Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'This is the House of Yearning,' by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

. This is the House of Yearning This is the house of yearning where fog-combed skies mute the cries of red-tail hawk. This is the day when the wind carried salt, lavender and rosemary. This is the day when it was dull enough that memory lit the mind like a tiny lantern. A long journey in an open wagon. Clouds of dust. Swarms of flies. The ever turning reel of clouds overhead and the slow stories they’d unwind over days that stretched wide as a sea. The hard boards on our backs lying down in the wagon. The ruts in the road as seen through the cracks and every once in a while the bright shock of a wildflower. The smell of fire and smoke. The sound of fire licking the found logs, popping on wet spots. The press of bodies around the fire. The way the fire quieted, then glowed like a red, sunken star. How each day we’d speak of the house. How we’d build it with shared words. You’d say: hillside, open. I’d say: water whispering, dappled woods. How always there was an orchard and a garden. And the miles wound under us. Flat swaying seas of grasses becoming the rise of thick-knuckled mountains. How the air tightened, grew crisp. By the day we sat at the blue-eyed lake, we’d constructed everything out of air. As we bathed in the icy water. As we washed the dust and flies and miles from our bodies we were submerged in the shadows of birds. Today the house is made of wood. The orchard stretches twenty trees deep. The garden writes itself into the soil. And you, my sweet Odysseus, are not in it.   From There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (WordTech Editions 2015), reprinted with permission of the press and available for order at Amazon or at the author’s website.   51aYNkwW7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_-1   Iris Jmahl Dunkle_2-22-16Iris Jamahl Dunkle is the current Poet Laureate of Sonoma County. Her latest poetry book, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, was published in November 2016. Gold Passage (Trio House Press 2013) was selected by National Book Award finalist Ross Gay to win the 2012 Trio Award, and her chapbooks Inheritance and The Flying Trolley were published by Finishing Line Press in 2010 and 2013. Dunkle’s poetry, essays and creative non-fiction have been published widely. She teaches writing and literature at Napa Valley College, is on the staff of the Napa Valley Writers conference, and co-facilitates the book discussion group at Jack London State Historic Park. She is currently co-writing a new biography on Jack London’s wife, Charmian Kittredge London. For more information visit www.irisjamahldunkle.com.  

Poet’s Note

“This is the House of Yearning” is the first in a series of poems called “Sweet Odysseus” that imagine the life of an early settler in Sonoma County, California.  I live on an old ten-acre apple orchard on a hillside in Sebastopol, and that’s where I set the series.  In it, I’m trying to imagine what it was like for a young woman and her husband to dream about their future home as they journey west toward their future.  I imagine that hours stuck in uncomfortable wagons were spent dreaming of what future they would construct out of the wilderness they would find.  (The blue-eyed lake mentioned in the poem is Lake Tahoe.)  The rest of the series explores what it was like for the speaker, a young woman, who shortly after arriving in Sonoma County with her husband and clearing land for an orchard, finds herself widowed and not only trying to raise a healthy orchard, but also a young child, on her own.  The story isn’t based on facts, but I know there were many pioneer women who were just as strong and determined as this woman and since we don’t often hear from them, I thought it was important to tell this type of story.

    Notes on “This is the House of Yearning [caption id="attachment_99736" align="alignleft" width="175"]Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor[/caption] If you’ve been reading my columns you know by now I like to approach a poem with what we called the “MFA flyover” in my workshops at Warren Wilson. “Viewed from a distance,” we were asked, “how would you describe the poem?” What is its form or shape, its predominant mode (narrative, lyric, or dramatic), who is speaking, what (if anything) happens, and what is the poem trying to do (here is where you might learn about the poem’s “meaning” if applicable). I read poems first for pleasure, then do the flyover, and then count everything, partly as a way to keep my focus riveted at the level of word and even sub-word. I take note of and diagram things like stanzas, rhyme and meter, not because they are in themselves virtues but because paying this kind of close attention can lead to discoveries of patterns or sometimes the absence of pattern, and sometimes of things having nothing to do with pattern but discoveries nonetheless. I’d start by calling it a prose poem in a narrative mode with lyrical elements, narrated in first person. Although the lines are not broken, the poem is nevertheless strongly metrical, with a falling meter marked by many trochees and dactyls. It consists of 13 stanzas of lines that vary in number from 1 to 3 in this pattern: 2,1,2,3,3,3,3,1,3,2,2,2,1 with 28 lines in all. Is the pattern significant? Perhaps not, but it interests me to see that four stanzas in the middle of the poem have three lines and that the syntax embedded within those stanzas shows ring construction, with the poem beginning and ending with a complete sentence and clustering shorter fragments at its center. What all this tells me is that the sense of expansion then contraction I feel when I read the poem aloud derives from the interplay of its stanzas and syntax rather than from the line breaks we see in more conventional verse. Read More »

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  • Catherine Millette March 27, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    I just read with great interest Notes on”This is the House of Yearning”. I have listened to my 84 yr old mother speak of her Grandmother, who at 11 yrs of age travelled by wagon with her father as a cook for a group who headed west to Kansas with similar dreams. It was a hard and humbling trip for. I am inspired now, to find out more and indeed write about it.So, thank you..

    Reply
  • Catherine Millette March 27, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    I just read with great interest Notes on”This is the House of Yearning”. I have listened to my 84 yr old mother speak of her Grandmother, who at 11 yrs of age travelled by wagon with her father as a cook for a group who headed west to Kansas with similar dreams. It was a hard and humbling trip for. I am inspired now, to find out more and indeed write about it.So, thank you..

    Reply