Poetry as Resistance and Remembrance

Jacqueline Kolosov

Like the formally experimental Whereas, Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral participates in the fluid field of documentary poetry. Dunham is a lyric poet whose previous collections have focused on interior spaces. In Cold Pastoral, she turns her gaze outward to focus on manmade and natural disasters, though the collection’s central power resides in its intense engagement with the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, the months-long spill that resulted in profound damage to marine and wildlife habitats and devastated the fishing industry in the area.
Dunham is a poet of sculptural precision. In “Elegy Written in Oil,” she harnesses facts and marries them to images in order to convey devastating truths:


As if by an artist’s crude-
massed strokes, the pelican’s
beak is daub, is plaster.
She rises from the bay’s water,
limbs out and hung in tatters
of oil—our angel, wings
heavy and mouth cast open
always. She is scarved
blind and deaf. Tarped mute....




By August, more than 2,000
oil-soaked pelicans had been picked up
dead or dying. Another
1,200 were found dead after eating
fish contaminated by oil


The pelican is “our angel,” and with that image the poet quietly conjures this country’s inability—despite an attachment to or-ganized religion with its espousal of good works—to attend to the massive destruction of life caused by greed, negligence, and hubris. Human agency here and throughout the book is imbued with pathos and powerlessness. There is no answer, no possible salvation. Yet there is no turning away either. Immersed in a suffering charged with consequences, Dunham forces herself to remain present, as in “Elegy, Sung in Dirt”:


I am the poet of the eye
filled with dirt. Mouth

shut. But tell me
who among you could conjure

the gift, at such depths,
of seeing in the dark?


Such awareness defines the poet’s task: to not only see in the dark, but to make the darkness sing. And sing Dunham’s poetry does, as in the third and seventh sections from the highly fragmented “Blowout”:

Jacqueline Kolosov has new creative prose in The Southern Review, Boulevard, and Carolina Quarterly. Her third poetry collection is Memory of Blue (Salmon, 2014), and she coedited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, which won Foreword’s IndieFab Gold Medal in Writing (Rose Metal, 2015). She directs the Creative Writing Program at Texas Tech where she is Professor of English, and lives with her family, and a menagerie of animals, from dogs to rabbits to horses, on the very windy high plains of West Texas.