Posts Tagged ‘Lucille Clifton’

[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.

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

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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.

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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

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