The Poetry of Biography

Iris Jamahl Dunkle writes poems as a way into biography, of locating the gaps in what is known. Her biography of writer Charmian Kittredge London is out along with a book of poems charting her progress.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Jack and Charmian Kittredge London in Hawaii, sometime before 1916. Via Wikimedia Commons

‘West: Fire: Archive’
Poems by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
The Center for Literary Publishing
Colorado State University, 90 pages

‘Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer’
By Iris Jamahl Dunkle
University of Oklahoma Press, 304 pages

Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s book of poems arises from her work as a biographer in the archive of Charmian Kittredge London, the wife of Jack London and also a writer herself, defined by her own life in the West.

Ms. Dunkle writes about an archived life — not only in library boxes and folders, but in the vestiges of places that appear to a biographer as ghostly presences of what was. Ms. Dunkle captures that haunting, obsessive biographical quest in a poem like “Smiling into the Ruins of Wolf House,” the mansion the Londons built that burned down before they could move in. 

The poem proceeds from a photograph of Charmian, late in her life, standing among the ruins, smiling in a place she had often visited and now part of a Redwood forest. “Smiling into the Ruins of Wolf House” is as much about the birth of a biography as it is about its subject, as the poet imagines Charmian, who remains, “still, there she is at the threshold, not a door, something more. / Something that sees us as we pass.” 

“Make Them Float in Your Mouth” deals with the Snark, the small yacht the Londons built and sailed. We voyage with them, sailing into the “unknown until the flowers emerge: red, hibiscus-like, / large enough to contain the whole sunset-syrupy sky. / You have to find that island. Make it float in your mouth.”  

This gruesome journey could have ended in their deaths, as certain lines suggest: “Watch your itinerary dissolve in the water,” as they “endure sores the size of baseballs that seep and cling to your calves / and thighs.” Both Londons wrote about the hazardous voyage but never quite admitted how perilous it became. That is the story the biographer/poet invites us to imagine.

The imagination is often thought of as spontaneous, of the moment, the work of inspiration, but the poem suggests you have to work at it. The imagination has to be exercised by both poet and biographer, and savored. The imagination does not necessarily arrive naturally and on time. 

“Make Them Float in Your Mouth” portrays imagination as the result of an archival search, the surfacing of the past that is not, to begin with, there to be processed. Instead, you, the biographer, sit and wait and wade through the detritus of the past to find what may change the story that has to be told. 

The archival search may be a matter of faith: the quest for what “you” the biographer is not sure will ever appear, the “unknown,” the island “You have to find,” so that your subjects can indeed float in your mouth. Ms. Dunkle, in her poetry, gives us a taste of what it is actually like to be a biographer. 

Ms. Dunkle’s poetry becomes, as she told me in an interview, a way into biography, of locating the gaps in what is known. The poetry itself is also a means of making biography lyrical — a term that is rarely used to describe the genre. There are thoughts about your subjects, she observes, that “cannot be put into prose right away.” 

It is a pity there are not more poet-biographers like Daniel Mark Epstein, Therese Svoboda, John Berryman, and Amy Lowell, who can show the universality of the human experience in both biography and poetry. 

Ms. Dunkle’s “Hands in Your Pocket,” seizes on the nexus between the poet, the biographer, and the reader, as we all reach for a life that we hold onto with our own ship of self trying to “Stand with your hands in your pockets, / work itching your fingertips. / Even when we are all going to the bottom.” 

Those fingertips are part of a writer’s tools — Charmian’s and her biographer’s — and ours, as we, and the poem, sail into history which, as the poem has it, “sings in our faces, /a tiny little nightmare / under moderate but baffling winds / before squalls and rain.” Out of the journey in “Hands in Your Pockets,” a “thread of truth” emerges like a “weave into needlework.” 

Mr. Rollyson is the author “Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography.” His interview with Ms. Dunkle is here

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