Archive for June, 2011


(ARTWORK: Courtesy of Salmon Poetry)

A guy walks into a bar. Or is it a Middle Eastern novelty store? A coffee shop?

Well, he’s somewhere in northern Japan, nursing a drink and tapping his fingers as “Lady/ Day simmers overhead”. The guy’s an expatriate, disillusioned by his country’s prejudice against people of color and the queer community—both of which marked him back home.

It’s men like the unnamed speaker, guys coming to terms with their sexuality, whose journeys Kevin Simmonds tracks in his debut collection of poems Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011). (The book is available for pre-orders now and will ship on August 15, with the big release Sept. 1.)

The dejected speakers are men whose “unforgivably christian” fathers have written them off for being gay. As a result of that, they look for what their fathers couldn’t give them in other men. A father’s love takes on various forms in this 90-page collection.

For the expatriate in “Geography”, it’s “Tsuyoshi, the bartender”, whose quiet patience makes him a father figure to the speaker.

While there’s not much known about the two men’s relationship with one another, one thing that’s known is the speaker’s been in Tsuyoshi’s spot before. The speaker’s tone is intimate here:

Tsuyoshi’s drying glasses and wondering about me, why I would bring my
body all this way and sit across from him […]
[…] why I’d come to live in a small town
only to be misunderstood […]

That Tsuyoshi knew enough to wonder those things says the men aren’t just on a first name basis with each other. The physical details are striking:

(IMAGE: Stock)

[…] Ice melts as Lady
Day simmers overhead.

Tsuyoshi’s drying glasses […]
[…] he’s setting down
like chess pieces.

It’s impossible to read “Geography” and not think of the novelist, playwright and poet James Baldwin, who fled the U.S. in 1948, decades before the speaker’s expatriation for similar reasons.

The essayist and civil rights activist spent most of his later life in France. Like Baldwin, Simmonds’s speaker in “Geography” fled to leave behind the hopelessness men like him succumbed to back in his country.

For those who couldn’t flee hopelessness, it overwhelmed them like it did the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”, a poem about self-mutilation (“give the wound  finally/ a mouth/ a smile on each wrist”).

The tone starts off sad. With nothing to live for, the speaker’s contemplation of death is clear in the psychological details:

who will claim me
[…] toe-tagged
[…] nearly 40
still with every candle
ever lit
& blown out in me

When we get to “a father unforgivably christian/ & Jamaican/ fine without my call/ on father’s day”, the speaker’s tone is angry. He even entertains the thought of castrating his own father (“observe as meat falls/ without his seed/ his rightful & clean erection”).

The speaker’s state of mind is not only an attribute of his father’s rejection, but other long-held hurts.

(PHOTO: NAPAB.com)

In her Huffington Post article “LGBT Bullying in School Linked To Long-Term Health Effects In New Report,” Joy Resmovits writes “that LGBT-targeted bullying related to gender expression or sexual orientation during school years led to increased young adult depression, suicidal thoughts, social adjustment issues and risky behavior.”

She adds, “LGBT Young adults that reported high levels of anti-LGBT victimization as teens were 5.6 times more likely to report suicide attempts than those victimized less frequently.”

No doubt, given how some kids are cruel, Simmonds’s speaker in “bouquet of scalpels” was bullied. But instead of acting on those violent thoughts, he takes “cover/ in another man’s body/ as” the other man “takes cover/ in mine”.

That the men take “cover” in each other’s body evokes the cliché “love heals all things”. Despite the speaker’s sad and angry tones, the musical moments in “bouquet of scalpels” give the poem some pleasurable moments. Check out the rhyme with “me” and “memory”: “come rot with me/ or trembling/ withstand memory”.

Here are the stretched and short “E” sounds: “he who led me […]” and “[…] perfected agonies/ nearly 40”. Another musical moment is the recurring “H” sounds: “he who […]”. Then there’s the recurring “observe as meat falls”, which intensifies the speaker’s thought of castrating his father.

(PHOTO: Voices Rising) Kevin Simmonds is a musician, writer and artist living in San Francisco.

That the thought even crosses the speaker’s mind speaks to his wish for revenge against a man who emasculated him throughout his childhood. In that context, the father’s the bully who contributes to the suffering that follows the speaker well into adulthood (“nearly 40”).

While the father’s rejection infuriates the speaker in “bouquet of scalpel”, it sends the “baby faced man” in “Tenor” seeking attention from other men. The sexual energy in “Tenor” is heightened when the “baby faced man” becomes a desired object that will “be made to obey/ be held steady by the promise/ in a man’s nonchalance”.

What’s clear earlier on is that the “baby faced man” is as damaged as the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”. Both men are hopeless but for different reasons. Unlike the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”, the “baby faced man” is not sad or angry. His reckless sexual acts are what make him hopeless.

Here, “baby faced man” leaves himself, both literally and figuratively, open to be taken advantage of. An initial interpretation was that the speaker in “Tenor” took advantage of “baby faced man”:

he imagines how
to build a father
A father needs to be seduced
at the urinals
sure you’ll swallow
after the fuck
even the shit on the tip.

By assuming the role of “a father”, the speaker is a predator preying on a misguided man’s weakness.

However, rereading “Tenor” provides another interpretation. Suppose the speaker’s not the one “fathering” the “baby faced man”. Suppose the speaker’s a bystander overhearing someone else with “baby faced man”; then the other man is the predator. (In that case, apologies to the speaker.)

(PHOTO: Lorensworld.com)

In that context, the “you” (“[…] you’ll swallow/ after the fuck/ even the shit on the tip”) makes sense. And so does the speaker’s uncertainty in the last stanza:

The baby faced man is a singer
and when I listen to his voice
I’m unconvinced the trembling vibrato
is really his […]

The poem “Bad Catholics” reduces the speaker, his father and siblings to rabid animals that, as the epigraph states, “become less aggressive at the site of meat.” On the surface, the poem is about giving into carnal desires:

We kept the butcher’s block bloody
through Lent

Calm coming over us like gravy
at the sight of pot roast

A stew of slowed cognition
we were blunt in our surrender

“Bad Catholics” is musical right away, with its alliterations: “[…] butcher’s block bloody” and “Calm coming […]”. Then there’s the recurring “S” sounds—“stew of slowed” and “surrender”—in the third stanza. While those moments didn’t intensify anything in the poem, they made “Bad Catholics” a pleasurable read.

(PHOTO: fedtothepigs.com)

Considering that the meat is what satisfies the “five boys & a husband”, Simmonds is clever in how he uses “Bad Catholics” to allude to the issue of the “down low”, or men who have sex with other men unbeknownst to their girlfriends.

In that context, the speaker’s father is to the butcher what the “pot roast” and “lamb” are to the “five boys & a husband”. That the speaker’s “mom […]/ […] kept an eye  on the butcher/ his […] special discounts/ whenever dad  made the trip alone” speaks to the mother’s insecurities.

The allusion to the “down low” is the fact the speaker’s mom sees the butcher as a threat to her happy home, as if the mom thought there was a possibility her husband might be a man on the “down low”.

Going back to hopelessness, gay men in Mad for Meat aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by it. Everyone’s fair game in the opening poem “Gift”:

He saw a galaxy
in meat

& from all over
they brought their cuts

laid them down
for him to divine

iridescent foil or the way
it locked into bone

No one knows
. . .

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

But he saw car brakes
jam

unresponsive as lungs
in a grandson’s chest

as the inhaler lies
miles away

on the bathroom sink
. . .

& there were the winning numbers
shining from a mutton shank

Once, he bent down
left ear listening

to a loin
as if through a trapdoor

The poor
or misinformed

would bring turnips
or misshapen potatoes

He tried with those
& gills of fish

but could never find
the pulse

The speaker’s tone is one of sympathy for those who bring “their cuts/ […] for him to divine”, those hoping that “winning numbers” shine “from a mutton shank”, “the poor/ or misinformed” who “bring turnips/ or misshapen potatoes”.

(PHOTO: Collective Brightness) Kevin Simmonds

The folks in “Gift” are as hopeless as the “baby faced man” in “Tenor”. Like the “baby faced man”, the people in “Gift” leave themselves open for someone to take advantage of them.

On one level, it’s ludicrous that anyone would see any credibility in a guy who “saw a galaxy in meat” or who listened “to a loin as if through a trapdoor”. Someone like him would otherwise be dismissed as a lunatic, or be strapped in a mental institution’s padded room.

On another level, that the guy is even seen as credible says something about the people who trust him. In that context, “Gift” speaks to desperation driven by hard economic times (“[…] winning numbers/ shining from a mutton shank”).

Most recently that desperation’s manifested itself in the something-for-nothing crowd being taken by the Nigerian Scam, which involves a wealthy foreigner enlisting the help of the unsuspecting victim to move millions of dollars from their homeland. The victim’s promised a reward (a percentage of the fortune) for his/her assistance.

The scam’s successful, according to finance officials. “We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months,” Special Agent James Caldwell, of the Secret Service financial division, was quoted in a 1997 newspaper article. “And that’s just the ones we know of.”

The desperation in “Gift” is also driven by a general concern of the future’s uncertainties ([…] car brakes/ jam/ unresponsive as lungs/ in a grandson’s chest”). That Simmonds’s speaker is sympathetic instead of condescending is reason enough to love Mad for Meat.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Hang out in the blogosphere long enough, and it might seem like everyone nowadays is going the route of what the title of this post suggest—particularly when it comes to dads.

I recently read various blogs honoring dads publicly that ranged from gut busters (“Movie Dads Who My Dad Could Beat Up” and “My Dad Has No Rhythm, Yet Is Master Of The Dance”), to sentimental (“Ten Ways to  Say ‘Thank you, Dad’”), to sad reflections (“The words of my Father”).

I fell into one or more of those categories last year, when I did the same (“Art of the Father”) after another blogger asked me to contribute to an online discussion on fatherhood.

(Since I’m not a father, I wrote about my dad—a man who emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S., who brought his childhood sweetheart (they grew up three houses apart) here and married her shortly before buying his first house. He did all these things, including becoming a father, before he was 28. At 30, I just got engaged. So you see why I stopped competing with him a long time ago.)

At the time I wrote the essay, I had no idea of its significance beyond fulfilling a request from a friend and putting a smile on both my mom and fiancée’s faces.

To understand why I didn’t show the ol’ man the essay on Father’s Day is to know a man who has automated responses to any gesture of kindness towards him. These responses include “Not bad” and “That sounds (or looks—depending on the task and his choice of variation) like something I would’ve said (or done)”.

Other times, he’d say what was wrong with the gesture (or what he would’ve done differently) and sometimes he wouldn’t acknowledge the act right there. (I’d have to hear about his reaction from my mom way after the fact.)

So you can imagine the smile of a boy going slack and his shoulders slumping—after throwing himself completely into the task of pleasing his father, hoping the ol’ man’ll get emotional instead of the straight-faced, “Not bad.”

(PHOTO: Marvel Comics)

In retrospect, those automated responses and his occasional harsh words that prompted arguments between him and others were his armor. Only my mother, grandmother and a select few of his 10 siblings saw his vulnerabilities—what I’d later notice in his transformation from the gregarious and lively storyteller to the awkwardly silent man when certain topics of discussion went over his head.

I’d see his vulnerabilities later when my aunt and uncle (both of whom were his older siblings/best friends) passed away—one from cancer and the other from medical malpractice. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep me from catching a glimpse of what he might’ve been like as a boy when he watched his mother suffer from Alzheimer’s, shortly before she passed away.

As a man graceful enough on his feet to raise the two-step to the level of ballroom dancing, it took him swallowing his pride when he asked my mom to teach him the Electric Slide. (Dad got tired of watching everyone else do it at weddings.)

Some of his vulnerabilities, despite the cool demeanor he used to veil them, were painfully obvious. The man I once believed could not only beat up “movie dads”, but any dad for that matter, needed me to read him things he couldn’t see with his CVS “reading” glasses.

There were times he needed me to type things for him—things he would’ve otherwise labored over by two-finger typing. (I once saw the smile slide off his face when, joking about the spectacle of his 6-foot-1 and medium built frame typing, I said he looked like Tyrannosaurus Rex idly clacking away at a keyboard.)

Understanding how he tried to hide his vulnerabilities, I didn’t show him the essay because I didn’t want a lecture on what was wrong with it or what he would’ve done differently. And he wouldn’t have seen it if what my mom told me hadn’t left me in disbelief.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

At the time of our conversation, I was looking for full-time work, after being laid off as a staff writer for a black newspaper in Baltimore. In between working a few art gigs and applying to job postings, I worked for my dad, who’s a self-employed master electrician/electrical contractor.

Over the phone, I told my mom about an opportunity to teach creative writing. After telling me how happy she was, I told her how I thought dad looked down on what I did as a writer. To that she said, “You know your father thought you looked down on what he does for a living.” I almost got emotional when mom told me, “He’s always been proud of you.”

That’s when I decided it was time to show him. That night, I emailed him the essay with a short note. He called right away and, as usual, talked about everything but the essay. And try as he might have, he couldn’t veil the man under the armor, of whom I got another glimpse when his voice got shaky.

(PAINTING: Peter Dee)

My introduction to nature poems came 11 years ago, when I was a freshman in a poetry class at the University of Maryland-College Park. Reading those poems by a handful of white writers was like looking at a painting of a bowl of fruit. Nothing moved in their poems. There was no narrative or deep meaning beyond the natural world’s presence.

Like that bowl of fruit, nature simply existed for the sake of being displayed in their work. Those kinds of poems both bored and irritated me. They were boring because the poems were anecdotal and lacked a greater narrative, and they were irritating because here were writers who, I thought then, had the luxury of writing solely about nature as wilderness—a luxury not given to writers of color who had to deal with race and/or xenophobia every day of their lives.

It wasn’t until later that I realized not every white writer had that luxury. I also hadn’t taken into consideration the geographic locations of the handful of writers I read in that college classroom. It’s a good chance that if those writers grew up or lived in an urban setting, they might’ve been moved to write about something else.

But I still couldn’t imagine writers of color solely writing about nature. Maybe that was me buying into the stereotype that black people weren’t as engaged with nature as white people. It also didn’t help that, until now, there wasn’t an anthology of poems from writers of color dealing with nature on multiple levels.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Mary Oliver

Well 11 years later, I’ve come across both black and white writers who turn the natural world on its head in their poems. Among them are Mary Oliver and an anthology of black voices staking their claim in the natural world. In both Oliver’s American Primitive and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (ed. Camille Dungy), the speakers use nature as a way of focusing on a variety of issues from racial profiling[1], to the overlooked elements in urban settings[2], to a conversation between a poet and his unborn child[3].

Nature’s sexual and political implications pervade Mary Oliver’s American Primitive. What makes this collection amazing is how the speaker’s use of the natural world suggests that it’s natural for everyone to be kind and sympathetic to one another.

That humanitarianism is in the poem, “The Kitten”. These physical details brought me into the moment:

I took the perfectly black
stillborn kitten
with one large eye
in the center of its small forehead
from the house cat’s bed
and buried it in a field
behind the house[4]

I saw the speaker in the field before she “opened the earth/ and put it back”.  The speaker’s test of humanity comes in the psychological details:

I suppose I could have given it
to a museum,
I could have called the local
newspaper[5]

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

I could imagine the temptation for the speaker to act on her thoughts. That there were circus freak shows says a lot about our human nature to exploit what we think are freaks.

Among those exploited was Saartjie ”Sarah” Baartman (better known as “Hottentot Venus”), who was of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa. Her large buttocks and elongated labia—the physical traits of some Khoisan women—made Baartman a sideshow attraction throughout Britain during the 19th century. She entertained people by gyrating her nude buttocks, what Europeans thought were highly unusual bodily features.

While Oliver’s speaker passed the test by not capitalizing on the dead kitten’s deformity, there’s a sense of doubt in these psychological details: “I think I did right to go out alone/ and give it back peacefully, and cover the place/ with the reckless blossoms of weeds[6].” That she thought she did right instead of knowing says the speaker might’ve contemplated giving “it to a museum” or calling “the local/ newspaper”.

There’s a musical moment in the first line of Oliver’s “The Kitten”: “More amazed than anything[7],” which is trochaic tetrameter with a dactylic foot (“MORE a|MAZED than|ANything”). This intensified the speaker’s tone, which was as formal as the ceremony of burying the kitten.

Another musical moment is “stillborn kitten,” which is trochaic dimeter (“STILLborn|KITten”). I could hear the percussive rapping of that meter, which set me up for the surprise of “[…] the large one eye/ in the center of its small forehead.”

That the speaker refers to the dead kitten as “it” intensified the formal tone and showed a distance between the speaker and the animal, which might be a result of the kitten dying before the speaker could get attached, or give it a name.

Other musical moments are the recurring “I could”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

[…] I could have given it
to a museum,
I could have called the local
newspaper.

This intensified the speaker’s uncertainty of doing the right thing. There’s also the recurring “saying”:

saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying, what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth […][8]

This not only affirms the one-eyed kitten’s existence, but the speaker’s attempt to convince herself she “did right”. The recurring “N” and short “I” sounds in “infinitely inventive” made reading that line pleasurable.

I think more information on the speaker would’ve helped me see her connection with the dead kitten. The solemn tone and care she takes to bury the kitten tells me this was not just an act of kindness on the speaker’s part.

Without that information, I’m left with questions: If it lived, would the speaker love the kitten, its deformities and all? Would the kitten’s one eye “in the center of its small forehead”, the thing that made life “infinitely inventive”, been the thing to bring both speaker and kitten closer? And if the speaker loved the kitten, despite its deformity, would that love show something about the speaker? (Was she the odd one out of the kids at her school? Or did her awkwardness around others make her an oddity?)

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

I enjoyed the playful tone of “The Plum Trees”, a poem about summer. The poem could also be about an orgasm since both the physical and psychological details have a sexual energy that intensifies the speaker’s excited tone.

Here’s the physical details that brought me into the moment:

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers![9]

Here’s the psychological:

[…] Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb[10].

The musical moments in Oliver’s “The Plum Trees” are the recurring “N” and “S” sounds (“nothing/ so sensible as sensual inundation[11].”). This intensified the tension even before the poem got sexier with the speaker’s declaration:

(PHOTO: TL Bridges)

[…] Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else […]
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.[12]

That “joy/ is a taste before/ it’s anything else” only wets the speaker’s appetite for adventure. She’s determined to devour “the important moments” even if it means her heart crying “for rest”. All I could say to that was, “Amen!”

Perhaps the most potent of Oliver’s poems is “Mushrooms”:

Rain, and then
the cool pursed
lips of the wind
draw them
out of the ground—

(PHOTO: Pixdaus.com)

red and yellow skulls
pummeling upward
through leaves,
through grasses,
through sand; astonishing
in their suddenness,
their quietude,
their wetness, they appear
on fall mornings, some
balancing in the earth
on one hoof
packed with poison,
others billowing
chunkily, and delicious—
those who know
walk out to gather, choosing
the benign from flocks
of glitterers, sorcerers,
russulas,
panther caps,
shark-white death angels
in their torn veils
looking innocent as sugar
but full of paralysis:

(PHOTO: Min Pin)

to eat
is to stagger down
fast as mushrooms themselves
when they are done being perfect
and overnight
slide back under the shining
field of rain.[13]

The physical details are striking:

the cool pursed
lips of the wind
draw them
out of the ground—
red and yellow skulls
pummeling upward
through leaves,
through grasses,
through sand

(PHOTO: M³odzian)

[…] they appear
on fall mornings, some
balancing in the earth
on one hoof

The psychological details are just as striking:

[…] astonishing
in their suddenness,
their quietude,
their wetness […]

On the surface, “Mushrooms” is a praise poem for the different species of mushrooms the speaker finds “astonishing”. But underneath the “leaves,/ […] grasses,/ […and] sand,” this could be a poem about racial profiling. The mushrooms “packed with poison” are metaphors for people who show aggression. Looking at that metaphor in the context of slavery, the slave owner would’ve considered the rebellious slaves as poisonous mushrooms.

(PHOTO: Politics365.com)

Among African Americans today, the poisonous mushrooms are gangbangers and drug dealers. Among Hispanics, in addition to what’s listed for black people, the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha-13), a transnational criminal gang, are the poisonous mushrooms. For Middle Easterners, the poisonous among them would be al-Qaeda terrorists. And for Anglo-Americans, the poisonous among them would be the KKK and Timothy McVeigh, to name a few.

But unlike non-white ethic groups, white people don’t have to bear the burdens of a few bad apples. They’re individualized by their white privilege in a way non-white ethnic groups are not.

Here are psychological details that intensify this interpretation:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

those who know
walk out to gather, choosing
the benign from […]
shark-white death angels
in their torn veils
looking innocent as sugar

In the context of racial profiling, “those who know” how to distinguish the poisonous mushrooms from the rest don’t have a monolithic view of non-white ethnic groups. Instead, they’re educated enough to know that a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch.

An apt observation of Oliver’s speaker is the comparison of the “shark-white death angels”—toxic and deadly mushrooms—to sugar. Since it’s in everything we eat, sugar also appears innocent. But too much of it is deadly, if the diabetes goes unchecked.

There’s also an allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Greek mythology tale of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. Just as Alice fell down the rabbit hole, anyone who eats the mushrooms “packed with poison” will “stagger down/ fast as mushrooms themselves”. That the “mushrooms themselves/ […] overnight/ slide back under the shining/ fields of rain” is an allusion to the myth of Persephone’s abduction, which personifies the reason vegetables sprout in spring and, after harvest, go back into the earth. This layering of meaning makes Oliver’s “Mushrooms” as complex as the species.

(PHOTO: Alyoung.org) Al Young

A musical moment is in “lips of the wind”, a dactylic foot (LIPS of the) followed by a trochaic foot with a missing unstressed (“WIND”). That meter’s recurrent in “OUT of the|GROUND” and “PUMmeling|UPward” (“Upward” is the only full trochaic foot in that recurrence). The dactylic and trochaic feet gave the poem a waltzing feel that contributed to the speaker’s playful tone, which worked well with the allusion to the Alice in Wonderland fairytale.

Al Young’s “The Mountains of California: Part I”, one of four poems I will, in the interest of space, focus on from the anthology Black Nature, echoes Oliver’s speaker. Like the speaker in Oliver’s “The Kitten”, when she gave the dead kitten back to the earth, Young’s speaker alludes to the Native American value system of respecting Mother Earth. Proof of this consciousness is in the psychological details:

I […]
flick the radio off out of respect
& out of the feeling that there are
more important waves
floating in & out of us, mostly thru us[14]

(ARTWORK: Pennie Austin)

A musical moment is the recurring “them”:

[…] John Muir was out here
living with them,
breaking himself in on them,
I just ride amongst them inside a car[15]

The winding rhythm made me feel like I was in the car with the speaker on the winding roads. This intensified the speaker’s tone, which was both playful and informal. I got the sense the speaker just got off work, loosened his  tie and unbuttoned his collar before a ride through the mountains.

Ross Gay’s “Poem To My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” is a conversation between the speaker and his unborn child. The physical details are striking:

[…] you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen […][16]

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ross Gay

That intensified the speaker’s intimate tone. Here’s the physical details that brought me into the moment between the speaker and imagined child:

[…] you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover[17]

These psychological details intensified the speaker’s intimate tone:

[…] you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.[18]

The musical moments are in the repetitions: “scream and scream and scream […] breath and breath”. This intensifies the moment by showing the imagined child’s actions, which lets the reader know Gay’s poem is not a one-sided conversation. Though the imagined child cannot speak, his/her actions is a nonverbal form of communicating that he/she understands what the speaker’s saying.

(PHOTO: UNIV) Ed Roberson

Unlike Mary Oliver’s, Young’s and Gay’s, Ed Roberson’s speaker completely redefines the natural world in “Urban Nature”. Roberson’s speaker rejects the nature that’s been defined by white writers: “Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,/ nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden/ thing, not that Nature, not a satori/ -al leisure come to terms peel by peel[19].”

Instead, Roberson’s nature consists of these stunning physical details: “The bus stop posture in the interval/ of nothing coming, a not quite here running/ sound underground[20].” Those lines made me smile because I’ve seen that “bus stop posture” when people lean out into the roadway to see if the bus is coming. I’ve smelled the ripened scent of “sweet berries” crushed “in the street”. I’ve heard the “not quite here running sound underground,” or the whistling of metal wheels on the track. Reading that line, I recalled the blinking bulbs on the platform and the bright light coming through the tunnel.

A musical moment in “Urban Nature” is the “neither”, and recurring “nor” and “not”: “Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,/ nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden/ thing, not that Nature, not a satori/ -al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core/ whiff of beauty […][21]”. I, especially, enjoyed the recurring “N” sounds in “not that Nature, not”. The elastic rhythm in the build-up made me think of a rubber band being stretched until it pops. That’s how the tension in those lines had me.

Like Oliver and others, Lucille Clifton’s speaker turns the natural world on its head. Here’s Clifton’s poem, “the earth is a living thing”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Lucille Clifton

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean[22]

In “the earth is a living thing”, the earth changes from a bear, to a hawk, to a fish, to a diamond, to “a favorite child/ of the universe”. Each stanza’s a declaration.

This is a poem that praises both the beauty and ugliness of the earth. The beauty is in the hyperbolic physical details: “a black shambling bear/ ruffling its wild back and tossing/ mountains into the sea”. The ugliness is the “black hawk […] circling the bones, picked clean and discarded” and the “fish black blind in the belly of water”.  The latter image reminded me of the recent BP oil spill and others before. Reading that line, I thought of oil-soaked fishes “black blind in the belly of water”.

(PHOTO: Epifaneeblu)

A musical moment is the recurring “B” sound: “[…] black shambling bear”, “[…] black blind in the belly […]”, and “[…] blind in the black belly […]”. There’s also the recurring “K” sound: “[…] black hawk circling […]”, “picked clean […]”, and “[…] kinky […]”. These moments made the poem pleasurable to read. Those consonants popped throughout Clifton’s poem, intensifying the speaker’s playful tone.

Another musical moment is the recurring “black”: “[…] black shambling bear”, […] black hawk circling”, “fish black blind […], “[…] black belly of coal”, and “[…] black and living thing”. I read each “black” as affirmations of blackness and pride. The last stanza confirms this, when Clifton’s speaker declares the earth’s final image:

[…] a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

Like Roberson’s, Clifton’s speaker redefines nature. In the case of “the earth is a living thing”, astronomy’s included as part of the natural world.

In both Mary Oliver’s American Primitive and the anthology Black Nature, the poems are far from stationary portraits. The speakers in both books go beyond the landscape, listening to what the natural world has to tell them.


[1] in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mushrooms”

[2] in Ed Roberson’s poem, “Urban Nature”

[3] in Ross Gay’s poem, “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be”

[4] Mary Oliver, American Primitive, New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1983, p. 6

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 84

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 4-5

[14] Al Young, “The Mountains of California: Part I,” in Black Nature…, Ed. Camille Dungy, Athens: University of George Press, 2009, p. 7

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ross Gay, in Black Nature, p. 61

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 60-61

[19] Ed Roberson, in Nature Poems, p. 65

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lucille Clifton, in Nature Poetry, p. 6

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