Unbound Edition Press, 118 pages, October 12, 2021
An astounding debut, Sophia Anfinn Tonnessen’s Ecologia is a new trans theology rooted in the natural world. This is a review and a critical response borne out of my devotion to both trans poetics and to disrupting Christian tradition. To risk falling back into my MFA-trained ways, I’m providing a working thesis to contextualize where I’m coming from: my read of Ecologia is one of trans poetics, a search for self, pandemic, and literary lineage.
Ecologia opens with the poem “Compass Rose,” an origin story not unlike Christ’s: “How many times have I been buried, and come back again?” With the title of this poem and the three sections – Indicum, Hyacinthum, Lilium – it is fitting that the book is structured around flowers. Tonnessen’s poems are sprawling, yet controlled; it’s clear each word of each poem comes from the same roots, only flowering in different directions and ways of being.
A common undercurrent in Ecologia is a search for the self –– and for many of us, this is just what transition is. In the poem “Stone Fruit,” Tonnessen writes:
It wasn’t to be held (accountable) that I started to write,
but to explain what I might feel, to create feeling from
a body of stone, a soured pit, a bitter plum.”
While this constant quiet searching is resonant to a trans poet reader, all are invited on the search for selfhood, should they choose to come along.
The title poem, “Ecologia,” reads like a manifesto of the self, or perhaps a way to make sense of all the above multitudes that the poet contains. With references to the Bible, astrology, the poetry workshop, and pop culture, this poem announces Tonnessen herself as part of the canon. One stanza begins:
Forty days and forty nights
and thirst-trap TikToks (miles to go before I sleep)
A Robert Frost line delegated to parenthesis, juxtaposed with thirst-trap TikToks, is a 21st century delight.
While its significance is not isolated to the early 2020s, Ecologia is very much situated in the COVID-19 pandemic. USian fascism, digital intimacy, and true aloneness must be confronted in order to survive. But words like “COVID” do not appear in this collection, and the reader is given empty spaces instead. The poem “Revelation” asks, “is that a sign of ? Or just your creeping paranoia.” The poet concludes that “The era of isn’t just a bad joke; it’s a lot of bad jokes.”
Pandemic anxiety reaches a high in the poem “Lockdown.” Tonnessen writes, “April is the something something,” referencing the month during which the pandemic became real for a lot of US Americans, but also the opening to TS Eliot’s “Waste Land.” In my day-to-day poet-life, I resist talking about Eliot. However, here, it feels apt. The speaker reaches back to the start of Modernism to try and make sense of our 21st century chaos. Ultimately, “Lockdown” tells us with this line that a poem written by a cisgender white man at the turn of the last century is not adequate for the present moment.. The poet makes known that she is writing after thousands of years of poetic, christian tradition, white western tradition. Every poem is the result of every poem that came before it; Ecologia does not shy away from this. The inevitability of influence as a 21st century writer is something that I myself am always writing towards, as we all draw from what came before us. Acknowledging this fact complicates the poem as a solitary, singular thing born out of a vacuum, and our relationships to poets of the past.
In “Lockdown,” Tonnessen writes:
This morning the violets were dangerous,
had no regard for the situation.
Nature, like gender, will move on without us, if we let it. In addition to the empty space on the page where the virus lives, the recurring imagery of “dangerous violets” and “lovely coughs” of other people are inconsequential-turned-violent signs of life. While there is nothing redeeming about the pandemic, Ecologia documents a mid-pandemic search for self, in which all phenomena, including gender, are not meant to be static. Change comes with the seasons. Birth and death are just that, are neutral. Transition is theosis, godly, natural, un/holy, multitudinous.
Continuing to subvert literary expectations in the poem “Blue Velvet,” Tonnessen writes: “They say literature is dead, / but what about– sonnets giving head, couplets that 69.” And what of eroticism in a time where we are all so secluded? In “This Time Next Week,” the poet moves from intimacy with a lover to observing birds in the next stanza. Something that I greatly admire about the work of Ecologia is that it’s all one in the same. Nature, the self, gender, the world, sex, poetry. There’s no room for shame in this book, or rather, through poetry, the poet is able to chase it away, and to subvert or outright dismiss western and christian tradition. The collection ends with the poem “Kenosis.” The title references Christ renouncing his divine nature. Tonnessen writes:
A renunciation of the will, and something in me grew.
It was: vines, depth, a yearning for your fingers inside me,
anything you wanted, your hands on my neck; what would it be otherwise?
Some things exist just beyond human understanding, yet we still have the urge to write poems about them. My theory is that our humanness is what drives us to write towards discovery. Poems like “Saturnalia” are born from this instinct. “Saturnalia” spans four pages, birthdays, dates, and several cities traversed with a lover. In it, the poet grapples with writing poetry about that which resists being written, confiding to the reader and the lover, “I’m glad the inexpressible remains so.” But by the end of the piece, the poet makes peace with the inexpressible, concluding with the line “That poem would fly away before I could finish it” (emphasis in original).
The very act of writing poetry is not clear-cut in these pages. In the poem “Wintering,” Tonnessen poems about poeting:
waiting for estrogen to make me make sense,
or a poem to punch a hole through the window and let the air rush in.
Guess I’ll punch a hole in the window to let the air rush in.
“Wintering,” like many poems in Ecologia, brings to mind a song lyric that has guided my writing for the better part of a decade: “Maybe I don’t know what I’m saying but I’m saying it anyways.” Both express the urge to create, to make sense of being alive in a chaotic world through the act of creation. If the world is hostile to trans people or poets or people who feel things or people who just can’t sit by while fascism, negligence, and a virus kill millions – poems are how to make sense of it. “I’ll coerce a poem from chaos,” Tonnessen says.
Further, juxtaposing estrogen and poetry is a transpoetic move I adore. Change is not only welcome; change can be self-made or self-imposed. This recalls a line from ecopoet Oliver Baez Bendorf, whose poem “Dysphoria” reads: “As for / gender I can’t explain it / any more than a poem: there // was an instinct, I followed / it.”
And what if we could do just that? If we could follow our instincts in all their trans/poetic/humanness? Ecologia is what blooms forth.
Baez Bendorf, Oliver. “Dysphoria.” Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets, 8 Oct. 2020, https://poets.org/poem/dysphoria.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.
Modern Baseball. “Cooke.” Sports, Lame-O Records, Nov. 2012, https://modernbaseballpa.bandcamp.com/track/cooke.