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Gillian Conoley, Notes from the Passenger. Nightboat Books, 2023

“Live, then, and be happy…and never forget that until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—'Wait and hope.'” (Edmond Dantès, in Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo)


Dangerous words, wait and hope. Especially in our drive-through, microwave, cell phone-fixated world. Also: how dare I start a book review with a quote that has the word “God” in it. But daring is the very thing that Gillian Conoley encourages, in every poem, and on every page, of Notes from the Passenger. Not the kind of daring that a cliff diver might face, although there are fearsome precipices within these poems, and there are pages into which one must fall, screaming quietly all the way down, in order to find out what’s really real. 


Be warned: God shows up everywhere in these pages, though not in the ways you might expect. And if expectations are premeditated resentments, prepare to have your sense of what’s divine (which will include “necrotic silence in a shed” and “—an invaginated spermicide / down pathways to an old / belief system turned glassine”) turned upside down. In other words, this ain’t Sunday School, kids. Conoley’s spiritual university invites us into a universe teeming with not only plenty of waiting and hoping; it’s a place where the nebulae within you will burn with the desire to read on.

In true, Transcendental style, Conoley makes her case immediately with the first sentence of the first poem in the book, “The Passenger:”

Once and for all mind-wanderings of the passenger.

only to circle back, as nature does, and as Emerson did, within that arc of what it means to return, but to return transformed:

The beer garden’s
composure in its death rattle,
  green partitions, scaled walls, backstroking
     waterways, lure to lure—

This is a new kind of fishing, as it were, where what once drew any of us along—things shiny and intoxicating (mind-wanderings, indeed)—are the stuffs that will help us start to name, and quickly, what we’ll be saying no to while on this journey: 

The passenger rejects projection,
  its limpid, mirror-like distortion—

We have entered a different kind of space, a place of unknowing, where what we think we know disappears into the what the poem’s closing lines offer:


It was most like night, this thing we walked into.

And just as in any story that sticks, Conoley invokes in the subsequent poem, “The Messenger,” an antithesis that declares in no uncertain terms where we’re heading:

I am a messenger with epistolary anthropological epigenetic trauma

It is as if Ginsberg’s supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul has been shaken out of one’s pocket’s like a torn circus ticket. This messenger continues:

some deep ancestral thing floats over the greening hills
     surely you understand this the messenger said, at a loss— 

Here’s how one waits, and possibly hopes. Think back for a moment: when is the last time you were at a loss? What did you do, in such a state? Conoley encourages us to not play the cynic, but to stay open to the postures of ecstasy (read ‘what the body does when in a state of disbelief’) as something not only attainable, but also within practical reach of everyone:

The messenger was part of
the deep urge to sit, stand, lie down
in an aura of intimacy
awaiting the message

And in the only lines within the book that are written in all caps, the messenger continues to encourage, albeit using an air horn:

I have sent you a moonstone talisman via snail mail! says the messenger,
   attempting friendliness. Also, PAIN IS EVERYWHERE.

This is a messenger who has tried, when communicating with the passenger, all the tricks in the messaging book, and the echoes to whom we are listening reverberate mightily. This is the Buddha speaking, as well as St. Augustine. These are lines that could have been taken from the Talmud, or the Quran, or from the Dhammapada, though sweetly skewed by the grace that this particular messenger offers. Repeatedly, we hear:

I would love to begin to explain the many voices plugged in


I would love to begin to say something to relieve the onslaught of

unleashed voices

As well as:

I would like to message you but the white powdery appropriation of

my throat

cuttlefish songbird vapor
in this body politic
or stringy cloud, everyone a sage
rising on a platform
a rapture massaged into all of the throats
multi-glottal, the collective dream of art
how even in death or in birth
dust motes glint the perineum of a celestial orbit—

I’ll leave it to you to assess just how intimate said motes might be. But make no mistake: this messenger is aiming for nothing less than your entire person, in whatever form you may understand it to exist. Iterations of Delmore Schwartz can be found here (“Patience, my soul, the truth is never known / Until the future has become the past / And then, only, when the love of truth at last / Becomes the truth of love, when both are one,”  ) as well as Kaveh Akbar (“If you’re immortal, God better be too. Otherwise? Otherwise.”  ) with the messenger’s ‘multi-glottal…collective dream of art’ as language that is in common parlance, and something worth waiting for, worth hoping for.

Notes from the Passenger is strewn with the visceral gifts of the quotidian, like one’s beloved and dirty dishes splayed in the sink after a good meal, all counterweights to the book’s cosmic bent. In “I loved, I voted” we hear “This hand with no war strength in it / this other that tore perforated ruins” as grievous rendering of those hands that hold the scales of justice, and which, indeed, belong to all of us. In “The White House,” sententialisms abound, the ‘governing home’ of the free world seen for what it truly is:

It was smaller than anyone ever expected.
Its lights were dimmed, though guards remained
In dreamy wigs, roasting pigs, as portraiture
was encouraged in this icebox—

These pieces comfort in the way that, when on a road trip, a dirty old McDonalds can offer familiarity and a place to rest, even if the thing itself is less than exemplary. Conoley invites ownership here, in ways that don’t exclude, but also don’t excuse, the dirty swirl of Americana:

Few acts are intolerable to a house.
Bed mites on night duty.
Riot gear,
A kiln of x=y.
A woman looking up under a glass pane.
A man climbing a wall.
We people, who cease to be useful.

“Thank You for the Afterlight” (for God) cuts through any sense of what niceness might yet remain after surging through the oceanic space of night and death, “where synapse thinks it saw a spirit.” The book’s penultimate poem, “Afterlight” revels in the real:

to one third of all thought
is cat vomit really in the middle of the night

And this, just prior to Conoley’s devastatingly beautiful assessment of where we find ourselves in this afterlight:

this bristly

prelapsarian keyhole of a hut where my finger
lingers as you row by
   is that all
to perception You are like

privileged Ivy League

assessing me    I am
white thing
    that little eggshell still stuck on my blouse
I cracked out of you I see that now

“There may have been someone who loved you / more than you loved saying” the poem continues, inviting the divine to don the clothing of humanity, thus divinizing the latter. What the world be like today, if we were to practice with and for each other, what the poet continues to say:

I try very hard to never close the parenthesis on you

Like a conch shell, with its center closed off from the rest of itself while remaining in perfect, proportional contact with all its other parts, “Perpetua’s diary” is the molten core of the book, holding its own gravity while limning the places where Notes from the Passenger has gone and will continue to go. Consider St. Perpetua’s redactor, sharing that “she wrote in her own hand and from her own experience.” This is Conoley writing about Conoley, without being either. That magic continues, the poem writing about itself, an Escher painting in words as its eponymous font leads to an Italian pencil with its “80% graphite powder derived / from industrial scraps and electrode manufacturing waste…also named Perpetua.”

Beware of martyrdom. It is more happenstance than choice, and Conoley invites us into the happiness of that circumstance. Perpetua vis-à-vis Conoley creates a mirror of eternity, asking ‘Who among us is not included in this thing called life?’ Substitute the word death for life, and the question retains all its gravity, and more. Notes from the Passenger is a treatise on the We-ness of the world, and it’s a very big world at that. “The Cosmos is within us,” Carl Sagan said. “We are made of star-stuff. We are the way to the universe to know itself.” Conoley’s similar invitation is to see, both what’s going on within ourselves, as well as what’s going on out there, in each other and in the world. In this way, she, too, writes in her own hand, and from her own experience, inviting all of us to do the same in our lives. I’ll close with a line from “Perpetua’s diary:”

I don’t want to read further because we know the rest of the words

aren’t hers

This is how I feel, after reading Notes from the Passenger. I don’t want to read further, either. And not because I haven’t been moved by what has percolated throughout the universe of Conoley’s words. I don’t want to read further because I, too, know the rest of the words—in my own work as a writer, and in the work of those around me—those words aren’t mine. They belong to all of us. And that’s a future, though fraught with possible conflict, which is worth waiting and hoping for, as Conoley’s formidable book reveals.

1  From Delmore Schwartz’s Summer Knowledge, “The World Was Warm and White When I Was Born."

2  From Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell, “Ghazal For The Men I Once Was."



Poet, playwright, and composer, Joseph Byrd’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exposition Review, The South Carolina ReviewStone Canoe, CutBank, Pedestal, South Florida Poetry Journal, DIAGRAM, and Novus Literary Arts. A Facilitator with Shakespeare Behind Bars, and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, he is a Pushcart Prize nominee, was long-listed for the Erbacce Prize, and was in the StoryBoard Chicago cohort with Kaveh Akbar. An Associate Artist in Poetry under Joy Harjo at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, he is on the Reading Board for The Plentitudes.

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