Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille T. Dungy, The University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Reviewed by Wendy Vardaman
whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
The first tree whose story I cared to discover grows through the filtration pumps at the edge of an abandoned swimming pool in a Lynchburg, Virginia, city park. In the late 1960s, a group of black children and community leaders staged a swim-in at this pool. Rather than desegregate this public facility, the city drained the water and replaced it with dirt. The space is now more lawn than pool. A gentle slope of lush grass reaches toward the deep end, and moss coats exposed walkways. A stately box elder grows through the retaining wall, roots ensnared in the pool’s filtration system. This is the final insult. No child, black or white, will ever swim in this pool again. Thanks to the tree’s tenacity, its remarkable, beautiful, uncompromised growth, the mechanisms that accommodated this simple form of recreation have been destroyed.
—Camille T. Dungy, “Introduction: The Nature of African American Poetry,” in Black Nature
I begin with these two quotations from the front matter of Black Nature, Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, to remind you, to remind myself, of this central fact: landscape and human history are entangled, entwined as tightly as tree root and filtration system in Dungy’s story, and there are poems under poems we cannot hope to understand unless we remember that fact and try to imagine what it means. In the context of African American nature poetry, a tree, for instance, doesn’t just stand for peace, for endurance, for steadfastness. Implicit in Dungy’s meaning is that she has read and heard tree stories before, and that those stories were violent, murderous—stories of men swinging and families grieving, of terror and torture. Those stories are here in Black Nature, as are others, including ones of appreciation, awe, peace.
The anthology is a dynamic, thorough, thoughtful collection of many things: American ecopoetry, African American poetry, African American nature poems, contemporary poetry in general. The poetry itself is by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, moving, horrifying, soothing, but the organizing principles of the anthology are just as interesting, surprising, and effective, and the space the collection opens up for understanding, for re-understanding and recovering, American nature poetry is wide and wonderful. Incorporating 180 poems from 93 poets, Dungy divides the book into ten “cycles,” or thematically chosen sections, eschewing the chronological arrangement that one might expect when an anthology mentions “four centuries” in its title.
The cycles themselves feel organically chosen and arranged, and there’s overlap—sometimes you might think a poem in one section could have also gone in another one. (If you were reading this book with a class—and if you teach, you should—many sessions could be spent just continuing the conversations poems start with each other in each section and thinking about what they say together...) Rather than imposing a kind of classification-and-division scheme on the poets, historical, geographical, or otherwise, these sections arise from patterns within, from the conversations among, the poems, and Dungy explains some of her thinking on the individual sections in the insightful Introduction to the book. Beginning with “Just Looking,” and ending with “Comes Always Spring,” there are also sections built around specific things, like insects/pests and disasters, as well as ideas, such as experiencing nature, and forsakenness. And of course, specific things, like insects and trees, collect metaphorical significance around them that provides much to ponder. Dungy balances past and present in her choice of poems, although a wealth of recent material reflects the vibrance of contemporary African American poetry, and readers will find classical authors and famous current names next to poets whose work they've never encountered.
Beginning with little prose pieces that both comment on and enact the anthology’s poetics, each section mixes historical periods, forms, and aesthetics. Beyond artistic excellence, those poetics are best characterized by wellness and wholeness: of nature and culture, of human and not human, of city/urban and nature. Individual poems, and the anthology overall, seek to bridge the divides and the divisiveness that undermine, and threaten to destroy, our society and world. Here for instance is Ed Roberson at the beginning of “Just Looking,” writing about nature poetry, ecopoetics, and the particular African American experience of nature, which includes both the world of spirit and the human world:
Africans who came enslaved to this country as a commercially exploitable resource experienced how the parallels in policies of colonialism and the one-sided exploitation of natural ecologies deform human relationships. But Africans also brought a relationship to Nature with them that defended them against this distortion. “High John the Conquer (conjure) Root” is a spirit plant you can eat and use to cure, but you had to know what to look for to find him. This is not so much anthropomorphizing of Nature as it is an observant accumulating of the knowledge of self in an also living environment….In my own poems I try to show our social nature in and as the growth of our cities and city culture. Our technology, however, is more likely to conserve, regenerate, and nourish the limiting and exclusive resource base of capitalism than our larger human or Earth/Nature. Restoring this larger Earth to urban poetry, embedding city life within a living Nature focuses on an interrelation that should keep us sensitized to exploitative relationships which could cut us off, cut us out of life. In an African sense, extinction also is a spirit plant that probably grows where HighJohn the Conjaroot grows, and we have to know what we’re looking for… or we’ll find him. (5)
Roberson’s voice reverberates through the collection—returning and resounding in five formally diverse poems, including the sonnet, “be careful,” which unites environmental stewardship with poetic craft:
i must be careful not to shake
anything in too wild an elation. not to jar
the fragile mountains against the paper far-
ness. nor avalanche the fog or the eagle from the air.
of the gentle wilderness i must set the precarious
words. like rocks. without one snowcapped mistake. (29)
One of the delights of Black Nature is its demonstration of what contemporary poetry/poets can do formally and narratively. There are lyrical / autobiographical / descriptive poems here (what I, at least, associate with 18th-20th c. “nature” poetry), but they are not the dominant mode: contemplation of nature is embedded in the human / the historical, and vice-versa. It’s an other-focused poetry that makes tremendous use of both historical material and fictional tools, like point-of-view. Marilyn Nelson’s marvelous biographical work on George Washington Carver is included in several sections. (If you’re not familiar with that brilliant book, Carver: A Life in Poems, you should stop now and buy / borrow / read it.) Her “Ruellia Noctiflora,” for example, tells the story of Carver running out of the woods with news of finding a rare kind of petunia, from the perspective of a girl on her way to Sunday morning choir practice and church:
If we hurried, I could see it
before it closed to contemplate
Hand in hand, we entered
the light-spattered morning-dark woods.
Where he pointed was only a white flower
until I saw him seeing it. (17)
Patricia Smith’s powerful poem, “Won’t Be But a Minute,” from Blood Dazzler, her chronicle of Hurricane Katrina, is also here; so are earlier persona pieces from, for example, Jean Toomer’s classic, mixed-genre novel, Cane, both of which remind us of the connections of history, culture, race, and class to the experience of nature in America:
I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are cradled.
But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger.
I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.
I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger.
My eyes are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time.
I am a blind man who stares across the hills, seeking stack’d fields of other harvesters. (Toomer, “Harvest Song,” 93)
Sometimes the point of view is elevated, as in Toomer, sometimes surprising and satirical, as in Tim Seibles’ “Ambition II: Mosquito in the Mist,” spoken by a gansta mosquito:
My family and me are small things
tryin’ a quench a thirst. It’s our nature.
The random violence is really
uncalled for. The bashing, the swatting…
And the cursing! Fuck you guys, man!
It’s like you never heard’a the word
Taken together, these are marvelously varied, artful poems of wit and witness that require us to look not just at the sky, or the mountains, or the ocean, but at the people embedded within those scapes, as well as what they create there, good and bad, and the interaction of humans and environment.
Explaining another imperative of this collection, righting / writing the historical record as it bears on nature, and vice-versa, Ravi Howard eloquently says in the short essay, “We Are Not Strangers Here”:
At some point, the terms urban and black became interchangeable. Such terminology would have us believe that our history began in cities and that we are a people of concrete and bricks, far removed from the oaks, rivers, and low country. But the black poets on these pages have illuminated the connections and their meanings across the generations. … These words have helped to bridge the distance between an urbanized view of blackness and the natural world, a gap that, left unchecked, leaves more room for distortions. (37-8)
Or, as Margaret Walker expresses it in another persona poem, “Sorrow Home”:
My roots are deep in southern life; deeper than John Brown
or Nat Turner or Robert Lee. I was sired and weaned
in a tropic world. The palm tree and banana leaf,
mango and coconut, breadfruit and rubber trees know me.
Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood. I belong
with the smell of fresh pine, with the train of coon, and
the spring growth of wild onion.
I am no hothouse bulb to be reared in steam-heated flats
with the music of EL and subway in my ears, walled in
by steel and wood and brick far from the sky.
An especially powerful cycle in the book is “Pests, People Too,” which includes Seibles’ mosquito poem, along with, among others, poems about boll weevils, ladybugs, rats, roaches, starlings, snakes, bees, and conquistadors. The levels and layers of the poems are often stunning, as in Major Jackson’s “Pest,” which begins with termites and ends with a body search by an entomologically-inclined cop:
How lucky I was
spread-eagled at 13, discovering the ruinous cry
of insects as the night air flashed reds
& blues, as a lone voice chirped & cracked
over a radio; the city crumbling. We stood
a second longer sharing the deafening hum
of termites, back from their play & rest
till he swung suddenly my right arm then my left. (118)
Tara Betts’ “For Those Who Need a True Story” tells a terrible tale of a woman motivated by the promise of $12 per body against her rent to poison and pack up enough rats, with the help of her child, for three months:
They waded through these small deaths with rubber gloves,
listened to the thump of each dead rat as it rustled against
the slackness of plastic bags.
Raymond wanted to stop counting,
but mama needed to save a dozen dollars
wherever she could
if they wanted to finally leave the rats behind.
After the last rat was counted, Raymond handed
the bag to the landlord as proof. Here.
Enough rats to skip the rent for three months.
Enough rats to avoid the fear of sweet sleeping
breath leading to bitten lips.
Healthy children wrapped in designer dictates
cannot describe Raymond’s fear of rabies,
the smell of poison rotting from the inside out,
the scratching inside the walls at night.
should find soft lives
that drop pendulums in their dreams
and never tell another story
about the ghetto
until they’ve had to count rats
with their hands. (125)
Audre Lord’s, “The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches,” takes a different strategy, told from the point of view of humanized roaches, who represent marginalized people. Her poem should make us acutely aware, among other things, of the extent to which language can dehumanize:
I am you
in your most deeply cherished nightmare
scuttling through the painted cracks
you create to admit me
into your kitchens
into your fearful midnights
into your values at noon
in your most secret places
you learn to honor me
as I alter—
through your greedy preoccupations
through your kitchen wars
and your poisonous refusal—
These are compelling poems, juxtaposed in intriguing ways, in terms of content, metaphor, form, historical period. I love for example George Marion McClellan’s antebellum “A September Night” from his 1916 book, The Path of Dreams, followed by Thylias Moss’s “Sweet Enough Ocean, Cotton,” from Slave Moth (2004), both of which dwell on the image of the cotton field, and its beauty; though Moss much more evidently problemetizes that beauty, speaking from the point-of-view of a worker, McClellan ends his poem with the signifying image of the plantation slave and “the songs / I cannot sing,” the “loves I cannot speak”(22).
Likewise, the poem “Emmett Till,” by James A. Emmanuel, embedded in the section, “Disasters, Natural and Other,” near poems of flood, earthquake, ice storm, is rendered even more terrible through that juxtaposition:
I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Won’t be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
A coral toy. (191)
As Mona Lisa Saloy says in her essay, “Disasters, Nature, and Poetry,” the introduction to this section:
Through poetry, human beings can relive trauma, injury, catastrophe, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional, real or imagined, and reacquaint ourselves with our most inner resources, our ability to regenerate and manifest as whole again….Poets are not journalists snapping photos. Poetry weaves words to record not just what happens but what sense we can make of it, what is important for us to consider, what is good for us to keep. (183)
What’s good for us to keep. The intriguing mixing of poems of the past and present within each section, along with the importance of the historical within the material, draws our attention to human time throughout Black Nature, but embeds it in a larger, longer time frame. Next to mountains, next to water, next to sky, four hundred years is a blink, and poetic tools of the past, aesthetic choices, are interestingly, strangely, defamiliarized and refamiliarized, making us aware of the relative brevity of published poetry, as well as the continuing availability of all of these forms and styles to us, as we recycle and return to them. Here again is Tim Seibles in the anthology’s concluding poem, “Fearless,” which circles back to the trees that begin Black Nature:
The shoots rising in spite of every plot
against them. Every chemical stupidity,
every burned field, every better
home & garden finally overrun
by the green will, the green greenness
of green things growing greener.
The mad Earth publishing
Her many million murmuring
how the shade pours
from the big branches—the ground,
the good ground, pubic
and sweet. The trees—who
are they? Their stillness, that
long silence, the never
running away. (349)
I said at the beginning of this review that Black Nature, among its many virtues, opens up space for a re-visioning of what American nature poetry is and has been. It's also an important map of what it can be, as more poets turn away from themselves and towards the world, listening for what murmuring unsaids must be spoken.