Nineteenth in the Mountain/West Poetry Series, edited by Stephanie G’Schwind, Kazim Ali, Dan Beachy-Quick, Camille T. Dungy & Donald Revell
West : Fire : Archive, Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s magnificently wide-ranging new book, traverses both ground and history to create a new genre: a dual biography (Charmian London’s) and autobiography (the poet’s own). Ultimately questioning what it is to be singular at the center of catastrophe and personal pain, equally at home with the known and the unknowable––beyond heritage, beyond gender––these poems offer the thrill of a newly discovered vista, while never straying far from our planet’s formidable powers, our brief existence. Carefully researched, yet cognizant of “the hole in the narrative” of historical document, oral history, and our own recollections and perceptions, it is Dunkle’s formidable twin characteristics of skepticism and heart that make this book so riveting and crucial as we step cautiously into the new frontier.
It isn’t just catastrophe and cruelty that American myth has erased; it is also the particular wonders and journeys of its real love stories. In excavating a family history that is multitudinous, alive, and ever-expanding, Iris Jamahl Dunkle brings to light the story of a woman who survives falling for a man with a “mind like gasoline set to flame” as both a deeply American story and one that carries us far beyond national boundaries. West: Fire: Archive is a riveting exploration of the porous borders between archive and dream in which snapshots become portals, graves become gates, and new myths are forged out of grief.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s West : Fire : Archive is a poetry collection that challenges preconceived, androcentric ideas about biography, autobiography, and history fueled by the Western myth of progress presented in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis.” Each section is presented as if it is an archival box filled with artifacts, the first of which opens to the maligned life of Charmian Kittredge London the wife of the famous author Jack London. The poems unstitch and resew her life, invigorating the old narrative with her forgotten attributes: her disregard of gender norms, her pioneer heritage, and her sense of adventure. The second archival box examines the act of autobiography. In it, Dunkle writes through the complex grief of losing her mother and her community when it is devastated by wildfires and reflects on how these disasters echo the one that brought her family to California, the Dust Bowl. The final archival box questions the authenticity of the definition of recorded history as it relates to the American West.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017–18 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California. Her poetry collections include Interrupted Geographies, Gold Passage, and There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air. She is also the author of the biography Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer. Dunkle has received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, the Lannan Foundation, and Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference. She teaches at Napa Valley College and is the poetry director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.