New Poetics of Nature & Place

 The following essay is by Dawn Paul who teaches in the writing program at Montserrat College of Art and has published two novels and numerous poems in anthologies.

Dawn Paul

Writer Marilynne Robinson, in her essay, “When I was a Child I Read Books,” says “Perhaps it was a misfortune for us that so many interesting ideas were associated with access to a habitable wilderness. The real frontier need never close.” The new poetics of nature and place embody this perpetually open frontier and propose wildly expansive ideas of wilderness and the poet’s relation to the natural world. Let us examine two poems. The first, in the tradition of what Granta editor Jason Cowley calls “…the lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer…” is Mary Oliver’s “May,” from her 1994 collection White Pine. The second is Lenard D. Moore’s “Postcard to an Ecologist,” from Camille Dungy’s 2009 anthology Black Nature.  Both poems are favorites of mine.

May

Mary Oliver

What lay on the road was no mere handful of snake. It was

the copperhead at last, golden under the street lamp. I hope

to see everything in this world before I die. I knelt on the

road and stared. Its head was wedge-shaped and fell back to

the unexpected slimness of a neck. The body itself was thick,

tense, electric. Clearly this wasn’t black snake looking down

from the limbs of a tree, or green snake, or the garter, whiz-

zing over the rocks. Where these had, oh, such shyness, this

one had none. When I moved a little, it turned and clamped

its eyes on mine; then it jerked toward me. I jumped back

and watched as it flowed on across the road and down into

the dark. My heart was pounding. I stood a while, listening

to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars.

After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear

lifts, we are so alive.

 

The speaker in Oliver’s “May” wanders in solitude. There are no people to distract, observe or judge. She chooses her encounter with the beautiful and poisonous copperhead on her own terms. The speaker implies that her actions go against the common grain, but mainly this is a private moment between the poet and the snake. She initiates the engagement and ends it before the snake can take control. The snake goes back to its world. The speaker returns to hers with a greater appreciation of intimacy and fear. The encounter is a visit to the frontier with all that the word “visit” implies.

 

Lenard D. Moore’s “Postcard to an Ecologist,” is another snake encounter.

Postcard to an Ecologist

Lenard D. Moore

Last year

I heard tell

a striped snake

crossed the sandy road

where grandma lives.

 

Walking

the humid farm today,

I saw that striped snake

crossing the sandy road

where grandma lives.

 

And when tomorrow comes,

I will wait with my garden hoe

for that striped snake

who crosses the sandy road

where grandma lives.

 

Moore’s title issues an ironic and combative challenge to the reader to step out of the pastoral tradition. This speaker is not in solitude. There is his grandmother and a community that tells him about the snake. This snake is visiting civilization on its own terms. Whether the snake means harm or not, local people view it as a danger. The farm and the sandy road are described without sentimentality. The snake is simply described as “striped.” Is it beautiful? Is it a poisonous species? Does that matter to people who live in constant intimacy with wildness, the people bell hooks describes in her essay, “Earthbound,” for whom “…humility in relationship to nature’s power made survival possible.” These are people who historically, when faced with a snake, have done well to err on the side of caution.

 

The speaker acknowledges two viewpoints—that of the imagined ecologist of the title, who presumably would encourage some sort of détente with the snake, and his community’s expectation that his grandmother’s safety comes first. That expectation posits questions of environmental justice. Who makes decisions about the land? Who has traditionally been excluded from these decisions? What places are traditionally ignored in discussions of ecological protection and rehabilitation? These questions are especially pertinent given the irony of the “postcard” of the title. Wish you were here—to see what it is like to live where nature will gain the upper hand if you let it.

 

Lenard Moore and many other contemporary poets writing outside the pastoral tradition, offer a new view of wilderness and new forms and contexts for nature poetry. They recognize that the frontier is open and full of snakes, cockroaches and sunsets vermillion with smog. In their poems, access to wilderness is not limited to those with time and leisure for solitary and quiet contemplation—though there is value in that. The new poetics of nature are concerned with a wilderness that is accessible, that may be urban, that acknowledges our sometimes uncomfortable relationship with nature. But it also acknowledges everyone’s connection with the natural world and our common need for clean air and water, wholesome food and unobstructed beauty.

 

SOURCES

Cowley, Jason. “Editor’s Letter: the New Nature Writing.” Granta (2008): 10.

hooks, bell. “earthbound: on solid ground.” H.Deming, Alison and Lauret E. Savoy. Colors of Nature–Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2011. 184.

Moore, Lenard D. “Postcard to an Ecologist.” Camille T. Dungy, editor. Black Nature–Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2009. 126.

Oliver, Mary. White Pine. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

Robinson, Marilynne. When I was a Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012.