Fathoming the Abyss: Donna Dallas’ Megalodon by J. Khan

Sharks are as primordial as fear itself.
-Willow Defebaugh

The megalodon was a massive shark, with six-foot jaws and triangular teeth up to seven inches long. Such a creature serves as a fitting emblem of Donna Dallas’ latest book, named in the extinct beast’s honor. In her title poem, Dallas explores her metaphorical relationship to this massive, shadowy creature that lurks beside her. Megalodon represents the destructive evil which has accompanied Dallas during her life of poverty, addiction and recovery.

Like Melville’s Ishmael in Moby Dick or Hemingway’s Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Dallas’ writing has traveled to us from afar. She has tales from drug-infested gulags, from places deep in America’s capitalist abyss; ecosystems where predators cull the young, where the rich shake down the poor and the strong savage the weak. Zero-sum places from which few escape. Dallas practically erupts with her life’s stories, from the demon whispering in her crib, through her decades of dereliction, to now—staring into old age. And, remarkably, she always celebrates that she even lived to write these poems. Her persona is fragile as glass, seemingly broken but sharp as a shiv.

Yet Dallas is no blameless angelfish, either. Rather the opposite—she was a hellion from her days in the crib. As she writes in “A Story For My Villagers”:

…which demon sat its menacing
deformity in my crib
to whisper the atrocities of the world as I
Iay dumbstruck
listening in curious angst
warned early on I would stroll
upon these, instead
I aimed straight for them
head on without blinders

Her lines signal an even-handed recognition of both sides of the situation: the extrinsic lure of the dark side versus her own proclivities towards self-destruction. Keen perception allows Dallas to survive and outwit the ruin that has overtaken most of her friends and family. She is both a fierce rationalist in the face of existential risk and an upbeat believer in the fragile miracle of her own survival. This sensible duality mirrors an underlying theme of choice and fate that informs the narrative arc of Megalodon.

Dallas’ determined philosophy, in fact, reminds one of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s own writing in Man’s Search for Meaning. Each is an analytic survivor compelled to understand why they survived when most died. Dallas pulls no punches describing why. She grew up in less than favorable circumstances, prey to predators and bullies, but resolved to escape and survive. In “What I Wore to the Prom,” she writes of those who never escaped:

years later…
one has five kids
one can’t shake the syph

…one walked too far out on the highway
on meth
rammed by an eighteen-wheeler
one’s in state prison
for robbing a liquor store
with a shotgun
his three-year-old by his side

Her poems eventually move on to young adulthood, where she deals with drug dependency, trafficking and sexual impulse. Readers might approach Megalodon as a curated peek into the angst of destitution and addiction. Not so. Dallas is no midwit: she is clearly aware of the risks of trotting out horrifying graphic experiences on demand. In her barely punctuated prose poem, “Foraging,” she writes:

fuck give them a story they all want to know… Yep, tell them how you met that stripper Lucrasia… you found each other and holed up in Mocahee’s Motor Inn for days maybe weeks you were almost clean before then but she was using… and here you go again down the merry road of a lover of heroin, of addicts

Dallas punctuates graphic scenes with flashes of her own insight and circumstance. Such intimacy stems from her ambition to heal. Indeed, she herself has said that it’s her aim “to confess, inspire, help and heal” with poetry, adding, “I write raw. I leave nothing out, it’s part confession, mixed with personal and vicarious experiences.” The result is fearsome familiarity and lyric authenticity.

Dallas’ work reflects the harsh reality of her life. And for Dallas, “harsh reality” is neither bounded by poverty, nor overcome by wealth. After all, she escaped from druggish impecuniousness into a world of exquisite clarets and private jets…but even affluence is plagued with vacuity. This much is shown in “Modern Wives Club,” which she commences with:

They’re on the Prozac and the Percs
I am with them
in body
in yoga
in Starbucks
in Candee’s Nail Salon
we shop couture
we do lunch
we stare into space
then ooze into our Mercedes

sexting gym boys
hoping to secure the future
fuck of a lifetime

This is Donna Dallas. Her stories are dark, but uplifting; tales of perseverance as victory.  It’s as though she writes while walking on a tightrope, just one slip away from the abyss. A deep lyric vulnerability and wide perspective sustain and balance her words. Dallas’ voice is one of hope and healing for herself and for her readers. She is no vengeful Ahab. Instead, she reminds us that there is no slaying the megalodon. The sharks are forever circling. And so, Dallas is more like Hemingway’s old fisherman. She knows the tough daily routine of survival: waking up and then willing oneself out of bed and into a life.

Megalodon by Donna Dallas is now available via all major platforms, including bookshop.org. Cover art by: Dale Champlin.

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