Dissolving the Map
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems Gillian Conoley, Nightboat Books, New York, 2019, 328 pages, $19.95 paperback, nightboat.org.
I CAN STILL REMEMBER the first time I read the poetry of Gertrude Stein, or Jack Spicer or Michael Palmer. How when I read their work, I became unmoored, as if on a dark sea where the narrative map I'd come to know as the standard for navigating a poem dissolved in my hands. Instead, I had to learn a new way of knowing and feeling a poem: through the echolocation created by a series of seemingly unrelated images and their emotional residue, or through the dislocation of form, or through the way sound governed the poem above any grammatical sense I'd come to know. What happened when I really began to let myself drift out on the sea of Stein, Spicer and Palmer's poems is that the gap between images became more powerful and the lyric sense of the poem took over to create a new world of poetic craft and the poem created an emotional map that I learned to follow willingly.
One feels this same sense of discovery and intensified meaning in the work of the poet Gillian Conoley. Her newest collection, A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems, is made up of seven sections that not only collect and showcase the breadth and depth of Conoley's poetic craft shown in her previous collections, but also includes brand new poems for readers to feast on.
Conoley is an inventor of form and a cataloguer of image. Each poem sets forth creating its own diorama of a surreal world the reader enters and learns to make sense of. In early poems, like "The Invention of Texas," or "The Birth of a Nation," where a ticket collector at a movie house sits "under a lit dome like a huge moth / in the chlorophyll of her blonde hair," or "Frontier Days," where someone asks "where is my country" as she dreams of "floating toward bursting stars," the poems still follow a map of narrative that is wedded to the Texas landscape. However, one sees a shift in Conoley's poetic style beginning in the second section of the book where image is given power over the narrative. "Doubt Sets In" offers readers a seemingly disparate waterfall of images that slowly picks up speed until the poem ends with a final, striking moment: "Out on the great meadows before spoken things / The world awash on its shaky brilliant legs / Doubt sets in like the confident gait of an armed child," leaving us in a world that is both violent and born anew.
Conoley's inventive language threads themes of history and memory's unreliability. On the dark sea small islands of these themes become visible, like specks on the horizon of meaning; islands where history, religious ideals and cultural memory are interrogated. One sees examples of this in "The World," where memory is "a kind of faceless Amish doll shivering me timbers, dancing in crushed shoes." In "3/3/91 4/29/92" it is the loss of this guiding narrative of religion that brings humanity closer together: "The sun sticks its head in the ocean. / God is and God dies, / and the night becomes as intimate as a little mall." In "Childhood Home, a Panorama" the ballast of personal history growing up in a Southern home is queried, "We are glorious, but grow / in the awful knowledge that governors and heroes / rise in houses such as these. // A plaque could say, / a plague could one day say a little history / to make you stop." It is in this new world, formed free of narrative structures that the poet comes into herself through language, as one sees in the closing lines of "Flute Girl":
coming out of the rhetoric—
The blur of the other side
where I'm hidden
though not exactly
beautiful and silent so that I may be lacking—
what made me
audible to you.
Another thematic archipelago arises about the natural world. True to her style, Conoley's eco-poetic poems read as if filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. (In fact, Conoley has a poem in this collection titled "Hitchcock.") In "Tincture of Pine," the clouds knit themselves as "History lays a violence under the peacefulness." In "A Little More Red Sun on the Human," Conoley describes the world as "terrifying," where "The land says to itself its eternal doubt Green trees / are bending, tombstones / are bursting." In "Apologia," Conoley explores what we did to cause natural disasters like the 2017 fires that devasted Northern California,
And so, I was human guilty
I had driven innumerable cars parallel, pumped gas,
poured Draino down toilet
Roundup along dandelions
Living under the thick smoke created by the massive fires with "'flames fast as three football fields in 30 seconds,'" the speaker tries to find reprieve, "wanted to slide a garden hose down / throat for relief / the earth's hide a charred vellum / where I replicated, vision blurred, / navigating smoke with my lizard eye," but could not escape the consequences of the fires even by evolving back into reptilian form. Beings of the natural world and the natural world itself, however, find a way to escape and survive the catastrophe:
The hungriest white egrets
flew at their maximum of 25 mph to better air,
to dip their beaks into luncheon at the lagoon
of the immense entropic morn-crowning
still above water
This epic 320-page-plus collection is a necessary addition to your poetry library. In it, language feels as if it has been reinvented in order to speak the truth of this new age where the pillars of thought we once relied on: history, religion and memory, are at once questioned and reexamined and where the natural world still rises like a phoenix from the havoc we've made. As Conoley writes in "borderlands": "When I check out, the robot thanks me for doing its work / I say we're still alive in a polite tone // In the morning the river is busy / dividing an uncracked code / Everlasting."
Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California. Her poetry collections include Interrupted Geographies, Gold Passage, and There's a Ghost in this Machine of Air. Her newest poetry collection, West : Fire : Archive will be published by Mountain/West Poetry Series in 2021. University of Oklahoma Press will publish her forthcoming biography of Charmian London, Jack London's wife, in 2020. Iris Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. For more, see www.irisjamahldunkle.