I first learned about the work of Camonghne Felix through Brooklyn Poets, where she was “Poet of the Week” in July 2015, and in Poetry Magazine around the same time. I was struck by her ability to weave together pop culture with the political in an illuminating and entertaining way.

Perhaps her most well-known poem, “Tonya Harding’s Fur Coats”—which I wanted to share, but its unusual formatting would be butchered by Gmail and WordPress—is a perfect example of this element of her work: social commentary that reaches beyond its pop-culture references to speak truth to the universal. (“The thing about being poor      is that you spend your days pointing,” is how the poem opens. You can read it here.)

In an interview on the website Empire Coven, Felix explains that for her, “what makes poetry and poets so special is that we create a world with imagination where we introduce new content, new ways of thinking, and new frameworks of thought. I am so curious to know what this world would like if there were a bunch of poets running it.”

Felix works as political strategist—she was most recently communications director for Amara Enyia’s Chicago mayoral campaign—and has an MA in Arts Politics from NYU and an MFA from Bard College. Her first book, Build Yourself a Boat, comes out later this month from Haymarket Books. You can order it here.

She has a favorite quote that stays with her—literally, as she told the interviewer from Empire Coven, as it is tattooed on her thigh—from a poem by the great Gwendolyn Brooks: “Say that the river turns and turn the river.”

As Felix explains, “Brooks spoke a lot about the intrinsic power of black womanhood and black femininity. When she wrote, ‘say that the river turns and turn the river,’ she really wrote it as a love letter to women and girls of color. It was a reminder that the world is not a great place, but we have a natural power and ability to transcend those bad things and make the world a better place.”

For Felix, it’s a reminder “that when I’m frustrated or something seems like its not working out, all I have to do is change something about the way I’m thinking or going through the world. That will change the way that I’m experiencing the world.”

In the poem I want to share today, the speaker of the poem seems to be addressing a lover who has been caught fooling around with another woman and the other woman, who has reached out to her through social media to try to explain herself, as if that would provide some comfort. Or perhaps, she meant to make the speaker uncomfortable.

Anyone who has known betrayal can relate, yet as Felix told me, part of what she’s trying to do “is working through the unique ways that black women experience heartbreak and trying to give black femme heartbreak space to live outside of the overall tragedy of race and gender.”

Here is Camonghne Felix’s poem,

“Aziza Gifts Me a New Pair of Pants and Saves Me from a Kind of Dysmorphia”

you turned me into the enigma of
your sleep and I could no longer

get to you, your dream girl novaed
into soluble wins, a Mustang expensive
and out of reach. I want nothing from

her, no information, no explanation,
yet, in my Facebook inbox, she talks
of chemistry, a perceived lack thereof

how she peppers you with the music
of your fantasies, lets you into
the strobe light, her body a

body of swan songs. I can’t help but
do the comparative math work, really
analyze the friction —

on a scale of one to fuck you I am 
obviously prettier, more compelling
better dressed, better situated for

the fixed follicle of long term care. She knows
the coke life, the nightlife, the way to shake
a man down to his flimsy desires

his petty pull to the things that will
kill him slow, his tongue a rat, a
hangnail at the edge of his mouth.

still, I know that perfection
is a matter of impulse and still
there is no one too perfect to feel

worthless. I cannot be bothered with
the multiple failures of my skin. Aziza says,
but, you are so beautiful

and yet, nothing fits. I am hungry
to return to the monster I know.
In my new room, there are no mirrors —

I am confounded with how ugly I feel
how thirsty I am to be something
ductile and pliable, calling out to the

back hand of the lover I know. We are
a bus ride apart and in the olive glow
of a high midnight, he texts me with

strangled, desperate remorse:

I want off this carousel
I need my girl, my life back
You are my only caboose

The only north star I know
My one way trip to something
Larger than my obnoxious instincts

Something larger than my
complicated, calculated need to be
Bigger than you.

—Camonghne Felix. This poem originally appeared in  PEN Poetry Series from PEN America. Used by permission of the author.

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Alice Pettway reading at Sacramento Poetry Center,
18 March 2019. Photo by SEA

Last month, I read with Alice Pettway at the Sacramento Poetry Center. Alice came all the way from Shanghai, where she lives with her husband, and read from her new book, Moth, which has just been published by the fabulous Salmon Poetry of County Clare, Ireland, and from her first book, The Time of Hunger / O Tempo de Chuva.

Pettway and her husband have been on quite a journey, first with the Peace Corps and now with various work situations, that has taken them from Mozambique to Bogotá and now to China.

Perhaps because of this itinerant existence in countries far-flung from her native Texas, Pettway seems to be perpetually longing for home in one way or another. In her work, she seems to be always returning as much as she is leaving, while the “tug of the familiar” and the familial is always calling her.

As she wrote in a 2010 “Letter” from her Peace Corps post in Mozambique, “We are falling in love with our new home, but missing our old one.” (My latest, Dwelling, is also about the longing for home and about how we need to protect this Earth, our island home, so we were a good pairing.)

“When we think of home, we might think of a place, a smell, a tradition,” Pettway wrote to me in an email about her poem, “Burial,” which I share below. “Those memories pull us constantly back toward our past, but they also sometimes force us out into the world to discover different ways of being. When our new and old selves eventually find themselves squeezed into the same space again, an emotional reckoning is unavoidable.”

Her eye for detail and resonant images, along with a deceptively simple, direct language characterizes Pettway’s work. I am delighted to share her work with you here.

Here is “Burial” by Alice Pettway:

Burial

I changed shoes for the burial.
The earth, soft from rain,
was hungry for the black stems
of my funeral heels.
 
It was hungry for you too,
waiting only for lurid turf
to give way to reality,
a hole gouged in a field.
 
The funeral director looked
away; your brothers
pulled black plastic ground,
took up shovels.
 
I grasped a handle too—bent
my woman’s body into pivot
of muscle and dirt until the throb
of earth on wood faded, until soil
landed on soil as softly as snow
on snow, until there was no hole.
The men stood silent. Burial
is no more a man’s task
than birth is.

—Alice Pettway, from Moth (Salmon Press, 2019). Used by permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about Alice Pettway here.

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The iconic 18th Century Portas da Cidade (City Gates) in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. (Photo by Scott Edward Anderson)

Some of you know that I’ve been on a journey the past few years to uncover and explore my familial roots on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and the United States.

Last summer, I had a residency on the island with Disquiet International, named for the enigmatic book of prose written by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The residency in Ponta Delgada took place only 3.7 km from the freguesia (municipal parish) where two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated in 1906.

Through Disquiet, I was also introduced to poet Lara Gularte, herself of Azorean American ancestry. Her relatives were from Faial, Pico, and Flores, three more of the nine islands in the Azores. Gularte was born in California and grew up in what was then an area of fruit farms known as the Santa Clara Valley (now more famously known as Silicon Valley).

Last month, Lara graciously invited me to read in the series she runs in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, near where she now lives. Along with her husband, Brian—and some good local wine—we spent a wonderful evening discussing our Azorean heritage, poetry, and the dilemma of being generations removed from the places of our origins.

Gularte, who worked for many years as a public servant, finally traveled back to the Azores in 2008—the first of her family to return in four generations. “Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction,” Lara told the Portuguese American Journal in June 2018. “I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.”

Her first collection, Kissing the Bee, was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2018. Many of the poems in her book speak to what she found on the Azores and the deepening connection which that brought about with her family roots in California’s fertile central valley.

“I was a resident poet at Footpaths to Creativity Center and Artist/Writer Residency on Flores Island in the Azores where this poem was written,” Lara says. “Flores is the island from where my grandfather was born before he emigrated as a young boy to the U.S. He was a stowaway on a ship and disembarked in New Bedford, Mass. He then worked in the cranberry bogs for a few years before traveling to California where he met my grandmother.”

Here is Lara Gularte’s poem, “Flores Island”:

 

FLORES ISLAND

The place at the beginning       

 

A whale rises up in her mind

turning her thoughts gray.

 

In port, the ferry of return.

She searches for her grandfather

to discover the shape of his emigration

and finds the plank’s gone, rotted.

At the mercy of rough water and high winds,

he rowed, sinews pulling his dory,

pulling his bones to breaking.

 

She scans the distance,

says his name out loud, Antonio Henriques,

waits to hear a voice, see a face.

She searches for all the prisoners

of thick mists, others who look like her,

whose foreign tongues speak music to her soul.

 

Beyond the wake of a rogue wave,

currents and tides ride

on the back of a gray whale.

 

She sees through the vapor

boats whose nets gather the sky and let go.

Fog falls,

bearing dazed souls back to their home place.

She falls with them.

 

—Lara Gularte, from Kissing the Bee (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

 

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Me and Harry. Photo by Lyn Groome.

Harry Groome is a writer and conservationist. When I first met him 20 years ago, Harry was also a board member of The Nature Conservancy.

I came to Philadelphia from Alaska, where I lived and worked with the Conservancy, to interview for a role with the organization’s Pennsylvania chapter.

Harry had recently retired as chairman of a large health care-pharmaceutical-consumer products company. In that meeting, I learned we shared three passions in addition to conservation: fly-fishing, ice hockey, and writing.

Harry told me he’d always wanted to be a writer, but he put writing aside when he took a job with the company where he spent his entire career. Upon retirement, he took it up again, writing short stories, getting an MFA from Vermont College, and eventually writing four novels.

But Harry’s most famous piece of writing—for which I once informed him he had more readers than Stephen King—was his “Letter to Hal.” Hal is his first grandson and the letter explained why Harry was giving Hal’s inheritance away to The Nature Conservancy. You can see a short film the Conservancy made of the letter here. (But get your tissues out—you’ll need ‘em!)

A few years later, when I was offered a month-long residency at the Millay Colony and took a sabbatical from the Conservancy to pursue it, Harry said to me, “Someday you’re going to have to choose. You can’t do both—you can’t be both a successful writer and a successful executive.”

Me being who I am, I said, “No, I can do both,” and proceeded to try to prove it for the next decade and a half. (I never liked being told what I could and couldn’t do.)

I made a pretty good run of it, too, but over the past nine months since I left my last “corporate” job with EY, I’ve been on a different journey. I started writing again, in earnest, and with a passion that I thought I’d lost. Poetry, as always, but also, increasingly prose—essays and memoir.

During this time, I’ve done some consulting, and even looked at some longer-term executive positions, but I haven’t found a role that gets me excited enough to go back into full-time work in such a capacity. I’ve lost interest in climbing a corporate ladder and playing in other people’s sandboxes.

Then something my wife Samantha said to me struck a nerve: “You’re happiest when you’re writing.” It’s true. And, while I did a fair amount of writing all during my working life over the past 30 years, including launching and writing my blog The Green Skeptic for a decade and publishing two books, over 100 poems, and a bunch of essays and reviews, I never fully committed myself to being a writer—not fully. There was always a part of me that wanted to be “successful” in work outside of writing—really, what I wanted was to be in charge, to run the show. (And I guess part of me still wanted to prove Harry wrong.)

But lately, and by this, I mean within the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking perhaps Harry and Samantha were right. And the universe seems to be sending me messages to this effect as well: First, in January a publisher wrote to me saying she wanted to bring out my book, Dwelling: an ecopoem, which I wrote on that long-ago residency at Millay. The book will be published this Fall. (Not a coincidence, I believe.)

Second, an idea I’d been working on—to trace the story of part of my family’s roots in Portugal’s Azores—started to take off. I landed a residency on São Miguel island for part of the upcoming summer, just a few miles down the road from the village where my great-grandparents came from and where that part of my family lived since at least the 1600s. I ran a book idea past my agent and now I’m working up a proposal and sample chapter, so she can try to sell the book later this Spring.

This is just to say that, now, some 16 years after Harry gave me that advice, I’m ready to make the leap and commit myself fully to being a writer. And, I’ve also started to think that perhaps it’s through my writing—and not by being an executive—that I can best contribute to the community now that I’m a “free agent.” Perhaps I don’t have to lead an organization to help them reach their goals.

With that in mind, I’m looking for ways to help organizations working on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and the sustainable use of our natural resources that allow me to keep up my focus on my writing. This could include working on major gift development, storytelling, or strategic projects for which organizations need expertise they don’t have in-house. I’m also looking to contribute to publications that have a need for my expertise in conservation, energy, and the environment. Reach out to me at greenskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com if you have any leads.

So, perhaps Harry was right, and it’s taken all this time for the writer in me to rise to the surface enough from the life-stream to get used to the air—to emerge and make the choice evident. Here is my poem, “Surfacing,” from Dwelling: an ecopoem:

 

Surfacing

 

“If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.” Orhan Pamuk

 

The sound of the stream as it fills and flows

—under a full moon and stars—with melting snow.

 

The sound of your breathing as it fills and furls

in early winter air beneath the pines.

 

Say that the flow of a stream is surfacing a langscape,

surfacing the stream: shushing shushing susurrus

 

within you responding—

 

The way a crow responds to another,

as it dreams of road kill over the ridge.

 

The way deer browse for succulent shoots

or a dream of deer, hooving under surface.

 

Say that air flows around objects as a stream around rock,

surfacing the stream: leaves plastering color to surface

 

of a half-submerged stone—

 

—Scott Edward Anderson

(“Surfacing” first appeared The Wayfarer and is part of my sequence Dwelling: an ecopoem, which will be published in the Fall or 2018 by Shanti Arts.)


Postscript: Not long after I drafted this week’s mailing I got an email in response to my post of Ross Gay’s Philadelphia poem from Harry Groome himself—another sign—and we got together for coffee last week, where his lovely wife Lyn took the photo that accompanies this post on my blog.

We’re in Los Angeles this weekend, visiting with Samantha’s oldest, Max, who is a freshman at UCLA, and looking at potential colleges with his sister, Erica. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with L.A. (Truth be told, when it comes to California, I’ve always been more of a northern Cali-guy.)

pexels-photo-59305.pngThat said, I love the climate and many aspects of L.A.’s diverse cultures. But I have a hard time with the city’s drain on natural resources, especially its profligate use of fresh water and the ridiculous number of cars on the roads—did I say roads? I mean superhighways.

The city sprawl has devastated the natural environment here and, even though the air has gotten cleaner here over the years, with stricter regulations on auto emissions being a key factor in that progress, the smog has worsened for the past two years despite reduced emissions. The relentless expansion of residential communities into what’s called the urban-wild interface has led to increased fires, as well as worsening the impacts of drought and flooding when the rain finally comes.

Still, I learned a lot about LA while researching a biography of the Italian-American novelist John Fante back in the late 80s-early 90s, a project I never completed but which drew me closer to understanding the allure of this City. And coming out here frequently over the past six years, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a poem by an Angelino poet, and Luis J. Rodriguez, the former Los Angeles Poet Laureate, was the first who came to mind. Originally, I was going to share his poem, “The Concrete River,” with its Whitmanic-Beat Generation yawp, but then I found his “Love Poem to Los Angeles,” and it somehow seemed more appropriate this week.

For those of you who don’t know Rodriguez’s story, his is a classic American tale of son of immigrants struggling to get by in a country that has a love-hate relationship with its immigrants.

As a youth, Rodriguez fell in with gangs in East LA—his most famous work is an account of that experience, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Later, after an incident where he was arrested for trying to stop police from beating a young Mexican woman, Rodriguez quit drugs and the gang life, became a community organizer, went back to school, and started writing in earnest.

He founded the Tia Chucha Press and the cultural center-bookstore of the same name, received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 1998, and became Poet Laureate of L.A. in 2014, the year he also ran as the Green Party Candidate for Governor of California. Rodriguez ran on a platform of clean energy jobs, single-payer health care, a severance tax on oil companies, and reforming the California prison system. He did not advance to the November election, which was won by incumbent Governor Jerry Brown.

Here is Luis J. Rodriguez’s “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

 

Love Poem to Los Angeles

with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman

 

1.

To say I love Los Angeles is to say

I love its shadows and nightlights,

its meandering streets,

the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.

It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,

the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,

that within a half hour of L.A.’s center

you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

 

This is a multi-layered city,

unceremoniously built on hills,

valleys, ravines.

Flying into Burbank airport in the day,

you observe gradations of trees and earth.

A “city” seems to be an afterthought,

skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,

guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

 

2.

Layers of history reach deep,

run red, scarring the soul of the city,

a land where Chinese were lynched,

Mexican resistance fighters hounded,

workers and immigrants exploited,

Japanese removed to concentration camps,

blacks forced from farmlands in the South,

then segregated, diminished.

 

Here also are blessed native lands,

where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva

bonded with nature’s gifts;

people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.

Yet for all my love

I also abhor the “poison” time,

starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,

where 80 percent of natives

who lived and worked in them died,

to the ruthless murder of Indians

during and after the Gold Rush,

the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

 

From all manner of uprisings,

a city of acceptance began to emerge.

This is “riot city” after all—

more civil disturbances in Los Angeles

in the past hundred years

than any other city.

 

3.

To truly love L.A. you have to see it

with different eyes,

askew perhaps,

beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.

“El Lay” is also known

for the most violent street gangs,

the largest Skid Row,

the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.

even during heroin-induced nods

or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.

Even when I slept in abandoned cars,

alongside the “concrete” river,

and during all-night movie showings

in downtown Art Deco theaters.

The city beckoned as I tried to escape

the prison-like grip of its shallowness,

sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,

all disarming,

hiding the murderous heart

that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,

the most magnificent lies,

the largest commercial ports,

graveyard shifts,

poetry readings,

murals,

lowriding culture,

skateboarding,

a sound that hybridized

black, Mexican, as well as Asian

and white migrant cultures.

 

You wouldn’t have musicians like

Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,

Los Lobos, Charles Wright &

the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,

Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal

without Los Angeles.

 

Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,

Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

 

4.

I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,

I love to make love in L.A.,

it’s a great city, a city without a handle,

the world’s most mixed metropolis,

of intolerance and divisions,

how I love it, how I hate it,

Zootsuit “riots,”

can’t stay away,

city of hungers, city of angers,

Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,

I’d like to kick its face in,

bone city, dried blood on walls,

wildfires, taunting dove wails,

car fumes and oil derricks,

water thievery,

with every industry possible

and still a “one-industry town,”

lined by those majestic palm trees

and like its people

with solid roots, supple trunks,

resilient.

 

Luis J. Rodriguez

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
“Tribute to Angelenos”

Here is a wonderful video of Luis J. Rodriguez reading “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

fig tree on christian st philly

The fig tree at Hutchinson and Christian, South Philadelphia. Photo by Daisy Fried.

Thinking about Philadelphia this past week—a city I lived in for 14 years—in the wake of the incident at Starbucks where two black men waiting on a friend were arrested for basically not ordering a drink—or more to the point, because they were two black men in a Starbucks in a tony, white Philly neighborhood.

“Philly is the City of Brotherly Love…unless you’re a brother,” a friend once said to me.

The incident took place around the same time a Facebook friend shared Ross Gay’s poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” a poem set in Philadelphia, and which originally appeared in the American Poetry Review, a journal that has been published in Philadelphia since before the country’s bicentennial year.

And I kept coming back to Gay’s poem since I heard the news of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson’s arrest.

The poem is set in South Philly, which has had its own share of racial incidents over the years, but describes a different mood in the city, a city, as Gay writes, “like most/ which has murdered its own/ people,” where “strangers maybe/ never again,” are picking figs and feeding figs to each other, sharing food, and rubbing sweaty forearms with sweaty shoulders in a mass of humanity.

This is such a contrast with the experience of the two young entrepreneurs waiting for a business meeting to begin in the overpriced confines of a Starbucks. Gay’s poem offers an aspirational image of a society we should all want to live in: one of cooperation, respect, and understanding rather than hate, fear, and intimidation.

The incident in the Starbucks is not an isolated one; it could be anywhere in the everyday life of black men and women in America these days and that must change.

I keep saying we’re living on the cusp of a great societal transformation, one that will find us—all people—able to share more moments like those in Gay’s poem. I believe the real change is coming and we—or at least our children—will look back on these times as a second American revolution, as revolutionary as what took place in Philadelphia in 1776.

After the arrest, Donte Robinson told the AP “he appreciates the public support the men received but anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution. ‘We need a different type of action…not words,’ he said. ‘It’s time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.’”

Ross Gay is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and the low-residency MFA in poetry program at Drew University.

Here is Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me

so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.


(On another note: poet Daisy Fried identified the fig tree in question, reporting that it “is actually at Hutchinson and Christian, but that would not roll off the tongue nearly as well.” She also says that the scene is “very authentic. Summertimes people do stop randomly, and harvest figs to take with them. The owners are always happy because it means less dropped and rotting fruit.”)

Here is a wonderful reading of the poem by Ross Gay on #OWNSHOW from Oprah Online: Fig on Oprah.

“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” © 2013 by Ross Gay. Originally published in the May-June 2013 issue of American Poetry Review, Volume 42, No, 3. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. 

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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.