“To Take the Self Apart”: A Review of Natch by Sophia Dahlin

Natch, Sophia Dahlin’s debut poetry collection, opens with a coinage. The first poem in the collection, “Prismr of Love,” takes its title from an apparent portmanteau of “prisoner” and “prism.” A possible meaning of “prismr” spools out deductively: the word figures love as a force that simultaneously constrains and fractures, just as a prism splits a single beam apart to reveal the wavelengths of visible light. Within this light, to be held and to be opened becomes a single condition, appearing more like one or the other only via shifts in the angle of one’s view. Following this logic, we arrive at an inherent tension: what’s the difference between a smother and an embrace? Between release and disintegration? To be love’s prismr is thus to risk suffering along with joy, and in Dahlin’s collection, that risk is precisely what makes love so necessary. Natch ventures that to hurl oneself towards such risk is part of a commitment to a life built and shared with others, a politics originating at the most intimate scale. This terrain of love—particularly queer and non-exclusive love—is what Dahlin, in Natch, holds her eye and ear to. She revels in its joys and anguishes, its glints of a world arranged differently, in poems that veer with sudden tenderness and bustle with delight.

In Natch’s cosmology, desire is first mover; the body invariably follows. “Tandem,” an ode to legs and what’s between them, swaps the sun—which, in Beckettian fashion, “shows nothing new”—for a “desiring engine”: the force that stirs thoughts and limbs, excites hearts and particles. This sense of excitation is most palpable in the arena of sound, which functions in many poems as the lead propulsive force. In “Prismr,” Dahlin writes:

again my wallet sucks

my holes have holes halve

to avoid

to void to hole up

for a while w/ baby

for the winter

In these couplets, each subsequent word and line feels like a remolding of the previous one, the product of a sculptor laying another fist in the clay. The vacuum of “sucks” leads to “holes,” which is crammed together with “have” to form “halve”; the recurring “v” pulls ‘avoid’ (a “void”) out of “hole,” only for “hole” to reappear in the following line, coming back around like an orbiting moon. Sonic signatures carry over, dictating the sense of what comes next. One can hear each line or stanza listening and reacting to those preceding it. The result is a poem that rings in delightful thrall to its own sonic unfolding—a prismr of the love of sound. 

A key element of this love is Dahlin’s strange yet exquisite word choice. Throughout Natch, a seemingly off-key or incongruent word is made to fit so perfectly that it feels somehow decadent. Phrases like “angelically frothing” and “a brown bird gnarly in the sun” manage to be uncanny and gorgeous at once. Perhaps the midpoint between the lyrical and guttural is play. Or perhaps this is how pleasure works: we can’t quite pin it down, at least not with the words we’re used to using. 

The flip side of any momentary pleasure is fear—be it of stasis (Will I grow bored of this?) or the unknown (What will happen when this ends?). At the outset, the speakers in Natch face these states of unease with a hurricane bravado. The language in these poems feels like an electrified (electrifying) grid—the speaker declaims herself before the world to make it conform to her. In “Switch,” an initial fear of stasis becomes an ode to potential energy, what builds up lying in wait:

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.

In an ensuing parenthetical, the speaker becomes a lone couchbound figure on Halloween night, a delighted witch watched by the neighborhood kids. At the poem’s end, she declares with relish that “my / name means sofa in three languages and I am yours (which) / I wait for you, stuffed into posture.” The couch becomes a throne, its constancy less a limit than a source of power. 

As Natch progresses, its poems shift away from swagger, their self-assurance eroded by love’s more uncertain feelings. In “When Relinquish on a Star,” this progression plays out in miniature, in the space of a single poem. “Relinquish” opens joyously, with a loping, Whitmanian line, punctuated with tra la’s and declarations of things sung (“of June singing,” “of sexual exhaustion singing”). But the poem’s catalogue of companionship and release swings toward scenes of pain:

of learning I’m toxic to you by your sudden reaction

burial of my flirt and the upturned earth of my bedsheets

burial of my wish the upturned earth of my bedsheets, of not sleeping

singing, of not ending to dream, waking up in June or October

escaping acquaintance by desperate means is a pleasure


of August and skipping to demons sing lo            

sorry ‘bout the demons, tra la.

In “Relinquish,” desire leads inevitably into a more fraught, entangled realm, in which the difficulty and pain of intimacy cannot be pushed aside. One can apologize for the demons, but they aren’t going anywhere—which is precisely the reason to keep singing (tra la). 

The archetypal lyric impulse can be characterized by the poet’s totalizing desire for unboundedness—to transcend space and time and become one with whatever lies beyond. All-encompassing as it is, this desire never gets past its troubling detachment from social life writ large—which is, necessarily, detachment from politics. Natch, though anchored in this lyric mode, doesn’t settle for its apolitical stance. Instead, Dahlin’s poems situate desire within an actual human world, one teeming with lovers, friends, and strangers. Obliterating the self, after all, leaves no room for the self’s obligations; but striving to empty oneself into another, and vice versa, opts into a condition of mutual dependency. To want and be wanted is a tether to a touch, an encounter, a moment of shared time. This is, if nothing else, a starting point for reimagining political life in the present.

“Lovely Heart” is the collection’s most explicit declaration on this front; it asserts desire’s role as backbone of a better world. The poem begins with a lost wallet, left on a lawn, and then, Dahlin writes, “my heart changes.” Thoughts on home and money come in clipped, fragmented couplets until a new voice emerges, conversational but unflinching:

is polyamory anticapitalist

or is it she said greedy 

I said sure

and generous

so generous

as to take the self apart

to lie under my lovers fucking

being like

it’s what it’s like

to be a back

Here, to be a lover is “to take the self apart” and make, with its assorted pieces, something particular and new. This is the opposite of a transaction, and it occurs not just between lovers, but friends, comrades, and sets of strangers—any people who strive to build something held in common. To give over one’s whole self is not simply to have another’s back, but to be it—to stand (or lie) in as the part of the body that carries all the rest. There can be great pleasure in this; yet it is a pleasure inseparable from risk, vulnerability, and the loss of a certain kind of sovereignty. Natch would have it no other way: the satisfaction of getting is amplified by the ecstasy of giving up, and the self’s dis- and reintegration into a greater, more unknowable flow becomes a scale model for a revolutionary rearrangement of social and political life. What will this new world look like, where we are all each other’s backs? Dahlin’s poems give us not the answer, but how that answer feels. 

Peter Myers is a poet living in New York. His poetry has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterlyjubilat, and elsewhere, and his reviews have appeared in The Iowa Review and Full-Stop.