Review by Sherre Vernon
Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California and is the poetry director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her poetry collections include Interrupted Geographies, Gold Passage, There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air and West : Fire : Archive. She obtained her MFA in poetry from New York University, and her PhD in American Literature from Case Western Reserve University.
West : Fire : Archive is a carefully organized lyric history. As hinted at in the structure of the title, the book is split into three sections, archival boxes so to speak. All three weave through the motif of fire, are centered in the American West and are introduced by a poetic packing list of sorts. These lists outline what the reader will encounter as they read a set of poems. Each contains a short description the content that follows; a list of places touched on in the poems; documents used as sources; and the people referred to therein. These packing lists provide a tether between the poems in a given section and also tie the three sections together, presenting a triptych biography: of Charmian Kittredge London, of the author, and of the embodied West. West : Fire : Archive ends with several pages of detailed notes. Taken as a whole, the collection is reminiscent of Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, where historical research is the solid foundation for the lyrical retelling of lived experience. As Dunkle tells it:
Sometimes history is built from thousands
of teeth left in the walls by previous
in habitants. Sometimes it is written
over in bone…Reader, it is our job to look:
find secret passages between then and
now. Insist that there were more voices than
the ones who got to write the story down.
History is a body we breathe life into (74)
The poems in this book also consider form: they are exploratory, expanding in all directions—like fire. Some are tied together by a careful assonance, others by balanced couplets and linked tercets. A reclaimed pantoum holds a ship in storm. There are lists, poems that consume the blank space of the page, poems that respond to the lines of other poets. In all, West : Fire : Archive excavates the lives of two women “[t]rying / to find the song that’s buried in the soil” (75).
In this enactment, Dunkle puts forth a thesis: that there is an undeniable parallel between famous women remembered by history and ordinary women like us, between both types of women that the land herself:
How like our aging bodies the oak
stands, passenger of air and time but blind
as Tiresias. What choice do we have
but to step into this wooden shell and rise?” (26)
This is the parallel foreshadowed in her punctuated title. For Dunkle, women and land must be wary of the inevitable threat of fire—“Will I always be afraid of a warm wind?” (42)—and in looking back, will always see sacrifice—“It’s how I arrived in this place. Dust. Blood” (56). By unpacking the archives she has curated for us, we are invited recognize our own stories, the women of our own histories, and hold our collective resilience in admiration.
West : Fire : Archive by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Center for Literary Publishing, 2021, $16.29
Sherre Vernon (she/her/hers) is the author two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings (fiction) and The Name is Perilous (poetry). Her work has nominated for Best of the Net and anthologized in several collections, including Bending Genres, Fat & Queer and Best Small Fictions. In 2019, Sherre was a Parent-Writer Fellow at MVICW. Readers describe her work as heartbreaking, richly layered, lyrical and intelligent. To read more of her work visit www.sherrevernon.com/publications and tag her into conversation @sherrevernon.