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Wolf pack, Yellowstone. (NPS Photo)

In the title poem to her latest book of poems, Trophic Cascade, Camille T. Dungy catalogues the reemergence of species in the wake of the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

In ecology, “trophic” refers to the relationships between species in a food chain or web. While in some respects this is both a list poem and a nature poem, it builds (or cascades) with such a “degree of motion and momentum” (to quote the poet in an essay) that it becomes something more.

Dungy mimics the kind of rhythmic swells leading to a break at the end of her line that one sees or hears in an ocean tide, and it’s the kind of rhythm and cadence the poet says she wants to achieve in her poems. But what I love most about this poem is how Dungy pivots at the end—in a way representative of how so much of her poetry works—with what she calls, in the same essay to which I refer above, an “inevitable surprise.”

“We know the line will break, and we might even have an idea of where and how the physical boundary might present itself on the page, and that is part of the beauty,” Dungy writes. “But for that beauty to work to its full potential there must also be much that comes as a surprise.” That surprise, in this case, puts a whole new perspective on our most basic trophic relationship.

Camille Dungy is the author of three other books of poetry, including Smith BlueSuck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as a fabulous memoir-in-essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. She also edited the important anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and has received an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and an NEA Fellowship.

Here is Camille T. Dungy’s poem, “Trophic Cascade”

After the reintroduction of gray wolves
to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling
of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt
of the midcentury. In their up reach
songbirds nested, who scattered
seed for underbrush, and in that cover
warrened snowshoe hare. Weasel and water shrew
returned, also vole, and came soon hawk
and falcon, bald eagle, kestrel, and with them
hawk shadow, falcon shadow. Eagle shade
and kestrel shade haunted newly-berried
runnels where mule deer no longer rummaged, cautious
as they were, now, of being surprised by wolves. Berries
brought bear, while undergrowth and willows, growing now
right down to the river, brought beavers,
who dam. Muskrats came to the dams, and tadpoles.
Came, too, the night song of the fathers
of tadpoles. With water striders, the dark
gray American dipper bobbed in fresh pools
of the river, and fish stayed, and the bear, who
fished, also culled deer fawns and to their kill scraps
came vulture and coyote, long gone in the region
until now, and their scat scattered seed, and more
trees, brush, and berries grew up along the river
that had run straight and so flooded but thus dammed,
compelled to meander, is less prone to overrun. Don’t
you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this
life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time
a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

c) 2015 Camille T. Dungy, from Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press, 2017

Used by permission of the author.

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São Miguel, Azores, Portugal

“I don’t write to say what I think. I write to find out what I’m thinking,” said the poet Gary Snyder. To that I might add, I write to understand who I am.

Lately, I’ve been working on a project—a kind of enhanced memoir—that explores my Portuguese family history. As part of this project, I’ll be going to the Island of São Miguel in the Azores this summer, where two of my maternal great-grandparents came from, for a residency hosted by DISQUIET International, which brings together Portuguese and Portuguese-American writers.

I first started researching my Portuguese roots back in the 90s and, coincidentally, that’s when I met the Portuguese poet, Nuno Júdice. He read at Poets House, along with the translator Richard Zenith, in December of 1994.

The author of over twenty books of poems, Júdice was born in 1949, on the southern coast of Portugal, in the region known as the Algarve. He is currently a professor at Lisbon’s Universidade Nova and directs the Colóquio/Letters program for the Gulbenkian Foundation. I’m hoping to see him in Lisbon when we are on the mainland.

Here is Nuno Júdice’s “Poema” in its original and in a translation by Martin Earl.

POEMA

As coisas mais simples, ouço-as no intervalo

do vento, quando um simples bater de chuva nos

vidros rompe o silêncio da noite, e o seu ritmo

se sobrepõe ao das palavras. Por vezes, é uma

voz cansada, que repete incansavelmente

o que a noite ensina a quem a vive; de outras

vezes, corre, apressada, atropelando sentidos

e frases como se quisesse chegar ao fim, mais

depressa do que a madrugada. São coisas simples

como a areia que se apanha, e escorre por

entre os dedos enquanto os olhos procuram

uma linha nítida no horizonte; ou são as

coisas que subitamente lembramos, quando

o sol emerge num breve rasgão de nuvem.

Estas são as coisas que passam, quando o vento

fica; e são elas que tentamos lembrar, como

se as tivéssemos ouvido, e o ruído da chuva nos

vidros não tivesse apagado a sua voz.

POEM

It’s the simplest things that I hear in the wind’s

intervals, when the simple beating of the rain

on the windows breaks the silence of night, and its rhythm

overwhelms that of words. Sometimes, it is a

tired voice, that tirelessly repeats

what the night teaches those who live it; other

times, it runs, hurriedly, mowing down meanings

and phrases as though it wanted to reach the end, more

quickly than the dawn. We’re talking about simple things,

like the sand which is scooped up, and runs

through your fingers while your eyes search

for a clear line on the horizon; or things

that we suddenly remember, when

the sun emerges from a brief tear in the clouds.

These are the things that happen, when the wind

remains; and it is these we try to recall, as though

we had heard them, and the noise of the rain

on the windowpanes had not snuffed out their voice.

 

© 2006 Nuno Júdice, from As coisas mais simples, Lisbon: Dom Quixote, 2006

Translation © 2007 Martin Earl, first published on Poetry International, 2014

 

 

Cleaver Magazine published my craft essay, “Poetry As Practice,” earlier this year:

Paying-AttentionPOETRY AS PRACTICE
How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction
A Craft Essay
by Scott Edward Anderson

In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor

Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.

Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.

Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go. READ MORE

Cover

If you don’t know the poetry of Walter Pavlich, you now have the opportunity to explore his work in a new book, Sensational Nightingales: Collected Poems of Walter Pavlich, just published by Lynx House Press and edited by poet David Axelrod.

To whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from the Introduction I wrote for the book (the “Read more” link will take you to the full introduction as it appears on basalt):

“Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance,” poet Richard Hugo wrote. Hugo’s student, Walter Pavlich, once said in an interview, “I’ve always tried to define – and celebrate – sort of hard things in life. To try to find beauty in them – or to be more patient and watch the beauty unfold.”

Like Hugo, Pavlich wrote about the western landscapes he inhabited and the people he encountered there, and like Hugo, he was a regionalist in the best sense of the word: someone who knows the place where he lives and writes from that place well-observed.

Hugo’s influence, and by extension Theodore Roethke, with whom Hugo studied, is fairly evident in Pavlich’s work, especially the early poems. Yet, as his widow and soulmate Sandra McPherson wrote to me, Walter “was incredibly rich & rare & doesn’t merely sound like Dick Hugo at all; [he] also had subjects from his engaged life.”

Pavlich’s engaged life included work as a wildfire fighter, “smoke jumper,” and poetry teacher in prisons and schools. Born in Portland, Oregon, Pavlich graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene and earned an MFA from the University of Montana, and his fondness for the forests and coastal environments of the Pacific Northwest of the United States pervades his poetry.

Something Sandra said to me also seems pervasive in Walter’s poetry: he had “a kind of spiritual isolation or loneliness he’s not explicit about.”

I think of Walter Pavlich as a “soulful traveler”… Read more

 

The Hamline University English Department recently conducted an in-depth Q&A with me about two of my poems, “Naming” and “Villanesca.”

Here is a link to their blog, Hamline Lit Link, where it was posted: Read more

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Snyder Riprap

The author’s copy of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder.

Schuykill Valley Journal Online published my essay on Gary Snyder’s “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” last month. Here are the introductory paragraphs and a link to the full essay:

To get to Sourdough Mountain Lookout, you hike a good five miles, gaining 5000 feet or more of elevation. The terrain is rugged and the hiking strenuous, but that’s to be expected in the Northern Cascades. Located 130 miles northeast of Seattle, Washington, the Forest Service opened one of its first lookouts here in 1915.

The view from the lookout station, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a postcard in every direction: Hozomeen Mountain and Desolation Peak looking north, Jack and Crater mountains out east, Pyramid and Colonial peaks to the south with Ross and Diablo lakes directly below, and, as if not to be outdone, the Picket Range is off to the west. This is impressive country and you can understand why it’s been an inspiration to poets and writers for generations.

Poet Gary Snyder was 23 when he worked as a fire-spotter on Sourdough Mountain in 1953.

Read More

 

Whatever you think of John Ashbery’s poetry — and there are opinions for and against, none of which I’m going to get into here — you cannot argue with the fact that he has been a presence in the word of Art and Letters since first emerging on the scene in 1956.

I have a soft spot for Mr. Ashbery, not necessarily because of his poetry or the fact that he hails from Rochester, New York, outside of which I spent my middle and high school years.

 

Rather, my fondness stems from his selecting one of my poems, “Becoming,” which is part of my Dwelling sequence and appears in my book Fallow Field, to represent the Millay Colony for the Arts, in its 30th Anniversary Exhibit at the Albany (NY) International Airport Gallery, in a juried show, from January-August 2004.

The poem, along with others in the sequence, was written during my residency at the colony in November 2002.

A heady feeling having my poem displayed in this context, adhesive red vinyl letters applied to the thick glass walls overlooking the security area. As I recall, my poem was positioned next to one by Colette Inez, another former resident at the colony, as a dear friend. In a way, it was a bit like being in an Ashbery poem.

(The photos here, blurry and boozily out-of-focus, seem to exemplify that feeling. And I had no idea my scarf was going to mimic the colors of the letters!)

Here is my poem, “Becoming,” with thanks to Mr. Ashbery — on this, his 90th birthday –for recognizing it in the way he did.

 

Becoming

 

Say that childhood memory

has more relevance than yesterday–

 

a moose calf curled up against the side of a house

 

merely saying it may make it so.

 

The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

 

            a hermit crab crawling out of a coconut

 

–no, the child growing taller.

 

            a sharp-shinned hawk swooping over a stubble field

 

imagining the earth, “the earth is all before me,”

blossoming as it stretches to the sun–

 

            a brilliant red eft – baby salamander — held aloft in a small, pink hand

 

Is home the mother’s embrace?

 

            a white cabbage butterfly flitting atop purple flox

 

The child sees his world or hers

 

            stroking the furry back of a bumblebee

 

head full of seed, until it droops,

spent, ready to sow the seeds.

 

Say that our presence in the world

 

a millipede curling up at the child’s slightest touch

 

is making the book of our becoming.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson