But largely missing from that tradition and conversation is the poetry of African-American writers. For the better part of a century, black writing has been seen reflexively as an urban expression, rooted in the life of cities. Now some African-American writers and editors are trying to change that, arguing that new words and points of view can broaden the language of nature.
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Earlier this month, I went to a gathering of black writers at the Paul Smiths VIC, put together by the Adirondack Center for Writing. Most of the poets were from New York City.
The theme sounded sort of like an oxymoron: Black nature poetry. We’re used to thinking of African-American writers as urban, as voices of the city, the rhythms and metaphors shaped by subway rattle and concrete.
But with a few lines of verse, Roger Bonair-Agard began to retune our ears. “In the backyard peas two kinds of thyme”, he reads. “A lime tree a Sorrell bush paw paw passion fruit. Two mango trees one avocado tree
and a patch of cane flowering brilliant to every sense even touch heightened in the swelling of fertility. The smells haunt summer.”
Bonair-Agard says he writes a lot about the natural world, obsessed with flowers and with the plants of his native Trinidad and Tobago.
But the idea that he’s been writing about nature – that nature has been one of his themes — never really occurred to him. “Until very recently, I would not have called myself a nature writer, or counted that among the ways in which my work could be characterized. I also believe the same is true for several other black writers I know.”
This is one of those conversations that needs some context, a couple of quick footnotes. Black culture in America began in rural places, the farm, the woods, the wilderness. But for most African-Americans, that experience was fraught from the beginning. The land and the sense of place were complicated and damaged by slavery, by racism.
Cornelius Eady is a poet and scholar who teaches in Missouri and also the founder of Cave Canum – an annual retreat for African-American writers. He says this complicated relationship between blackness and the natural world still shapes the way black people see nature. It’s less pastoral, more political.
“A couple of things that start to frame the idea of being a poet who lives in the world and wants to write about the world and also has to deal with the idea of the African-American because race as we all know, color, refracts things.”
One of Eady’s most famous poems is called “Brutal Imagination” – which reinterprets story of Susan Smith. She’s the woman who drowned her two sons in a lake in 1991, and blamed the murder on a black man. “What you’ve got here”, he says, “is the understanding about how nature is a partner for her, it’s her ally. The manifestation of the lake becomes the black body. That now moves to the world and says this is the evil person that swallowed my children up.”
So you can hear how the lake in Eady’s imagination is different from, say, Walden Pond in the imagination of Henry David Thoreau.
Another bit of important context is the fact that for most black Americans, the urban migrations of the last century did reorient their language, their poetry. A culture that began the 1900s on the farm began this century with roots firmly planted in the city. So while black poets wrestle with political nuances, they’re also seeing nature in a different context.
Aracelis Girmay’s latest collection of poems is called Kingdom Animalia. She says growing up in Santa Ana, Calif., she encountered both the urban-suburban and the natural world. “[It’s] very city in some ways but there was a little stretch of orange grove outside the kitchen window. And so I feel very taught by the sky, the dirt, the concrete, the relationship between the two.”
In one of Girmay’s poems, the feeling and texture of night and darkness merges with the spirit of black men who’ve died in urban violence. “And the night hangs over the men and their faces, and the night grows thick over the streets, I swear, it is more blue, more black tonight with the men going up there bring the children out to see who their uncles are.”
Black writers say for a very long time, few people recognized that this kind of writing was also a kind of nature poetry. Camille Dungy is editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry. “The fabulous editor at the University of Georgia press just mentioned in passing, ‘I’d never really thought about African-Americans writing about the natural world. So this is the acquisitions editor of a press who had not seen, who had not been conscious of this presence. He said ‘do you think you can pull together a few more poets?’ There are 90 poets in this book, almost 200 poems, and there are more that I could have had.”
Dungy spoke in 2010 at a gathering organized by the University of California Berkeley. She says books like hers are beginning to redefine and broaden what we think of as a poetic response to nature. “The poets in this book are writing about sometimes alienation from and explaining that alienation, sometimes attachment to, and explaining why that attachment might look different from your attachment.”
Roger Bonair-Agard says black nature poetry is a different tradition, a break with what he describes as a more privileged and sheltered way of writing about the natural world. “Written by upper socioeconomic class, they have patronage or whatever to write, and are therefore writing about nature in a way that they can stand back and have this kind of great objectivity about its beauty, as opposed to we’re writing now about how we have to interact with it, work with it or not work with it, etc., so it’s a matter of relevance.”
So in a poem like this one from Aracelus Girmay, nature is vivid and immediate, but it’s secondary to a human story. She reads: “But my one heart falls, like a sad fat persimmon, dropped by a hand of the Turczyn’s old tree. I want to sleep, I do not want to sleep, see. One day, not today, not now, we will be gone from this earth where we know the gladiolas.”
These poems often do seem more relevant, more immediate. We live in a world where more and more people live in cities, where climate change and other human impacts have reshaped nature. The lines between ourselves and gorgeous, primitive wildness are blurring, becoming complicated, becoming political. It’s probably time that more of that complication comes through in our poetry.