Literary Spotlight: “Senses of Dawn” by Nina Maclaughlin

Previously we, at Daastan, introduced you to the world of lyric essays- with its ambiguities and potential. To now understand the true potential of the form, lets now direct the spotlight towards a wonderful lyric essay. “Senses of Dawn” is a five-part lyric essay by Nina Maclaughlin. All the instalments were published in The Paris Review.

A little about the author before we move on to the content. Maclaughlin is an American author who has written a feminist retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, “Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung“. Her work can also be found in The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Further, each piece was published at dawn to move the reader experience beyond words and into the situation that is being written about. To achieve the true experience, we would recommend reading each piece at dawn as well.

Touch of Dawn

We start the journey of “Senses with Dawn” with touch and what a journey it is. There is strong, visceral imagery of birth– coming from another. Maclaughlin uses this idea in multiple ways. On one level there is the rebirth, of both, us and dawn “Dawn is born again, just as we are“. On another level there is the separation as one is taken away from another. We are physically separated from the night, from slumber. Then there is also the knowledge that comes from feeling what is around us, “What’s you? What’s bed? What’s me? We feel our way into it at dawn. We come to know.

Moreover, lyric essays usually use previous literary works to get their point across effectively. Within this instalment of “Senses of Dawn”, Maclaughlin refers to The Odyssey and presents us with a litany of dawn’s first impressions. She also uses Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade“. By the end of the essay, there is the realization that the touch of dawn is the touch of breaking and separating,

Day breaks. Something gets broken. Two became one and are now two again, divided by the dawn. Pulled apart by hands of flowers. They sound gentle, but they are not gentle at all.”

 Sound of Dawn

Further along, the format changes with the second instalment of “Senses of Dawn”. The different phases of experiencing the sounds are marked with the time, date and location. Almost immediately, the first sound is silence. Gradually transforming into the soft sounds that emerge only in silence- the “friction of cotton and flesh, and heartbeats”.

Other than imagery, onomatopoeias are used to paint a vivid picture. If reading during dawn, ideally the reader would be hearing the same birdsong that Maclaughlin writes about. We too, get the sense of a full emptiness– a pregnant pause. “Not music but the promise of music. Not day, but the promise of day.”

Smell of Dawn

It can be said that it is the interweaving of different references that makes “Sense of Dawn” such a grounding read. Within this instalment, the artwork of Odd Nedrrum, Kiki Smith and Sally Mann is described- almost as if we are looking at them.

In addition to that, a creative agency is used as the reference point to create a timeline for the scents “chaptered by the hour”. It is the 7 minute gap between night and morning that Maclaughlin tries to describe. For her, it smells of anticipation and memory.

Taste of Dawn

However at this point, the “Senses of Dawn” takes a turn for the bleak. Anticipation turns to dread as one tastes the dawn.

It tastes like things you want to forget about yourself… It tastes like regret. And it tastes, too, like fear.

Further, It is clear that what is being tasted stems from the anxiety of being alive. Of being faced with an empty day once again, where you wake up as yourself when you hoped to be someone else.

Sight of Dawn

In the final installation of “Senses of Dawn”, we find a balance between the anticipation and the dread. We do it through the eyes of the author. She situates the readers in her life as she describes the view from her grandmother’s house on a cliff. It is through these “flowing curtains” that we start to see the sight of dawn.

Light collects, the room takes shape, we’re pulled from darkness and landed in knowing“.

Moreover, Dawn is a reminder of not just being alive but also the inevitability of the unknown end. It is the sharp focus of the knowledge, the focus after the blur of the night. The colour seeps into the gray: the blues, the greens. All reminders of existing.

For more in-depth run throughs of literary works, keep an eye out. In case you want to read up a little more on the lyric essays, we have you covered there as well!


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