Reviewed By Emily Wolahan
- Omnidawn (2014)
- 112 pages
In her masterful book Peace, Gillian Conoley explores the fact that Americans have not experienced a prolonged period of peace for generations. And the fleeting periods of peace in the 20th century that our collective consciousness harkens back to were situated between two world wars, the Cold war, a Vietnam war, two Gulf wars, Bosnia-Herzegovina and so on into the 21st century. Violence and war are simply fluid parts of the American narrative. This reality can—perhaps should—cause despair, but Conoley instead takes a refreshing rhetorical turn and asks, what exactly is peace? Has our idea of it ever existed?
While Conoley’s poetic virtuosity might accept the world and marvel at it, that’s not to say that some poems aren’t exasperated with the injustice of the world. Still, Conoley’s poetics seem more devoted to capturing the apprehension and astonishment the contemporary world elicits. Both thoughtful moments of reflection and thoughtless activities, such as errands or picnics, are placed within the continuum of troubling, relentless political conflict. Conoley explores the relationship between the two and proposes a “co-presence”:
if a no more one without the other
could peace and war be a co-presence
peace and war a co-presence
one hand holding another
Conoley reveals that peace and war aren’t the yin and yang of each other and instead portrays them as bedfellows in a long, devoted marriage. The lines recall Shakespeare’s “either was the other’s mine” or Cormac McCarthy’s “each the other world’s entire”—one from a love poem, the other a dystopian novel.
In “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow,” the long poem that begins the collection, Conoley’s manner of sympathetic inquiry is symphonically mapped. The poem meanders much as the lines meander across the page. Images arise and are recalled and removed. For example, “presidentially” returns as “no longer a president” which is later turned into a phrasal noun. The images repeat, fade out, and reappear in different forms. The weaving of images, that feeling of the “undertow” of the title, is an apt entry point for a book in which language is the complicated, culpable medium within which we simultaneously dominate, learn, and express war and our protest of it. Conoley writes:
We could unfold and try once more to open
a language in which we do not do
most of the killing
The power of the book stems from, in spite of everything, trusting language to act as a medium in which to explore, protest, and express. Conoley writes: “the / sudden action of a single word / you know / people, / once you tell them something / they start talking.” Using language as a mode to digest current affairs is both inevitable and inadequate.
Conoley’s use of poetic fragments proposes another idea of peace’s nature. Her use of fragmentation slyly mimics how thought moves and choreographs that movement to guide the reader. Fragmentation is a tool other poets have used to express a contemporary political experience. In “Metropole,” the title poem of his third collection, Geoffrey G. O’Brien links fragments together to create multiple sentences and layered meanings. His mixture of sentence, fragment, and iambic meter mirrors the suspense of political tension and hypocrisy in contemporary America. In Commons, Myung Mi Kim’s numbered poems explore an identity forged by war that exists in peace—the kind of “co-presence” to which Conoley refers. Through a mixture of English, Korean, fragmentation, and lyric phrases, Commons reveals how we are all subjects of history and language. O’Brien, Kim, and Conoley each address the intersection of peace and war in which fragmentation plays a central role to its experience as well as its expression.
In Peace, fragmentation applies to sentence and line construction, as well as the layout of some poems. For example, the title poem, “Peace” is broken up into sections titled “[Peace]” and dispersed over several pages and interrupted by other poems until it concludes. “Occupied” is composed of sentence fragments that can read at times like found material:
face lit as skin of someone bathing.
young frayed hoods smell saltier.
police refuse the stairs, one gropes a breast
under a sports bra. historical pic!
The accumulation of images and voices in the poem gives the feeling of being present in the moment. This is not a poem that recollects its images in tranquility; we feel we are there. Then the poet’s voice peeks through in lines like “the best messages are mutual and free from ambition, like a wishbone” and “how to back into our new instruments / how light November rain,” for the experience itself is “imaginal, archetypal.” Fragmentation in a twenty-first century political poem expresses the experience of being a twenty-first century politically aware citizen. It’s an experience full of shards of information, glimpses at others’ experiences, immediacy and overload. It is a sum of its parts.
The final poem, “Begins,” features a voice akin to a character from the Inferno, chosen by Virgil to tell her tale. Part explanation, part confession, the poem moves from domestic images to Spinoza, to a child’s toy town, to the vicious garden, to an ars poetica, to a blessing. Its last few lines are:
scattered in every territory
as one of the visibles this dispatch
sun I wish you
each euphoriant ephemery
to keep on going
I imagine my life
The blessing inherent in “I wish you” seems to refer to lines in “The Patient,” a poem much earlier in the book: “a human // does nothing // unusual, forgetting the euphoria / of human potential // is human potential.” Perhaps we will immediately forget this wished for “euphoriant ephemery” but that moment, as well as the act of forgetting it, is peace. Conoley ends not with the mournful “I have wasted my life” or the directive “You must change your life.” Instead, life is imagined; what seems real is chosen. In a book full of moving personal and political poems, this final stroke might be the most touching. Conoley reveals the power inherent to imagining one’s life to be filled with peace, that in the co-presence of war and peace, we can at least choose peace for ourselves.
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge (forthcoming from the National Poetry Review Press, 2014). Her poetry has appeared in or are forthcoming in journals such as Gulf Coast, Omniverse, Diagram, Boston Review, New Linear Perspectives and Drunken Boat.. Her essays have appeared on NPM Daily, The New Inquiry, and Gulf Coast and she recently completed a Vermont Studio Center residency. She is also Editor and co-founder at JERRY Magazine. Find out more at www.emilywolahan.com.