Let me begin by stating outright that I believe it is not easy to write poems about the environment and endangered species, such as the elephant, the white rhino, and the blue whale, without veering into the country called “preaching.” I have tried some myself, and I have not succeeded.
In her debut chapbook of poems, Flesh Enough, Darla Himeles’s first poem, “They’ll Say the Blue Whale’s Tongue Weighed As Much As an Elephant,” begins: “Someday your daughter / will voice this fact / and ask / what an elephant was like.” To begin the poem with the premise that elephants no longer exist and we need to find words to describe them to children, quite frankly, forced this reader to stop and ask herself, “How would I do it?”
Himeles uses quotidian objects to describe lost creatures—words like “couch cushions,” “sunbaked tires,” and “Volkswagen.” She also manages to show her readers all of those crazy things a parent might do to help a child feel, smell, and see a thing now gone, such as running “with palm leaves” and rocking “the arc of your body / over couch cushions / to show how rescuers grunted / CPR.”
Himeles uses powerful restraint when interweaving the everyday with unspeakable destruction and the endangerment of both animals and humanity.
In her poem “Redolence,” Himeles again uses smell and scent to approach extermination:
Is redolence passed?
Those who never slept
under an almond tree’s branch
might not catch almond blossoms
on a breeze—
even if their grandmothers dreamt
by the Dead Sea.
I, too, born beyond Babylon—
who never knew bitter almond
crept through the vents
as my ancestors showered in gas—
might not taste almond’s breath
sour-sweet in a morning kiss.
Never directly addressing the Holocaust, Himeles instead uses smell, memory, and the possibility of inherited olfaction to move from a daughter asking how elephants smell in her first poem of the book to the smells of her ancestry, both sweet almond blossoms and the bitter almond odor of the Nazi’s hydrogen cyanide.
In her love poem for her wife Betsy, C&D Canal, August 2008, Himeles’s language is somewhat lusher, mirroring the earth’s landscape and its creatures and, of course, love, but it is never intrusive. Using couplets this time, Himeles again speaks to and weaves together the past and the present, as in these lines:
I’d wed you tomorrow, or next summer. For you,
ancient sea creatures slap long-vanished flesh
against dusty shins, squid legs flutter like blackgum
leaves in autumn fog. As light quakes the chestnuts free
of your eye, the soft rattle of Delaware’s cephalopod dead
kisses my palm—our bodies hold this Late Cretaceous love song.
It is this ability to weave, like a family quilt, love and grief, both personal and social, with well-researched facts, that makes this book so remarkable. For instance, in her poem “Fuchsia,” Himeles begins:
Whole years lumber sometimes
encircled by armed guards
like the last male northern white
rhino, until the thick knees
buckle and the beast bows
to beige earth.
followed immediately by the lines:
silence breathes heavy
between siblings. She tells me
she never took out the trash
those years Mom worked three jobs
and I went east.
Himeles ends this poem referring to the rhino and to time spent with her sister:
no longer is horned; nothing left
to harvest. Those years bowed
to the earth. We pluck fuchsia
blossoms we never knew grew here,
scatter smashed petals down the walk.
There is something achingly beautiful and haunting created by weaving together the poached rhinos and siblings struggling to make sense of their old life in an apartment. The use of repetition, as with “bows” and “bowed,” links the species, rhino and human. The sibilance of “silence,” “breathes,” and “siblings,” followed by the thick-hided consonant-laced “scatter,” “smashed,” and “petals,” caused this reader to become part of the poem, its weighty breath, and its recognition of loss. Everything is fragile and vulnerable and needs to be cared for.
Himeles has pulled off a remarkable feat; she has wedded fine language and the music of poetry with the horrors of history and tragedy of extinction. For this, I am grateful.