Barrett Warner on Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s “There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air”


by Barrett Warner

One way to examine ancient Greek myth assumes that Mount Olympus represents consciousness. If so, then it is a consciousness preoccupied with its extremities—underworlds and heavens, and distant geographies. And to reach them one doesn’t need a shrink; one needs a boat and an enigmatic guide. One needs a ghost in a machine of air.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s new volume of poetry is an important evolutionary step in this way of thinking about place and traveling in one spot. In her poems, time is a layered outcrop and discovery occurs when the layers edge over and under themselves. Space and time, consciousness and desire, and apple groves add rich dimensions. Leaving only one question, she writes, in “The Llano de Santa Rosa Rancho, 1843,” How will we emerge from the story we have fallen into?

Dunkle is an intimate poet. There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air begins with a letter to the originating place, “Dear Sebastopol,” a small town in Sonoma County, California, once a plum and apple growing region. The poet signals us about the moving shapes of time: “Hard not to get dizzy, here, under tides of scent— / how they grade and terrace the air.” Her description of the land—“salt thick tang of wet earth fat with limestone / against sweet rot of wind falls”—is not a glance out some train window from someone in a hurry to be somewhere else.

Nature is Dunkle’s great love and she knows its body well. She isn’t trying to colonize its spirit but to divine her own. The poem concludes:

Once, your accepted story swallowed me under its bell glass sky.

Now, I wake slowly. Learn to waver

in the air above what history we’ve learned, sense what’s pushing up underneath.

The poet admits to once believing in Sebastopol’s creation myth (trains and groves painted in a mural on the post office wall), and perhaps to some bell jar myth of herself, but this is a poem asking for truer consciousness, the waking slowly to sense the layers. “Here,” she seems to be saying as these poems continue, “let me show you, not with stories, but with narrative meditations.” In “A Language Is a Map of Our Failures” the chief failure is the way our literal minds use language to forget associative experiences. When we lose our empathy for the world which preceded ours, we lose the land “covered in thick redwoods; / their dizzying tops spindled the wool of low fog…Close enough to the sea to dream of salt and the muscular bodies of fish.” Even the first ship—a word that doesn’t exist to the native peoples—is described as a hollow whale.

Yes, there is a dizziness to reading these poems, and some of that has to do with Dunkle’s use of many points of view: the shore, someone on shore approaching a ship, someone on a ship approaching shore, someone centuries before who developed the Gravenstein apple, the point of view of seeds stowed in passenger trunks, and too, a kind of voice-over narration that pops up to re-orient us: “In the 1850s, those who didn’t find gold farmed.” While a number of her poems read like dramatic monologues, they are not written in service to character, but to place. In this, her poems lean towards ekphrastic poetry, wherein the work of art being touched upon is Earth itself.

In “Planting Gold Ridge mid 1800s,” the sensuous Dunkle fitfully describes slash and burn destruction to prepare the fields, and the joy that comes from it: “Hint of pink buds like perfect tongues. / Then, hillside igniting into confetti of delicate pink blossoms.” The hills just beyond where “seas try to reclaim the land,” speak to the undulations in time where water and air and land are one indistinguishable element:

I must watch the hills roll out toward

somewhere else where the fog rests. I must

site a single tree rising on the hill’s

sloped, broad back, and know it as a sign.

The mythic symmetry of competing natural elements bends a kind of internal logic. “The Washoe House” is a “House made of dawn, house made of thunderous hearts; / bricked in; gone cement silent; mouths full of dust; / walls still whirring, still breathing like hummingbird wings.” The saloon straddles a creek and its walls harbor the many ghosts of intimacies paid for with “a small pinch of gold dust.” The women’s “breath fogging the glass between truth and what we chose to tell.”

The clarity of everyday truth and the obscurity of fog are prolific tropes for Dunkle, especially in an era of exploitation. In “There Lies the Thing I Most Desire,” a dramatic monologue of a Japanese American man who loses his harvest when he’s removed to an internment camp, Dunkle observes:

trust is difficult to plow here—

…There is no way to dig it out like the oaks

we cleared from our field before we planted.

There is only the stiff wind,

the press of powdery stars into our longest night.

Taking from the land, we rob from ourselves because we are the land, we are the sea, and we are the air. We are the fog we are trying to see through in the same way that a basket woven from sedge stalks is a prayer for the roots of the sedge.

In some ways, There Is a Ghost in This Machine of Air feels like a “project.” I intend this, by no means, as a slight, since some of the most remarkable works result from a brief, passionate exploration (such as Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us). Dunkle can be forgiven if she crosses the line at times between focus (which draws the reader into the art) and tunnel vision (which can make her subject feel claustrophobic). And, too, she’s written a few of these poems in clusters that both bring out her best work and muddy it with arrangements in series. Maybe for this reason her poems that mark transitions—where matters leave one dizzy with heart song—were some of my favorite selections.

“Moon over Laguna de Santa Rosa” begins the book’s second section, Laguna de Santa Rosa, a river that “flows both ways carrying history heavy on its back” and offers these deft ending lines:

Today, the moon hangs low in the sky.

Not full, just a thin crescent illuminating a single path back,

past the remaining oaks, past forgetting.

Dunkle is skilled at ending without closing a poem so that every last line or stanza can also be the beginning of a new poem, a new way “in” to Sebastopol where every new and old wound “at its center, is a mouth.” A mouth meant for singing and language and kissing to wake us slowly to the Other—the Sebastopol—within us. She writes in “Finding Lake Ballard”:

When they ask you who ruined this place

answer with a tongue made of peach peels

and a mouth full of sewage. Your eyes backlit

with dynamite and the smooth shine of dirt.

Barrett Warner is a lecturer; book reviewer; essayist; unique, witty, and masterful poet; and co-editor of the Free State Review, a literary journal. His poetry collection Why is It So Hard to Kill You?, Somondoco Presswas published in 2016. In addition to The Tishman Review, his recent work can be found in these publications: Coda Quarterly, Adroit Journal, Consequence Magazine, Chiron Review, Entropy Magazine, and Cultural Weekly.

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