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Earth Day artwork by Linda French Griffin

[with poems by Dorianne Laux and Tony Hoagland]

The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts. The one esteems nature as rooted and fast; the other, as fluid, and impresses his being theron.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

April 22, 1970 – the entire student body of Aurora High School is milling around outdoors in the Ohio springtime. In the front parking log five or six big black coffins are set up like grim milestones. The coffins bear epitaphs like “Clean Water” and “Beautiful Land” – the administration has granted the Student Council’s request to have an assembly to celebrate the first Earth Day.

I am taking photos for Borealis, the yearbook; my girl friend Linda French is assistant editor. She is vastly more the environmental activist than I. Our little farm town / bedroom community is forty miles from Cleveland and the where the Cuyahoga River crosses our local golf course it’s an insubstantial creek. The year before, though, the Cuyahoga River where it enters Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland caught fire and burned, and not for the first time. No big deal – oil slicks and pollution mean progress, full employment. Forget about it.

Maybe we all would have forgotten, except Time Magazine published articles about the burning river and then in December National Geographic featured it on the cover – “Our Ecological Crisis.” Congress had established the Environmental Protection Agency in January 1970; by spring even we kids in sleepy Aurora must be worrying how much longer we’ll have clean water and beautiful land.

Earth Day 1970

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A couple of years ago Linda and I took a road trip to northeastern Ohio to visit all the old haunts. The high school has additions and facilities we can’t even figure out. The golf course is now a reclaimed and replanted nature preserve with walking trails. There’s lots of new development in Aurora but there are still cow pastures and horses.

We also paid our first visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Designated a National Recreation Area in 1974, the same year we got married and moved to North Carolina, it became a National Park in 2000. Between Akron and Cleveland it comprises more than 33,000 acres following the river and the old Ohio & Erie Canal and reaching all the way into metropolitan Garfield Heights – the nation’s largest urban park. Even outside the Park the Cuyahoga is cleaned up, restored, back in the business of fish and wildlife and recreation instead of oil slicks. In 1970 if you fell into the river it meant an immediate trip the ER; now you just climb back up on your paddle board.

Without catching on fire.

Earth Day 1970

Earth Day 1970

 

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These two poems are collected in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas, © 2013.

Dorianne Laux has taught creative writing at NC State University and elsewhere. Her most recent book among many is Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 2019).

Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) was born in Fort Bragg, NC, and taught at the University of Houston and Warren Wilson College. His many books of poetry include Unincorporated Personas in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf Press, 2005)

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Life is Beautiful

+++++++++ and remote, and useful,
if only to itself. Take the fly, angel
of the ordinary house, laying its bright
eggs on the trash, pressing each jewel out
delicately along a crust of buttered toast.
Bagged, the whole mess travels to the nearest
dump where other flies have gathered, singing
over stained newsprint and reeking
fruit. Rapt on air they execute an intricate
ballet above the clashing pirouettes
of heavy machinery. They hum with life.
While inside rumpled sacks pure white
maggots writhe and spiral from a rip,
a tear-shaped hole that drools and drips
a living froth onto the buried earth.
The warm days pass, gulls scree and pitch,
rats manage the crevices, feral cats abandon
their litters for a morsel of torn fur, stranded
dogs roam open fields, sniff the fragrant edges,
a tossed lacework of bones and shredded flesh.
And the maggots tumble at the center, ripening,
husks membrane-thin, embryos darkening
and shifting within, wings curled and wet,
the open air pungent and ready to receive them
in their fecund iridescence. And so, of our homely hosts,
a bag of jewels is born again into the world. Come, lost
children of the sun-drenched kitchen, your parents
soundly sleep along the windowsill, content,
wings at rest, nestled in against the warm glass.
Everywhere the good life oozes from the useless
waste we make when we create – our streets teem
with human young, rafts of pigeons streaming
over squirrel-burdened trees. If there is
a purpose, maybe there are too many of us
to see it, though we can, from a distance,
hear the dull thrum of generation’s industry,
feel its fleshly wheel churn the fire inside us, pushing
the world forward toward its ragged edge, rushing
like a swollen river into multitude and rank disorder.
Such abundance. We are gorged, engorging, and gorgeous.

Dorianne Laux
from Smoke, BOA Editions Ltd., © 2000 Dorianne Laux

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Wild

In late August when the streams dry up
and the high meadows turn parched and blond,

bears are squeezed out of the mountains
down into the valley of condos and housing developments.

All residents are therefore prohibited
from putting their garbage out early.

The penalty for disobedience will be
bears: large black furry fellows

drinking from you sprinkler system,
rolling your trashcans down your lawn,

bashing through the screen door of the back porch to get their
first real taste of a spaghetti dinner,

while the family hides in the garage
and the wife dials 1-800-BEARS on her cell phone,

a number she just made up
in a burst of creative hysteria.

Isn’t that the way it goes?
Wildness enters your life and asks

that you invent a way to meet it,
and you run in the opposite direction

as the bears saunter down Main Street
sending station wagons crashing into fire hydrants,

getting the police department to phone
for tranquilizer guns,

the dart going by accident into the
neck of the unpopular police chief,

who is carried into early retirement
in an ambulance crowned with flashing red lights,

as the bears inherit the earth
full of water and humans and garbage,

which looks to them like paradise.

Tony Hoagland
from Unincorporated Personas in the Late Honda Dynasty, Graywolf Press, © 2005 Tony Hoagland.

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Liverwort, Marchantia species; Liverworts are primitive nonvascular plants, perhaps the most primitive true plants still in existence.

Isn’t life beautiful? Not always pretty but always beautiful. Often messy, invariably smelly, predictably unpredictable, unexpectedly weird, but always beautiful. Scrunch down low enough to notice; don’t let it bite you (much); take off your anthropocentric glasses; what did I tell you – beautiful!

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[including a poem by Rebecca Lindenberg]

I am still not sure what Will was thinking but he was distant that evening. It was the last night of our backpacking trip through the Smokies. I knew he lived for wilderness – maybe he was simply ruing how long it would be until he’d have a chance to return to these mountains. Maybe he was doubting his chosen vocation, family doctor, the hectic office where we’d be working together again day after tomorrow. Maybe . . . maybe each of us longs to hang onto those few moments when we really feel we belong in the universe. And then they slip away.

We’d planned this trip together, just the two of us, for months. Now we were cooking our last supper. We had distanced ourselves from Mt. Collins shelter and the other hikers with their butane stoves that roared like jet liners. Will had fashioned a little alcohol stove out of a 7-Up can. Our noodles and dried vegetables simmered in silence.

When we’d finished eating and Will picked up the “stove” his funk hit bottom. Our heat had fried a pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti). Will lifted its weightless form and we grieved. We didn’t have much more to say to each other that night.

In the morning we headed south on the AT to where our car waited at Clingman’s Dome. bleached dead Frazer Fir flanked the trail with their accusations but the sun was cool and jeweled the dew on ridgeline grasses. About a mile from trail’s end Will stopped and pointed. Perched on a stem sunning itself – Jordan’s Red-cheeked salamander, Plethodon jordani. Endemic to the Smokies, endangered, icon of biodiversity, preservation, and evolutionary variety. Was it waiting here to condemn us or offer absolution?

Or to invite us to keep traveling on to discover where we belong?

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It feels terrible to feel terrible // and so we let ourselves / start to forget.

There are plenty of pygmy salamanders but let me not forget that one. I haven’t heard a whip-poor-will in five years; let me not forget. I can choose to love this or that or the other . . . or you – let me not forget to hold tight to the choices that will hold you and me together.

We celebrate Earth Day with the other inhabitants of our single habitable planet on April 22, but how we venerate earth day depends on the choices we make every day.

They’re not wonders, but signs // and therefore can be read.

 

[#Beginning of Shooting Data Section]<br /> Nikon CoolPix2500<br /> 0000/00/00 00:00:00<br /> JPEG (8-bit) Normal<br /> Image Size: 1600 x 1200<br /> Color<br /> ConverterLens: None<br /> Focal Length: 16.8mm<br /> Exposure Mode: Programmed Auto<br /> Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern<br /> 1/59.9 sec - f/8<br /> Exposure Comp.: 0 EV<br /> Sensitivity: Auto<br /> White Balance: Auto<br /> AF Mode: AF-S<br /> Tone Comp: Auto<br /> Flash Sync Mode: Front Curtain<br /> Electric Zoom Ratio: 1.00<br /> Saturation comp: 0<br /> Sharpening: Auto<br /> Noise Reduction: OFF<br /> [#End of Shooting Data Section]

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A Brief History of the Future Apocalypse

Worlds just keep on ending and
ending, ask anybody who survived

an earthquake in an ancient city
its people can’t afford to bolt

to the bedrock, or lived to testify
about the tyrant who used his city’s roofs

like planks to walk people off,
his country’s rivers like alligator pits

he could lever open and drop a whole
angry nation into. Ask anyone

who was watched their own ribs emerge
as hunger pulls them like a tide,

who watched bloody-sheet-wrapped
bodies from the epidemic burn,

or fled any of the wars to come.
The year I was eleven, I felt

the ground go airplane turbulent
beneath me. Its curt shuddering

brought down a bridge and a highway
I’d been under just the day before.

And I was not afraid, but should have been
the first time love fell in me like snow.

How could I know it would inter us
both, so much volcanic ash –

how could I not? The world must
end and I think it will keep ending

so long as we keep failing to heed
the simple prophecies of fact –

hot-mouthed coal-breathing machines
fog our crystal ball, war is a trapdoor

sprung open in the earth that a whole
generation falls through, love ends,

if no one errs, in death. When
my love died, I remember thinking

this happens to people every day,
just – today, it’s our world

crashing like an unmanned plane
into the jungle of all I’ve ever

had to feel, or imagine knowing.
It feels terrible to feel terrible

and so we let ourselves
start to forget. That must be it.

Why else would we let the drawbridge
down for a new army, water

the Horseman of Famine’s red steed
with the last bucket from the well

or worse – give up then. A heart
sorrow-whipped and cowering

will still nose its ribcage to be petted.
Will still have an urge for heroics.

And anyway, when has fear of grief
actually kept anyone from harm.

Some hope rustles in my leaves
again. It blows through, they eddy

the floor of me, unsettling
all I tried to learn to settle for.

Would I be wiser to keep
a past sacrament folded in my lap

or would I be more wise to shake
the gathered poppies from my apron,

brush off soft crimson petals
of memory and be un-haunted –

I don’t know. So I choose you and we
will have to live this to learn what happens.

And though it’s tempting to mistake
for wonders the surge of dappled

white-tailed does vaulting through
suburban sliding glass doors,

they are not. Not vanishing bees
blown out like so many thousands

of tiny candle-flames, neither
the glinting throngs of small black birds

suddenly spiraling out of the sky,
the earth almost not even dimpling

with the soft thuds of feathered weight.
Nor the great wet sacks of whale

allowing the tide to deposit them alive
on a strand, nor even the sudden

translucent bloom of jellyfishes.
They’re not wonders, but signs

and therefore can be read. I didn’t
always know that apocalypse

meant not the end of the world but
the universe disclosing its knowledge

as the sea is meant to give up its dead,
the big reveal, when the veil blows back

like so many cobwebs amid the ruins
and all the meaning of all the evidence

will shine in us to finally see –
And there you’ll be and I’ll know you

not by the moon in your voice but the song
rung in my animal self. For I feel you,

my sure-handed one, with something
sacreder than instinct but just as fanged.

Then unfold me the way you know
I want so I can watch the stars

blink back on over the garden as we grapple
in the dimming black like little, little gods.

Rebecca Lindenberg

from Best American Poetry 2019; Major Jackson, editor, David Lehman, series editor; Scribner Poetry 2019
first appeared in Southern Indiana Review; reprinted by permission from Rebecca Lindenberg

More by Rebecca . . . https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rebecca-lindenberg

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Rebecca Lindenberg teaches in the MFA program at Queens University, Charlotte, and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati where she is also Poetry Editor of the Cincinnati Review. She holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. She is the author of Love, an Index (McSweeney’s 2012) and The Logan Notebooks (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State 2014), winner of the 2015 Utah Book Award.

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[#Beginning of Shooting Data Section]<br /> Nikon CoolPix2500<br /> 0000/00/00 00:00:00<br /> JPEG (8-bit) Normal<br /> Image Size: 1600 x 1200<br /> Color<br /> ConverterLens: None<br /> Focal Length: 11.8mm<br /> Exposure Mode: Programmed Auto<br /> Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern<br /> 1/30 sec - f/4<br /> Exposure Comp.: 0 EV<br /> Sensitivity: Auto<br /> White Balance: Auto<br /> AF Mode: AF-S<br /> Tone Comp: Auto<br /> Flash Sync Mode: Front Curtain<br /> Electric Zoom Ratio: 1.00<br /> Saturation comp: 0<br /> Sharpening: Auto<br /> Noise Reduction: OFF<br /> [#End of Shooting Data Section]

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[Behind the scenes karma: I received Best American Poetry 2019 as a gift last Christmas (Oh Santa, you are so good at taking hints!) but I hadn’t read it until this week. I was hoping to discover something that would evoke April as Earth Month anticipating Earth Day, resigned to forgoing my usual focus on Carolina writers. Rebecca Lindenberg’s poem leapt from the page; it is the best of the Best, the Best American Poem of 2019. It wasn’t until after I had asked her permission to use it that I discovered Rebecca’s connection to Queens University and probably to many of the other writers who have appeared in this space. Karmic connection comes through. –B ]

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[with 3 poems by Diana Pinckney]

No hesitation. Out the back door she takes my hand and we hike down through the woods, steep switching trail, slick moss rocks, sliding on last fall’s leaves. Big brother is not with us today; she is the explorer. I wonder if she’ll hold back at the wash but she hops rocks across the rivulet and even runs ahead of me along Dutchman Creek. Threading the briers, skirting mud, twigs in her hair – she is all go today.

When we reach our destination, the shallow pools that linger from winter floods and may be dry by August, I hesitate. Not so many months ago she would make me check the playroom floor for millipedes, back away from pillbugs on the porch steps, want to be carried to the car.

I squat in a squishy place beside the water and show her clumps of clear jelly. Most of the eggs have hatched, some larvae still in their shivery globes, many tadpoles swimming free. With one finger I push algae aside so she can see them wriggle. Instantly her fingers are in the water, too. Tickling the tiny black wigglers. Oblivious to muck and slime. Pappy, can we come back here tomorrow?

This is what I would wish for her at five and all her life – to be innocent and yet be bold. To face the new and the scary and not look away. To discover, to wonder. And to remember the immense power of NO! bursting from her body, now when her brother thwarts her playful imaginings and always when the world conspires to steal that innocence from her.

And, for as long as I’m able, I wish for her to still want me to carry her.

 

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Who is completely innocent and who is entirely beast? Diana Pinckney’s poems are subtle like a rustle in the night but lucid, windows breathing light and fragrance into the world. Her language and lines are effortlessly elegant. Her poems seem to arrive from all the points of the compass to create community: persona poems in which the reader comes to inhabit a new being; poems of family, loss, commemoration, revelation; ekphrastic poems that uncover hidden truth in painting, sculpture, representation.

And woven throughout her book, The Beast and the Innocent, lurks the wolf: tyrant predator, misunderstood victim; purity and profane. Who is the threat and who the threatened? Aren’t we all only doing what it takes to survive?

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Ghost Wolves, for My Grandchildren

You may see one in a zoo
***** and ask, does he howl
********** and I may say, what would

he howl about? What, you ask, does a wild
***** wolf sound like? What could I answer? Wind
********** when it rises from the deepest

canyon to the tops of spruce
***** or the fog’s blue surge, the drift
********** above dying embers. Smoke alone

moves toward the stars in a world
***** where nothing is heard and only the moon
********** knows then the last tree falls.

Emptiness that whispers
***** after the wilderness
********** has forgotten what it longs for.

from The Beast and the Innocent, Diana Pinckney, FutureCycle Press, © 2015

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My Brother Sings
after Raymond Carver’s “What the Doctor Said”

He sings when the dogwoods are blooming as I drive
him and his wife along the highway from Asheville,
away from a hospital where we waited in the doctor’s office,
sitting in gray chairs, joking about my allergy

to their six cats, ow I can’t sleep in their house
and still breathe. I watched my brother move
his fingers over swollen knuckles that he used to
crack when I was little just to tease. There to hear

the results of the lung biopsy, now we know.
Traveling through Blue Ridge mountains, we see
dogwoods, redbuds, cherry trees heavy
with April’s abundance. When my brother

begins the song, his wife in the back seat on her cell
interrupts, Dabney, will you please stop singing
while I’m telling Sis you have cancer. Oh, sorry, he says.
He glances at me while petals drift with us

down the mountain. Our laughter’s almost soundless.

from The Beast and the Innocent, Diana Pinckney, FutureCycle Press, © 2015

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The Beast and The Innocent

Of course, dogs and cats go to heaven,
my mother announce from her deathbed.
Welcomed into heaven, my childhood cat
will groom Grandmother’s canary, feathers the same
yellow as the black cat’s eyes, the bird

he ate when I was seven. In paradise
pointers lap at duck ponds while cockatiels
screech and perch on each dog’s white- or black-
spotted back. Heaven’s way is,

as we have heard, the lion lying down
with the lamb. A place where Christians kindle
the eight candles of Hanukkah, Muslims unfurl
prayer rugs for Hindi, and the roped Tibetan prayer

flags flutter good fortune for the Chinese.
The wine and wafer bless a round wooden table, a feast
celebrated with unleavened and leavened,
mango and oyster, babel unlimited. And the spaniel
that killed my brother’s rabbits will lie

on the wide-bladed grass of my youth, all manner
of four- and two-legged creatures leaping
over him, some stroking the red-and-white silk
of his fur for pure pleasure, for the grace.

from The Beast and the Innocent, Diana Pinckney, FutureCycle Press, © 2015

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Doughton Park Tree 2021-03-23

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[with 3 poems by Patricia Hooper]

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, February 05-07, 2021

the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen . . .

Faint tracks – but when has life ever laid it out plain, an open book, page upon page with footnotes? Aren’t I still searching between the lines, faint traces, no clear prints? Lately I dream every night of making diagnoses, explaining treatments, buffing up my charts. Is Jung telling me that this was my only purpose in life and now it’s over?

Deer walk a diagonal gait – each hoof print is really two impressions, the forefoot overlaid with the rear. If the rear hoof strikes a little lateral within each fore print it means the pelvis is wider = you are following a female.

Don’t plan on seeing a bear in the Smokies in February. Mom is asleep in a hollow tree with her cubs and Dad is dozing under a bush somewhere (he snores), though he might rouse up to forage on a warm afternoon. So why are we studying mammals at Tremont in February? In the sere meadows, the leaf-littered groves, under the pale unforgiving sky the book of all their signs is open for us to read. Let’s hike up to that oak tree and see who’s been scratching for acorns, see who has left us some scat. Let’s follow that faint trail through dry brown stalks to check out predator and prey. Who clawed up this white pine? Who stepped in the mud?

Canids: dog paw prints show deep claw marks with claws of outer toes angled outward; coyote claw marks are less distinct but all aligned strait ahead; gray fox claw marks are the least distinct since they save the claws for climbing trees, and the rear pad looks scalloped like a chevron.

But clear prints are maybe 1% of tracking. We’re learning a new vocabulary of chewed nut and compressed grass. Tracking is patterns and connections, habitats and behaviors. Measure the size of the incisors that gnawed this antler. Measure the bits of skull and femur in this dropping.

And can I learn a new language? Maybe all these dreams are about knitting up the years, tying the last knot, laying it away to pull out when I need to reminisce. Or maybe I need to discover something missed. Life is not disjunctive – the end of every moment flows into the beginning of the next. The assurance of past creates future. Tracking in Cades Cove – a metaphor for opening oneself to an unseen message within, to the evidence of human purpose. Connections, convictions. We track a personal ecology that leaves signs for us to discover, to question, to wonder.

To follow.

Tracks have lead us to this place, maybe with a lesson or two that sunk in along the way. Some wisdom. And the tracks that still lead forward?

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Patricia Hooper’s bright clear poetry touches earth with a feather – to bring color and flight. Garden, feeder, wild crag, starry night, in all seasons she observes the particular and discovers its connection to the universal. Nature is her palette but human nature is the canvas she illuminates. The poems of her latest book, Wild Persistence, taken singly seem to open our eyes to brief moments or localities, but as a whole these poems weave a complex narrative of family, longing, grief, redemption. I find joy in her art.

Patricia moved to North Carolina in 2006 and lives in Gastonia. In 2020 she was awarded the Brockman-Campbell Award of the North Carolina Poetry Society for Wild Persistence, awarded for the year’s best book of poetry by a North Carolina author.

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Elegy for a Son-in-Law

1.

A distant figure on the mountainside
seems to be coming closer, then it turns,
a blue, retreating cap, a scarlet jacket.
Without another sign, I know you’re there,
climbing again the way you used to climb
before you were a ghost. I want to call
Don’t go! Come back! I have your two small sons
sleeping behind me in the car, their mother
watching the sky for falcons. But you move
farther away. Or we do. Now you’re gone,
back toward Mount Sterling where she took your ashes.
I hope it’s peaceful there. I hope you know
they’re doing well. I hope you didn’t see us.

2.
These are the mountains where you were a boy,
broad waves of mountains rolling like an ocean
into the distance, no horizon, only
these smoky contours where you knew each rise
and hemlock forest, plunging stream. Your friends
tell how you often left them for a while
after you’d reached the top, to be alone,
then met them at the camp, all tales and laughter.
Today, a red-tailed hawk riding the breeze,
gold leaves, cascading creeks, – your kind of joy:
cold rushing currents, then the ecstatic slide.

3.
This is the world you wanted: brisk fall air,
the valleys hung with haze, that long blue range
half-hidden by the clouds. It’s coming clear.
How far you must have seen from there! And here?
It’s hard to see around so many hills,
so many peaks and gorges, and the curves
are slippery on the parkway, miles of turns.
We’re heading home. The boys are waking now,
their mother’s passing crackers, pointing out
the overlook ahead: blue waterfall,
deep river valley, autumn leaves, the pines
along the ridge, the rising trail – and there,
the summit you’d have shown them. Mist and shine.

from Wild Persistence, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2019

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In Tennessee

The Blue Ridge at sunset – hardly a missed note
in the hemlocks where a mockingbird is singing
while to the west a falcon dips, then glides
over the valley, indistinct from here
except that the bird falls lower than the chair
I’m sitting in, and disappears. The sky
is the color of pomegranate, and the balcony
slips into shadow like the distant hills.
No wonder that the mockingbird is singing
a medley of every song he knows,
no matter whose. No wonder that he sits
in the glow of a single flood lamp high above
the roof, a pool he must mistake for sunlight,
enough to urge him on and on and through
his repertoire that bird by bird is ringing
over the day’s end, over the night’s coming.
Maybe he has to sing to know himself
as part of things – finch, cardinal, wren, and now
that long coarse call that sounded like the crow
or Steller’s jay – whatever voice he’s pulling
out of himself, some sound against the silence,
against the signs of brightness vanishing.
The railing of the porch dissolves in mist,
the sun has set, and now we’re weightless, drifting
as if suspended in the blackening air.
His sphere of light no longer seems as clear.
Maybe he knows the lamplight isn’t sunlight.
Maybe he feels he too is disappearing
into the darkness like this porch and chair.
he has to sing, he has to keep on singing,
to know he’s really there.

from Wild Persistence, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2019

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At the Rifle River

When the eagle unfurled, clearing
the green dome of the forest,
I almost missed it

till somebody cried, “Look up!”

and there it was
in the sky over the river

which I saw it must have owned
the way it spanned the rapids
with a single stroke,

and the sky parted.

I can’t say I believe
in messengers from the clouds,

but I didn’t believe
this was an accident either,

the way its light
tore through the drab morning
I barely lived in, and then

it rose over the steaming
forest, it disappeared.

*
At the time I was only watching
my own path by the river,

but afterward
I knew it must still be there
over the rim of maples

its white helmet, its fire,
and its gold eye turned toward me,

or something enough like it,
something powerful and amazing
which someone else sees.

Imagine my certainty
the moment before it rose
through the world, crossing the water,
that there was nothing anymore to surprise me.

Imagine my emptiness.

Imagine my surprise.

from Separate Flights, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2016

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GSMIT // SANCP

Special thanks to Jeremy Lloyd and John DiDiego directors and instructors at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, for the weekend Mammals course, which is part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program, and to Wanda DeWaard, guest instructor for the day and master tracker and naturalist.

The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at GSMIT comprises eight weekend courses designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology and interpretive techniques. Each weekend includes 15 hours and more of lecture and hands-on field study. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

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[with a Possum Poem]

In case you missed it, February 7, 2021 was Smoky Mountains ‘Possum ‘Preciation Day. Not that we blame you for overlooking the date – Joyce, Kimber, and I had just declared it that very morning. As part of our presentation on Didelphis virginiana to the Mammals class at Tremont we were determined to remedy the bad rap opossums get. And since we’re all friends here let’s just call them ‘possums’.

Possums are not big gross rats. Well, yes, when you try to shoo them away from the compost heap they do hiss and show all 50 teeth in their long pointy jaws, but let’s give them credit for having the most teeth of any North American mammal. And a pouch – they’re our one and only marsupial. Plus possums can be positively stylish and glowing when you give them a nice shampoo, blow dry, and brush up, although unfortunately that’s usually done by the taxidermist.

Back to those teeth – one of Ms. Possum’s super-powers is time travel. Her jawbone and dentition haven’t changed much at all from those little early mammals who lived side by side with Cretaceous dinosaurs. From Ms. Possum, mammalogists can figure out how those prehistoric critters chewed and what they most likely ate. Which by the way for our current day possums is basically anything and everything. (If we refer here to Ms. Possum it’s because Mr. is totally out of the picture after the mating is finished. Like, two minutes. And he doesn’t have a pouch – boring.)

At this point you’ll certainly be ready to agree it’s no coincidence that Possum rhymes with Awesome. Joyce, Kimber, and I were very happy to enlighten our classmates about the admirable features of this little pouched prehensile-tailed omnivorous non-endangered darling. And hey, we could have drawn the assignment that one of the other teams got stuck with: Appalachian Wood Rat.

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Requiem

I won’t walk back this way tonight
to not-see in the darkness the damp splay of fur,
the jawful of Pliocene needles, the blind worm
of a tail. And not only for fear that I’ll tread
on the red-brown seep or the pitiful snout;
no, I also don’t wish to meet its little ghost
ranging, anxious to cross the road,
baffled by its body’s long play of possum,
denied its marsupial rest.

But perhaps in mercy I should return
and pronounce, O pouched spirit,
linger only until the crows have said grace
and the sun awakens your baking humors, then flee
with the blessing of one who has swerved
to avoid your brothers. Go now and find peace
on the other side.

© Bill Griffin; first appeared in North Carolina Literary Review Number 12, 2003

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One of the numerous hands-on nature experiences offered by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. Eight weekend courses (which may be completed over a span of years) are designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology, biodiversity, and interpretive techniques. Most of the time is spent outdoors; for the winter Mammals course we spent Saturday in Cades Cove discovering tracks, scrapes, signs, and scat that testify of the denizens and their activities. Each course also involves keeping a nature journal and practicing interpretation skills – sharing Nature with others. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

Joyce, Kimber, and I were Team Possum. We did not discover any possum tracks during the weekend and we reprimand Tremont for not providing us with a possum skull to play with among all the other skulls, bones, and pelts in their collection. We are DEEPLY grateful, however, to master tracker and instructor Wanda DeWaard, who brought with her a little jar of possum scat. Treasure!

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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POSTSCRIPT

My birthday is February 11. Here’s the card I opened from Mike and Nancy that day. Mike is the guy who first invited me to come backpacking in the Southern Appalachians 25 years ago and talked me into enrolling for my first SANCP course at Tremont. And he did not know I’d pulled Virginia Opossum for my small group presentation — he’s just prescient.

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[with 3 poems by Val Nieman]

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont – February 5-7, 2021

Winter on the mountain gavels its sentence, no appeal: wrestle the cold to keep it at bay; eat, feed the inner fire; light the darkness or fall and break. I pull my hood closer and hide myself. In the tent at night I bind my neck against cold fingers. I watch my feet.

The day is short. Nevertheless we fill it and discover it filling us. Small signs begin to reveal their stories – an incisored nut, scratches in the bark, one single hair. At first we hesitate, we thirteen who’ve journeyed here to explore, but in the light we gather as closely as prudence permits. Muddy track, scrabbled duff, compressed leaf, scat: where did Bear sleep? what did Coyote eat?

Winter on the mountain: what crouches here for us to notice?

The night is long. In this valley darkness is complete. The rush and growl of Middle Prong fill the cove as well as empty it. Are we alone? In the gap of sleep a brush and skitter, a brief chittered voice – I imagine dark eyes and gliding flight. The spirit is released from the prison of his tree. In the morning we will seek signs of his passing.

Winter on the mountain – I release myself to see, to question, to wonder.

 

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Valerie Nieman journeys landscapes of memory, family, heartache to reveal stories in the signs unearthed along the way. A path may seem clear but its meanings fissure and deepen into many layers. A bud, a leaf, a branch – are they simply of themselves wholly themselves? Look deeper: there are mysteries unfolding.

Val teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University but she is preparing to retire this summer and replace syllabus revisions with fly selection for a day on the trout stream. Her poetry has appeared widely and has been published in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. Her fifth novel, Backwater, will be published in 2021.

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Becoming Ariel
for Gerald Stern

Groundhog in a tree, behaving like a bird, like a squirrel,
nibbling tender green buds at branch end, high-wiring
above a bog. Any burrow dug here would be swamped,

front door to back stoop – how did he come to cross water
and ascend, diggers curved deep in the bark as a lineman’s spikes?
A crow would think twice about lighting on a branch so frail.

Soil-shoveling wedge of a face, a fat tail that never could balance
his loose bulk: this creature was not meant for such heights.
His round belly was destined to bloat in a ditch beside the road.

Still, he sways against the sky, close to the sun, Caliban
joyously drunk on spring sap drawn up from the mud
and darkness he was born to, tiny feet dancing and dancing.

from The Georgia Review, University of Georgia

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Captures

I sprayed for tiny ants
late last night, killing the spider
doing its best to corral them.

Between the sheets I struggled
hand to hand with old lovers
and other aliens

descending cosmic ladders
to pincer my heart,
boiling them in the ichor

my bare claws released
from their flesh.
But this morning,

I catch a humpback cricket
in the sink, cup it
between my hands

and toss it out
the back door
to take its chances.

This morning, I’m
mild as a painted virgin,
my hands empty of slaughter.

from Change 7

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Approach

Arms stretched wise,
right hand to the dawn,
left toward eventual night,
I face north.

As latitude rises,
life flattens:
forest to taiga,
to tundra, to permanent ice.

Everything will have
a name of cold:
polar bear, arctic fox,
glacier flea, snowy owl.

~ ~ ~

A compass is known to stray
from true north, lured
by the earth’s magnetic heart.
Now the needle swings

at the approach
of a frost spirit
from those barrens
I’ll have to cross

without advice,
without a companion,
or a harness of wolf-dogs,
or good boots.

from Hotel Worthy, Press 53, Winston-Salem, © 2015

Becoming ArielCapturesApproach  © Valerie Nieman

 

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The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont comprises eight weekend courses designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology and interpretive techniques. Each weekend includes 15 hours and more of lecture and hands-on field study. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

Ariel, the spirit in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is released from his prison in the split pine by the magician Prospero.

 

 

 

 

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)
Lyrics: Bill Griffin . . . . . . . . . . Music: David L. McCollum

 

Elkin Community Chorus 58th Annual Concert
December 2nd, 2018 – First Baptist Church, Elkin, North Carolina

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This year (2020) would have been the 60th annual concert of the Elkin Community Chorus. The ensemble draws singers from towns and counties across northwest NC, rehearses for seven weeks, and gives two free concerts to the public on the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Linda and I have sung with the group for more than 30 years. We miss it. We’re listening to our stack of recordings from previous years and holding onto the hope that we’ll all be vaccinated and singing together again next fall.

David McCollum has been one of the group’s directors for more than 20 years. Several years back he asked me to write a Christmas poem for which he would compose the music. ECC debuted Wilderness Advent in 2018. Thank you, David, thank you Amy Johnson and Amy Tayloe for your accompaniment, thank you Tonya Smith, co-director, and thanks to the 90 or more of our neighbors whose voices make the waiting, the yearning, the anticipation of Christmas a sacrament.

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)

A stranger here, I sleep beneath the slash of stars,
The Pisgah forest deep and friendless.
I close myself to love, my heart requires the dark;
Can night within this cove be endless?

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song – Can it be Him?

Is it madness or a dream that seems to whisper here?
The murmur of a stream or singing?
It chants, a still small voice, I’ve nothing now to fear
For tidings of great joy it’s bringing.

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song and welcome Him!

And now the music swells as every fir and spruce
Unloose their boughs to tell the story:
May all God’s creatures wake, hearts quickened by the truth,
Invited to partake of mercy.

Come, we’ve slept so long
That love grows dim.
Awaken that our song may worship Him.

Come sing it with the wind and all the Pisgah throng:
The Child reclines within the manger!
With owl and bear and deer my soul’s reborn in song
For none of us is here a stranger.

Come, you’ve slept too long;
If love grows dim
Awaken to a song for it is Him!

Waken . . . welcome . . . worship . . . it is Him!

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

[with poems by Lucinda Trew and Jane Craven]

Last week I took a walk in the woods with my oldest friend Bill (distanced by 2-meter dog leash). We were forest bathing (shinrin yoku): phones off, listening to Grassy Creek accompany our rustic trail, smelling leafmold, fungus, pines, going nowhere and getting there; reflecting on the moment, simmering in our conjoined past which stretches all the way back to our grandfathers who worked together on the same railroad 60 years ago.

Every trail, though, has a way of turning. Almost back to our cars, Bill happened to ask, “What are you going to do with your stuff before you die?” Us old guys, especially old poets, think about dying. Good story fodder. Let me tell you the one about . . . . Just not usually as concrete as what will become of our earthly matter when no one wants it any more.

Stoff: German, translates as substance. Two synonyms for Oxygen are Sauerstoff and Atemluft, the first meaning acid substance (early chemists’ misconception that all acids must contain oxygen) and the second meaning air for breathing. We humans can live about 3 minutes without oxygen before our brains lose neurons and our substance begins to degrade, but oxygen is pure poison to many microorganisms and tricky to deal with even for our own mammal cells (or why else would anti-oxidants be such a big deal?).

Stuff is pretty frangible. Are the moment’s mental occupations or the day’s consuming concerns any more tangible? Bill shared with me a photo of his granddad Enoch Blackley in his engineer’s gear from the 30’s, outline of pocket watch visible through the denim of his overalls. I have one very similar of my granddaddy Peewee Griffin. The bit of stuff comprising those old prints, grains of silver on paper, is mere milligrams of matter; the cubic volume of memory those images reveal is larger than many lives.

My Stoff – carbon, nitrogen, phosporus – will feed the trees. May I leave behind the tempo of my walk, the sound of laughter, honest tears of compassion, a couple of good poems. Maybe that’ll do.

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These two poems are from Kakalak 2020, the annual anthology of Carolina poets, by writers whom I don’t know and hadn’t read before. Lucinda Trew’s Of Stars fills me with wonder, all the universe in a crow-eye seed, somewhere within the secrets of universe wanting to be spilled out. Jane Craven’s Speaking of the World does just that, the image of a small flower expanding to hold the pain and contradictions of the most intimate relationships.

Metaphor is the tool that communicates the mysteries which swirl around us and within us, the inexplicable spark of our synapses, the spin of our electrons. Some things can’t be spoken, only sung.

Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

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Of Stars
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. – Carl Sagan

The conjuring orchard man
holds hemispheres in sturdy hands
cupping chaos and creation
presenting apple halves
for inspection
and the revelation

of stars
a crop circle enigma etched
within sweet flesh
five symmetrical rays cradling
crow-eye seeds
small enough to spit
vast enough to hold eternity –
the very dust and stuff

of stars
carbon, nitrogen, oxygen
phosphorus – the breath and wingbeat
of birds who rise from reeds and nest

the rush and thrum
of boys who scrabble up bark, swagger
wave applewood swords

the sway and silhouette
of branches, girls dancing
longing for the moon

of pulse and surge
of cities, song, engines
prayer

the earthen realm
of roots and worm, turnips
and bones

the axial turn
of tides and shells
molecular chains

and of apples
twisted exquisitely, evenly
in half
spilling stars
and seeds and secrets
of the universe

Lucinda Trew, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

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Speaking of the World

Pinprick faces open in a violet fever behind my house – swathes
of mazus flowering downhill. A cultivar

from the Himalayas, it’s bred to survive scarcity and climate extremes.

In your world, the doctors have gone, left your body

a prescribed burn, lightly
elevated in a rented hospital bed, handfuls of pills labeled for days.

The trees, to a one, freeze beneath a milky lichen – and you who sleep

year round with open windows are speaking of the world –
of the last deer you saw weaving through balsam, of the bear

who bent double the birdfeeder, wild turkeys and their long-
neck chicks, a lone slavering coyote crossing the yard.

Grief, you say
three times,
each a dry leaf
papering
from your lips.

I left you in the boreal world, rushed back to my own life.
And I admit this with unnatural ease, like there’s no shame

in turning toward the sun, in enduring.

Jane Craven, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Lucinda Trew: http://trewwords.com/about/
Jane Craven: https://www.janecraven.com/bio

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2020-11-03b Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Joan Barasovska and Kathy Ackerman]

Everything or nothing. The radio is off. The screen is frozen. The refrigerator snores. The clock won’t tick any faster, any slower. In an hour we leave for Raleigh to see our grandson (backyard, distanced, masked) but right now nothing is happening

I’m no good at nothing. If I wake in the dark my brain whirls venom trying to bite its tail. Where is dawn’s blessed peace? If I take deep breaths, watch the feeder, daily agendas begin to scroll down the back of my cornea. How many seconds after emptying myself before I fill back up with everything?

We are entering the season of nothing. The azalea may feint a few off-season blossoms but will we ever bloom again? We are in the season of waiting. Where is the so fragrant earth we lost so long ago? Where is the muscle and spunk of summer that convinced us we might carry through? The season of turning. What justice like waters, what righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? When? How do these shortened days stretch so long?

In the woods, something is happening. Orchids are making sugar. How have I missed that? One species will bloom in May, the second in August, but their leaves are now. Their delicate little tenacious tough-ass corms swell all winter waiting to rocket up a spike of summer flowers into a leafed-out overshaded world.

Something is always happening. Something is deeper than those scrolling agendas. Something in the world and something behind my optic chiasm in deep matter. Something that maybe wants me to be still and notice. Something to hope for, to wait for, to go forth and meet.

There is no nothing. It’s all everything.

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These two poems are from Kakalak 2020, the annual anthology of Carolina poets. It is an eclectic volume – conversational, confessional, contemplative. Not as many COVID poems as I expected but wait until 2021.

The poems by Joan Barasovska and Kathy Ackerman speak to me of the winding thread that connects our past to our present. Knots and tangles, yes, but also a lashing to secure us in the lashing storm. The something that is happening every day is us becoming human.

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Cranefly Orchid, Tipularia discolor

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Her Breath

Mike and I exchange a glance
over her cooling body.
Our eyes are dry.
Elsie wears a faded housedress
with a pattern of flowers.
Thirty minutes ago
an aide crossed
her swollen hands.

All morning we sat waiting
while Death rattled her.
She died in the afternoon
while we were out walking.
Our mother took a slow
rollercoaster ride to this day,
dragging us with her on
every shivery dip and climb.

Back from the dead,
Mike said when she woke
from a coma, angry to find herself
in a clean hospice room.
She raged until he put her back home.
Frail, sick, ninety-three, hanging on
ten hears after Dad’s death.
She scolded me yesterday.
I was late for lunch.
I had forgotten to pick up her mail.

Their old bed had been replaced
by a narrow hospital bed
rolled in the hospice workers
while she fumed in the living room
and I boiled water for tea.
Now her jaw is slack,
her last silent treatment.
Above her head hangs
a sad-eyed portrait of me at nine,
painted in blues and grays.

Mike and I are limp with relief.
the secret of Elsie’s anger died with her,
but it was probably sadness.
We are second-generation Americans,
inheritors of the sadness seed.

This mother
lying flat between us
birthed me sixty years ago.
With her last breath,
She’s in a better place
and so am I.

Joan Barasovsaka, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Adam-and-Eve Orchid, “Puttyroot,” Aplectrum hyemale

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Misnomer
for Goliath, my father

i.
This story begins when I believed every word my daddy said.
Honeysuckle, he called them, tending the cuttings
that go all the way back to Rock Creek 50 years,
Aunt Gracie’s yard in the hills where I never lived.

Honeysuckle was all I had to root me to that ancient soil,
so every home I bought I planted some
from Daddy’s supply, rooted in plain clear water.
I wondered why it had no scent, was not a vine,
was pink, for crying out loud.

Now shopping for plants for house #5,
I see the truth in 5-gallon pots before me:
Weigela.

I imagine old Aunt Gracie shooing my father away
from her quilting or canning or sitting alone.
Go cut back that honeysuckle
before it swallows up the outhouse.

Later, seeing his mistake, she didn’t correct him –
a name is just a name –
Grace just glared at tiny Goliath
so proud of his mound of pink and green
already wilting

while the roof of the outhouse
still plushed with yellow sweetness
he’d confuse for 80 years
with a plant that belongs
to the same family, after all,
but so much harder to say.

ii.
Start me some honeysuckle, Daddy, I blurt out
in one of awkward lulls.
I want to imagine his hands on the branch,
the snip of sprigs of coal country
where Gracie’s old feist
barked me all the way to the outhouse and back
when I was too small to know
how hard it is
to keep what lives alive.

Kathy Ackerman, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Amos 5:24

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2019-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Ryan Wilson and A. R. Ammons]

I didn’t intend to count birds when I set out Tuesday morning. Just a nice weekly hike to Carter Falls and back, a weekday’s solitude – I’m not sure I intended anything more than cooling my brain and heating my muscles. Tamping down the trail maintenance we completed last Saturday. Following the season’s advance into winter.

But then a heron flew out from under the footbridge as I crossed Grassy Creek. Whoever coined the phrase a force of nature was probably in the presence of a Great Blue Heron. Up close they are mute and fearsome. Flying they arouse precognitive awe. When Linda and I encounter one feeding we address it by its nickname: “Hello, Spike.” When one passes overhead we think, “Pterodactyl.” Great Blue demands that one notice.

After gasping at the heron’s sudden flight, I began noticing birds. If they had been calling and singing during the preceding mile my striding deliberation had shut them out. Now they were continuous and various. Counting, I recede and the birds advance.

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Below are two favorite poems which I return to regularly. They strike me as creating a continuum – the advance of a life toward discovering its meaning, the advance of a life toward its end. I read these and I recede into the lines, but as I read them I expand into my self.

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At Carter Falls trailhead a Black Vulture perched overlooking; I scanned up past the parking area and saw the roadkill possum the vulture was waiting to ripen. At the Powerhouse (the riverstone foundation, all that’s left of the old generating plant) a Kingfisher daggered up the river and disappeared above the spray. I pulled an index card and a pen out of my pack. Here’s what I came home with:

Great Blue Heron / Belted Kingfisher / Northern Flicker / Red-Bellied Woodpecker / Black Vulture / Turkey Vulture / Carolina Wren / Carolina Chickadee / Tufted Titmouse / Golden-Crowned Kinglet / Eastern Phoebe / White-Breasted Nuthatch / Blue Jay / Eastern Bluebird / Cedar Waxwing / Pileated Woodpecker / Red-Shouldered Hawk / Chipping Sparrow / Northern Mockingbird / American Crow / Common Raven

And since I wasn’t carrying binoculars I’ll just include the numerous chippers and chirpers in the thickets as LGB’s (little gray birds, also sometimes known as LBJ’s, little brown jobs).

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Face It

A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air,
Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end
And, half-drunk, you stand looking at some star
That flickers like a coin wished doen a weill,
Or when you hear a voice behind you whisper
Your name, and turn around, and no one’s there.
You’re in it the, once more, the stranger’s house
Perched in the mountain woods, the rot-sweet smell
Of fall, the maples’ millions, tongues of fire,
And there, whirl harrowing the gap, squint-far,
Than unidentified fleck, approaching and
Receding at once, rapt in the wind’s spell –
Pulse, throb, winged dark thar haunts the clean light’s glare –
That thin that you’re becoming, that your are.

Ryan Wilson
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in The New Criterion

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, Georgia and resides in Maryland. Of this poem he writes, “Face It was written in West Virginia at a mountaintop cabin belonging to my great friend, Ernest Suarez. During a break near dusk, I stepped out onto the porch, from which one can see more than fifty miles on a clear day. I was tantalized by a hawk hovering in the western gap, how it seemed to approach and to recede at once on the wind, never near enough for me to identify its species, or even its genus.”

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Finishing Up

I wonder if I know enough to know what it’s really like
to have been here: have I seen sights enough to give
seeing over: the clouds, I’ve waited with white
October clouds like these this afternoon often before and

taken them in, but white clouds shade other white
ones gray, had I noticed that: and though I’ve
followed the leaves of many falls, have I spent time with
the wire vines left when frost’s red dyes strip the leaves

away: is more missing that was never enough: I’m sure
many of love’s kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven’t done and seen
enough yet to go, and anyway, it may be way on on the way

before one picks up the track of the sufficient, the
world-round reach, spirit deep, easing and all, not just mind
answering itself but mind and things apprehended at once
as one, all giving all way, not a scrap or question holding back.

A. R. Ammons
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in Poetry

Archie Ammons was born outside Whiteville, NC in 1926, attended college in Wake Forest, NC, and taught at Cornell for over 34 years. He was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1994. He died February 25, 2001. A two-volume set of his collected poems was published by W. W. Norton in 2017.

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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