Book Review: There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air

BookReviewLogoThere are two epigrams to Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s latest collection of poems, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (WordTech, 2015). The first is from twentieth century American poet Lorine Niedecker:

I walked
New Year’s Day

beside the trees
my father now gone planted

evenly following
the road



The second, a line from James Baldwin: “What Americans mean by history is anything they think they can forget.” These epigrams, taken together, might be read as wayfinders — textual signposts to guide our way through the landscape of this moving collection of poems. There’s a Ghost asks us to reflect on the long, and often painful and violent, history of human settlement within the ecology of Sonoma County.

ed8c01c241831fdcf734cdfefd80b03cThe volume is arranged in four sections, each with its own distinct flavor. In “Ghost Fruit: Gravenstein” we learn about the planting of apple orchards, the white settlers determined to bring European methods of agriculture to northern California despite the resistance of the Native communities. In the titular poem, “There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air,” an Irish immigrant pushing forward into Coast Miwok territory with his wheat fields is chased off the stolen land. “He would never return to the rolling green hills, to the dawn chorus, that had hypnotized him because after that night he understood why one might run, arms aflame, to save this,” Dunkle writes (20). Section two, “Laguna de Santa Rosa” focuses on water — useful, dangerous, and necessary to the continuation of life. “Sweet Odysseus: Early Settler” is a narrative cycle of poems told from the perspective of a white woman settler and her young son, Joe, “stitched together” as mother and child (68), haunted by the memory of husband and father lost on the journey west. Part four, “Hybrid Fruit: Winterstein,” returns to the apple orchards but with a precipitous tilt into the ravenous twentieth century and its demand for natural resources of all kinds. “The soil here hums, electric– / since 1920, Sonoma County / has been in the top ten / for agricultural production. / … We wish for sleep to bring us back / to the time before / when life throbbed, thrived,” Dunkle writes in “Sonoma County” (90).

This collection is rich with the tracings of historical research and reflection on the relationship between human beings as well as our relationship to the landscapes we have altered through centuries of struggle to survive one another and the environment that provides what we need to live.

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