On “Switch”: Sophia Dahlin’s Impossible Possible

Natch. Sophia Dahlin. San Francisco: City Lights, 2020.

Sophia Dahlin’s work is like looking into a kaleidoscope of human postures—a funhouse mirror version of the lyric tradition. The closest experience I have had to reading her poems was when I saw Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage [1] by Marcel Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. First you enter a room where one wall is a rather drab looking wooden door with tiny peepholes. When you then peer inside, you see the lush beautiful landscape foregrounded by a naked woman with her legs spread. And in Dahlin’s poetry, bodies, the objects that bodies touch, and the surrounding atmosphere melt into one another until it seems obvious that body/object/world are one discrete thing having a temporary experience of separateness. 

The landscape of Dahlin’s debut collection, Natch, is an idiosyncratic and languid ooze of domestic language. Words appear as verbs after the eye has already tried to parse them as nouns. The syntax one might expect from an ode or an aubade collapses and morphs into something similar but distinctly strange. It’s the sensation of drinking from the fountain of youth with a loop-de-loop straw—refreshing, playful, rejuvenating, and bouncy.

From the poem “Switch” [2]:

why is it too obvious to slouch into the soft furniture
couch and sigh for power&fame! even my hands soften thinking
ah to be named even in my wig and shades
when small I thought the key might be to try
each thing then I thought no only one thing soon enough
I’ll be “she who does thing” then
I sat on this couch

Propulsive desires rise and fall in the speaker’s relaxed address. The elision of expected punctuation within the lines occasions an easy, breezy, beautiful poetgirl voice-iness. This voice may provoke in the reader (i.e. it does in me) a sense of closeness between the poem and oneself, the feeling of being whispered to at a party or winked at from across the room—you’re being let in on a secret. What the secret is, exactly, is unclear—and maybe unimportant. The impression of closeness can be an end in and of itself.

For a book dedicated to “my crushes” Dahlin herself invites crushiness (the crush of a butt onto a fluffy sofa) with her diction’s light touch. In the second stanza of “Switch” the line begins:

oh it is gentle it is so gentle it

and this gentle repetition gathers around itself with its simplicity. As the stanza continues, the speaker of the poem imagines being asked to “housesit a house/the week before Halloween” and asks the reader to:

imagine the cackling
doorway, cottony stair rail, vegetal exoskeletons

and the verdant witchy wagging her dick,
broom, her broomsdick, I want to watch out the window
daring the neighboring kids to name me “which”
I am the one “which one” this one “the window which”
this window and cast my shadow on the lawn

Who’s on first? Dahlin’s speaker wants to be a witch (the worst witch on the block) in an imagined housesitting situation, not at her actual house. This fantasy of scaring and/or delighting the neighborhood children with her witchly presence presents a tableau of controlled chaos, the quintessential Halloween experience. Scary and sweet, tricky and a treat.

The slippage and correction of “dick/broom, her broomsdick” which the witch is wagging flags the fun of playing pretend—the speaker pretends she is in a large house, that it is correctly corsage for the occasion, and that she is this witch and that her dick is a stick (a broomsdick) that she may sweep the air with. The witch wags her fecund dick and looks out the window. We may have the suggestion of the peeping tom masturbator, but the witch here is staring out of a window, not onto one. It isn’t the fetishization of the intimate domestic moment but rather an erotic charge that reaches outward, a showcase for anyone who may be out in the world looking around for something to delight them. This flashy image drives home the play of the poem, a sexy scene of fantasy, excess, and exterior decorating. The witchiness is the where wherein which the slipperiness of diction delights. Dahlin revels in the sonics of it all—showing off how fun it is to splash around in a small pool of language.

The poem ends:

now I have never had a lawn to spread out in but
have sat on couches, mine, and sofas of others, my
name means sofa in three languages and I am yours (which)
I wait for you, stuffed into posture

which perhaps prompts one to consider dismissing the formality of invoking “Dahlin’s speaker” and allow Sophia Dahlin herself to be the “I” of her poem, as she offers her name as a place to rest. She beckons us to lounge in her language. Indeed, this poem does away with many elements of propriety i.e. being properly productive and owning property. Dahlin doesn’t, has never had a lawn, but what she does have is her body, as it is and as it can be. The lyric “I” is what she wields—not as an owner but as a sharer.


[1] https://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/324.html?page=2

[2] Natch, pages 11-12

Emily Bark Brown is a poet from Alabama. They received their MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Recent work can be found in Afternoon VisitorHobartBennington Review, and jubilat; new work is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue. Their website is emilybarkbrown.com and they co-edit Hot Pink Magazine, an online poetry venture, at hotpinkmag.com.