Peace Corps Writers
A Stained Dawn
Poems About Africa
Other work by
Christopher Conlon

An interview with Christopher Conlon and other Peace Corps poets

by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
Mango Biscuit Press
     605 Thayer Avenue
     Silver Spring, Maryland 20910
32 pages
August 2001

Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)

  “We must take the feeling of being at home into exile,” wrote Simone Weil. “We must be rooted in the absence of a place.” These linesPrinter friendly version have stuck with me for over twenty years now partly, I think, because they get to the heart of what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer living as a representative American in a foreign place. Like Weil, PCVs understand that the comfortable (read Americans) need to be afflicted in order to see. Again like Weil, by uprooting themselves, PCVs seek a greater reality, albeit not necessarily the spiritual reality Weil sought.
     I’m convinced that unlike perhaps most of us, Christopher Conlon took the feeling of being at home into exile long before he hit country (in his case, Botswana in 1988).

    When I was thirteen
    my father lived
    in distant cities
    and his face was a telephone 
    . . . 
    My mother drank
    until her eyes
    were those of a doll
    and bowls
    slipped through her fingers,”

he writes in “African Child, American Child, Poem in Two Voices.” To his credit, Conlon steers away from the confessional road it might have been convenient to take with such material. In A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa, the darknesses of America and the darknesses of Africa are like tectonic plates. When they collide, as they do in Conlon’s best work, we get something truly earthshaking.
     “Morning” and “Night” (which open and close the collection) barely appear on my Richter scale. These poems make mythic and chronological sense, but don’t carry a lot of psychic weight. They are impressionistic pieces — a little soft because they’re overly poeticized. These lines from “Morning” are representative:

    This is African girls in blankets
    lighting cooking fires down the hill:
    this is birds bluer than any sky
    trying softly twittered notes
    in the naked trees.

A few other landscape poems (for example, “Kalahari” and “Noon”) pack more of an Imagist punch. Still, I don’t hear Conlon’s voice speaking incontrovertibly in these short poems.
     I do hear it in “Johannesburg: A Call Girl.” This poem is amazing. “Even at two hundred rand, it’s a tawdry thing,” it begins and continues, in the long deceptively prosy lines I tend to associate with C.K. Williams, until tawdriness is the furthest thing from the reader’s mind. Are the sex partners “jam-filching children,” or are they “two imminent criminals”? Both possibilities exist in every line. The sex doesn’t get too far. “Joanne” commingles instead with the “amazingly integrated city” outside their designation, with its

    green-fatigued soldiers
    who, every few blocks, study passing faces, guns hanging from their arms like cigarettes
    from their lips.

A screaming police car signifies climax. When dawn arrives, it is as a “frightened girl” not unlike “Joanne.”
     “For Wilfred Owen” is another favorite. Its comparison between the “unreal savagery” of an African thunderstorm and that of World War I is riveting. Other poems high on my Richter scale include “Soweto,” “Justin in a Garden of Flowers” and “A Poem I Didn’t Write.” Unlike the tourists on the bus into Soweto, these poems do not snap easy pictures of poverty and racism and cluck their tongues. Rather, they burden us with the responsibility of the struggle to understand the other. In “Pig-Chasing by Starlight,” yet another favorite, even the lizards participate:

    Stonelike Kalahari lizards
    study all this closely,
    wondering perhaps
    what new strangeness
    the white people have brought now.

     The reality is that the World Trade Center disaster has changed the way we live in the United States. We are now more nervous than ever about the strangers in our midst. It is thus increasingly imperative that we listen to voices such as Conlon’s that urge us not to come to any easy conclusions about those who are not “like us.” There are bridges to cross between the self and the other, and A Stained Dawn helps us to find them.

Ann Neelon recently won fellowships from both the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her work will appear in Bearing Witness: Poetry by Teachers About Teaching, to be released this month. She is the author of Easter Vigil, winner of the Anhinga Poetry Prize.
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