Why I Chose Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s Interrupted Geographies for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I still remember the time many (many) years ago, as an undergrad, when my professor dropped Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and Sir Walter Ralegh’s response on the class and launched into a discussion of the pastoral tradition. Years later, when, as I was putting together a syllabus for a survey class, I saw the many replies to this exhange which followed. My favorite remains William Carlos Williams’s “Raleigh Was Right,” with its repeated lines: “We cannot go to the country / for the country will bring us no peace.” The country of the imagination is a place not merely of unspoiled nature, but of balance and harmony. It’s a utopia, which of course means it doesn’t exist. Even those rare places humans haven’t left the dominant impression are violent and cruel to something. The peace that Marlowe’s shepherd promised doesn’t exist, not on this planet anyway. Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s forthcoming collection, Interrupted Geographies, continues that conversation.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your copy of Interrupted Geographies, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Iris Dunkle, you’ll need to to subscribe by June 20!

It’s fair to say Dunkle sides with Williams as well (and not just because the third section is titled “Spring and All” and begins with a quote from that work). Dunkle’s geographies are varied but she spends a lot of time in a town called Pithole, PA, which was near Titusville, home to the first commercial oil well in the US. Dunkle chronicles the short life of Pithole in the second section of this book, and the geographic interruptions are plain to see from the start. This is from “She Sits Like a Patient upon a Monument and Smiles at Grease”:

Two years ago, Cornplanter Township was barren.
There were only a few woodsmen who wove
their thin bodies between trees.
Cabins blinked small in the dusk.

and later in the same poem:

Then, on Holden Farm, the wildcatters dug a well deep enough
to find dark secrets that would flow without end.
Word spread fast–ricocheted across great shale valleys–
Everyday people came: some on foot, some on horseback,
some sunk in mud to their knees.
Cabins filled fast. Then, tents built from surrender
of white sheets. There was so much smoke.

Pithole would grow to a town of more than 20,000 at its peak, but was almost deserted only a few years later, the land scarred by oil wells and fire which burned the hastily constructed town almost completely to ash.

Dunkle spends even more time on the interruption of physical and spiritual geographies in this book. In the section on Pithole, she writes in the voices of women coerced into sexual slavery, the Methodist reverend who tries to bring education to the town’s children, and even about the unclaimed letters at the Pithole Post Office, which at the height of the boom was the third busiest in the state, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

I hope you’ll join us in discussing this fascinating book during the month of July, as well as chatting online with Iris at the month’s end. Remember, to receive Interrupted Geographies and join in our conversation, you need to subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by June 20!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →