'Black Nature': Poems Of Promise And Survival

'Black Nature'
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
Edited by Camille T. Dungy.
Paperback, 432 pages
University of Georgia Press
List price: $24.95

Camille T. Dungy, the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, calls her book a first of its kind. The nearly 200 poems in the anthology reach back to the mid-1700s, but Dungy says people rarely think of black poets as writing in a genre that brings to mind having the leisure — and time — to contemplate a field of flowers.

"The way that the tradition of nature poetry has taken off in America in particular is often about a pastoral landscape, a very idealized rural landscape, or a wilderness landscape in which people are involved," Dungy tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "And black people have been typically working in the land, and that's not part of the idyllic version of things. And then also the majority of African-Americans have tended to live in urban landscapes, and so there's a very different view, quite often, of the natural world."

Black Nature features work by contemporary writers, alongside poems by writers like Phillis Wheatley, who was born in Africa in the mid-18th century and brought to America as a slave in 1761. Wheatley learned English, Greek and Latin, and, as Dungy writes, "became the first black person in America to publish a book of poetry when, in 1773, her collection of 39 poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in England."

Some of Black Nature reckons with the lasting impact of slavery. "Arachis Hypogaea," by former Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson, begins with the lines: "Arachis Hypogaea may have been / smuggled to North America by slaves / who hid seeds of survival in their hair."

Camille T. Dungy i i

Camille T. Dungy is the author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is an associate professor in the creative writing department at San Francisco State University. Ray Black hide caption

itoggle caption Ray Black
Camille T. Dungy

Camille T. Dungy is the author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is an associate professor in the creative writing department at San Francisco State University.

Ray Black

Read the full text of Camille T. Dungy's "Language" and hear Dungy read the poem.

Read the full text of Dungy's poem "What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison"

"Arachis Hypogaea" is titled for the peanut's Latin name and prefaced by an epigraph from George Washington Carver. Dungy notes that later in the poem, Nelson writes, "Promise and purpose, the Ancestors' dream." She suggests the poem could be about "sweet potato or yam, [or] the cultivation of greens."

"There are so many things that were about sustenance," Dungy says. "If we look at history and say, well, black people can only write about the natural world and think about slavery or think about being a runaway, you forget that other component — that there has always been promise and survival in the natural world. That some people knew where to look and how to look. And so that is as much a part of these poems: the hope and the potential for a real connection and collaboration, as much as this devastating and horrible history, is there."

Some of the poems in Black Nature are delicate, or hilarious. Dungy points to poem by Tim Seibles, written from the perspective of a mosquito on a feeding frenzy; and a haiku by Richard Wright, the author of the novels Native Son and Black Boy, about a bull with "a lilac sprig / dangling from a horn."

"The beautiful smell of the lilac next to the probably not-so-beautiful smell of the bull, it's just so much contradiction right there," Dungy says. "The world that's being described throughout this book has that same breadth of possibility in terms of what direction we might go, from sadness to joy. And sometimes from line to line we move through that."

Some of the poems selected don't immediately seem to be about nature. A poem titled "[#12]," from a collection by Evie Shockley called 31 words * prose poems, is written as if it were a classified ad in a newspaper:

highly visual rural winter image seeks lyric poem (14-30 lines) for mutual enrichment and long-term relationship. image offers frostbitten river and fog-covered fields where snow seems to rise toward its origins

The strength of such a poem, Dungy says, is the way it can "remind you of some of the expectations of what a nature poem is," while it pulls the rug out from under those expectations.

"Similarly, it makes us rethink what it means to be black and how we might see the world," Dungy says. "And so poems like this, I think, are really fun in that you come to them thinking one thing and you leave thinking another. And I'm hoping that through the course of the book, that will happen to you as well."

Or at the very least, readers will get a sense of what nature meant to some of these poets. Near the end of the book, Dungy includes a poem called "[Earth, I Thank You]" by Anne Spencer, who lived in Lynchburg, Va., until her death in 1975, and was the first African-American — and the first Virginian — to be published in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry.

Spencer was an activist, Dungy says, and "the librarian for the black library, because in the town of Lynchburg it was in the deed that African-Americans could not go into the building.

"She was working against a lot of arbitrary racism," Dungy says. "But at the same time, she had this incredible garden in her backyard, and she was also aware of this other kind of peace and beauty."

Language

Silence is one part of speech, the war cry
of wind down a mountain pass another.
A stranger's voice echoing through lonely
valleys, a lover's voice rising so close
it's your own tongue: these are keys to cipher,
the way the high hawk's key unlocks the throat
of the sky and the coyote's yip knocks
it shut, the way the aspens' bells conform
to the breeze while the rapid's drum defines
resistance. Sage speaks with one voice, pinyon
with another. Rock, wind her hand, water
her brush, spells and then scatters her demands.
some notes tear and pebble our paths. Some notes
gather: the bank we map our lives around.

From Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille T. Dungy. Copyright 2006 by Camille T. Dungy. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.

What To Eat, And What To Drink, And What To Leave For Poison

1
Only now, in spring, can the place be named:
tulip poplar, daffodil, crab apple,
dogwood, budding pink-green, white-green, yellow
on my knowing. All winter I was lost.
Fall, I found myself here, with no texture
my fingers know. Then, worse, the white longing
that downed us deep three months. No flower heat.
That was winter. But now, in spring, the buds
flock our trees. Ten million exquisite buds,
tiny and loud, flaring their petalled wings,
bellowing from ashen branches vibrant
keys, the chords of spring's triumph: fisted heart,
dogwood; grail, poplar; wine spray, crab apple.
The song is drink, is color. Come. Now. Taste.

2
The song is drink, is color. Come now, taste
what the world has to offer. When you eat
you will know that music comes in guises —
bold of crape myrtle, sweet of daffodil —
beyond sound, guises they never told you
could be true. And they aren't. Except they are
so real now, this spring, you know them, taste them.
Green as kale, the songs of spring, bright as wine,
the music. Faces of this season grin
with clobbering wantonness — see the smiles
open on each branch? — until you, too, smile.
Wide carnival of color, carnival
of scent. We're all lurching down streets, drunk now
from the poplar's grail. Wine spray: crab apple.

3
From the poplar's grail, wine spray. Crab apple
brightens jealousy to compete. But by
the crab apple's deep stain, the tulip tree
learns modesty. Only blush, poplar learns,
lightly. Never burn such a dark-hued fire
to the core. Tulip poplar wants herself
light under leaf, never, like crab apple,
heavy under tart fruit. Never laden.
So the poplar pours just a hint of wine
in her cup, while the crab apple, wild one,
acts as if her body were a fountain.
She would pour wine onto you, just let her.
Shameless, she plants herself, and delivers,
down anyone's street, bright invitations.

4
Down anyone's street-bright invitations.
Suck 'em. Swallow 'em. Eat them whole. That's right,
be greedy about it. The brightness calls
and you follow because you want to taste,
because you want to be welcomed inside
the code of that color: red for thirst; green
for hunger; pink, a kiss; and white, stain me
now. Soil me with touching. Is that right?
No? That's not, you say, what you meant. Not what
you meant at all? Pardon. Excuse me, please.
Your hand was reaching, tugging at this shirt
of flowers and I thought, I guess I thought
you were hungry for something beautiful.
Come now. The brightness here might fill you up.

5
Come. Now the brightness here might fill you up,
but tomorrow? Who can know what the next
day will bring. It is like that, here, in spring.
Four days ago, the dogwood was a fist
in protest. Now look. Even she unfurls
to the pleasure of the season. Don't be
ashamed of yourself. Don't be. This happens
to us all. We have thrown back the blanket.
We're naked and we've grown to love ourselves.
I tell you, do not be ashamed. Who is
more wanton than the dancing crape myrtle?
Is she ashamed? Why even the dogwood,
that righteous tree of God's, is full of lust
exploding into brightness every spring.

6
Exploding into brightness every spring,
I draw you close. I wonder, do you know
how long I've wanted to be here? Each year
you grasp me, lift me, carry me inside.
Glee is the body of the daffodill
reaching tubed fngers through the day, feeling
her own trumpeted passion choiring air
with hot, colored song. This is a texture
I love. This is life. And, too, you love me,
inhale my whole being every spring. Gone
winter, heavy clod whose icy body
fell into my bed. I must leave you, but
I"ll wait through heat, fall, freeze to hear you cry:
Daffodils are up. My God, what beauty!

7
Daffodils are up, my God! What beauty
concerted down on us last night. And if
I sleep again, I'll wake to a louder
blossoming, the symphony smashing down
hothouse walls, and into the world: music.
Something like the birds' return, each morning's
crescendo rising toward its brightest pitch,
colors unfurling, petals alluring.
The song, the color, the rising ecstasy
of spring. My God. This beauty. This, this
is what I've hoped for. All my life is here
in the unnamed core — dogwood, daffodil,
tulip poplar, crab apple, crape myrtle —
only now, in spring, can the place be named.

From Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille T. Dungy. Copyright 2006 by Camille T. Dungy. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.

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Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

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