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Archive for May 6th, 2022

[with 3 poems by Gerald Barrax Sr.]

Next month I’ll be leading a couple of nature walks for our local trails association. My fellow naturalists-for-a-morning – as we enter the world of trees and ferns, birds and bugs, what special guidance shall I give you? I’ll mention the primary tasks of the naturalist – notice; ask questions; make connections – but what might make our small journey together even more personal and meaningful?

I think I’ll say, Let’s be slow to name things. Yes, we are each going to encounter some things we recognize. We will also each see or hear or smell something unknown, maybe an odd shaped leaf, a bird call, a pungent mushroom. Either way, may we allow everyone to fill their senses with the thing, share the encounter, before we speak its name.

Am I correct in this: once I give something a name do I stop noticing it as fully? I end my close attention, my exploration of its flower, its leaf. I quit asking myself, What does this remind me of? What is this like and what is it not? I’m done. I’ve finished wondering.

Let’s be slower to name things. Let’s extend wonder as long as we can. Wonder is why we’ve come here.

On the other hand, working together to figure out something’s name is bonkers. As in, we share a crazy laugh when we’ve done it. Yesterday Linda and I visited the NC Zoo with our daughter and her family. All day and many miles of walking through Uwharrie forest to visit Africa and North America with a four-year old, what a blast.

Late afternoon SIL Josh and I lagged behind Linda, Margaret, and Bert – we’d heard a very unfamiliar bird call in the canopy and were craning our necks. Sort of a half-hearted cluck framed by a sharp tik or two fore and aft. I’d been listening to birdsong CDs and it kind of reminded me of the hiccup of Henslow’s Sparrow. Nah, super rare, plus completely wrong habitat. Then we caught a glimpse – way bigger than a sparrow or warbler, long bill, yellow all over.

A female summer tanager! High fives. Yeah, we were a little slow but we worked it out together. Totally bonkers. Or maybe not.

 

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To Waste at Trees

Black men building a Nation,
My Brother said, have no leisure like them
No right to waste at trees
Inventing names for wrens and weeds.
But it’s when you don’t care about the world
That you begin owning and destroying it
Like them.

And how can you build
Especially a Nation
Without a soul?
He forgot that we’ve built one already –
In the cane, in the rice and cotton fields
And unlike them, came out humanly whole
Because our fathers, being African,
Saw the sun and moon as God’s right and left eye,
Named Him Rain Maker and welcomed the blessing osf his spit,
Found in the rocks his stoney footprints,
Heard him traveling the sky on the wind
And speaking in the thunder
That would trumpet in the soul of the slave.

Forget this and let them make us deceive ourselves
That seasons have not meanings for us
And like them
we are slaves again.

Gerald Barrax Sr.
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA

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As I recently began reading Black Nature I stumbled through the sections at random until I happened upon a name I recognized – a name may be an anchor or it may become a sail to catch the wind. I followed the guyline of Gerald Barrax through all the pages it touched. Lines so rich, so provoking and impeaching, I can’t be the same after reading.

Gerald William Barrax, Sr. (June 21, 1933 ~ December 7, 2019) was the first African American professor at North Carolina State University, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and winner of the North Carolina Award for Literature. Other awards include the Sam Ragan Award and the Raleigh Medal of Arts. In 2006 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. His teaching career at NC State spanned 27 years and he served as the editor of the Black literary journal Obsidian.

I’ll be sharing more poetry discoveries from this amazing anthology as I continue my explorations.

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What More?

My lawnmower has awakened the resident god of my yard
who rugs its leafy hand in anticipation
of troubling me again with one of its cruel koans,

this one a small bird dropped
from the sky, or thrown out,
out of the sweetgum tree

where I was cutting
that long triangle of grass outside
the back fence: put there

when I wasn’t looking, it lies
on its back twitching half in and out of the swath
I cut a minute before.

I’m being tampered with again,
like an electron whose orbit and momentum
are displaced by the scientist’s measurement

and observation. If I’d found something already stiff
and cold on the ground
I’d have kicked or nudged it out of my path:

but the just-dead, the thing still warm,
just taken its last breath, made its last
movement, has its own kind of horror.

I leave the small patch of uncut grass around it.
Back inside my enclosed yard
I see a brown thrasher come and stand over the body,

with some kind of food in its bill.
(I was careful to say “bill” and not “mouth.”)
By the next time I cut myself around the yard,

I see the thrasher sitting on the fence above the still dead,
still holding whatever it has in its bill. I’ve described
it all accurately. What more could anyone expect of me?

Gerald Barrax Sr.
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA

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I Called Them Trees

The last time
+++ +++ +++ I went to the library
I looked at the flowers
surrounding the statue of Steven Collins
Foster and the old darkie ringing
+++ the banjo at his feet
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ :flowers planted
in four triangular beds
alternating red and white.
I saw they were all the same kind.

There were others
+++ +++ +++ +++ in front of the building
in long wide rectangular rows
bordered by round clusters of pastel green
and white that were too deep, too dark
+++ red, maroon, for easy images
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ :I called

them all flowers.
And the stunted trees I
wished I had known, bending over the green

terrace above the flowers
+++ like women whose faces
I couldn’t see washing
their hair in deep green pools, I called
trees. If I had told you would you
+++ had known them?

+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ There were
flowers for me. There
were trees. There were kinds
of birds and something blue
that crouched
+++ +++ +++ in the green day waiting
for evening.
If I had told you would
you have known?

I sat
+++ on a bench among flowers
and trees facing
the traffic +++ surveying all

I knew of impalas, cougars, falcons
barracudas, mustangs wild
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ cats,
marlins, watching cars
go by. +++ I named them
+++ all.

Gerald Barrax Sr.
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA

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Doughton Park Tree 4/30/2022

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