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Three poems

"Communion of Dust," "The Map," and "After the Seventh Night of the Northern California Wildfires"

Texas dust bowl
Texas dust bowl

Communion of Dust

  • It’s how I arrived in this place. Dust. Blood.
  • Thin figures. Shadows stretched like bars
  • against a farm gone fallow. Gone dust. Gone wind.
  • My grandmother said, Steinbeck never got it right.
  • The place. The leaving and how it felt:
  • to be child in a world gone back to dust.
  • She’d breath the dust into me some birthdays.
  • Or, when I’d come back to visit from college.
  • Until the dust stuck to my tongue, clouded my eyes
  • as I tried to drift farther and farther away.
  • She whispered into my ear the songs she’d sung
  • in the canneries those long hours she’d worked as a child.
  • Until the land had become me. No way to escape
  • the need to carry it, to tell it right.

The Map

  • The questions are slick as oil. Dive under
  • that dark surface, that rainbow sheen as if
  • there is something; espy, originate,
  • pioneer without a map. Facts are rock
  • bottom. Hit them, you’ll think: pay dirt. But, facts
  • have cracks. California, born of earthquakes,
  • can’t be trusted even in the solid.
  • When you walk from the oil your heritage
  • sticks to you like feathers. Dead. Promising
  • wind/flight/understanding. Stories whisper
  • like aspen leaves: static, word, static. It’s
  • up to you to find the narrative. And
  • all the while underneath: vesuvial:
  • that red fire that can create or destroy.

After the Seventh Night of the Northern California Wildfires

  • For seven nights there were no stars, only sky
  • muted by smoke. On the first night, the dry bones
  • of the past rattled the eaves of valley oaks
  • on the hillside. Then, raging, hot-throated wind stirred
  • and sparked flames. Until the mountain
  • cracked open: red-lava heart pouring down.
  • A man or a woman is most alone
  • when he or she looks at the moon stained red,
  • at the hillside glowing hot as a stoked furnace.
  • Every house feels to be a single cell
  • of the same beast: fragile and ignitable.
  • And the days drift on – safety looming off
  • horizon, a far-off ship.  But so long
  • as we can see far enough we never tire.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Interrupted Geographies, published by Trio House Press, is her third collection of poetry. It was featured as the Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection for July 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, was selected by Ross Gay to win the 2012 Trio Award. Her second collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air was published in 2015. Her work has been published in numerous publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet’s Market 2013, Women’s Studies and Chicago Quarterly Review.  Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

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Texas dust bowl
Texas dust bowl

Communion of Dust

  • It’s how I arrived in this place. Dust. Blood.
  • Thin figures. Shadows stretched like bars
  • against a farm gone fallow. Gone dust. Gone wind.
  • My grandmother said, Steinbeck never got it right.
  • The place. The leaving and how it felt:
  • to be child in a world gone back to dust.
  • She’d breath the dust into me some birthdays.
  • Or, when I’d come back to visit from college.
  • Until the dust stuck to my tongue, clouded my eyes
  • as I tried to drift farther and farther away.
  • She whispered into my ear the songs she’d sung
  • in the canneries those long hours she’d worked as a child.
  • Until the land had become me. No way to escape
  • the need to carry it, to tell it right.

The Map

  • The questions are slick as oil. Dive under
  • that dark surface, that rainbow sheen as if
  • there is something; espy, originate,
  • pioneer without a map. Facts are rock
  • bottom. Hit them, you’ll think: pay dirt. But, facts
  • have cracks. California, born of earthquakes,
  • can’t be trusted even in the solid.
  • When you walk from the oil your heritage
  • sticks to you like feathers. Dead. Promising
  • wind/flight/understanding. Stories whisper
  • like aspen leaves: static, word, static. It’s
  • up to you to find the narrative. And
  • all the while underneath: vesuvial:
  • that red fire that can create or destroy.

After the Seventh Night of the Northern California Wildfires

  • For seven nights there were no stars, only sky
  • muted by smoke. On the first night, the dry bones
  • of the past rattled the eaves of valley oaks
  • on the hillside. Then, raging, hot-throated wind stirred
  • and sparked flames. Until the mountain
  • cracked open: red-lava heart pouring down.
  • A man or a woman is most alone
  • when he or she looks at the moon stained red,
  • at the hillside glowing hot as a stoked furnace.
  • Every house feels to be a single cell
  • of the same beast: fragile and ignitable.
  • And the days drift on – safety looming off
  • horizon, a far-off ship.  But so long
  • as we can see far enough we never tire.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Interrupted Geographies, published by Trio House Press, is her third collection of poetry. It was featured as the Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection for July 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, was selected by Ross Gay to win the 2012 Trio Award. Her second collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air was published in 2015. Her work has been published in numerous publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet’s Market 2013, Women’s Studies and Chicago Quarterly Review.  Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

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