraction of an adjunct to a map. The compass rose, after all, is not a place, but a sign meant to orient a map’s reader, to help connect the map itself to the world it represents, at whatever scale. The compass rose is therefore a fitting beginning, both centering and dislocating at the same time.
Tonnessen’s poems walk multiple paths from concrete image to syntactic elision and from this era’s everyday concerns to the shapeshifting desires that accompany those concerns, sometimes overriding them and sometimes inevitably deferred. (“Maybe shapeshifting is unholy,” Tonnessen writes in “Tempest.” But “If you’re here you might not think so” (32).) The following lines from “Saturnalia” show Tonnessen sandwiching the most immediate questions with the most unanswerable ones in just a few lines, first locating them at a college party, then questioning their place in the universe:
Would you like to be on my team for beer pong?
I don’t think this carousel will ever let us go.
Whatever you do wild and precious in this life,
you’ll still be excited about placemats, dear,
do you ever really get excited to see me?
Does time stop? Listen, listen. (28)
The book’s wild ride finds its poetry in many modes, from the lyrical to the raucous.
Tonnessen goes on to examine the enduring life of the carousel, which supposedly outlasts its use as metaphor. The carousel “adopts a cat and has its own patch in the community garden, / it dates a future cop and it dates a guy with a young daughter.” The carousel metaphor dies and is reborn; it lives a concrete, visible life and then disappears again. The
appearance and disappearance of the image, the metaphor, put me in mind of how the faces of loved ones appear and disappear so suddenly on our devices’ screens, where we cannot watch them approaching from down the block or across the room. The abruptness of Tonnessen’s shifts in tone or image suit the time we have lived through and are still enduring.
Tonnessen divides Ecologia into three sections, “Indicum,” “Hyacinthum,” and “Lilium.” The first draws on the dynamics of a particular relationship, defined in part by the titles of the selections “Her Name Is Red” and “My Name Is Blue,” the latter being one of my favorite poems in the book for the way that Tonnessen’s internal rhymes can lift a stanza unexpectedly into play. The second section, “Hyacinthum,” is the most plainspoken of the three, bookended by poems called “Lockdown” and “Lockdown II.” It opens with an interrupted dialogue on the pandemic’s pains and dangers and closes with a blunt yet impassioned meditation on what makes the speaker fall in love: “more than anything eyes that are also looking / furiously for a way to either love this world or leave it, / for something to set fire to, a way to live again” (79). Then finally, in “Lilium,” Tonnessen reaches all the way for the blue divine—and gets there. In this last section, the poems most strikingly collapse the gap between map and world, between word and thing, between desire and the having of it. It is a pleasure to navigate stanzas that lead from a tribute to “Grandpa (the dead one)” to “sonnets giving head, couplets that sixty-nine, / my face deep in—sublime—…” (88). It’s a shock, and a shock I cheer for, when “One name bites this mouth bloody” (89), and it is entirely weird and wonderful to encounter “souls … / slathered in turmoil— / creamy turmoil with garlic that / unsettles the body unsettles the mind” (98).
Ecologia reminds me that a basic structure of desire is the mapping of thoughts and wishes into our bodies, and that such mapping changes everything: wish and memory, movement and body, dream and name. The book’s wild ride finds its poetry in many modes, from the lyrical to the raucous. Go read it, and find the modes that resonate in you.
Ezra Dan Feldman is the author Habitat of Stones, which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has published in RHINO, Crazyhorse, Lambda Literary, DIAGRAM, and other venues. He teaches American Literature and Science and Technology Studies
at Williams College.
at Williams College.