To read Gillian Conoley’s poems is to enter the world of the uncanny; it looks and feels like our world, but something is a bit unsettling. And perhaps that’s what our world really is, only we are unaware of it until her lines bring the darkly lit, cinematic, revelatory scenes to the fore. In A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems Conoley contends with history and race, matter and data, metaphysics and liminality as in the lines “a tree to pin down the entropy” and “as God queries from behind / the dry tree and into / a pale truck / rumbling neutral then lurching forward / as we take that dark drive together.”
The collection begins with dramatic monologues and portraits, cinematic and enigmatic, that are more traditionally structured with left-justified lines and regular punctuation. The first poem reads like an incantation replete with stereotypes and dark, violent humor. In “The Invention of Texas,” Conoley begins in deep time, “The sea left this place / to fend for its own water, / leaving prickly wind / and one yellow color.” Then, humans enter: “men chattered in caves / in a kind of scat orchestration,” and later “Indians looked askance and blew / hollow smoke. Mexicans slept in // circumferences of corn.” Finally:
The white man,
whose spherical countenance
was at first viewed as incomplete moon,
beat everyone up,
lassoed the stars and rode amuck,
spilling trails of sequins.
Traveling through the poems, the reader can trace the trajectory of Conoley’s poetics. The poems slowly become freer and looser in form; the work becomes more meditative and contemplative, “Taking a white curve on a dusty blackboard we call logic.” The uncanniness and sort of placed placelessness is constant, and she has a skillfully seamless way of moving between the distant and intimate, the mundane and esoteric, splicing experience with idea as in her poem “Turned Back” from the book’s third section “The Used World”:
someone taking the key to the “john” taking obvious pleasure
in becoming another one
of the unlocated—
You can read the mystics/ you can lie down with the martyrs
on that other
as one would fade in a river
beside infant white
foliage of the road
in the may-shine.
Her work contains elements of Stein and Stevens, updated for the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Conoley employs a communal human “we” that encompasses and implicates, from “Hitchcock,” one of her film director poems in the book’s fifth section, “More Lives,” writing, “So our lives are spiral staircases spiraling / avid and previous / with kills on either wayside . . . On the edge of the world a long line of black trees . . .We listen to one another breathe.”
Conoley’s poems question human place and purpose by embedding human experience—the living and the dead—in the slow and quick violent surreality of earthbound daily life. Her dexterous splicing and blending bend time and epistemologies, and her line spacing reflects reality in bringing the reader’s attention here and there and then here again. In “Opened, For Gabrielle Giffords” in the book’s sixth section “Do you Believe,” she writes, “What are we to the man / who attacked the gunman / as he started to reload, a constituency?” which transitions into “Ducks / in the arcade stir a glassy water, sleep, amplify / Gun with cord tied to it so no one will take it,” a comment on the ubiquitous prevalence of guns in our society and that mass shooting victims are easy targets like “sitting ducks.”
Conoley then focuses on the single child who was murdered that day, who was the only girl on her Little League team, “The little girl with a hole in her chest / first girl player to play.” Next she spirals back out to all the bodies, “The six dead behind her eyelids. Leave them open, / let us place no more constraints on the eyes of the dead.” Her expert ability to weave between the small detail (the tied gun) and the large philosophical questions (what do we mean to the shooter) captures the contradictions that define the human condition in the modern world. How do we live in a world with such swift and meaningless violence? What do we mean to one another?
References to cultural, historical and political figures surface throughout the book. In “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” Conoley investigates issues about the body, power dynamics, sex and gender, while exposing lesser known truths about a once powerful man:
younger and younger naked girls to sleep
to “maintain” chastity
elimination of all desire
in the face of temptation
Accept the body!
You pussy, picture field says dropping down
great thinkers or/
scheming demotic despots it’s a thin line
The collection concludes with increasingly more future-toward, apocalyptic, technology-laden, almost post-human poems, finally ending with the poem “Apologia”—which is a formal defense of conduct. This poem recounts Conoley’s treatment of the earth in a time of ecological crises, “And so, I was human guilty / I had driven innumerable cars parallel, pumped gas, / poured Draino down toilet”; later she includes imagery from wildfires, perhaps exacerbated by climate change, “Down the flamed blocks the ‘pop’ ‘pop’ ‘pop’ of deindustrialization” and “The hungriest white egrets / flew at their maximum of twenty-five mph to better air, / to dip their beaks into luncheon at the lagoon.” We drive cars though we know the harm; we see fire undo industrialization in a moment, and then we notice the egrets we share this space with, almost as afterthought. Conoley’s bold and artful poetry of unreal reality reflects the complex and conflicted world in which we live, the absurd and the beautiful, the violent and the commonplace, “the persistence in matter” “through the discordant collective sweep.”
About the Reviewer
Tracy Zeman's first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, Typo, and other journals, and her books reviews have been published in Kenyon Review Online and Colorado Review. Zeman has earned residencies from the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Ox-Bow School of Art and Artist Residency, and The Wild. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter.