Poetry

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

Sound is important in this poem, which features the strong falling meter mentioned above, as well as in-line rhyme (for example, “house/skies/cries” in line 1,  “mind/tine” in line 5, and “shared words” in line 16), anaphora (“This is the” repeated at the beginning of lines 1-3) consonance (see “when the wind” in line 2) and assonance (see “day” and “lake” in the next-to-last line). But the real work takes place in the poem’s rich sensory imagery, beginning with the “fog-combed skies” and the red-tailed hawk seen in stanza one and the “salt, lavender, and rosemary” seen, smelled, and tasted in stanza two. The poem’s story or narrative–the memory of a couple’s wagon ride west and their hopes and dreams along the way—gets told in large part through these images, which in stanza 4 for example, become flashes of sky and wildflowers seen from the moving wagon bed.
The poem opens in what appears to be third person omniscient point of view, with three portentous statements in present tense all beginning with “This is the . . .” Memory is mentioned in the third of these, and in the next stanza is entered by means of a shift to past tense. The first person speaker does not enter until stanza 5. One effect of this delay is that we are first presented with the images directly, not seeing them through the perspective of another until almost halfway through the poem. In effect we are there, on the journey, seeing what the speaker saw through our own eyes.
When the speaker does appear, it is as an inclusive first person plural (“our”) that invites the reader to see and feel everything the speaker is feeling. Another person is present as well: the speaker’s partner or spouse, the one with whom she is making plans for a future home. (My assumption that the speaker is a woman and her partner a man was based on that relationship being made explicit in other poems in There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, the book this poem is drawn from, and was confirmed by the author’s note).
The tone is one of the things I like best about today’s poem, and its qualities of tenderness, hope, and intimacy get established in several ways. One is the inclusive first-person plural point of view discussed above. Another is the presentation of simple but surprisingly heartfelt images like the “slow stories” unwound by clouds, the “shock of a wildflower” seen through a wagon’s floorboards, and a campfire glowing “like a red, sunken star. Another technique supporting the tone is the home-spun diction, with all but a handful of words consisting of just one or two syllables. And then there is the frank intimacy and vulnerability in word choices like “yearning” and a couple building their house “with shared words.”
My favorite part of the poem is when the man and woman speak to one another directly about what they hope for their future home. In the context of house-planning, we understand what they are saying and can take it literally: he wants the house to be in open space on a hillside; she wants it to be near a lake or stream and trees; both want “an orchard and a garden.” But, take the dialogue out of the context of the poem’s story and these two people are speaking mysteries: The man says “hillside, open” and the woman “water whispering, /dappled woods” as if to conjure those things into existence. As indeed they do, for do we not see the house in that setting? I am trying to distinguish here between what the words express (hope and desire for a house on a hillside near water and woods) and what they do: dream that house into existence. It reminds me of a line by Roethke that has long obsessed me, something to the effect of “I say ‘bird’ and lo! It flies.” This is the magic of poetry, or at least one of its many magical effects: it allows us to name our dreams and thus bring them into a kind of existence; it makes us the gods of our own creation. And this is what happens in the poem; by the time the journey has ended, the couple sits “at the blue-eyed lake” to find that already “we’d constructed everything / out of air.”
The last two stanzas return to the present tense, and we realize that the speaker is looking back down the years from a house now “made of wood,” a wide orchard wide and an established garden. It is not until the closing line, though, that we properly understand what is meant by “the house of yearning.” It is so called because of the long time spent dreaming it into and longing for its existence, yes. But also, and perhaps primarily because the speaker’s partner is gone: “And you, my sweet Odysseus, are not in it.” The moment is bittersweet, like the apple of that name grown in Sonoma County, whose history is the larger subject of Dunkle’s wonderfully informative and personal new book of poetry.
 

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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.
 

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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