Redefining Nature: Mary Oliver, Al Young, Ross Gay, Ed Roberson and Lucille Clifton

(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

(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

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

Here’s the psychological:

[…] Disorder and astonishment

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


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—


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,
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.


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: 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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