[Nightboat Books; 2019]
If the pandemic teaches us anything, it is how to measure time and make art integral as in Gillian Conoley’s “Preparing one’s consciousness for the avatar.” This is one of the many poems in her volume of new and selected that simultaneously engage us in what it means to lunge forward into an unstable future while also being fully alive now. The human desire, the ongoing need to find meaning, to cherish, challenge, or charm, is, quite frankly, as she writes, “endless, endless and endless.” We can’t get enough because we know “we are not evermore,” we’re mere mortals who form one insatiable, transdisciplinary apprenticeship. That’s why I want to talk about poet Gillian Conoley’s collection, A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems. Released in the autumn of 2019, when the world was still in full motion, Conoley’s collection demonstrates that poets have the power to be prescient while artistically “resuscitating to stay the world of awe.”
I ask of a poem what it asks of itself: find a new space to hold my attention. Gillian Conoley’s oeuvre celebrates an animated sense of multiple engagements not unlike the art of cinema. “Cinema as mirror” and poetry as mirror offer a central protagonist, among a cast of supporting characters and antagonists who create what screenwriters fondly call “obstacles” that upend expectation. Since poetry and film are both visual mediums, displaying kinetic, overlapping, three-dimensional compositions that highlight a simultaneity of the senses, everything in motion, it stands to reason that both mediums actively employ juxtaposition’s acrobatic insistence to “make it new and again new,” in the words of Ezra Pound. As a result, both change the scene, thereby creating necessary tension while keeping us on the edge of our seats.
Just imagine “silence throwing itself asunder” for the sake of waking your audience. Like “the trouble between art and life rolling you out” in Conoley’s poem “The Patient,” the poet becomes our “pilot light” of fresh recognition. She is well-aware
a human is someone to hone
in a human’s long-held desire to vanish in a crowd or x-ed
out void of others, in mass human’s estranging light.
Poem to poem, the opposite of estrangement, Conoley whispers “to the ghost wars their Miranda rights” as easily as she declares, “I am born in a town” where “It Was the Beginning of Joy and the End of Pain.” The metaphor of time as fabric, as material, comes alive when the “day’s whole cloth” unravels ahead of us here, in the present state of wonder, from image to image like film frames.
Stag on the meadow,
mare in the river,
unwinding green river wide rock for the resting.
The man and the woman liked to go there,
the warm hood of the car, a question under sky, a curve where the trees rustled.
. . .
harsh light in the paint can,
. . .
schizy feeling walking back into your world
This poem provides one glimpse of the unfurling, storied relationships she creates between the natural world (“root stalks/ of the best grapes”), cultural artifacts (“ironworks of a previous century”), the human (“cocktail of my head”), and subversive beauty (“for the honeybee’s bite, lyme’s flea”) of an afternoon’s mundane perfected “visual improvisation.” Vulnerably intimate, yet politically and philosophically provocative, her wide-ranging work is addictive: You want and need to revisit the poems again and again.
Cinematically, this collection is not “the window a theater of cruelty,” nor is it just “reality’s blazing gunplay.” Nothing is old spectacle, everything as present-tense consequence of awareness, A Little More Red Sun on the Human offers readers a body of work that never enters the all-too-familiar dramatic self-indulgence or an arena of hyper-fallacy so often found in current popular poetry. Like a dream chameleon, this writer reasons with borrowed time (“when at last we had time, eons and eons of it”), overturns linguistic expectations (“like gold into scar a twister in the skull”), never settling on any one spatial or temporal sense nor one style of diction. While her sense of shortened time surely echoes a concern for ecological disaster, Conoley’s work also partakes of deep time, of eons as well as nanoseconds. Her explorations with language claim new territory for expression, for consciousness and perception. Her “furnaced” art gladly prefigures definition.
During her vibrant career, the poet’s willingness to challenge language while offering a narrative voice the reader can follow is unique. Imagine too, how “Skull be dogbone” or the musical phrase “whipstitch that comes” form aural control of the imagination. Film editor Walter Murch’s statement from The Conversations with Michael Ondaatje resonates here: “You can hear the grammar of film” and see “it’s the sonic equivalent of photographic depth of field.” Go there, take each poem’s wild ride into the “tidal galaxy in gulf whitecaps” and be inspired. Vigil is not far from elegy, democracy not far from borders, and “the space between stars” not far from home. All celebrate a nomadic flux of consciousness on the page and beyond. In her poem “Sound of Freeways Directing the Cosmos back to its Start,”
Someone adds elements to the sentences the way a girl out west
just laughs. We had lyric time, we had pylons and pylons of it,
under low lying reefs of cloud the 8 notes
necessary for infinite melody
Because “if you are waking in the audience,” you’re already part of this poet’s emancipatory set of equations.
Winner of the Northern California Book Award, finalist for the Golden Poppy Awards, and a finalist for the California Book Awards, this collection continues to wow its participating viewers. Even as “world news wants more than a little exile,” her work is everything “sun mortal beautiful because it can destroy / historical time” (“Burnt City’), while certainly saving ours.
Elena Karina Byrne is a private editor, a former 12-year Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America, the Programming Consultant & Poetry Stage Manager for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club. Author of five collections, including If This Makes You Nervous (Omnidawn, 2021), a Pushcart Prize, and Best American Poetry recipient, Elena’s publications include Poetry, The Paris Review, APR, Verse Daily, Poetry International, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Plume, LARB, Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies, BOMB, and elsewhere.