Poetry is at times confusing, entrancing, soul-wrenching, and uplifting. It can tap into our deepest emotions and fill silences, sometimes voicing sentiments that we dare not speak. It can even provide a voice for the voiceless. This month we celebrate the profound power of poesie with local, Napa and Napa Valley poets. On the homepage, we are featuring Napa Valley College's very own Iris Jamahl Dunkle. Check out some of the other great local poets on our other pages, too!
By: Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Besides the pink-petal blossoms that flag
the untrimmed trees that continually line
the passage of potholed roads carrying
me away from their embrace and this place.
I must find something that is more deadly
than arsenic and lead to kill what spreads
uncontrollably: mistletoe, cankers
mildew, flies, and my need to always look back.
I must watch the green hills roll out toward
somewhere else where the fog rests. I must
site a single tree rising on the hill’s
green, broad back, and know it as a sign
Even as the wagon slows, even as
the dust rises to blind us of hope.
[Over the cross, the grave, the skies]
On Wolf Creek, the water ebbs and flows. Come
spring a new path is forged from flood of snow
melt, overpowering the boundaries.
Until fall when the water will sink back
into itself, toward stasis, speaking
only in cold whispers that spill from cracks
in the ice like breath. All are saved whether
they know it or not. Then, the nameless voice:
green, fecund screams, thrust and ache from its banks.
Uncurling lips of skunk grass, steady-eyed
gaze of the white iris. Still, the voice of
reason will swim in the deep of the creek—
a forgotten, shadowy trout. Look hard,
long enough, you might catch a silver glint.
If you would like to read more of Iris Jamahl Dunkle's poetry, visit this site.
You can also check out her poetry books from our library. Here are some titles to consider:
Here is biographical information pulled directly from the "About" page on Iris Dunkle's website:
Iris Jamahl Dunkle writes and lives in Northern California. An award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet, my academic and creative work challenges the western myth of progress by examining the devastating impact that agriculture and over-population have had, and continue to have, on the North American West. Taking an ecofeminist bent, my writing also challenges the American West’s androcentric recorded history by researching the lives of women. As Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, I witnessed first-hand the devastating 2017 wildfires. These fires were the catalyst for my latest collection of poetry West : Fire : Archive and my investigation of my family’s migration to California during the Dust Bowl.
This personal history and interest led me to teaching Sanora Babb’s dust bowl novel Whose Names Are Unknown at Napa Valley College, to leafing through Babb’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center, and contributing a chapter on Sanora Babb’s short stories in the forthcoming edited volume Unknown No More: Recovering Sanora Babb (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). In spring 2021, I have been invited to give the Billington Lecture on the History and Culture of the American West at the Huntington Library. My lecture will showcase Sanora Babb’s writing, particularly how her work revealed the West as many Wests—multicultural, multilingual, and multi-gendered. Babb is best known for her Depression-era novel Whose Names Are Unknown. Due to her until now unrecognized contributions to American letters, I am writing the first book-length biography of Sanora Babb.
In 2020, my biography on Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London's wife, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It’s a work that questions and re-writes the narrative presented of Jack and Charmian London by fictional biographers like Irving Stone by recreating Charmian's life through her perspective. I believe that biography can be revolutionary; it can challenge established ideas that have been fixed in history and through careful research resurrect the lives of those who have been misremembered. Charmian Kittredge London was a New Woman, an author, and an adventurer whose accomplishments (and disruptions) history had all but forgotten. Prominent Jack London scholar and author of Jack London: An American Life Earle Labor called my work “essential reading” and claimed that it was the “biography Charmian would have wanted to have written about her life.” Jack London Scholar, Jonah Raskin called my book "[r]iveting...This biography sets the record as straight as it can be straightened...Despite her flaws, or perhaps because of them, Charmian is indeed the kind of woman whom one would love to have known.”
I obtained my MFA in poetry from New York University, where I worked with Sharon Olds, Jean Valentine, Galway Kinnell, and William Matthews. I received my PhD in English with a focus in American Poetry from Case Western Reserve University. While at Case Western, I worked closely with Martha Woodmansee teaching a graduate-level seminar on the idea of authorship and authorship theory. My work with Dr. Woodmansee has largely influenced by pursuit of unearthing the forgotten stories about female writers of the West through the revolution of biography.
By: Iris Jamahl Dunkle
What they said was we ruined the water
not we rewrote the land with dynamite
and the pulsing, yellow jaws of backhoes.
When they said rev up your mind, what they asked
was for you to contain a lake–call it
Gray’s or Ballard. Let it spill forth
over half a mile. Let it straddle
a hundred yards of earth. Cover its banks
with exclamations of ash and willow.
Dig it deep enough that catfish and bass
linger in the shadows. Then, let doubt
fill you like a balloon. Go belly up.
Try to recall the blue bloom of sky seen
from this angle: dark, cold water pressing,
no, holding you up; warm sun on your face.
To know is to dive deep into the sediment
of what is no longer possible to find.
Wait at the closest train station: Mt. Olivet
for someone who has a memory made from
spun clouds whose footsteps can stitch
back the lost route of Mark West Creek
whose sediment was used to fill in the lake,
the acres of low spots on the ranch.
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.