IRIS JAMAHL DUNKLE
GROUND TRUTHING AFTER THE GREAT FIRES
Experience opens us, creates a chasm in our heart, an expansion in our lungs, allowing us to pull in fresh air to all that was stagnant. We breathe deeply and remember fear for what it is — a resistance to the unknown.
~ Terry Tempest Williams
When our bodies were still fogged
with desire we’d park in the dark on the barren,
gold hills and look out at the jeweled city below us.
We were too young to remember the fires
that swept the hillside clean of oak and scrub.
Now, rattlers slept under weathered rocks
and barn owls the size of toddlers
sat like prophets in the remains of trees
but we couldn’t see them. Our cars fogged with breath.
When the years drifted on and we left for college
and the hillside was sold, levelled and built up:
Houses rose like ghosts on the ridge.
We weren’t the only ones who hadn’t seen
the remains of the last fires.
We who returned woke from our middle aged lives
to choke of smoke; skies pulsing crimson.
Ash, like heavy rain, drifting down. The moon
like a red eye. The news looping the same story:
Fire that won’t stop. The whole hillside where
we’d once parked, pressed our bodies against each other
burned by a fire so hungry it became a wall that jumped
the freeway to find more to burn.
On that windy night we were all of the same body.
The city we had once looked out across was in us.
Forgotten the Great Fire of 1870.
Forgotten the Hanly Fire of 1964.
Soon to be forgotten the Tubbs Fire of 2017?
Even though the land tells us that all three fires devoured the same path.
Now when the young Red Tail Hawks scream across
the air above our homes, when the Barn Owls
roost on the eaves of trees, and the crows
shuffle in the oaks we know it is warning
or plea. Fire will pour its velvet tongue
across your valley again and again even if you don’t remember.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Her poetry collections include Interrupted Geographies (Trio House Press), Gold Passage (Trio House Press), and There's a Ghost in this Machine of Air (Word Tech). Her work has been published in Tin House, San Francisco Examiner, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet's Market, Women's Studies and Chicago Quarterly Review. Her biography on Charmian London, Jack London's wife, will be published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2020. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference.