GRACE NOTES - APRIL 2021
April is Earth Month and National Poetry Month, so the focus this month is nature, poetry, and nature poetry. I’ll start with one of my favorite nature books from the past year, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous essay collection, World of Wonders.
Poets are some of the best nature writers, with keen observational skills and the word-craft to help us to see the world in new and surprising ways. Nezhukumatathil is no exception. This deeply personal collection of short essays is as much autobiography as it is an homage to the the delicacies of the natural world. She has the poet’s eye for seeing nature as a metaphor for life experience.
Each essay is a detailed study of a plant or animal, woven in with a parallel story of a memory from her life. She discusses the science of fireflies while recounting stories of family vacations. She writes of the grace of flamingos paired with tales of the dangers that she and her college friends faced by the simple act of going out at night. Her month-by-month calendar of her son’s first year is sprinkled with detailed observations of the natural world in congress with her struggles to write while parenting an infant.
Nezhukumatathil is not above a bit of droll humor. Her encounter with a corpse flower is particularly descriptive: “The smell is basically what I imagine emanates from the bottom of a used diaper pail left out in the late August sun, after someone has emptied a tin of sardines and a bottle of blue cheese salad dressing on top and left it there to sit for a day or three.” In another essay, a bird of paradise morphs into guests at her wedding busting moves on the dance floor to “Macarena,” a song she specifically requested the DJ not play.
Gorgeous full-color illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura bring each of these natural wonders to life, enhancing the lyricism of the prose. This deceptively slim volume is packed with awe, humanity, and, yes, wonder.
Here are a few more of my favorite nature reads of recent years -
Silences So Deep by John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams recounts his years living in the wilds of Alaska, and his painful decision to leave the ever-warming landscape. A thoughtful treatise on making art in the age of climate change.
The Forest by Bozzi, Lopiz, & Vidali
This richly illustrated picture book for readers of all ages uses die-cuts, embossing, and gatefolds to celebrate life in the forest. An intricately textured feast for the eyes and the soul.
Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori and Lucille Clerc
This perfect blending of science and art takes us around in the globe with lush illustrations of trees of the world. It’s a field guide designed by a keen cultural observer and a gifted visual artist.
Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
Much of MacDonald’s essay collection reads as prose poetry, written with a deep sense of yearning for connection with the wild. And if you’re looking for a laugh, look no further than her short piece on pushing goats.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This stunning novel is a deep dive into the life of a single tree and its impact on the lives of a disparate group of individuals.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
This sweeping multi-generational novel takes us from the beginnings of the logging industry in 17th century Canada to its repercussions in the modern world.
Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
Published in 1990, this meditative collection of essays has become a classic in nature writing, touching on themes of Buddhism, wilderness, and the connection between humans and nature.
Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams
Urgent essays on the need to stop viewing nature as a commodity and to cherish what is irreplaceable. (Trigger warning - her essay on her brother’s suicide is unflinching and devastating.)
Happy Poetry Month! Enjoy this selection of nature poems -
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebble
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
~ Gary Snyder
Mass for Pentecost: Canticle for Birds & Waters
There is no cause to grieve among the living or the dead,
so long as there is music in the air.
And where the water and the air divide, I’ll take you there.
The levee aureate with yellow thistles.
White moth, wasp and dragonfly.
We could not wish unless it were on wings.
Give us our means and point us toward the sun.
Will the spirit come to us now in the pewter paten of the air,
the fluted call of dabbler drakes, the deadpan honk
of the white-fronted goose, the tule goose.
Tongues confused in the matchstick rushes.
High, high the baldpate cries, and in the air,
and in the air, the red-winged blackbirds chase the damselflies.
Triumph over death with me. And we’ll divide the air.
I feel ashamed, finally,
Of our magnificent paved roads,
Our bridges slung with steel,
Our vivid glass, our tantalizing lights,
Everything enhanced, rehearsed,
A trick. I’ve turned old. I ache most
To be confronted by the real,
By the cold, the pitiless, the bleak.
By the red fox crossing a field
After snow, by the broad shadow
Scraping past overhead.
My young son, eyes set
At an indeterminate distance,
Ears locked, turned inward, caught,
In some music only he has ever heard.
Not our cars, our electronic haze.
Not the piddling bleats and pings
That cause some hearts to race.
Ashamed. Like a pebble, hard
And small, hoping only to be ground to dust
By something large and strange and cruel.
~ Tracy K. Smith
The fern, its fronds’
sugary underside, ridges
of next year and the ones beyond.
They must want to sleep,
these plants, these trees,
not in their wintry way,
screened from the world
by the furry veil of another world.
The trees’ blue heads must seek
the forest floor in the dark,
curl up with their rooty feet,
leave behind the owls eating their mice.
~ Cathy Barber
We lost a great man in February. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was legendary poet, publisher, bookseller, and champion of the Beat writers. We were lucky to have him on this mortal plane for over a century. Here is one of his works, from A Coney Island of the Mind -
In the woods where many rivers run
among the unbent hills
and fields of our childhood
where ricks and rainbows mix in memory
although our ‘fields’ were streets
I see again those myriad mornings rise
when every living thing
cast its shadow in eternity
and all day long the light
like early morning
with its sharp shadows shadowing
that I had hardly dreamed of
nor hardly knew to think
of this unshaved today
with its derisive rooks
that rise above dry trees
and caw and cry
and question every other
spring and thing
This entry is being published on March 31, Poetry Month Eve. Tonight at 7 p.m., there will be a virtual reading by poets featured in the anthology Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America's Poets Respond to the Pandemic. The book includes work by some of our favorite local writers, who will read tonight. Click here for details.
Below is a list of the partcipating poets -
Jill Bialosky is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections, as well as three novels and two nonfiction works, including the New York Times best-selling History of a Suicide. She is an executive editor at W.W. Norton & Company.
George Bilgere is the author of seven collections of poetry, including the most recent Blood Pages (University of Pittsburgh Press). He teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Traci Brimhall’s latest book is Saudade (Copper Canyon Press). She is an associate professor and Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.
Danielle Chapman is the author of a collection of poems, Delinquent Palaces. Her recent essays can be found in The Oxford American and Commonweal.
Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), a book of poems. He served as poet laureate of the State of Ohio for 2018-19, and lives in Cleveland.
Amit Majmudar’s poetry collection is What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020), and his most recent book is Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).
Shane McCrae’s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block and Sometimes I Never Suffered, both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University.
Susan Minot grew up in Massachusetts. She writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, and screenplays. She also teaches, paints, and makes collages. Her most recent book is Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories (Knopf, 2020).
Alice Quinn , the executive director of the Poetry Society of America for eighteen years, was also poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987-2007 and an editor at Alfred A. Knopf for more than ten years prior to that. She teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is the editor of a book of Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. She lives in New York City and Millerton, New York.
Christian Wiman’s most recent book is Survival is a Style. He is the author of several other books—among them Every Riven Thing, a collection of poems, and the memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School.
Jenny Xie is the author of Eye Level, recipient of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in New York City.
COMING IN JUNE -
Worldly Things Michael Kleber-Diggs
Here’s a selection from Michael Kleber-Diggs upcoming collection. His poems are a scream against injustice and a cry for radical kindness.
Here All Alone
Raptors ride the thermals above Dakota.
Beyond them, the sun appears closer,
colder. Everything warm escapes, returns.
One hundred nations assemble in congress,
this time for water, where water is life.
And I know this isn’t my song to sing,
but I wonder what god saves grace for hunters.
Water cannons, fire hoses, nunc pro tunc.
This land, once yours, was flooded and dammed
the same day our Rondo was cleaved for a highway.
And I know I’ve seen those attack dogs before
with the same blue force undoing brown bodies.
Foul water in Flint, good water in Bismarck:
bullets, bulldozers, bad pipes, hollow promises—
what birds are these still circling, circling
while god denies grace for the hunted?
Warm air sent rising makes gliding
look easy, while shale beneath us fractures,
relents. So why must earth grow colder then
harden, and leave us to shiver here all alone,
singing sad songs of foremothers, forefathers
while above the raptors exhort us to prey?
To pray to a god who saves grace for hunters.
Lots of good books coming out this month! Here are a few previews -
Coming April 6 -
Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1974 by Richard Thompson
Legendary British folk-rocker Thompson takes us through his early career in this engaging memoir. In the spirit of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, it’s deliciously confessional and name-droppy. Jumping from anecdote to anecdote, he takes us through the privations of a struggling musician in the watershed artistic renaissance the late ’60’s and early ’70’s - the dubious romance of living with inadequate food and heat, the sheer exhaustion of life on the road, tempered by the comradery of good friends making brilliant music.He traces his role in the founding of one of folk-rock’s most influential groups, Fairport Convention. After leaving Fairport, he and his spouse, Linda teamed up to create one of the most iconic music duos in recent music history. Their brief flirtation with Sufism is discussed frankly and with little regret over the disillusionment they experienced. The appendix includes lyrics of several songs mentioned in the text, as well as transcripts of Thomson’s dreams that will have you laughing and shaking your head. Literate and entertaining, Beeswing is a worthy addition to the wealth of pop culture memoirs of recent years.
White Shadow by Roy Jacobsen
This is the second installment in the Jacobsen’s Barroy trilogy, which started with The Unseen (2020). This one focuses on the character of Ingrid. Years have passed, the Nazis are occupying Norway, and dead Russian soldiers are washing ashore on Barroy. Ingrid rescues one of the survivors, and the two become lovers. The harrowing story of the lengths she goes to to protect him, and her involvement with others subjugated by the Nazi scourge will keep you turning pages. The prose is elegiac and soaring, but without a trace of sentimentality.
Coming April 20 -
Goodbye, again by Jonny Sun
This tender, sad, funny collection of essays is just the antidote to, well, the world today. Sun writes candidly but with a sense of centeredness about his depression and anxiety and gives gentle, empathetic advice to others experiencing the same challenges. He intersperses simple drawings throughout, as well recipes for scrambled eggs, and a treatise on plant care as a metaphor for self-care. Fans of Allie Brosh will find much to enjoy here. This book is a balm for the rawness of life in the 2020s.
For further reading -