Poets have been writing about Sonoma County for more than one hundred years, and, while much of it has been lost or forgotten, the available evidence suggests that it has been getting better and better. Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s timely collection of poems, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, shows how an imaginative writer can rework the familiar and reinvent local history so that it seems strange and wonderful.
A longtime Sebastopol resident, a teacher at Napa Valley College and the new poet laureate of Sonoma County, Dunkle says that she was “both surprised and honored by her new appointment.” An accomplished reader with a loyal following, she has an affinity for the natural world and an ear for the stories people tell about where they live, those they love and the kinds of work they do. Sebastopol and the Laguna de Santa Rosa are at the heart of this book, though it meanders to Freestone and Santa Rosa, along old railroad lines and trails that circle into the hills.
The Gravenstein apple plays a big part. Not many historical dates and few famous historical figures show up, save for Luther Burbank, but the poems conjure a rich, tangled past that once belonged to Indians, pioneers, loggers and fishermen.
In part, the book is a lament for what has been lost in the rush to build towns, cities, highways and parking lots. There’s a bittersweet quality to Dunkle’s verses that makes them emotionally appealing. Many of the poems sound like love songs for a departed family member, a lost way of life, and a season of the year just ending. Drought, water, rain and flood show up again and again in these pages; the poet speaks to the long drought that goes on and on, even with recent rainfall.
There are redwood trees, oaks, red-tailed hawks and creeks in Dunkle’s work, and while her language is poetic — “I could feel time coil itself like a snake,” she writes — there’s no need to hunt for symbols and hidden meanings. These poems, whether they’re about maps, wagons or women’s work, are accessible. Local poems by a local poet, they can be appreciated by readers both near and far, though it seems likely that local readers will especially enjoy the references to Burbank Gardens, Pleasant Hill Cemetery and the annual Apple Blossom Parade.
In the last section, the poet turns philosophical. “To question history is to watch the chaos of its particles, glisten into discernible patterns,” she muses in one poem. In another — the last in the book — she writes, “the past expects us to circle back and look under what we think we know.”
In “There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air,” Dunkle invites readers to reimagine what they think they know about this place and its history. Her poems ought to work well and be enjoyed in classrooms and when families sit down together for a meal, a reunion or a holiday.