The Making of an Eco Poet
[Editors' note: A shorter version of this essay appears under the title, "Musings of an Eco Poet," in the print version of Verse Wisconsin 107. Four poems by Jeff Poniewaz follow this essay.]
By Jeff Poniewaz
I grew up on the working class South Side of Milwaukee on “a block where the sidewalk ends.” Right across the street from where I lived was a grimy building where trains underwent repair and maintenance. All through my childhood that building and an oil-marred parking lot for semis existed side-by-side with a field that ran along the top of bluffs overlooking what we kids called “the crick.”
I often went to the field alone and looked under rocks for grass snakes while grasshoppers hopped and dragonflies flew around me, and down to “the crick” to look for turtles or mudpuppies. Even then, the good smell of all the green growing from the field on down the bluffs became, as you got close to “the crick,” tainted with the combined smell of sewer gas and gasoline. A few years later I learned “the crick” was the Kinnickinnic River. In 1997 it was formally designated one of America’s most endangered rivers.
I wrote my first poem when I was 14. Titled “Escape,” it began with a series of observations of sad aspects of city life. Inspired by the wilds I glimpsed during my family’s annual August week vacation “up north” near Eagle River, my poem ended:
Distant valley and teeming streams
Pave the way for comely dreams
Of lands untarnished, free of stain,
That vanish thoughts of earthly gain.
In the midst a shout of glee:
“Here at last a place for me!”
This fledgling poem foreshadowed my eventual intense love of wilderness, and of Nature in general. “Pave” was the fledgling poet’s awkward word choice considering its steamroller connotation, but it ironically foreshadowed the fact that a year later my boyhood home was torn down to make way for the I-94 freeway.
Humans are part of Nature, though they tend to overwhelm the non-human part and eclipse it, thus endangering the non-human part that sustains them. When I use the word “Nature” I mean the non-human part of Nature, the part it’s a relief to escape to when we feel oppressed by human hurlyburly. And yes, I capitalize “Nature,” because she really deserves it. As Emerson says in his essay titled “Nature”: “The aspect of Nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast.” “Earth,” too, should be capitalized when referring to the planet and not just the soil. And “Nature” is a synonym for “the Earth” when “the Earth” means the planet as a whole or environment in general.
My attraction to wild Nature really took off when I became friends with Antler, who also felt “the call of the wild.” Over the years we explored ever wilder wilds: from Kettle Moraine to Upper Peninsula Michigan to the Quetico canoe wilderness of Ontario to the mountains of Colorado and California. Our love of Nature grew alongside our love of Poetry. And so it was only natural that Nature figured frequently and prominently in the poems we loved by others as well as in the poems we ourselves came to write.
When we became friends at age 19, a special bond was our love for Whitman, who consoled us during our separate lonely teen years yearning for a camerado before we met each other. And Whitman’s visionary Nature poetry made us keen to take, not only the Open Road to cities west and east, but also “paths untrodden … away from the clank of the world” to where we, too, would be “talk’d to by tongues aromatic.” Like Walt we were hot to make love to the Earth, the Night, the Stars and the Sunrise in our lives and in our poetry.
My 1972 poem “Ode to Lake Michigan” is for most of its length a love poem to our inland sea, but it ends as an invocation to restore and preserve her. The poem lovingly and gratefully acknowledges her motherhood over our bioregion and invokes her recovery to optimum health. That poem was written three years after Time magazine declared Lake Erie “in danger of dying.” And not long after that, Jacques Cousteau was warning the oceans were in danger of dying.
Written in the wake of passage of the Endangered Species Act, my 1975 poem “The Last Endangered Species Glass” recounts the actual gradual one-by-one breaking of my beloved set of such glasses. I did not make this poem up; each line tells the exact way each glass broke. One of the species was the polar bear, endangered even then—and, alas, how much more today. It was subsequently published in Greenpeace Chronicles out of Vancouver, accepted personally by its then editor Rex Weyler, one of the founding members of Greenpeace and one of the first to interpose himself bodily between whales and the explosive harpoons of factory ships.
Nature and the environment loomed large in my Poets-in-the-Schools visits to high schools and junior highs across Wisconsin during the 1970s. A surefire way to coax kids into poetry was to read them a variety of animal poems by a variety of poets with a variety of styles and then ask them to write an animal poem of their own and bring it to our next day’s class meeting. I carried my poetry books and show-and-tell items from classroom to classroom in the same backpack I used on wilderness adventures.
Nature is a great way to get people into poetry. Anyone who loves Nature can be converted to poetry by poems that vibrantly address Nature. Nature is also a great way to get people into classical music, which is one of the ideas I offer to orchestras struggling to replenish dwindling audiences: stage concerts that present great Nature-inspired music. There certainly are a lot of beautiful scores that pay homage to and take inspiration from Nature. In 1997 the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave three sold-out and critically acclaimed performances of the “Song of the Rainforest” concert I brainstormed, consisting of dazzling but neglected rainforest-inspired scores by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Now, if only I can get Gustavo Dudamel to perform it with the Los Angeles Phil at the UN and with the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Amazon Opera House in Manaus and broadcast it via PBS and via satellite to every part of the world!
I’m often referred to as an eco poet, but I write poems on all the other subjects poets write about and am open to whatever kind of poem wants me to write it. Eco poems just came to me with increasing frequency. All poets write about what they love and what interests them. Well, I dearly love and am completely fascinated by this planet and its plethora of life-sustaining biodiversity. The more I learned about the environment the more I became concerned about and focused on it—and the more eco poems I found myself writing, realizing this isn’t just another subject in the spectrum of subjects but rather an urgent planetary emergency situation.
By “eco poem” I mean any poem that honors, praises, celebrates, explores or enhances our appreciation of some aspect(s) of the natural world or the natural world in general. “Eco poem” can also mean a poem that confronts some environmental problem or comes to the defense of some part of the natural world or the natural world in general. A good example of the first kind would be Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.” A good example of the second kind would be Allen Ginsberg’s “Friday the Thirteenth,” written a month before the first Earth Day:
What prayer restores freshness to eastern meadow, soil to
cindered acres, hemlock to rusty hillside,
transparency to Passaic streambed, Blue whale multitudes
to coral gulfs . . .
Earth pollution identical with Mind pollution,
consciousness pollution identical with filthy sky . . .
What can Poetry do . . . when 60% State Money goes to heaven
on gas clouds burning off War Machine Smokestacks?
Some poetry aficionados begrudge the acceptability of the second kind of eco poem, dismiss such poems as polemical or, worse, sermonizing. Some of Allen’s poems are sutras—the Buddhist word for sermon—as in his “Sunflower Sutra.” As someone who sat through countless horribly boring sermons when I was growing up Catholic, I wish I had ever heard sermons as moving and beautiful as “Sunflower Sutra” and “Who Be Kind To.”
Now it’s time to expand the panoramic embrace of “Who Be Kind To” to encompass not only all humans, but all sentient beings—and, most urgently, all sentient endangered species, all priceless precious lifeforms on the verge of extinction—not only for their own sake but for the sake of future humans, because the healthiest condition for a planet is an abundance of healthy biodiversity (a.k.a. Nature). This needed expansion of compassion parallels Aldo Leopold having extended ethics from strictly inter-human relations to the relations between the human species and all other species and “the land” or the environment in general.
Some poets have a definite bias against what they call “political poetry.” Antler and I were in James Merrill’s poetry writing class at UW-Madison in the spring of ’67, the only semester he ever taught anywhere. We didn’t know his work, but heard he had just won the National Book Award for a book titled Nights and Days, which had a nice Whitmanic ring for us, since in the first of his “Calamus” poems Walt resolved “To tell the secret of my nights and days.” We also heard he’d written a previous poem book whose title, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, sounded pretty good amid the Vietnam War.
A month into his semester Merrill assigned his students to choose a poem and read it aloud in class. I read Ginsberg’s “Who Be Kind To,” which I had just been bowled over by when Antler and I heard Allen read it a few days earlier at UW-Milwaukee, the first time we heard/saw Allen in the flesh. Merrill dismissed the poem as sermonizing. I defended it as heartfelt heart talk projecting a voice of compassionate sanity, especially good to hear amid the growing madness of the war.
In the summer of ‘68 we received the blessing of being in a class James Wright guest-taught at UW-Milwaukee. He had no problem whatsoever with political poetry. This was one of our all-time greatest experiences of being able to hang out with a great poetry teacher. One day, after the latest body count hit the news, James began his class by describing Goya’s grisly painting Saturn Devouring His Children and then declared it should be hung in the rotunda of Congress. The books he chose for class discussion that summer included Wilfred Owen’s powerful World War I poems, D.H. Lawrence poems (selected and with a great introduction by Rexroth), Kinnell’s Body Rags and Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems.
In 1989 Antler and I found ourselves featured along with James Merrill and some others at a poetry festival in Detroit during which I gave a talk on “political poetry.” Surprisingly, Merrill, there with his camerado the actor Peter Hooten who assisted his presentation of his late Ouija board poetry, remembered us from Madison and took a liking to us. As a result, a year or two later he even gave Antler a grant out of his own pocket after his Ingram Merrill Foundation failed to do so.
Even some nature lovers and nature poem-writing poets begrudge eco poems that tackle environmental issues. They seem to believe that should only be done in expository prose and letters-to-the-editor. Few if any, however, are the newspapers that would still publish a poem in their op/ed pages. Poetry is the first item the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lists under “We do not publish” in their “Letters guidelines.” Except for a rare piece in the A&E section, that daily negative mention in the “Letters guidelines” is about the only time the word “poetry” does appear in newspapers anymore. But there was a time when poems did get published in newspapers, and there may still be some rare exceptions. My poem about the annual baby harp seal massacre appeared on the Los Angeles Times op/ed page on Good Friday 1980.
Some object to eco poetry that tackles environmental issues on the grounds that poetry should be a process of discovering what words come through you, not of putting preconceived sentiments into words. Some even dismiss it as a form of propaganda, even though they may agree with the sentiments expressed. All I can say is: I don’t start out wanting to write a poem on a particular aspect of the environmental crisis and then try to come up with words to express my feelings about it. I’m just intensely focused on environmental matters, and therefore such poems just come to me. When I write them down, I feel as much a rush of spontaneous inspiration as any poet feels writing about any other subject.
Then there’s the charge of “preaching to the choir.” Of course, ideally Nature poems would be heard/read by and beneficially affect those who don’t love Nature, just as ideally poems in general would be heard/read by and beneficially affect those who don’t love poetry. You just have to beam what you have to say in the best poetry the muses deign to bless you with and let those beams fall where they may. Besides, even if eco poems were only “preaching to the choir” (and I do think they’re more than that), that’s important too, because the choir needs its spirits lifted—needs anything that can cheer them up when they get discouraged because the transformation to an eco-friendly civilization isn’t happening fast enough or sufficiently enough.
Poets have been in the vanguard of every compassionate progressive enlightenment cause. They are catalysts of the positive evolution of human consciousness. Shelley said poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and I’d say they’re doing a better job than the official legislators who court the bribes of lobbyists. Poets were in the vanguard of opposition to the Vietnam War. Any poem against war is an eco poem when you consider that war inflicts many of the most drastic environmental impacts. Poets were in the vanguard of eco-consciousness, and still are.
Beat poets were in the vanguard of cetacean appreciation. At the legendary 1955 Six Gallery reading at which Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time, Michael McClure read his poem denouncing the machine-gunning of a hundred orcas by bored GIs stationed off the coast of Iceland. And amid his zany poem “Marriage,” in his 1960 book The Happy Birthday of Death, Gregory Corso tossed off these lines:
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
In 1974 Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island came out with many now classic eco poems, including “Prayer for the Great Family” and “Mother Earth, Her Whales.” The latter, written while attending the UN Environmental Conference in Sweden in 1972, praised the whales:
The whales turn and glisten, plunge
and sound and rise again, …
Flowing like breathing planets
in the sparkling whorls of
but also indicted the rampaging human impact, not only on the whales but on the environment in general. He alluded to the mercury poisoning via fish eaten in the city of Minamata, which hit the news that same year, 1972:
And Japan quibbles for words on
what kinds of whales they can kill?
A once-great Buddhist nation
dribbles methyl mercury
in the sea.
In 1975 Antler and I were present when, after Turtle Island won the Pulitzer for poetry, Gary Snyder and Jerome Rothenberg presided over an “Ethnopoetics Conference” at UW-Milwaukee. From the late ‘70s onward I kept urging the Kerouac Poetics School in Boulder to host an Ecopoetics Conference. It finally happened in 1990 when during a special “EcoGlasnost Week,” as Allen dubbed it, Antler and I gave a reading at which Allen introduced me and Gary introduced Antler.
My innate cetacean fascination intensified when Antler and I went to study from Galway Kinnell during the Fall ’70 semester he guest-taught at the Iowa Workshop. Impressed with the “Poets Against the War” reading Kinnell gave with Bly, Creeley, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Duncan, Ed Sanders and our UWM mentors Morgan and Barbara Gibson during the spring of ‘69, I wrote the letters to Vermont that brought him to give his first solo Milwaukee reading, at UWM during Fall ’69. Antler and I were bowled over this time when he read his entire Book of Nightmares in progress. That was four years before Kerouac School existed; if it had, we’d more likely have gone to study with Ginsberg in Boulder. Kinnell in Iowa City during the Fall of ’70 was our only chance at that point to study with a formidable poet whose work we liked. The following school year we returned to UWM because we were both offered TA-ships to complete our Master’s degrees there.
Getting back to Fall ’70: One afternoon in the lounge of the English/Philosophy building Kinnell played his class a recording of humpback whale songs. The first such recording had just come out and humans were hearing those haunting whale songs for the first time. Those whale songs took me so deep I’ve never stopped hearing them, from time to time in my mind, amid an ocean often dominated by human cacophony.
In late 1975, soon after it came out, I read Mind in the Waters—a Celebration of Cetacean Consciousness, edited by Joan McIntyre. This was one of the major book finds of my life. It gave me joy by confirming my own cetacean intimations. It combined poems like D.H. Lawrence’s “Whales Weep Not” and W.S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” with scientific essays documenting whales’ and dolphins’ high intelligence in a way that called into question the arrogant assumption that humans possess the highest intelligence on the planet. Lacking opposable thumbs with which to manipulate their environment, the cetaceans live in harmony with it. Clearly, there was much we humans could learn from the whales’ and dolphins’ form of intelligence.
In 1975 I began assembling an eco poem anthology titled On What Planet—Poems in Praise and Defense of the Earth after Rexroth’s 1956 poem book In Defense of the Earth and his great Nature poem “On What Planet.” The title covers the two kinds of poems in it: poems that praise Nature and poems that defend it. Over the years it’s grown to be quite a tome and it may be the best anthol of its kind, as it includes so many great Nature/Eco poems by such a large variety of poets. But I’ve never been able to take on the hassle of trying to get permissions from all the poets in it. I hope someone will come along to midwife its publication, as I do believe it’s a luminous and much needed book of eco-scriptures that could help save the world.
Amid an old-age love poem he wrote to his wife titled “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams held a flower up to the atom bomb and later in the poem declared:
driven into the earth
for oil enters my side
How powerful and prophetic those words in aftermath of the BP Gulf oil disaster, as they were after the Exxon-Valdez. Dr. Williams felt the wounds being inflicted on the planet, which were and still are far worse than the “pain at the pump” so bemoaned in the news nowadays. His empathy with the Earth foreshadowed a “Deep Ecology” concept expressed by Gary Snyder and others: the need to identify so closely with some wild place or species that one feels its suffering and becomes the voice of what is unable to speak on its own behalf in our legislatures and courts.
Williams’ “Asphodel” poem was published in 1955, the year before Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published with its comparable confrontation of The Bomb and lines such as:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood
is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! . . .
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul
is electricity and banks! . . .
Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
To those who deny that rants can be great poetry, I say: tell it to Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “America.” “Howl” is the cry of our mammal soul caught in the steel-jaw trap of the military-industrial complex. Poets sometimes need to express themselves in outcries of outrage and not just in psalms of praise.
As Czeslaw Milosz said in a poem he wrote in Poland after World War II:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies . . . .
Somebody said that poetry doesn’t save the world. I disagree. I think every poem saves the world to some extent. Milosz meant that among all the poems that all a nation’s poets are writing, there ought to be some that respond to war and injustice in all their forms, whether between peoples or between humans and the rest of the Natural World. If it’s okay for some poems to be frivolous or totally unintelligible, it’s certainly okay for some poems to spring eloquently to the defense of what needs to be defended.
This genre spans from before Milton’s sonnet denouncing the massacre in Piedmont to the present. Not every poet has to write such poems, but those who don’t should be glad that some poets are covering that base. Often it’s those who feel unable to write such poems who begrudge others doing so. Neruda’s poem socking it to the United Fruit Co. is no less necessary or valid than his odes to his socks and a watermelon.
To those who object to “political poetry,” I say: tell it to Lorca weeping over New York from the top of the Chrysler Building, lamenting the Hudson River “drunk on oil” seven decades before a hijacked plane full of jet fuel followed the Hudson to the World Trade Center. To those who’d deny that eco poems that tackle environmental issues are truly poems, I say: okay then, don’t call them “poems.” Maybe they’re a new genre: eco-poetic wake-up calls. Whether you grant they’re poems or not, they’re saying something that urgently needs to be said: clearly, eloquently, powerfully, poetically. Such poems can be poorly or well written, inspired or not, just like poems on any other subject or in any other mode.
Ed Sanders’ Investigative Poetry came out in 1976. That was the same year Allen Ginsberg read and was bowled over by a manuscript titled Last Words he received out of the blue from some unknown poet named Antler in Milwaukee. Its central poem, “Factory,” written while working in a can factory along the Milwaukee River, is an eco epic. Allen wrote it was “the most enlightening & magnanimous American poem I’ve seen of ‘60s and ‘70s decades” and asked Antler to be his assistant at Kerouac School during the summer of ’77. That’s how he and I got to sit in on Ed Sanders’ “Investigative Poetry” class there that summer.
Ed’s idea is that besides being singers of lyric poetry, poets can also be reporters of investigative poetry—anchor men and women more oracular regarding what’s going on than the morning paper or the evening news. It’s an approach very much in the spirit of Allen’s 1968 book Planet News. I kept urging Ed and Allen we should investigate the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant (not far from Boulder) and stage a poetry protest outside its gates, but Ed’s students voted a different subject for our class project and Allen was too preoccupied with other matters.
In July ’78 Antler and I went out to San Francisco to check out the poetry scene and explore the wilderness scene while waiting for Ferlinghetti to publish Antler’s Last Words book, which the Spring ’78 City Lights Journal (which included several Antler poems) said would take place before the end of the year. On our way to S.F. we stopped to say hello to Allen in Boulder. He greeted us with his “Plutonian Ode,” which he’d just written to protest mega-deadly plutonium and had just gotten arrested while declaiming it outside the Rocky Flats plant. After the Voice of the Bard unfurled his “Plutonian Ode” for us, he surprised Antler by saying he was just in time to fill in for William Burroughs Jr. (who’d taken ill) at a reading with Gregory Corso the following night.
I was living in the San Francisco Bay area in 1979 when, in the wake of Three Mile Island, Rex Weyler came down from Vancouver to organize a No Nukes concert in Sacramento with Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt. That was the first time I met Rex in person. In 1981, then the editor of New Age magazine, Rex published the “Reagan vs. Thoreau Debate” I assembled using dueling verbatim quotes on the subject of Economy from the anti-environment president and the pro-environment prophet who titled the opening chapter of his Walden “Economy.” Economy and Ecology have the same root, Eco-, and so one would expect them to be in harmony rather than at odds. Thoreau saw through the sham system of economy that runs the human world.
During my four and a half year sojourn in the S.F. Bay area, I fell in with a band of poets who gathered for a weekly open reading in a storefront devoted to poetry and ecology in San Francisco’s Mission district. The signs over the door said “Cloud House” and, under that, “Walt Whitman Breathes Here.” Kush (who went by a single name) was the custodian of Cloud House and slept and cooked in a nook in the back. A well-known poet passing through might show up for the weekly round-robin and wait his turn to read alongside a cleaning lady who dashed a poem before getting out of work. I heard many terrific poems there by well-known and unknown poets. Because there’s so much eco-awareness in San Francisco (where the Sierra Club, for instance, has its headquarters), many strong eco-poems—political poems in general—got written there.
After I returned from my West Coast sojourn in early 1983, I gradually began to notice some impressive Milwaukee poets who had emerged during my absence and had strong Nature or eco-poems among their output. I thought: how exciting if these poets, with their wonderfully various styles of writing and performing, could be brought together in a kaleidoscopic way, with each getting eight minutes to sound out his or her best work in that vein. The result, in April 1988, was the first Earth Poets & Musicians Performance—or Earth Day Poetry Celebration, as it was called when it was entirely spoken word and hadn’t yet acquired its music dimension.
Kush, on a visit from San Francisco, opened the very first Earth Poets event with two of his street chants. I was proud of this eco bunch of Milwaukee poets I’d brought together and was glad that Kush could witness how well they compared to their counterparts in San Francisco. How appropriate, considering that Poetry and Nature are so intimately connected, that Earth Day Month coincides with Poetry Month. And what better way to observe both simultaneously than at the Earth Poetry event that has taken place every April since 1988? The 25th annual will take place in April 2012.
I consider myself an “environmentor” (a word I invented). Between 1989 and 2009 I taught a course I devised called “Literature of Ecological Vision” as a UW-Milwaukee off-campus course, first at Woodland Pattern and later at the Urban Ecology Center. I loved this course and never got tired of teaching it year after year: sharing writings so dear to my heart with the eco-curious young who would have to deal with the spectrum of environmental problems touched on in the course. When I began teaching it in ’89, it was one of the few courses of its kind offered on the college level nationwide and it filled a glaring gap in the literature curriculum, though such courses are now more common. Mine was a sophomore survey that covered as much of the greatest Nature and environmental writing as could be reasonably assigned during a single semester.
My Eco Lit course began and ended with American Indian texts: simple, beautiful, timeless utterances of oneness with Nature, some of which may have been passed down via the oral tradition for centuries before someone finally wrote them down. I then asked my students to compare those Indian poems with Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” in which the highly civilized Englishman laments
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours . . .
and envies the “pagan suckled in a creed outworn” but close to Nature. From there to Coleridge’s eco-prophetic allegory, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
Water, Water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!
My course syllabus proceeded chronologically to the present. Students who began the semester admitting they weren’t into poetry wound up admitting they had breakthroughs of appreciation by semester end—all because the poems paid such magnificent tribute to the Nature they loved. And that became for them a key to appreciating poetry in general on into the future.
Coming right after the poems in Turtle Island is Snyder’s seminal eco-essay “Four Changes,” which he had first published anonymously in 1969. In it he called for a “revolution of consciousness” which “will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the transforming energy’s side.” What he invoked was a nonviolent Ecological Revolution that could provide an antidote to the malignant aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Thoreau fired the first nonviolent, non-gun shot of the Ecological Revolution, not on Concord Bridge but at Walden Pond. It burst into full flower with the first Earth Day in 1970, in the wake of which many dynamic environmental groups were formed.
John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson were catalysts of that revolutionary love of the Earth that could save the world. And so were many poets. May more and more poets help inspire the love of the Earth that could save the world! It was never more “now or never” than it is now, and it gets more “Now or Never!” with each passing day.
Four Poems by Jeff Poniewaz
The Last Endangered Species Glass
Three years ago two friends gave me
a set of six Endangered Species Glasses,
each glass etched with the picture and name
of one of the species near extinction.
The Oryx was the first to bite the dust—
a friend laughed so hard at something I said
it slipped full of wine from her fingers.
A few months later the Cheetah fleeted
faster than my reflex to catch it.
The Polar Bear was the loser
in a battle with an ice-cube tray.
The Whooping Crane flew out of my hand
as I wildly gestured a poem.
The Eagle was the last to go.
I broke it against the faucet
while doing the dishes.
Each time one of those glasses broke
I got a lesson in fragility,
a shattered metaphor for
what extinction means. Now
only the Tiger remains…
and it’s chipped.
—Jeff Poniewaz (1975)
Kinnickinnic River Elegy
Behold the Kinnickinnic River K-Mart
sprung up along the Kinnickinnic River
I sprung up along in the post-war '40s.
Behold the Kinnickinnic River K-Mart
that killed the Kinnickinnic Riverbank wilderness
vestige I played in as a child and boy,
the field with creek cutting through it
across Chase Avenue from the field where
the carnival sprang up for a week each spring.
Behold the Kinnickinnic River K-Mart
that along with the Freeway and Freeway Industrial Park
hogtied and crucified the little that was left of
the wilderness that was this place, the K-Mart
that paved the banks of the Kinnickinnic River
so it wouldn't flood the basements
of the built-too-near houses
of the workingclass South Side
and would more truly resemble
the open sewer it had become.
Behold the Kinnickinnic River K-Mart
I unthinkingly walked into this afternoon
(while my father waited for me in his car)
to buy myself blue flannel pajamas from China,
100% cotton for $10.95, while mothers & fathers
half my age walk the aisles of merchandise
with little offshoots of themselves in tow,
loading them aboard the little endangered species
merry-go-round outside the K-Mart entrance.
Every item of merchandise inside that K-Mart,
including my pajamas from China, killed
the Kinnickinnic Riverbank ecosystem.
The whole planet fast turning into one vast K-Mart.
—Jeff Poniewaz (1983)
Message from the Deep
Strolling the shore of Lake Michigan
I discover a cuneiform tablet
hieroglyph'd with fossilized
remains of tiny lives, shell lives,
clams smaller than my little-finger nail
tossed up by Lake Michigan
knowing I needed it, some special miracle
to re-alert me to the miracle of Life,
this tablet the size of my hand
not "Thou Shalt Not"s lightning'd
by biblical epic special effects,
this tablet written by the only God there is,
this tablet written in shell language
tinged with rust-color'd sand,
all-in-all in my hand, this gift from the Sea,
this sea-whispered-me geological whisper,
this whisper-echo of the eonic Earth,
this heirloom from greatgreatGrandmother Earth,
this oracular telegram from the Deep,
this Deep Image washed up to my feet
as if directed specifically to me,
this many-million-year memento
from the ocean that was here
before Lake Michigan existed,
this enigma this ancient rune
this cosmos mandala this inevitable whatever-it-is,
this rosetta-stone translating the past
into the present and present into the past,
this wordless dignity, this compact cemetery
of lives whose tombstones are more immortal
than the tombstones of humankind.
—Jeff Poniewaz (1987)
20/20 By 2020
Factories, Cars, Coal-Burning Plants
and Burning Rainforests are
melting the snowcaps on
Mt. Fuji, Mt. Kilamanjaro,
Mt. Denali, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Shasta,
the Andes, the Pyrenees, the Alps,
The Rockies, the Sierras, the Himalayas.
When even the glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting
and chunks of Antarctica big as Manhattan are breaking loose
and floating north toward the equator,
the handwriting is on the wall for all but the eco-blind.
Alas, the eco-blind cannot read
the eye-chart of Ecological Vision.
I say: Unless the world attains 20/20 Ecological Vision
by the year 2020, it’s all over Baby Blue Earth
in the midnight blue of the Cosmos.
20/20 Ecological Vision by the Year 2020 or Bust!
—Jeff Poniewaz (2008)