A Review of West : Fire : Archive by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Review by Lynn McGee

The Mountain/West Poetry Series, Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University, 2021, 92 pages

Perseverance & Peril in
Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s
West : Fire : Archive

In West : Fire : Archive by Iris Jamahl Dunkle, fire is a metaphoric and historic presence that signals the destruction of both societal norms and homes burnt to the ground. It singes the reader with images of a mother’s failing brain, of skinned buffalo rotting, of a fox streaking through a wildfire. It generates the taste of ash and triggers the urge to fight erasure, to hold personal and collective histories like embers. 

Before my noisy, analytic mind was quieted by the tenderness and beauty of this collection, I fixated on its section dividers, each chapter titled a “box,” and each beginning with a template providing “Description,” “Places,” “Documents” and “People.” 

Through this report-like styling, the reader — who might, like me, view catastrophic wildfires from the safety of an opposite coast — is recruited to excavate history and source documents alongside the speaker who is many things: ethnographer, historian, archivist, witness, and daughter.

Unknown photographer – Soldiers looting shoes during 1906 San Francisco fire, after the earthquake. Market St. between Seventh and Eighth.

The opening poem in West : Fire : Archive sets the stage with the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, 

   … a city built from redwood
   plank and gold dush, until the earth shook it down 
   to mud and ash.

That shocking natural disaster in a densely populated city triggered fires that burned 500 blocks. The poem ends with what is left, a “mute Roman structure” — but fire can’t silence the truth of what came after, scenarios startling in their intimacy, as in “Sweatshop, Oakland, 19111first published in West Trestle Review:

   the loss of a few fingers was normal  
   wear and tear… 
   That young girls of seven or eight were fastest.
   That they secretly sang to each other under their breath.

Against that historical backdrop, “Box 1, Biography” trains its lens on the life of Charmian Kittredge London (1871-1955), a literary figure and Californian married to the famous novelist Jack London.

Unknown photographer – The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Manuscripts Department Jack London Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library. Call number: JLP 566, Charmian Kittredge London

Unfazed by the chokehold of gender roles enforced by her culture, Charmian wears scandalous wide pants, wields a gun, spends time on a leper colony and spends weeks with her husband on a wooden sailing ship. 

The “origin poems” in Box 1 introduce Charmian’s husband and father, as well as her mother who lives in a malevolent environment where the mountains “knuckled fists around her throat.” 

Fast forward to a poem about Charmian as a woman menaced by the same forces that strangled her mother: “… water / and wind rush to erase her,” recounts the poem “Truth Walks the Plank, San Francisco, 1890–1900.” 2first publish in West Trestle Review 

Erasure is a thematic thread in West : Fire : Archive and the “rush to erase” is a societal reflex aimed at women like Charmian. Even an unconventional woman of comfortable means risks getting burned — this seems to be the message when Charmian visits the Hawaiian island of Molokai and becomes afflicted with the stigmatizing lesions of leprosy, her legs wrapped in gauzy bandages. 

Finally, there is a warning: “…You’ll never / know how many dark birds brood in your eaves,” an intonation found in the poem “Ghost Oak.” The reader might not have killed and be haunted by the ghost of an albatross, as the Charmian did and was, but most of us harbor some vestige of regret.

In the process, women persevere. To live past the end of one’s myth is indeed a perilous thing, to reference the book’s epigraph by Anne Carson, but when it comes to poetry, nothing good comes of avoiding peril

“Box 2, Autobiography” focuses on the poet herself, a self-described resident of Sonoma county and witness to wildfires that burned 36,810 acres in 2017 alone. “Will I always be afraid of a warm wind?” she asks in the heartbreaking “Directions Home After the Firestorms, 2017.” 3first published in Redheaded Stepchild
In “After the Seventh Night of the Northern California Wildfires,” the speaker watches a wildfire devour communities and observes with terrifying, exquisite distance, that

   … Every
   house is a single cell
   of the same beast: 
   fragile and ignitable.

The speaker in these poems also reaches back to the “forgotten” Great Fire of 1870 and 1964 Hanly Fire in Sonoma County. She poses a question: Will the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma and other Northern California counties be forgotten as well? 

This question, and the concept of “erasure” continues to compel the narrative of West : Fire : Archive as it excavates what has been forgotten. 

I was also moved by the speaker’s deft layering of loss upon loss, as in “Acceptance Speech, or How to Be a Martyr,” in which her mother is described as a woman who “… collects tumors in her belly like eggs.” 

The ruthlessness of disease is elevated in West : Fire : Archive with the same breathtaking language that recounts earthquakes and wildfires. In “Stroke,” the speaker’s mother suffers the brain’s catastrophic bleed, and “time shook out its mane…” In “You who I could not save, listen to me,” the speaker asks, 

   …the brain liberated
   from the skull cap is beautiful; 
   did you bloom in those last hours, 
   Mother? …

Finally, in “Under the Campestral Skies,” the mind of the mother, in less than an hour,

   … will lose its moor and drift off. Until she
   looked at us with the ravenous eyes from a
   far meadow we would never find. Deep in
   the woods—an exhalation of soft green grass.
   And us, left standing under all this sky. 

Witnessing death evokes our sense of smallness, and there is a shifting from the intimacy of that perspective to one of omniscience, as in the book’s last section, “Box 3, Recorded History,” which follows the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s, a time “marked by genocide, natural disasters and society that operates just outside the law.” In “The Map,” Jamahl Dinkle writes, 

   Facts are rock. It’s up 
   to you to find the narrative… 

And the reader does join the search for truth, as in “What We Left Behind Was Corporeal,” which refers to Sulpica, a Roman woman whose poems were hidden, because of the laws at the time, into a man’s book: 

   … Reader, it’s our job to look:  
   find secret passages between then and 
   now … 
   History is a body we breathe into. 

There is no shortage of historical reference and facts such as these in West : Fire : Archive — and yet it simmers with mystery, what is “both seen and unseen, known and unknown.” 

The reader is lured by the tacit promise that what has been contained, will be released, and the “Boxes” deliver on that promise as they open and release poems that roam through thousands of years of journey and revelation. 

In the process, women persevere. To live past the end of one’s myth is indeed a perilous thing, to reference the book’s epigraph by Anne Carson, but when it comes to poetry, nothing good comes of avoiding peril

In fact, Dunkle proves that pushing through imperilment, looking closely at the path of destruction left by a wildfire or personal loss elevates the experience into a kind of peace, or balance. 

The stories called up in West : Fire : Archive were swirling in my consciousness when I received, through an email blog of literary quotes assembled and sent out by the poet Sean Singer, a piece by Herakleitos (translated from Greek by Guy Davenport), asserting that The life of fire comes from the death of earth

Iris Jamahl Dunkle proves that while the aftermath of a wildfire is often despair, as in “Poem for the Lost Summer” — 

   This was the summer 
   of erasure: each step we took washed out 
   from under us…

— in the end, the poems herald the act of survival. We see this vividly in “After the Disaster: Santa Rosa,” set just weeks after the 1906 earthquake:

   And though the lumber was scarce 
   and still sticky with sap, and though
   there were too few strong arms to wield hammers, 
   everything that was lost a century ago was rebuilt. 
   You see, in this city, again and again, kindness pushes 
   up from the parched soil like a good crop.

Ultimately, the poet provides a vision of truth raised gleaming into the light, as in “Ashes than Dust”:

   When you wake you would rather 
   be ashes than dust. You would rather blaze out 
   like the fox, a fur of sparks in the night, 
   than be left to rot, be untold

I think other readers of West : Fire : Archive will share this feeling: Yes, let my story be told. I choose sparks. 

Listen to Iris read her poem,
“Marriage Lesson: Wormhole”

1.“Sweatshop, Oakland, 1911” first published in West Trestle Review
2. “Truth Walks the Plank, San Francisco, 1890–1900” first published in West Trestle Review
3. “Directions Home After the Firestorms, 2017” first published in Redheaded Stepchild

Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collections Tracks (Broadstone Books); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press). Lynn McGee and José Pelauz are co-authors of Starting Over in Sunset Park, a children’s book (Tilbury House Publishers).Recent poetry publications include Lynn’s audio collaborations with composer Bill Parod in the Atticus Review and The Night Heron Barks, as well as her poems appearing in Naugatuck River ReviewUpstreetSugar House ReviewLascaux Review, Lavender Review, The Atlanta Review, Atticus Review and Tampa Review.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer and poet and former Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California. Her latest books include the biography Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) and her poetry collection West : Fire : Archive (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2021).  Her next biography Done Dirty: Sanora Babb, the American West, and a Forgotten Literary Masterpiece will be published by the University of California Press in 2024. She’s received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Millay Arts. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and UC Davis and is the Poetry and Translation Director at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

West : Fire : Archive, Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University