"Black Nature" Camille Dungy, editor, University of Georgia Press, $17.96.
Two groundbreaking anthologies pass the read-again test with several excellent poems by local poets.
Camille Dungy believes that white and black poets look differently at nature, with whites primarily noticing its beauty and blacks seeing its harshness. The view, Dungy says, is intensified by the black experience of slavery. An edgy mix of pastoral and political, her anthology, "Black Nature," testifies to her point although a few poems seem somewhat heavy. Dungy includes several poets with local ties - among them, Lucille Clifton, Afaa Michael Weaver, E. Ethelbert Miller and Kwame Alexander. Their poems view nature as blessing and curse. They, for example, look at trees and think of slavery. They see spring's grandeur and remember the horror of lynching. Clifton (former Maryland poet laureate) and Baltimore native Weaver ( Pulitzer Prize nominee) excel at writing this type of two-edged poem. Both fuse contrasting emotions until the energy almost explodes on the page. Weaver's "The Appaloosa" and Clifton's "Mulberry Fields" are worth the price of the book. Dungy (an associate professor at San Francisco State University) arranges 400 years of nature poems by black writers, so they proceed loosely from distant to close up. Reading the book, one has a sense of progression from nature as a separate entity to nature as a part of the interior self. With free verse and traditional forms, the book ranges from the poetically written essays that introduce each section, to rich spirituals, to quiet Zenlike haiku. Alice Walker's essay, "The Flowers," is a powerful evocation of the end of summer and, like many poems here, has a spiritual resonance, which Dungy calls a "connectivity with worlds beyond the human." No matter how one names that quality, it gives the best of these poems staying power.
Since the beginning of the modernist movement in the early 20th century, poets have debated the merits of formal versus free verse. On one side, Robert Frost insisted that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. On the other, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings and others wrote avant-garde poems that broke the rules of prosody - and grammar. More recently, language poets write the equivalent of an extended pun, with words moving in a Tower of Babel fashion from one line to the next. In his anthology, "New American Poets,"
David Yezzi (executive editor of The New Criterion) says the conflict between the two schools is nonproductive. Yezzi offers a collection of 35 contemporary poets whose work (with the exception of some whose rhymes feel forced) combines the best qualities of traditional and modern. He includes four poets with local ties: Erica Dawson, Greg Williamson ( Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars), Joseph Harrison (Waywiser Press), and Joseph Osterhaus. Like the other writers here, these four take an ironic stance on nature, love, dreams, quotidian events and God, who's generally absent from contemporary poetry. Their work is accessible and makes sense on a literal and metaphorical level. They write innovative sonnets, quatrains, and sestets examining everything from the Hopper-like ambience of a Food Lion to the genius of Wile E. Coyote. With allusions to Don Quixote, John Keats and Everyman mixing with references to quick-dry glue, fly traps and Baltimore weather, these poets at their best evoke the freshness one hopes for but rarely finds in contemporary poetry.
Diane Scharper reviews local books for The Baltimore Sun and teaches English at Towson University.
they thought the field was wasting
and so they gathered the marker rocks and stones and
piled them into a barnthey say that the rocks were shaped
some of them scratched with triangles and other formsthey
must have been trying to invent some new language they say
the rocks went to build that wall there guarding the manor and
some few were used for the state house
crops refused to grow
i say the stones marked an old tongue and it was called eternity
and pointed toward the riveri say that after that collection
no pillow in the big house dreamedi say that somewhere under
here moulders one called alice whose great grandson is old now
too and refuses to talk about slaveryi say that at the
masters table only one plate is set for supperi say no seed
can flourish on this ground once planted then forsakenwild
berries warm a field of bones
bloom how you must i say
- Lucille Clifton
Imagine the first fire, the doubletakes
Among the vegans, cold, dark, wet: Cave guy Strikes flint and, boom, you're grilling mammoth steaks, You're holding hands, you're hooking up, you're dry.
And (years of R&D) it catches on,
Brick ovens, candlelight, of course appalling Losses, but still, fondue, filet mignon, And the three-alarm, fanned fire of your first calling.
Until there's no more call for you, you box Up your life's work, archive the ardencies, The once hot, test-tube topics, and retire To country climes, keeping an eye on the phlox In your old field, avuncular now, at peace With not quite having set the world
- Greg Williamson