Earth Day  —  April 22

Verse & Image will publish several posts for Earth Day featuring poems submitted by our readers and touching the theme Wild & Rewild.

Rewilding is a conservation effort aimed at restoring habitat, revitalizing ecosystems, and reintroducing animals and plants that historically occupied these wild spaces. It may be as small as converting cow pasture to a bit of riparian Piedmont Prairie along the Mitchell River in Surry County, NC. It may be as large as creating wildlife corridors down the chain of the Rockies for migrating pronghorns. As simple as replacing introduced invasives in your yard with native species; as complex as legislation to set aside vast tracts as wilderness.

How does the poet encounter and respond to wildness? A native wildflower struggling in an urban park? A remote mountaintop far from human presence? A wild voice speaking to the heart, or wild urges propelling into the unknown? A wild call from the past, the present, into the future?

For Earth Day 2023 we seek poems that touch the wild.

If you wish to participate, please submit ONE poem following these GUIDELINES:

1 +Select a favorite poem on the theme of Wild & Rewild by any author,
+++ ++any era, any nationality.

2 +Include one sentence about the author; include where the poem
+++ ++has been published.

3 +Include one or two sentences about how the poem effects you or why
 +++ ++you feel it addresses the theme of Wild & Rewild. Include your name
 +++ ++and hometown.

4 +Attach all of the above in a single document: .DOC / .DOCX / .RTF

5 +Email to ecopoetry@griffinpoetry.com with WILD & REWILD
+++ ++ in the subject line.

6 +If you wish to submit a poem you have written, it must be
+++ ++previously published
.  Follow the other instructions above.


Thanks! See you on the wild side.

Bill Griffin



[with poems by Stan Absher, Kathleen Wakefield, Bill Griffin]

How does science work? What does it mean for me to think scientifically? I notice something (empirical observation); I draw a conclusion (hypothesis via inductive reasoning); I check it out (experimentation, testing the hypothesis); it doesn’t all hang together so I try again, maybe noticing a little more closely (refining the hypothesis).

That final bit is the kicker. Even scientists can be seduced by their theories. Scientific knowledge, however, is never fixed and final. The most beautiful deduction can be proven false by the more precise observation. A posteriori trumps a priori. Anyone can be wrong.

The Naturalist Method is a subset of the Scientific Method. When I lead a nature hike, I advise folks, “Pay attention . . . ask questions . . . make connections . . . share.” And I am not the least bit shy about announcing that I myself don’t know everything. Not knowing (but wanting to!) is my defining characteristic. Semper Plus Discere – Always More to Learn. Bring books!

Which bit me on the butt a few weeks ago. For years I’ve walked a little section of trail where trout lilies carpet the banks every March. The first time I saw them – mottled fish-scale leaves, bright yellow recurved tepals, pendulant maroon anthers – I opened my trusty old field guide and confidently proclaimed, “Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum.” Firm, final, and correct. Never even gave it a second thought until this spring, when I decided to photograph some prime specimens in my SEEK app to add to my iNaturalist log. Click. Searching. Erythronium umbilicatum flashes up on my screen. No, no, that’s not right. Just shot ‘em from the wrong angle, try again. Every flower, every time the same – Dimpled Trout Lily.

When I got home I tore open my newer guides and references and discovered this: some thirty years ago taxonomists split the one species into two. And this: of the two, Dimpled is by far the most common in the foothills where I live. So how do you tell them apart? After a couple of hours on the NC State plant science websites, and after tracking down online photos (which I ultimately determined were mislabeled as americanum 52.3% of the time) I had my armamentarium. Back to the woods, this time with a hiking group I enlisted to find all the Trout Lily they could, especially ones gone to seed.

And what we observed was this — if still in bloom, no auricle (“ear”) at the base of the inner tepals; if gone to seed, a distinct dimple at the end of the ovary, and often lying prone on the ground. Every dang plant we found was Erythronium umbilicatum. I stand humbled and corrected.

But here is another observation to add to the guide books. Yellow Trout Lily is described as holding onto its style, still attached to the ovary after forming seeds. Many, even most, of the Dimpled we found also retained their style. Maybe we’ll come back in a week and observe again. Maybe notice a little closer.

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Destined for slaughter
she wades into the water
to the belly and drinks deep.

Does she see her own sad eyes
wide and innocent in the pool
looking up out of the sky?

Soon fear will make her bellow,
but now her muzzle is cool
and wet. Her skin twitches,

scattering flies; her switch
brushes them off. Across the water
she sees a pasture

she will never graze
a clump of trees
that will never give her shade.

J. S. Absher
from Visions International #107, Black Buzzard Press, © 2023 Visions International Arts Synergy

Erythronium umbilicatum

Erythronium americanum

❦ ❦ ❦

Thirty or so poems in a modest package; writers from Europe, Asia, the Americas; no page numbers but a few hand-drawn illustrations – all this and a remarkable meditative companionability create the magic of each issue of Visions International. I ask myself how editor Bradley R. Strahan manages to pull me into these pages so warmly. Some insistent human voice calls us, the readers, to encounter distant circumstances and experiences and realize they have become close, familiar, our own. How has Brad, through the decades, made this so?

My friend Stan Absher suggests: Because he often publishes poets over a long period of years, Bradley’s readers can get to know some poets rather well. I’ll mention only the late Michael Mott (he died in 2019) and Nikolaï Kantchev, a Bulgarian poet who died in 2007 and whom Brad continues to publish in translation, but there are several others.

And Kathleen Wakefield, after reading Issue #107, commented this to Bradley: I love the cadence of these poems, their subjects and very particular visions, language that skewers you or lures you in. Some are simply magical to me, others have the strangeness and dark absurdity, fused with love, that points me back to Simic, one of my favorite poets. So glad you honored him and are always including poets from other parts of the world who write of something vital at stake. All of these poems jar me out of my usual forms of speech. That is a very good thing. It’s not just mental; the heart is altered.

I am honored to appear in these particular pages with two friends I’ve come to know through shared poetry, Stan Absher and Kathleen Wakefield. As I continue to read each issue of Visions, my circle of companions expands.

Subscribe to Visions International. For four issues, mail $25 to:
Visions International / Black Buzzard Press / 309 Lakeside Drive / Garner, NC 27529

❦ ❦ ❦


I am practicing my lying down
beside the stripped spines of jay feathers,
the azures unwinged, seed heads gone to must
and rot, bones of mice cradled in mycelia
tangled and ghostlike.

I am asking the names of wildflowers to ease me into sleep,
saying them over and over, Bloodroot, Evening Lychnis,
Celandine, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Coltsfoot,
Wood Groundsel dissolving
on my tongue.

The faces of those gone before me rise up,
and those I will leave behind, my children
far flung as seeds carried by wind
and pelt and rain.

Go ahead, let the dankness of earth
seep into your thighs, let dust
silt your lungs, your spine
crack like river ice

but the mind pulls you back up through snake skin and mist,
through dry creek and river bed to the trees’
green asylum, rain smacked leaves
waking you to the body’s arterial hum.

Get up while you can, full of your hunger and regret.
Get up from your knees. Taste
what you are, cloudburst, mud, burnt grass,
words buried in iron, bone, lips, and breath,
in this sorrow and honey,
this skin and ash.

Kathleen Wakefield
from Visions International #107, Black Buzzard Press, © 2023 Visions International Arts Synergy

❦ ❦ ❦


Rare to discover you
+++++ aloft in the afternoon
your eye so blue
I can see right through
+++++ the curving edge of sight
and your face so bright
+++++ I believe the fire
of your glow must burn
within – but no,
+++++ reflected whole
where you hang on the arm
of your golden man.

Bill Griffin
from Visions International #107, Black Buzzard Press, © 2023 Visions International Arts Synergy


❦ ❦ ❦

EARTH SCIENCE: Albedo is a measure of how much light is reflected by the surface of a planet or moon; an albedo of 1 means all light is reflected; an albedo of 0 means no light is reflected – all light is absorbed by the surface and it will appear dark. The albedo of the moon is 0.12, pretty dark as celestial bodies go. Saturn’s moon Encedalus has an albedo of 0.99 due to its covering of snow and ice.

The albedo of Arctic ice is much higher than the albedo of open ocean. As more of the Arctic becomes ice-free in summer, more light (heat energy) is absorbed by the darker water. This has produced a positive feedback loop so that the Arctic is warming much faster then the remainder of the planet.

PLANT SCIENCE: The female reproductive part of a flower is the pistil, composed of the ovary (containing the ovules), the style, a slender column projecting up from the ovary, which is tipped by the stigma. Pollen lands on the stigma and sprouts tubules down through the style to fertilize the ovules and produce seeds. Of the 450+ families of flowering plants containing more than 260,000 species, each contributes its own variation to the configurations and shapes of flower, pistil, and stamen, and the strategies for insuring that pollen and ovule meet.

When the outer whorl of structures on a flower can’t be sussed out as sepals or petals, the blades are often called tepalsSepals are the outer whorl that cover and protect the bud and petals are the inner whorl, usually colored to attract pollinators. Especially in many members of the Lily family, Liliaceae, the two layers merge or fuse; the term tepal was compounded to describe them.

❦ ❦ ❦

2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

Uniquely Itself

[with 3 poems by Richard Widerkehr]

Cold March drizzle makes Hepatica nod and droop. Nevertheless, the twelve accompany me undaunted on a naturalist hike along Elkin Creek. What will we discover? Here are the last few Hepatica blossoms of the year; their sister plant opened her first bloom along this trail on February 7, five weeks earlier. Now a single flower on each silky hairy scape looks down at its feet, the winter-pocked liverleaves also fading ahead of summer’s foliage. It’s cold this morning and the vernal equinox is still three days off.

But cheek by jowl with old Hepatica are fresh patches of its second cousin, Rue Anemone. No drooping at all! Both from the same family (Buttercup, Ranunculaceae), the two flowers share many features and from a distance look similar – our crew’s task is to learn to tell them apart. Both are easily overlooked, pale blooms only a cm. or so in diameter, with 6-10 petals and a jostle of stamens crowding multiple pistils clumped in the center. Even color is not a reliable clue: the pale Hepatica in this neutral soil is only one shade of lavender removed from Anemone’s white. Rue Anemone’s smooth slender flower stem is one giveaway, and then of course the leaves, Anemone’s fine clusters like little paws climbing toward the bloom, contrasted with Hepatica’s broad, basal, waxy lobes, each like a liver. What some might casually mistake for a clump of sameness, in haste undifferentiated, what we ourselves might at first glance have misidentified have now become familiar, individual: each uniquely itself.

❦ ❦ ❦

A Sabbath of Complete Rest

I’ve been thinking what that might mean, so I listen
to the wind in the fir trees outside our red house –
how the trees stand almost like horses asleep on their feet,

how their roots touch crevices in soil, how at night
their branches, blacker than the sky, must not forget
yellow forsythias, summer, their own dark needles,

how they wait, how they’ve waited. This is no psalm
of light, Chloe, no song of white horses in the sun.
The root of the word Shalom means complete.

Richard Widerkehr
from At the Grace Café, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, © 2021

❦ ❦ ❦

How does a poem draw you in? How does it invite you to live in the world it creates? Place must be one way. Just a few pages into At the Grace Café, I realize I’m damp and about to shiver in the Pacific Northwest. Not that it’s raining absolutely all the time – the great dark firs lifting their heavy sleeves also propel me into the landscape. A trail through clouds and mist leads me. A swirling lake shore is mysterious and at once consoling.

Personality is another thread that weaves through these poems and entangles me: the writer’s sister, her mental illness an elusive and threatening animal that speaks wild into every situation; his mother, reminding us that each of us must live a portion of our lives in denial; and the personality of the writer himself, illuminated by recurring heartbreak in his work as counselor and by longing for stability and resolution. Personalities approach and retreat, promise to reveal just as they again withhold – all I can do is hold on and join the dance.

Finally there is joy. Not waiting beyond all conflict or at the conclusion of all sorrows, rather joy that emerges from and lives within these troubles that we all, confess it, share. A fleeting moment with one’s beloved, a brief lifting of fog, moon on snow – a simple singular presence can form us into fellow sojourners. The poem can make us family. The poem may grant us grace.

❦ ❦ ❦

Pay Attention, You Say

No, I haven’t read updates about the orca
+++ nursing her dead calf. I try not to get
upset about too many things. Lately,

I write these poems for my sister –
+++ I can’t spare the least insect or angel,
she says. Yes, plankton lined with oil

covers some sea beds. I’ve seen orcas
+++ breach the surface, black and white,
their bodies like mountain sides

sliding under. When we were kids,
+++ my sister and I caught a tiny fish –
she cried, and our mother threw it back.

Yes, there’s the sadness of plankton,
+++ the orcas, snow fields at night.
Last evening on this mental health unit

where I work, a patient I’ll call Carla –
+++ she’d cut her left wrist – she said,
Some scars are mercy and justice.

I let out my breath. At least my sister
+++ no longer sleeps with the moon
in her cardboard box. Now

you point out two otters on the bank
+++ of No Name Slough, how they
their small black eyes on us.

Richard Widerkehr
from At the Grace Café, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, © 2021

❦ ❦ ❦

Crane Flies
O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! – John Keats

In late August, the crane flies
come back, nervously feeling their way
up windows, trying to get out. They flutter
like huge, scatter-brained mosquitoes,
scraping this way and that, sometimes just
hanging as they flex their long
front legs like feelers, emitting
a dull, frustrated buzz.
++++++++++++++++++ Is it light
they want, the world outside?
They can’t get used to glass, its cool
way of whispering about the uselessness
of struggle, also its dry comments
on their death flights.

Each time I sweep these nutty insects
out the window, more fly in, as if
I were the absence they brush against,
their life of sensations
come to an end.

Richard Widerkehr
from Disappearances, The Wind Room Series #4, Radiolarian Press, © 1996, 2003

rue anemone

❦ ❦ ❦

Richard Widerkehr has a new book from Shanti Arts Press, Night Journey. Richard has taught writing in the Upward Bound Program at Western Washington University and has worked as a case manager for the mentally ill.

❦ ❦ ❦

IMG_0880, tree


[with 3 poems by Michael Hettich]

Linda keeps a little book beside the bed, a dictionary of Jungian dream archetypes. If she awakens from a dream of an elf, that could mean she’s searching in her conscious life for a guide for her soul. If dancing, maybe she’s expressing joy or sorrow in her role as woman. Leafing through the pages, I have to admit I notice many mundanities wandering through our normal days – dirt, a flock of birds, hiking in the forest – that when they appear in dreams basically translate into one simple message: we’re anxious about something.

No surprise, I suppose, that after I first retired from medical practice my dreamlife erupted with vivid and unrepressed energy. I had spent 8 or 10 hours a day in pretty focused cogitation for some forty years, and my subconscious was now frantically trying to re-engage the clutch. But the content! I’m at the office or the hospital but everything is off-kilter, out of sync. I can’t get from here to there. I can’t find the patient I’m looking for, or make the connection I need, or get someone to listen. Every morning I remember the dreams and struggle to imagine what they might have to do with my conscious life.

Conscious life, what a concept. Homo sapiens sapiens, man who thinks about thinking. How many hours in every day pass by without me giving them much thought, even though an observer would say I was nominally conscious? Yesterday I suddenly remembered that I wanted to know what the heck is alfalfa, anyway, and an hour of reading later I’d become the alfalfa-meister. Perhaps it would have been more useful, at least for a minute, to ask myself why I wanted to know about alfalfa (which is a member of the Pea family, Fabaceae, originated in ancient Iran 2,500 years ago, and whose name in Arabic means horse food). What I choose to think about, and why, must be formed from my inner identity even as it forms my identity.

And what about dreams? Are they created from our consciousness, or do they create our consciousness? I still have one of those work dreams about twice a week, and often, just when I have been able to complete some task, I’ll suddenly tell myself, “Wait, you don’t have a medical license any more,” and I wake up sweating. What is the object of this subjective? I could make a long list of all my actual daily challenges and try to connect the symbolic dots – loss of control, weight of responsibility, nagging uncertainty. Could it even be existential anxiety about my true identity?

Perhaps the dream is just trying to say, “How about if you just slow down for a minute and simply think about this.”

❦ ❦ ❦


Before we start shooting salt into the sky
to cool the planet and cloud our days,

perhaps we should simply
sit down in the shade
with stories – of moons that break open into flowers,
of foxes that sleep at the foot of our beds
to keep our feet wild. And before we start dreaming

floating cities adrift on a rising
ocean, perhaps we should undress ourselves
of who we’ve become, slip out of the habits
we’ve devised to feign our innocence, and swim
out into the deeper water

until whatever’s still phosphorescent
within us glows like small constellations
beneath which the huge, warm-blooded swimmers,
with minds and memories, and songs that might teach us
new ways to hear, are moving through the darkness.

Imagine the feel of their huge backs rubbing
against our pale feet, as they move on through the night.

Michael Hettich
from To Start and Orchard, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

In each of Michael Hettich’s poems, I amble through a dreamlike landscape of the obvious, the mysterious, the unfathomable. Familiar characters behave in unexpected ways; they transpose and reform and suddenly I’ve arrived in an entirely new space. It is scary when the parents strip naked and slip into the skins of horses, then walk gaunt and slack into the field, but when you ride them bareback you remember who they are by the feel of your small legs around them. There is happiness in wailing on even when no one is listening. “In a room of rubble and brittle light, / I suddenly know things I’ll never understand: / each moment is an animal, leaping sunlight / to give us these bodies.”

To Start an Orchard is a work of unrepressed imagination and deep inner exploration. Be guided by the archetypes. The window is for seeing out of and looking into but must become a door before one can walk through. Trees and grass, things grow without your direction into what you most need them to be. And love, it may be unreachable as birds gone from the trees or turning to dust in a spider’s web, or it may be a feather dreamed in the egg and growing into flowers.

Something that is hard to grab and hold may still be possible to grasp and feel. These poems climb and fall and turn but without a lurch – I never fear being thrown clear. Where there is bleeding there is also healing. I look about and for a moment I don’t recognize my surroundings, but I find myself saying, “Yes, yes, this is just as it should be.”

❦ ❦ ❦

To Start an Orchard

Whatever silences we’d always maintained
we continued to nurture, like the fruit from a landscape
that was foreign to us, even after all these years,
a fruit we weren’t sure whether to peel,
cook, or eat raw, kept on our windowsill
until it had withered and was somehow
beautiful, like a curiosity we’d collected on the beach
that reminded us of journeys, fathomless depths,
and yet was just a piece of fruit, desiccated and black,
curled like the pit of a dream, or a nut.
And so, when you spoke, or tried to, a small plant
emerged from its folds and darkness, delicate
and proud and needing to be watered until
it could be planted outside. I could already
hear the birds singing from its wilderness of branches.
I was already humming to the buzzing of its bees.

Michael Hettich
from To Start and Orchard, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

Starting from Sleep

+++ She tells me our bodies are nets dropped into
the ocean. And when they are pulled up, the minnows
are spilled out to flip-flop and strangle.

+++ And then we are tossed back over, to dream:

+++ +++ I talk, she says, to my great-great-grandchildren
+++ +++ +++ by treating all things with whatever compassion
+++ +++ I’ve drawn from the grace I’ve been shown. And those children
+++ +++ +++ +++ thank me, and dream of being born.

The wild parts of everything are disappearing everywhere.

+++ +++ +++ +++ Wood grain faint fingerprint
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ pores eyes blue breathing
+++ +++ +++ +++ wind dust mind afternoon
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ tide lips +++ and sudden flowers.

Michael Hettich
from To Start and Orchard, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

Doughton Park Tree 2020-11-22


What Makes Spring?

[with poems from Black Nature]

The world of experience speaks the language of the Absolute. In that language, the language of the universe, all of the metaphors which spring offers must simply mean: LIVE!  – – – –  Marilyn Nelson

What makes Spring for you?

When I was a first year med student, every lecture paid homage to the History of Medicine (invariably capitalized). Even today when I read of the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti, I immediately remember Dr. John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, who arrested the London cholera epidemic of 1854 by removing the handle from the Broad Street pump. When I progressed to the clinical wards at Duke, including Osler Ward, history continued its exposition on morning rounds with frequent pithy quotations by Sir William Osler, such as, “A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient,” or, “It is astonishing with how little reading a doctor can practice medicine, but it is not astonishing how badly he may do it.”

One quotation baffled me a bit: “One swallow does not make a summer, but one crescent makes malaria.” I quickly learned to recognize the crescent, that minute malaria parasite living inside a red blood cell, and I spent hours at the microscope trying to find just one. But I had little experience of the natural world outside the lecture hall and the swallow part (Osler riffing on Aristotle, I learned later) made no sense. I was stuffing my head with the vocabulary of microbiology and immunology but never even heard of phenology (the study of periodic biological phenomena). The completion by swallows of their long northward migration each year defines the arrival of summer? Of that I had no clue.

Indeed, one crocus does not make a spring. So what does make spring for you? There’s a stretch of I-40 between Winston-Salem and Kernersville where the surrounding woodland has been sheared back and sun percolates into deep shade. Over the years the native redbuds have leaned into that light. As gray February shuffles so languorously along step by step, a faint golden haze haloes the maples and deepens to peach and brick red. A willow here and there hints of green. It’s coming, it’s coming. Then suddenly, it seems within just days of each other, the redbuds pop their magenta bud covers into lush, rich, raspberry bloom. The solstice hasn’t yet arrived, but for me redbuds do make spring.

❦ ❦ ❦

Spring Dawn

There comes to my heart from regions remote
+++++ A wild desire for the hedge and the brush,
Whenever I hear the first wild note
+++++ Of the meadow lark and the hermit thrush.

The broken and upturned earth to the air,
+++++ By a million thrusting blades of Spring,
Sends out from the sod and everywhere
+++++ Its pungent aromas over everything.

Then it’s Oh, for the hills, the dawn, and the dew,
+++++ The breath of the fields and the silent lake,
And watching the wings of light burst through
+++++ The scarlet blush of the new daybreak.

It is then when the earth still nestles in sleep,
+++++ And the robes of light are scarce unfurled,
You can almost feel, in its mighty sweep
+++++ the onward rush and roll of the world.

George Marion McClellan
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.

❦ ❦ ❦

This week I’ve been spending time with an anthology I’ve been reading off and on over the past year, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy. Cycle Ten, the final section of the book, is titled Comes Always Spring. We have come through nine other cycles, including Dirt on Our Hands and Disasters, Natural and Other; we have been reminded What the Land Remembers; at last we are left with a hope of renewal. What can make Spring for us as a community, as a shared human family?

GEORGE MARION MCCLELLAN (1860-1934) was born in Tennessee and lived in Kentucky. A poet an minister, he attended Fisk University and Hartford Theological Seminary. He published Poems in 1895 and The Path of Dreams in 1916.

CLAUDIA RANKINE, born in Jamaica in 1963, earned her BA from Williams College and her MFA from Columbia University, and now lives and teaches in California. She is the author of four collections of poetry; Nothing in Nature is Private (1995) received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize.

CAMILLE T. DUNGY has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Besides Black Nature, Dungy is also co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Peoms That Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great.

[biographies adapted from the anthology]

❦ ❦ ❦

The Man. His Bowl. His Raspberries.

The bowl he starts with
is too large. It will never be filled.

Nonetheless, in the cool dawn,
reaching underneath the leaf, he frees
each raspberry from its stem
and white nipples remain suspended.

He is being gentle, so does not think
I must be gentle as he doubles back
through the plants
seeking what he might have missed.

At breakfast she will be pleased
to eat the raspberries and put her pleasure
to his lips.

Placing his fingers beneath a leaf
for one he had not seen, he does not idle.
He feels for the raspberry. Securing, pulling
gently, taking, he gets what he needs.

Claudia Rankine
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.

❦ ❦ ❦

What to Eat, and What to Drink, and What to Leave for Poison

Only now, in spring, can the place be named:
tulip poplar, daffodil, crab apple,
dogwood, budding pink-green, white-green, yellow
on my knowing. All winter I was lost.
Fall, I found myself here, with no texture
my fingers know. Then, worse, the white longing
that downed us deep three months. No flower heat.
That was winter. But now, in spring, the buds
flock our trees. Ten million exquisite buds,
tiny and loud, flaring their petalled wings,
bellowing from ashen branches vibrant
keys, the chords of spring’s triumph: fisted heart,
dogwood; grail, poplar; wine spray, crab apple.
The song is drink, is color. Come. Now. Taste.

Down anyone’s street-bright invitations.
Suck ‘em. Swallow ‘em. Eat them whole. That’s right,
be greedy about it. The brightness calls
and you follow because you want to taste,
because you want to be welcomed inside
the code of that color: red for thirst; green
for hunger; pink a kiss; and white, stain me
now. Soil me with touching. Is that right?
No? That’s not, you say, what you meant. Not what
you meant at all? Pardon. Excuse me, please.
Your had was reaching, tugging at this shirt
of flowers and I thought, I guess I thought
you were hungry for something beautiful.
Come now. The brightness her might fill you up.

Daffodils are up, my God! What beauty
concerted down on us last night. And if
I sleep again, I’ll wake to a louder
blossoming, the symphony smashing down
hothouse walls, and into the world: music.
Something like the birds’ return, each morning’s
crescendo rising toward its brightest pitch,
colors unfurling, petals alluring.
the son, the color, the rising ecstasy
of spring. My God. This beauty. This, this
is what I’ve hoped for. All my life is here
in the unnamed core – dogwood, daffodil,
tulip poplar, crab apple, crape myrtle –
only now, in spring, can the place be named.

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

Mom looks at the Redbud

❦ ❦ ❦

And here’s one final epigram from Sir William Osler, dedicated to William J. Blackley MD, my Senior Resident for the first day I arrived on the ward as a green intern: “One finger in throat and one in the rectum makes a good diagnostician.”

More quotations by the master clinician Sir William Osler can be found here:
“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”

2016-05-08a Doughton Park Tree

Triple Mint

[with poems from Black Nature]

Spring is the blinding chartreuse of winter wheat twelve inches high with last year’s corn stubble poking through. Spring is pocks of yellow narcissus in the woods where a settler’s cabin once stood. And Spring is a deepening lilac blanket that seeps across fallow fields like a flood tide blooming – what is that?

Henbit, Deadnettle, and Creeping Charlie, that’s what. As the earliest spring ephemerals are cautiously blooming in the leafless forest, out in broad sun these three are turning the earth extravagant purple. Driving country roads, I’ve often wondered why fields become so colorful before visited by the plow, and when starting out on nature trails to find the real wildflowers, I’ve casually noticed bright pink and magenta sequins in the hardpack around the parking lot but never scrunched down to look.

And for the most part not many want to get to know these three members of the mint family, Lamiaceae. They’re weeds, for goodness sake, and introduced non-natives: Henbit from Europe, Deadnettle from the Mediterranean to Western Siberia, Charlie from almost everywhere in temperate Eurasia. But check out those little flowers, even though they’re smaller than the nail on your pinky: typical Mint with five petals partially fused, a long tube and hood on Henbit, broader lower lips on the other two. Streaked and spotted, really pretty if you kneel, even better with a magnifier. I plucked a sprig of Henbit for Linda and she kept it in water in a bottle cap in the kitchen for a week.

You’ve notice Creeping Charlie, also called Creeping Jenny, when you’ve strolled a neglected lawn and smelled spice from the crushed leaves. Deadnettle and Henbit don’t have the typical mint aroma but all three are edible, raw or stewed, and were probably brought here intentionally by early settlers. Before the discovery of hops, Creeping Charlie was used to brew ale, for flavor and clarity. Which causes me to ponder what these little mints are called – does one accrue more names the farther one wanders from one’s roots? Creeping Charlie especially – known as Alehoffs, Cat’s Foot, Field Balm, Gill-over-the-hill, Ground-ivy, Hay Maids, Runaway Robin (and there are at least three other totally unrelated plant species that go by the moniker Creeping Charlie).

Gotta go now – in a few minutes it’ll be too dark to go out front beside the road and pick my salad.

❦ ❦ ❦

Can’t leave out their secret true names:
Lamia amplexicaule
Lamia purpurea
Glechoma hederacea

❦ ❦ ❦


for Ralph

Here redbuds like momentary trees
+++++ of an illusionist;
here Cherokee rose, acacia, and mimosa;
here magnolias – totemic flowers
+++++ wreathing legends of this place.
Here violent metamorphosis,
+++++ with every blossom turning
deadly and memorial soldiers,
their sabres drawn, charging
+++++ firewood shacks,
apartheid streets. Here wound-red earth
+++++ and blinding cottonfields,
rock hills where sachems counseled,
where scouts gazed stealthily
+++++ upon the glittering death march
of De Soto through Indian wilderness.
+++++ Here mockingbird and
cottonmouth, fury of rivers.
Here swamp and trace and bayou
+++++ where the runagate hid,
the devil with Spanish pistols rode.
+++++ Here spareness, rankness harsh
brilliances; beauty of what’s hardbitten,
knotted, stinted, flourishing
+++++ in despite, on thorny meagerness
thriving, twisting into grace.
+++++ Here symbol houses
where the brutal dream lives out its lengthy
dying. Here the past, adored and
+++++ unforgiven. Here the past –
soulscape, Old Testament battleground
of warring shards whose weapons kill.

Robert Hayden
from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.

❦ ❦ ❦

This week I’ve been spending time with an anthology I’ve been reading off and on over the past year, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy. The poems are arresting and transporting. I’m drawn to them for the nature, and for the black nature. Many of the poems evoke a deep, heartfelt connection to this earth, and many of them speak in voices and share messages I haven’t found in other nature poetry anthologies. Or haven’t found in quite the same tone. Always more to learn, imagination always expanding, life always becoming larger.

ROBERT HAYDEN (1913-1980) published his first collection of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940. He received the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senega, in 1966 for Ballad of Remembrance. Hayden was appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1976, the first African American to hold the position.

FRANK X WALKER, born in 1961 in Danville, KY, is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets and a recipient of the 2005 Lannan Literary Poetry Fellowship. He has authored four poetry collections and edited two poetry anthologies, and serves as the editor of Pluck! Journal of Affrilachian Art and Culture.

LUCILLE CLIFTON (b. 1936) has published thirteen books of poetry, a memoir, and more than sixteen books for children. Her honors include the 2001 National Book Award, an Emmy Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize, among many other awards and honors. In 1999 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and she has served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland.

[biographies adapted from the anthology]

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Wind Talker

+++ Ocian in view! O! the joy.
+++ William Clark

If I could make my words
dress they naked selves in blackberry juice
lay down on a piece a bark, sheep
or onion skin, like Massa do

If I could send a letter home to my wife
gloat it in the wind, on wings or water

I’d tell her ‘bout Katonka
an all the wide and high places
this side a the big river.
How his family, numbering three
for every star in the sky
look like a forest when they graze together
turn into the muddy M’soura
when the thunder along, faster than any horse
making the grass lay down
long after the quiet has returned.
How they don’t so much as raise a tail
when I come ‘round with my wooly head
and tobacco skin, like I’m one a them
making the Arikar and Mandan think me
“Big Medicine”
Katonka, who walks like a man.

Today we stood on the edge a all this
looked out at so much water
the mountains we crossed to get here
seem a little smaller.

As I watch fish the size a cabins dance in the air
and splash back in the water like children playing
I think ‘bout her an if we gone ever be free
then I close my eyes and pray
that I don’t live long enough
to see Massa make this ugly too.

Frank X Walker
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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mulberry fields

They thought the field was wasting
and so they gathered the marker rocks and stones and
piled them into a barn +++ they say that the rocks were shaped
some of them scratched with triangles and other forms +++ they
must have been trying to invent some new language they say
the rocks went to build that wall there guarding the manor and
some few were used for the state house
crops refused to grow
I say the stones marked an old tongue and it was called eternity
and pointed toward the river +++ I say that after that collection
no pillow in the big house dreamed +++ I say that somewhere under
here moulders one called alice whose great grandson is old now
too and refuses to talk about slavery +++ I say that at the
masters table only one plate is set for supper +++ I say no seed
can flourish on this ground once planted then forsaken +++ wild
berries warm a field of bones
bloom how you must I say

Lucille Clifton
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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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree


[poems from Word and Witness: A. R. Ammons, Julie Suk, Peter Makuck]

Carnage ensues at the table while I make coffee. As all the other animals look on in abject silence, large plush Starfish (carnivore, you know) has captured Baby Chick and is eating him with authentic suck-the-juice-right-out-of-you sound effects.

I remark that I’m going to be sad to miss little yellow Chicky. My grandson looks up, all innocence, and simply reminds me, “That’s just the way the food chain works.”

So it must be. Nine years before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Alfred Lord Tennyson had already warned us (“she” being Nature, “types” being species):

. . .
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed –

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

+++++ from In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850)

Shall we weep for Baby Chick? For the extinctions accelerating around us? For ourselves, our loss? A few years back I was leading a group of Junior Highs on a nature walk when we spotted a marvelously large spider shuffling along the path ahead of us. When we reached it, though, we found it was not the legs of the spider that were walking but the legs of the pint-sized wasp that had stung and paralyzed it and now dragged it to a favorable spot for egg laying. In an instant the spider transformed from an object of fear and loathing to a spike of compassion in our hearts.

This week a very talkative red shouldered hawk is haunting the woods out back. No coincidence: that’s where the bird feeders hang. We hope he’s eyeing the squirrels – there are more than enough squirrels, eat all you want Sir Hawk. And the mice that come for the seeds dropped to the ground from the feeders, and then store them in our basement, yes, eat them, too. But please, not the cute chipmunk who hides in the ivy or the finches we love. Alas, I guess we don’t get to choose. That’s just how the food chain works.

But wait – do all our choices come to nothing? Our love, our suffering of countless ills, our battles for the True and Just – is the end of all these to be blown to desert dust? Can’t we choose to engage with embattled Nature? Can we reduce our relentless consumption of the planet, choose leaders of vision and intelligence, make peace with our brothers and sisters? How lengthy shall I extend this list? Shall we abandon hope and just accept our place in the food chain while the warming earth devours us?

If a spider can inspire a moment of compassion in a 13-year old, I will have to accede that there may yet be hope for our species.

❦ ❦ ❦

The Yucca Moth

++ The yucca clump
is blooming,
++ tall sturdy spears
spangling into bells of light,
++ green
in the white blooms
++ faint as a memory of mint.

I raid
++ a bloom,
spread the hung petals out,
++ and, surprised he is not
a bloom-part, find
++ a moth inside, the exact color,
the bloom his daylight port or cove:

though time comes
++ and goes and troubles
are unlessened,
++ the yucca is lifting temples
of bloom: from the night
++ of our dark flights, can
we go in to heal, live
++ out in white-green shade
the radiant, white, hanging day?

A. R. Ammons
collected in Word and Witness: 100 years of North Carolina Poetry, Carolina Academic Press, © 1999 North Carolina Poetry Society

❦ ❦ ❦

This week a friend asked me to send him the table of contents of Word and Witness for a project on biodiversity he’s considering The book was published by the North Carolina Poetry Society in 1999 and edited by Sally Buckner with an afterword by Fred Chappell, who was NC Poet Laureate at the time. It spans the full 20th Century of North Carolina poetry and poets, and as I was scanning the TOC to email my friend a PDF, I re-discovered the names of so many folks who have inspired and befriended me over the last two decades.

Poetry continues to thrive in “the writingest state.” Word and Witness is 261 pages; it would be a real challenge to prepare Volume II for just the first quarter of the 21st Century and limit it to that length. I believe it is still possible to purchase a copy from Carolina Academic Press. You need to get yourself one.

❦ ❦ ❦

Waiting for the Storyteller

Once more we wait for the storyteller
to step into the margin and reveal intentions:
why the first letter flowered,
spiraling down the page with intricate designs,
the hand translating what the tongue began.

Clues drop, mostly forgotten,
so on and so on stacked like bricks,
crumbling when we look back,
a voice once close now a stranger.

All through the book we wild-guess the villain,
so deceived by this one or that
we look for reprieve, a surprise ending,
the page turning to a house in the woods,
dogs locked up, gun put a way.

In the still forest of words,
where the hidden appears in its season,
hills darken and move in.
Like lean horses that have rocked a long way home,
they circle the pool of our hands.
A deer riffles through leaves, then a bird
sings begin again, begin again.

Julie Suk
collected in Word and Witness: 100 years of North Carolina Poetry, Carolina Academic Press, © 1999 North Carolina Poetry Society

❦ ❦ ❦

Dogwood Again

Home from college, I’d leave my reading,
climb the hill through trees behind the house,
listen to a rough wind suffer through
new leaves and, too aware of myself, ask why?

The answer could have been stone wall,
wind or some other words. In April, our house
lived in the light of those first white petals
and now I think more about hows than whys –

How, whenever we fished at Pond Meadow,
my father dug a small one up, carefully
wrapped the rootball in burlap, and trucked it
home until our hard blazed white all around,

and how, at Easter, those nighttime blossoms
seemed like hundred of fluttering white wings.
Again that tree goes into the dark loaded
with envy, those leaves full of light not fading.

And this morning, a fogbright air presses
against the blank white pane and would have us
see the way mist burns from within, shimmers,
slowly parts, and flares upon an even whiter tree,

tinged now with orange, and how a soft fire
runs to the farthest cluster of cross-like petals,
each haloed with clear air, finely revealed.

Peter Makuck
collected in Word and Witness: 100 years of North Carolina Poetry, Carolina Academic Press, © 1999 North Carolina Poetry Society

❦ ❦ ❦

Bios adapted in part from Word and Witness:

After growing up on a tobacco farm near Whiteville, A. R. Ammons (1926-2001) received a degree from Wake Forest College, and served as an elementary school principal, but he lived most of his adult life outside his native state. His interest in writing developed during long hours aboard ship when he served a term of duty with the Navy. In 1964 he joined the faculty at Cornell University, where he was ultimately Goldwin Smith Professor of English. Among his many honors are the Bollingen Prize, the national Book award (twice), the MacArthur Fellowship, and the 1998 Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

A native of Alabama, Julie Suk (b. 1924) has lived for many years in Charlotte, where she worked in a nature museum. In addition to authoring six volumes of her own poetry, she has co-edited (with Anne Newman) Bear Crossings: An Anthology of North American Poets. Her collection The Angel of Obsession won the 1991 University of Arkansas national poetry competition, and in 1993 she won the Bess Hokin Prize given by Poetry magazine. In 2004 Julie received the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College; her book The Dark Takes Aim won the 2003 North Carolina Poetry Society’s Brockman-Campbell Book Award and The Oscar Arnold Young Award from The Poetry Council of North Carolina.

Among previous occupations, Peter Makuck (b. 1940) lists, “truck driver, painter, mechanic,” but he is best known as writer and as Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University. Pilgrims won the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Award for the best book of poems by a North Carolinian in 1989. In 2010 Long Lens: New & Selected Poems was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his eight collections of poetry, he has published numerous short stories and essays. Peter has received the International Poetry Forum’s Charity Randall Citation; a Connecticut native, he has been a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universite de Soavoie, Chambery, France. He founded Tar River Poetry in 1978 and served as editor until 2006.

❦ ❦ ❦

Doughton Park Tree 2021-10-23


[with 4 poems by Stephen Cushman]

What did Daddy Buffalo say to his little boy when he dropped him off at school?

Bi Son.

Bert (5) and I watch the little herd of elk graze along the gentle Uwharrie slope. They are all females except one chesty bull with a rack of antlers twice as tall as Bert. Every few minutes he raises his head and eyes us. He ignores six bison when they approach from the east, although drawing near they snort and the white-rumped cow elk back away. Grazing resumes.

Bert is the animal man. He will correct you immediately if you refer to bison as “buffalo,” whether in his home menagerie of plastic creatures or here at the North Carolina Zoological Park near Asheboro. Bison and elk once roamed the Carolina piedmont prairie; their grazing plus fires from lightning and intentional burns by indigenous tribes maintained the open expanses encountered by European settlers. Today we learn that the last native eastern bison was killed by hunters in 1799. And from Zoo interpretive displays we also learn that what we see here are Woodland Bison from Canada, a different subspecies from the slightly smaller Plains Bison we’ve watched at Yellowstone.

We’ve also learned something else this morning: these are not elk!

Cervus canadensis is one of the largest species of the deer family, Cervidae. When English settlers arrived in North America, they named creatures they met to match vaguely similar species back home, taxonomy be damned. (European Robins are not even in the same Family as American Robins.) In English the word Elk refers to the European moose, Alces alces, also Family Cervidae, but by the 17th century moose had been extirpated from the British Isles. Having never seen one, for most Englishmen the concept of Elk had grown a little fuzzy. They may have just used the word to mean Big Deer, and these were definitely some big deer.

So if we don’t want to be a big disappointment to Bert by calling bison “buffalo,” what shall we call elk? Wapiti, derived from a Shawnee and Cree word for “white rump,” is the term for Cervus canadensis preferred by Zoo educators and taxonomists. It is the same species reintroduced to Yellowstone in Montana and to North Carolina in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and native across Canada and Alaska (with subspecies in China and Siberia). Wapiti and Bison, preserving the Atlantic piedmont prairie ecosystem for thousands of years, we bow to you.

❦ ❦ ❦

Not all English settlers called the big deer Elk. The native British Red Deer, Cervus elaphus, is a dead ringer for Cervus canadensis. Until the advent of molecular phylogenetics, in fact, the two were considered to be the same species. Sir William Talbot’s 1672 English translation of John Lederer’s Latin Discoveries called the North American species Red Deer, but noted in parentheses that they were for their unusual largeness improperly termed Elks by ignorant people. *

❦ ❦ ❦

The Rain in Maine

fell also on the Etchemins, their name for us
humans, us builders of fish weirs,

us real people, as opposed to monsters,
animals, or the ghosts of others

back for a visit to glacial moraine
above the beach where clamming thrived

and the canoe route south could make good use
of easy portage across a bar

exposed at low tide, for which they also
must have had words, maybe one meaning

the waters inhale or the earth whale breaches,
as they would have had words for various arrowheads,

the kind meant for deer rather than seals
or for making war on trespassing tribes,

who bad as they were weren’t so pathetic
as to need such abstractions

as religion, as nature, as beauty removed
from whatever gray weather the eagle glides through.

Stephen Cushman
from Keep the Feast, Louisiana State University Press, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

Stephen Cushman’s book is a feast – of imagining, of unexpected encounters and epiphany, of wordplay, of luscious sensuality and sheer rejoicing – but after reading and re-reading I am still asking myself if there is one specific feast he’s admonishing us to keep. The miraculous feast at Cana, stale water becoming wine that exceeds even the host’s best vintage? The poet’s groaning board of allusion and figurative language? A banquet of awe and praise in the presence of the numinous? Biophilic diversity shared with all creatures and creation?

Keep all these feasts. Attend and partake. Pry open mind and soul and feel the inrush of delight. Keep the Feast relishes the twists and turns, the movement, the sink of stomach as the bottom drops out and the soar of heart when the object of adoration appears. The middle section, a long poem of 26 verses with the same title as the book, is loosely configured like Psalm 119, but it is as if the Psalmist, Jalāl al-Dīn Rumi, and Steve Martin spent all night together on Mt. Ararat – the mystical language of prophesy and ecstasy with a 21st century voice. Look out, Reader! You may remain hungry for more.

Stephen Cushman is general editor of the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) and Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Keep the Feast is his seventh collection of poetry.

❦ ❦ ❦

from Keep the Feast
section 23

Whither can thy servant turn
+++++ and not find thee there before him?
Whither can his eye revolve
+++++ and not see dust thou art raising?
How can his ear, even if deaf,
+++++ shut out the buzz of constant current
charging the wind with thy high voltage
+++++ and effervescing through his blood stream?
Behold, how doggedly days do their job
+++++ and how the hours persevere!
Soon they will demolish thy servant
+++++ and dismantle his worshipful voice.
If he should cover his head with ashes,
+++++ pay him not the slightest mind.
Do not let him get away
+++++ with some glib quip or facile finale.

Stephen Cushman
from Keep the Feast, Louisiana State University Press, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

Green Zebra
++++ Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink,
++++ taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each.
+++++++ – HDT

Help, Theophrastus,
or you, lewd Linnaeus,
with classes for plants and Sexual System

That borders on porn, “nine men in the chamber
of only one bride” sounds pretty wild
and might keep her happy, that passel of stamens
for only one pistil,
+++++ +++++ +++++ but where is the wild
found anymore,
what’s the vicinity
that hasn’t been tilled by husbandry wholly
to nothing but cult, -ivated, -ivar;
+++++ +++++ +++++ +++++ take Adoration,
cocktail hybrid, or flat-globe Celebrity
or even Enchantment, all engineered
one way or another,
+++++ +++++ +++++ while here we were thinking,
when madly monandrous

+++++ +++++ +++++ +++and mounted like wolves
howling full moon beyond the tame pale,
we had evaded human improvement,
+++++ +++++ +++++ +++++ only to find
in ancient love manuals
+++++ +++++ +++++ we might as well be
a Cherokee Purple, another Big Rainbow,

or this zingy beauty with flavorful flesh
striped green and yellow.

Stephen Cushman
from Keep the Feast, Louisiana State University Press, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

Woe to Us Hypocrites

Hemingway’s fantasy
of days when we’re free
to shoot whom we please
hasn’t got a chance
luckily for us
who trust we’re the marksmen
and never the targets
so when you come home
from drudging through Monday
to news an old enemy,
nasty-cuss nemesis,
had open-heart surgery,
don’t whoop and cheer,
just send him a card,
maybe some mums,
that dish of green beans
you’ve nearly perfected,
garlic, hot chili oil,
and bow to hypocrisy
for keeping the peace
with smiling mimesis
in spite of the anger
for which we’re still liable
to judgement and fire;
there must be a reason
it’s a translator’s freebie,
a piece of the Greek
that’s English to us.

Stephen Cushman
from Keep the Feast, Louisiana State University Press, © 2022


❦ ❦ ❦

* Elk history and taxonomy on Wikipedia


2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

A Book of Poems

[with selections from Ordering the Storm]

Reading a good book of poems is like traveling unknown terrain at night, glimpsing in each lightning bolt a swatch of vastness.Philip Brady

A good book of poetry is a book of poems. This statement is not a tautology. A good book of poetry comprises a book of poems that are selected, ordered, arranged, and presented in a way that illuminates the vastness.

This statement is also not an equation exhibiting the commutative property: a book of poetry that is a book of good poems is not necessarily a good book, or not as good is it could be if the poems are not selected and ordered in a such way as to make them greater than their whole. The mystery, then, is how to order the storm.

It is a mystery that will not be dispelled but may be entered and engaged. An overstuffed folder accumulating pages of script for years, a hundred computer files with their changeable names and endless revisions, how to gather and sort and create a collection? How to turn them all into a book that not only a friend or an editor but also the unknown lover of poetry would want to read? Would enjoy? Would come away from having glimpsed a swatch or two of vastness? Those are the questions posed by a book residing on my desk for the past year, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm.

❦ ❦ ❦

Once or twice I have become so addled while trying to pull together a manuscript of poems that I’ve spread all my poems around me in a circle. The first step is in finding a poem beautiful enough to make a beginning. Then the next poem seems to flow naturally from the choice of that poem. Together, a group of poems begins to tell a story. . . . The poem that belongs no place often has no place in the book. Once in a while I’ll try to cram something in, but it’s awkward, and seldom works out well. Sooner or later that tooth will have to come out. You sacrifice individual poems for the sake of the book as a whole . . . . All of this can turn the making of a book into an unpleasant process, painful, like therapy. – Liz Rosenberg

❦ ❦ ❦

As an African-American, published by Black Sparrow Press for over thirty years, I was outside the teensy Black literary mainstream. I was effectively alone in the Southwestern United States. To the good, this made man an instant authority on “thangs Black.” But there was no Maxwell Perkins in my future. I could “do” whatever I wanted. To the bad, I was undereducated and tended to dismiss even sound advice if vaguely perceived as racist, and did not always know what I wanted, at first. Worse, I was not clear on what my options were when arranging poems or stories into a dynamic order that would complement, enhance or further illuminate them.

Developing poetically required that I get a grasp on my initial sense of an ordered universe, which then seemed multi-leveled a the source: from within (I needed things highly organized in play and work environments); from fairly strict, vigilant and punitive parents; and, from an intense love of reading, calculated to escape the emotional and intellectual damage of the school system in which I was trapped. . . .

. . . What kind of response to I want the reader to have when they’ve finished my book, given all possible demographics? Ideally, I hope my reader will be revitalized by the end of the process, gratified, or profoundly moved. I want my reader to perhaps feel the need to linger and savor, or to simply sit with me for a thoughtful length of silence. I want to have touched them, across space and time. I want them to taste my youth and enjoy my sassiness. I want them to be excited by my concerns and ideas. I want them to bemoan my losses and, my trials. I want them to sample all life as it has defined me. I want them to have moved through my flesh. – Wanda Coleman

❦ ❦ ❦

I wonder whether a whole book of poems might not have affinities with a ceremony, a kind of service which would have many of the qualities of a public event to which people come in hopes of some kind of nourishment for their minds and spirits. The explicit language might be “secular” or “sacred” – I’m in favor of keeping the overt God-talk to a minimum and throwing the clichès out completely, though I’ve not always kept either principle – but I like the notion. I also like the idea of ending with some intimation of hope, some glimpse of shelter and safety in this dangerous world. My most recent book Deerflies (WordTech Editions, 2004) ended with such a poem:

Small Night Song from Oneonta

It’s good that the world has more beauty
than it needs. It’s good to walk into
the smooth Catskill night and discover

that the night has no edges, no sympathy,
no grievance against me, that any place I step
will hold me firm, not like a lover,

not like a child. It’s good to be a child,
and then for years to be something else,
and then something else. It’s a hard world

but the rain is persistent, the deer
are quiet and discreet, and for ages now
the trees have known how to dream their way up.

A man with a pack on his shoulder
saunters down the path below me, knowing
the lights he sees ahead are burning for him.

– Jeff Gundy

❦ ❦ ❦

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Ordering the Storm includes an introduction by Susan Grimm and eleven essays by poets such as the writers sampled above as well as Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Carolyne Wright, and Maggie Anderson. Each explores their own experiences and insights in creating order from the chaos of individual poems. The book is published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center (© 2006, Cleveland OH) with the support of the Ohio Arts Council.

I read and re-read this book while collating my own short collection of 30+ poems, How We All Fly, which will appear sometime in 2023 from The Orchard Street Press (Gates Mills, OH, editor Jack Kristofco). I can’t say Ordering the Storm provided me with an algebraic equation along the lines of a + b + c . . . for sequencing my poems, but it did fill my head with images and insistent questions. Perhaps a reader of the collection will one day let me know whether they glimpse any swatches of vastness.

IMG_0768, tree


[with 3 poems by Rebecca Baggett]

How many grooves are there in a 12-inch 33 ⅓ rpm long-play record? The seven-year old doesn’t think us a bit odd when we fish out the big black discs and set them spinning: Burl Ives, Disney Princess theme songs, John Denver and the Muppets. She sings along with Miss Piggy, “Five Go-old Rings!” Would she have hopped off the couch last night and boogied with us to The James Gang cranked to the max on Funk 48?

We still have a landline at our house and until recently a rotary dial phone in the basement. I just read that only this year is Chuckie Cheese phasing out software updates shipped on 3.5 inch disks – which the article called “floppies” (remember? 5 ¼ inch, 360 kb, don’t toss them into a drawer with any magnets). Physical artifacts may be relegated to the landfill, but words remain our tools even if we’ve never knapped a flint. Dial it for me. The car won’t crank. Meet me at half-past (fractional arc of an analog circle?).

Last week I checked in at radiology for an x-ray. The young woman entered all my identifiers and when she got to my email address, she remarked, “Gee, AOL, I haven’t heard that one in a while.” Darlin’, that just means I’ve been jacked into the internet since before you were born. Juggling floppies. Writing DOS batch files before breakfast. And I’ll bet you don’t even know how many grooves.

Just one. That’s all it takes to be real groovy.

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Before the Stories Begin

Before the stories begin, the mothers die,
setting their daughters adrift, little coracles
bobbing rudderless, at the mercy of river currents
and ocean tides. Abandoned in forests so thick
no light touches their ferny floors, imprisoned
in crumbling towers guarded by rampant brambles,
banished to the dank depths of castle kitchens.

But here is the alternate reading:
Before the stories can begin, the mothers must die,
setting their daughters free – released from cautioning
fingers and pursed lips, from disapproving quirks
of a brow, from warnings weighted with echoes of warnings,
the line of foremothers frowning down the generations.

The daughters find themselves oddly light,
abruptly free to renounce titles and abandon kingdoms
for life on the high seas, to fall in love with a man-beast
deep in the forest, a stable boy, a fairy godmother.
To seclude themselves in towers full of groaning
bookshelves, to spend their days squinting
at the twisting calligraphy of ancient manuscripts,
to aim telescopes toward the night skies,
to rename all the stars.

Rebecca Baggett
from The Woman Who Lives Without Money, Regal House Publishing, Raleigh, NC, © 2022

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Words are artifacts by which we might glimpse the world. Words are not the world; words do not contain the world nor create the world; words are simply pebbles someone has painted, incised, knapped and dropped along the path. But Oh, how words may guide us along that path!

Rebecca Baggett is an inherent and inveterate sesquipedalian, as she confesses in the poem by that title in her book, The Woman Who Lives Without Money: a lover of complicated ‘foot-and-a-half long’ words. And yet the words she uses to craft these mysterious, marvelous, poignant, sad, hilarious poems are seemingly simple words. Everyone knows these words, these comfortable and familiar words. How Rebecca has painted, incised, and knapped these words, though! How she has lined them up and breathed into them meaning they had only dreamed of. How wonderful is the world she reveals in this ethereal and at once solid collection of words, such telling artifacts, these powerful words.

The Woman Who Lives Without Money (Regal House Publishing, 2022) is the winner of the 2020 Terry J. Cox Poetry Award. Rebecca has also published four chapbooks, including God Puts on the Body of a Deer, winner of the 2010 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest. She was born in coastal North Carolina and his lived her adult life in Athens, Georgia.

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Weeping Willow

The willow missed
the children, their chatter –
like squirrels, but more various
and musical – missed
the sparrow-light bodies pressed
against her, the secrets
they whispered, how thy clung
to her branches with their small
hands, the way their legs twined
around her.

++++++++++ Nothing inhabited her
like that, nothing loved
so fiercely or so foolishly.
They believed they would be
hers forever,
++++++++++ did not understand,
at all, necessity, compulsion,

letting go

Rebecca Baggett
from The Woman Who Lives Without Money, Regal House Publishing, Raleigh, NC, © 2022

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I touched a chestnut sapling
in the Georgia mountains.

My friend writes of the great trees
and their vanishing,

but I have seen a young chestnut,
tender and green, rising from its ashes.

I, too, write of loss and grief,
the hollow they carve

in the chest,
but that hollow may shelter

some new thing,
a life I could not

have imagined or wished,
a life I would never

have chosen. I have seen
the chestnut rising,

from its own bones,

from the ash of its first life.

Rebecca Baggett
from The Woman Who Lives Without Money, Regal House Publishing, Raleigh, NC, © 2022

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Doughton Park Tree 4/30/2022

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