There’s a beautiful instant a fair stretch into “an oh___ a sky ___a fabric____ an undertow,” the first poem in Gillian Conoley’s assured new collection, Peace. Following obligatory nods to her poetic forebears Eliot (“the evening is spread out / like a media” ) and Dickinson (“our eternal Footman___ who is presidentially nimble”), and a meditation on the evidence of said Footman in our contemporary context, Conoley’s speaker makes a conspicuous entrance: “I am entering the poem now not just to notice the pronoun I / but how casually the no longer ____a president has used it” (14). In this particular instance, the speaker can no longer allow the Footman’s nefarious shenanigans to go on without pointing out a general complicity in our allowing war and suffering such free rein. Moreover, this moment marks one of the many in which the speaker seems to be biding his or her time, waiting for the most fortuitous moment to speak directly. It’s a technique that underscores the incredible degree of control at work in this collection, notwithstanding its apparent formal liberties and expansive subject matter.
Conoley’s approach is calibrated for surprise. In the above-mentioned first poem, a rumination on the destructive central figure—an enemy both without and within—momentarily dissolves into an imagined ekphrastic:
only an invisible indivisible male muse ____all oscuro dark substance
in fields in cities___ like a cloud rising from sidewalks
________________to make individual appearances
so shaded so shrouded in oil
Whistler could have done him
sometimes appearing in well-cut overcoat
or next to a tall case clock
to say look this was the deal
made a long time ago (14)
This is to say that Conoley uses all tools at her disposal—from allusion to an incisive visual imagination—to explore all varieties of peace: mournful, momentary, post-coital, devotional. There are blues interludes, wanderings in galleries. But each of these scenes functions as a set-up for impending disturbance, as one of the speakers relates, “you know / people, // once you tell them something / they start talking” (35).
There is nothing wrong with talking per se, but Conoley points out that the language we use has become inimical to true peace (one recalls the exquisite example of the Colt “Peacemaker,” but there are more modern coinages that cloak their violence, such as “occupation” or “enhanced interrogation”). In contemplating the folded flag as a part of the funeral rites for a deceased veteran, the speaker posits rather glibly, “We could unfold and try once more to open / a language in which we do not do / most of the killing” (16-). The flag confers honor, absolving the burden of aggression, even validating it, just as subtle speech masks intention.
While Conoley mourns the disingenuousness of our speech, she also points out that moments of peace are, at best, stolen from a pervasive tragedy. “Opened” unfolds in the interval between the 2011 assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords and the meltdown, four months later, of the three Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. It’s a painful poem, and the extent to which its wounds seem fresh, still “open,” speak to the sickness of our present culture, particularly with respect to a predilection for firearms. Conoley crafts a refrain that is an ominous mash-up of a familiar political salve: “this tragedy will pull through” (48). The interval between tragedies, then, is an appalled silence, in which we are rendered incapacitated by grief or anxiety, rather than experiencing a true peace.
But it is not all gloom for Conoley, who is as much moved as delighted by our attempts at willfully creating semblances of order and peace. In “Monday Morning,” the running conceit is a morning yoga session ruined by daydreaming (Nietzsche supplies a preposterous mantra) and a cooldown plagued by the guilt of privilege and whiteness. It’s a hilarious scenario, and one that effectively proves that even when a rather superficial peace is within our grasp, we are rarely prepared to accept it. A similar incompatibility with grace is on display in “Where the page was, do we walk”:
The stirring metaphor of shelter and rebuke will be familiar to many, and it bespeaks the sureness with which Conoley has her finger on the pulse of her readership. We understand implicitly that peace itself is bought at the cost of suffering elsewhere, and that even moments of private reflection, however placid-seeming, mask troublesome currents of memory and the ruptures of history.
Peace is a varied and memorable read. Although the subject matter has been addressed before, Conoley’s stylistic dexterity make the tragedies—and, thankfully, the moments of respite—feel intimate and fresh. One of my favorite such moments comes at the end of “[Peace] one mystery of the breath”:
mammalian diving reflex ___water must be
ice-cold ___some people survive
if time began we would do it again
the lungs two oars in the middle of the ocean (45)
Conoley’s Peace leads us to believe that—despite our personal and collective failings—we just might break the surface; we could make it.