'Black Nature': Poems Of Promise And Survival
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
While putting the book together, poet Camille T. Dungy pored over verse going back to the 1700s. She opens the collection with a late 20th-century poem by Lucille Clifton, read here by Camille Dungy.
MONTAGNE: (Reading) Surely I am able to write poems celebrating grass and how the blue in the sky can flow green or red, and the waters lean against the Chesapeake shore like a familiar. Poems about nature and landscape, surely. But whenever I begin: the trees wave their knotted branches and..., why is there under that poem always an other poem?
MONTAGNE: Camille Dungy calls this collection of nature poetry by African-Americans a first of its kind. She says black poets are rarely thought of as writing in a genre that can bring to mind the leisure, the time to contemplate, say, field of flowers.
MONTAGNE: The way that the tradition of nature poetry has taken off in America, in particular, is often about a pastoral landscape, a very certain idealized rural landscape, or a wilderness landscape in which people are involved. 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.
MONTAGNE: There are poems in here that speak of a slave past, and some in fact, written by slaves. This one by Marilyn Nelson has this sort of lovely and sad line. It's about the peanut, which is...
MONTAGNE: What do you make of that image, seeds of survival?
MONTAGNE: As the poem moves further, it says, Promise and purpose, the Ancestors' dream. Right? That so much of what the peanut, the sweet potato or yam, the cultivation of greens, there're so many things that were about sustenance, that 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.
MONTAGNE: the hope and the potential for a real connection and collaboration is there, as much as this devastating and horrible history is there.
MONTAGNE: There's a view of nature - quite sweet, even quite silly - it's a haiku by Richard Wright.
MONTAGNE: (Reading) Coming from the woods, a bull has a lilac sprig dangling from a horn.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: It's such a lovely little moment...
MONTAGNE: Right, that the comic look of this giant, potentially really violent creature with this sort of dopey, glorious little lilac sprig and 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. And 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.
MONTAGNE: There was one poem that had me laughing my head off. It's called "Ambition II: Mosquito in the Mist." It's by the poet Tim Seibles. Would you read the first two stanzas and we'll sort of get the idea?
MONTAGNE: I gotta hand it to you though - all the colors, the smells, tall, petites, skinny-minnies or whoppin' whale-sized motha'humphries - you got variety. I'm zippin' around some summa' nights and it's like an all-you-can eat situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: And it goes on, but there's another quite amusing one, which would not seem immediately about nature. It's structured as a classified ad in the newspaper.
MONTAGNE: (Reading) 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.
MONTAGNE: And another thing that a lot of these poems do, is they really sort of consciously remind you of what some of the expectations for what a nature poem is. And kind of makes us rethink what it means to be black and how we might see the world. And so poems like this, I think, are really fun in that you come at them thinking one thing and you leave thinking another.
MONTAGNE: You and this collection, in a gentle way, for the most part, there's a beautiful one by Anne Spencer. It's called "Earth, I Thank You."
MONTAGNE: (Reading) "Earth, I Thank You." Earth, I thank you for the pleasure of your language. You've had a hard time bringing it to me from the ground, to grunt through the noun. To all the way feeling, seeing, smelling, touching - awareness. I am here.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for having me, Renee.
MONTAGNE: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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