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."
"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."