Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2014. 112 pages. $17.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Gillian Conoley’s latest poetry collection, her seventh, explores a number of binaries—high diction/low diction, clarity/ambiguity, personal/political—overturning and complicating them until they are no longer oppositional at all. The effect is one of inquiry and revelation, without simple answers. “I will wait for the God who hides the hosannah of what is received right in my eyes / to escape me,” she writes. Reading this book approximates that experience—the glimpse and the escape, the simultaneously near and far. Amid the largeness of her questions, Conoley sustains an intimate atmosphere, which proves crucial to grounding the poems, and the effect is incredibly successful. The accomplishments of this collection have been noted: Peace was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, as well as an Academy of American Poets’ Standout Book of 2014.
A political undercurrent runs through many of the poems and informs the book as a whole. In “Opened,” the subjects range from the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords to the fear of nuclear pollution and an instance of credit card fraud—in other words, identifiable current events. There is nothing too private here, but the take is personal—the language fluctuates between headlines (“A radioactive plume / to drift over California Friday by noon”) and pointed Yeatsian musings (“What sphinx pushes up out the fog in the parking lot / turning each / upon each / our moral imaginations”). The intimate, internal landscape of the poems seems in continual conversation, or conflict, with the public world. The book’s most provocative moments occur when the public intrudes on the private, and we see how the imagination is troubled by the reality in which we live.
The sleep aid cd & Hippocratic oath mixed up good
in the cocktail of my head spoken into like commerce’s cavity,
cavity or skylight opening to the early spring blossoms
in the airless baggage claim
It is unusual for a poet to straddle the whimsical, the personal, and the political so fluently. Conoley inhabits this pitfall-prone space with a rare mix of deftness, grace, and humor.
The surprise of Conoley’s diction (“the erotics of the electronics swelling the house”) and the precision of imagery that appears beside and within mundane box stores (“I love you / beside a small red plastic fork”) add to this feeling of being in between worlds, straddling multiple spheres. The poems are neither too abstract nor too daily; they see the world so as to make us re-see it:
smoke falls through each head of hair
to each ear’s
size and limit
The off-hand nature of some statements belies their complexity (“you know / people, // once you tell them something / they start talking”; “you can tell if this is the good part / if it is the part looking back at you / not wanting to see someone else / airbrushed all over you”); they invite another read, a pause. Throughout, Conoley inverts our expectations. For example, in “I Am Writing an Article (Johnny Cash),” at the end of an emotionally charged encounter, the speaker observes:
did a blue black sky
leech in, crow down, increase.
Conoley often uses a phrase as evocatively as this “crow down,” which could be parsed in many ways: as darkening, as bird-filled, as falling or floating, as existing near the ground, as cawing. The rhyme connects further: “leech in” and “increase.” Her ear is remarkable, light, and exact.
These poems resist paraphrase—surely a sign of their strength—but they also insist. In “A Healing for Little Walter,” repetition and the hint of narrative charge the images:
One day we were just lying around trying to key the sound.
Trying to sound the wound, make it bend, loop it through.
Fishbone scar let loose from the forehead,
swim upriver, what touch is to someone alone.
The fish, the forehead, and the sound braid through a seven-page poem that—we learn in the endnotes—was inspired by a linoleum print, but which in Conoley’s hands becomes musical.
The way that Peace embraces the philosophical, the contemporary political world, and the detritus and fanfare of pop culture calls to mind the recent work of Brenda Hillman. It exhibits a particular blend of formal invention, self-effacing intimacy, and high and low culture, as in “Monday Morning,” when the speaker directs us to watch “Put a Ring on It” on YouTube, follows that with a quote from Nietzsche, which she then questions for its New Age-y tone, all the while making fun of herself in yoga class. This combination captures something true, in the largest sense of that word, an effect enhanced by the poems’ objective treatment of their own subjectivity: these poems feel carefully shaped, but not driven by any one voice or personality. “Monday Morning” also tackles the idea of trying to write “about” something: “it was morning and all the white guilt got balled up / and tossed through the sky then landed back / into the white guilt which had made a very good deal with the white privilege”
Here, as the speaker comments on her place and attendant privileges, she creates the visual of that balled-up white guilt flying into the air and landing in the poem, a powerful statement of what it means to write from where she writes. This incisive self-awareness is no easy feat, and too many writers do not even attempt it. The success of this attempt also depends upon the form of the poem: the use of space on the page, the ways caesura allows for blankness, missed beats, a moment’s pause, contemplation. So things unfold—in this poem as throughout the book—in the speaker’s act of noticing, almost within the time it takes to notice.
Occasionally Conoley’s logic is hard to follow, and sometimes it is difficult to build meaning from certain groups of images, as in this example, from the series “[Peace]”:
slant, blank in dirt signs pop up
either an unfathomable mystery or a not-vote-for-anyone
bus rims the beach down the aisle
tap tap of the almost silent keyboard
busy fingers of no master
However, these risks of ambiguity also point toward promising cracks—these are not poems that will explain everything; nor should they, or we. We’re witness to an observant, compassionate intellect speaking as if to herself or to a close friend, weaving together disparate ideas in the attempt to make something new. Inevitably there are gaps, misdirections, and failures; generosity, contradiction, and brilliance, too. This collection teaches us how to inhabit and appreciate our own complicated relationship to the world. The book ends with the line “I imagine my life,” and the wonderful thing is that imagining it does not preclude living it. Why should we think so?