When I began reading poetry for this issue of TBLM, I never thought I’d select a poem with robots in it. I don’t have anything against robots or robots in poetry, but I had never quite encountered the breathtaking gentleness combining the two that Iris Jamahl Dunkle exhibits. I was also quite certain that poetry titles with foreign phrases were a bad way to begin. Nobody needs to title a poem ‘Mencolek’, the Indonesian word for tapping someone on the shoulder and actually standing on the other side. Or ‘Gattara’, the Italian term for an old, lonely woman who looks after stray cats. Of course, ‘L’appel Du Vide’ is far more familiar and evocative, but is it really necessary? I’d ask myself. Turns out, it is. (Also turns out this issue finally has four poems whose titles follow this convention!)
Jamahl Dunkle’s verses are powerful in many ways, but perhaps most in how they inspire change. Not revolutionary transformations, not noisy slogans, but that whisper in your head telling you something has shifted. The poems could not be more different in style or tone. ‘L’appel Du Vide’ roams and expands, while ‘Bird’, the third in this set, employs a claustrophobic mood and treatment. And yet, the poems are united by their turns. They do not remain the same; indeed, the reader does not remain the same.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
It’s easy to forget we live in a time of mass extinction.
But last night, I dreamt of the robot again—
woke to find I wore her taut metal skin like a suit inside my own.
Meanwhile, off the coast, the humpback whales pulled
their weight from the depths of the ocean floor.
When I woke under a tin sky, under rain and threat of rust,
I found the robot was still inside me.
A ballast toward mouthfuls of sea water, the tumbled sand,
the sinking through this dark water toward the song, the migration.
In the years, in the decades, leading up
to my mother’s death, I couldn’t stand her scent;
it made me ill. When I entered a room where she’d been,
the lingering air oppressed me.
When she died, what was left of her scent – her closet –
where all of her clothes still hung like scarecrows–
beckoned me to enter it. And when I did,
when I became enveloped by her scent in the closet
I no longer felt oppressed. I felt the absence of oppression. The emptiness.
For three years, I left the clothes there and visited them like a grave.
Once a week I would walk in, close the door and sit down on the floor.
At first, the scent was strong as was the emptiness it created.
And I let it echo off of me in the small room.
Then, as the weeks passed her clothes began to lose their power.
In the corner of the dark closet a small window began to appear.
First it was a dim smudge of light. Then, a patch of sun.
Until, finally, I could feel the breeze, smell the salt on the air.
On the last day, a small, yellow bird flew in through the opening
and landed across from me on the floor. The bird moved mechanically
as an automaton and started to pick at my long, curling hair.
Not pick, but weave. My hair became a net, a raft, a sail.
Then the bird let out the loudest sound I’d ever heard.
Everything went dark. My ears throbbed and rung.
When the dust settled the hangers were empty
and then air–fresh and clean and mine–was all around me.
L’appel Du Vide
An arc of pigeons strobe the morning cut sky.
Otter slides down into brown, mumble of water.
A full bosomed poppy sings out red—
Upriver centuries whirl
into the boulders gray, glistening skin—
How to disappear into birdsong
into the restless swarm of my mind?
In the first dream, the papers are lost
as if history devoured them. Audience spread
into so many points you cannot serve them with your one voice.
Enter stage right. The mechanical muse,
her mind a dried chrysanthemum put to water—
Her face moves like a human whose been dreamt.
I’m thirsty to create, she says.
Have I told you the one about the woman who is lost to the comma of trail,
to the lean and whisper of aspen? Her bones are made of footsteps.
A vista is what you can see across:
between two mountains, a pocket of now.
Why not try a little sky in that coffee says the robot
I’m so tired of unfolding my metal legs. Couldn’t you
have just crafted me wings?
To return, the woman must walk obscure
into the little lives she’s tethered out:
The swampy land near the sea that seeps in each night.
A House made of what was found.
The apartment window blinking its yellow eye
in the dark syrup of city night.
The second dream is a journey that sidewinds up a sharp, mountain peak.
Air thin. Tiny white flowers fireworking from dusty trails.
Can you hear the pebbles cascade away, gathering force?
There are meant to pull you down.
On the trail, a beaver has gnawed deep enough into a stop sign
to let it fall silent.
The natural order of things:
moving around for the light.
In the trees the owls sleep, hidden.
Can you see them?
How do you want to live?
Can you see the cause and effect in your life?
The forest is an auditorium open to the other world—
where nobody leaves.
Here, ghosts sweep along the surface of the river.
Often I am confused if the human-like robot is a robot or a ghost.
In the same way that I am confused by the beauty of diatoms.
How can anything that small take my breath away?
It makes me think that inside each of us there is a gemstone hidden:
cobalt, ruby, emerald
That can only, by careful autopsy, be removed,
shined, beveled, placed
on a velvet pillow to be admired.
The robot tells me she needn’t use a microscope.
She sees diatoms, our hidden gemstones, everywhere.
Back along the river, the voices gather and tether to sticks like leaves or trash.
I’ve half a mind to believe in the gospel of dreams.
The Austrian pines blur at their edges.
The yellow birch lean in lending themselves toward the telling.
In the final dream, the woman in the dream looks at you directly.
Says, you’ve always had the robot inside you.
A sickle moon sharpens against sky above crown of trees.
The robot quiets, turns her mechanical head to look at you.
Her hand cool as the moon.
The trail where the woman once disappeared goes far beyond the reach of the forest, the state, the country, the narrative.
Can’t you see her waving?
A yellow leaf, trembling in the wind.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer and poet. She wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian London, Jack London’s wife, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020). Her fourth collection of poems, West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing, 2021. Dunkle live in Northern California.