Poetry for naturalists (2)

In Part 1 of this series, I listed four anthologies. I didn’t include any anthologies specifically of nature poetry, because I have yet to find one that’s fully satisfying — and in any case, I prefer reading single-author collections, which I’ll list alphabetically by author. Please note that this is a purely personal list, heavily influenced by serendipity. I have somewhere around 1000 books of poetry, most of them acquired by chance at sales and used bookstores. I apologize in advance to my British readers for the scarcity of British poets, for example. Books by American poets are simply a lot easier to get a hold of over here.

5. Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, by Diane Ackerman (Vintage Books, 1991)

Ackerman’s talent for lyric verse is enormous, her knowledge about natural history extensive, and poems about non-human subjects make up the bulk of her work. Her language makes me think of a cross between Plath and Oliver, but that might not adequately convey the lushness of some of these poems. They are best savored two or three at a time, like anything rich. And the geographic scope is enormous, with a poems set everywhere from Amazonia to the Antarctic to the Bronx.

So, in the dark night of the hummingbird,
while lilies lather sweetly in the rain,
the hummingbird rests near collapse,
its quick breath halved, its rugged breath shallow,
its W-shaped tongue, as bright as Cassiopeia,
now mumbling words like wistful and wan.
The world at once drug, anthem, bright lagoon,
where its heart knew all the Morse codes
for rapture, pales into a senseless twilight.
–“The Dark Night of the Hummingbird”

6. Uplands: New Poems, by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1970)

It took me a long time to discover that I liked Ammons’ unique style, where a love of word-music is matched by a passion for understatement. Now I wish I owned more than just this one, slim volume, in which so many poems betray a deep knowledge of the natural world. He writes about “Runoff,” for example,

quiet and clear,
never tipping enough to break sound,
slowed into marshy landrise and burst

into a bog of lupine and mirrored:
that was a place! what a place!
the soggy small marsh, nutgrass and swordweed!

And in the last two stanzas of the almost-title poem, “Upland,” Ammons deftly captures a geographic feature I’m intimately familiar with:

take the Alleghenies for example,
some quality in the air
of summit stones lying free and loose
out among the shrub trees: every

exigency seems prepared for that might
roll, bound, or give flight
to stone: that is, the stones are
pepared: they are round and ready.

7. Eyes to See Otherwise / Ojos de otro mirar: Selected Poems, by Homero Aridjis, edited by Betty Ferber and George McWhirter (New Directions, 2001)

The editors have gathered the work of multiple translators for this bilingual selection from one of Mexico’s best-known poets, who is also probably its most prominent environmental activist. Homero Aridjis grew up in the closest town to the over-wintering site of the eastern population of monarch butterflies, in Michoacán, and witnessed the destuction caused by careless logging. He went on to form the Group of 100, an association of literary and artistic intellectuals trying to draw public attention to environmental issues. (Wild nature might not have quite as large a constituency in Mexcio as it does here, but intellectuals are held in considerably higher esteem!)

Aridjis’ poetry mines historical as well as natural subjects, finding abundant tragedy and wisdom in both, as in a poem recounting the 16th-century friar Bernadino de Sahagun’s description of the birds of New Spain, or in a prose poem sequence re-envisioning the Aztec New Fire ceremony. Here’s a short poem in its entirety, spoken by some distant descendent of Jonah. I’ll substitute my own translation for the one provided.

Ballena Gris

Ballena gris,
cuando no quede de tí­ más que la imagen
de un cuerpo oscuro que iba por las aguas
del paraí­so de los animales;
cuando no haya memoria de tu paso
ni leyenda que registre tu vida,
porque no hay mar donde quepa tu muerte,
quiero poner sobre tu tumba de agua
estas cuantas palabras:

‘Ballena gris,
danos la dirrección de otro destino.’

Gray Whale

Gray whale,
when nothing is left of you but the image
of a dark body moving through the waters
of the paradise of animals,
when there is no longer any memory of your passing
nor legend to register your ever having lived,
because there is no sea that can accomodate your death,
I want to place on your watery mausoleum
these words:

Gray whale,
show us the way to another fate.

8. The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Basho School, introduced and translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri (Princeton University Press, 1981)

This is really an anthology, an exception to my single-author rule here, but it’s indispensible for anyone interested in the poetry of Matsuo Bashí´ as he himself chose to present it: in multi-author haikai no renga sequences, poetic essays, and collections of hokku arranged by season. The translations are readable, and are accompanied by transcriptions of the originals and detailed notes on facing pages, which are especially useful in letting us see what sort of considerations guided the composition of a linked-verse sequence. Miner and Odagiri made the wise decision to repeat each component verse twice, so we can hear and see it as part of a tanka, and sometimes vary the translation to reflect the shifting sense. Here, for example, is how they present the first five verses of a 36-verse sequence called “Even the Kite’s Feathers.” The authors are Kyorai, Bashí´, Bonchí´, Fumikuni, and Bashí´ again.

    Even the kite’s feathers
have been tidied by the passing shower
    of early winter rain

    Even the kite’s feathers
have been tidied by the passing shower
    of early winter rain
stirred by a single puff of wind
the withered leaves grow still again

Stirred by a single puff of wind
the withered leaves grow still again
    from morning onward
his trousers have been wetted
    in crossing streams

    From morning onward
his trousers have been wetted
    in crossing streams
and he sees the bamboo bow
set to frighten badgers off

Not far from the bamboo bow
set to frighten badgers off
    and through lush ivy
crawling over the lattice door
    comes evening moonlight

9. A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1998)

I remember not thinking too highly of Berry when I was in my late teens and twenties, but either he changed, or I did. This book is unified both by theme and method of composition: each poem describes a walk he took on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church, in poems that might be considered prayerful, but never preachy. Here’s how Sabbath IV from 1985 begins:

The fume and shock and uproar
of the internal combustion of America
recede, the last vacationers gone
back to the life that drives away from home.

Bottles and wrappers of expensive
cheap feasts ride the quieted current
toward the Gulf of Mexico.

And now the breeze comes down
from the hill, the kingfisher returns
to the dead limb of the sycamore,
the swallows feed in the air
over the water.

10. BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns (Norton, 1975)

As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is the naturalist’s equivalent of “Car Talk,” full of puns and other jokes only a nature nerd could love — or even understand. The introduction by Stephen Jay Gould explains how Burns, his lepidopterist colleague, used to read his light verse at every Wednesday luncheon and Natural History Seminar at Harvard. And if I hadn’t read this book and known of the connection, I wouldn’t have been able to decode the ending of one of Gould’s later essays. He was taking a former colleague and erstwhile supporter to task for his attacks on Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, and his last paragraph builds up to an apparently innocent repetition of the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” However, it’s also the complete text of the shortest, and hence most memorable, poem in Burns’ book — a poem which I suspect would’ve been well known to the target of Gould’s essay. It’s accompanied by an engraving of a snail:

To a Lonely Hermaphrodite


A poem about fern reproduction is entitled, “One Good Fern Deserves Another.” The second stanza adequately conveys the flavor of the book:

Up springs the frondly sporophyte,
        with rhizome, root, and rachis
And a meristem that’s apical and tight.
It uncoils; but on a leaf that is preparing for meiosis
Sporangia in clusters make a very sori sight.

Continue to Part 3.

5 Replies to “Poetry for naturalists (2)”

  1. Oh, hell. Another shopping list.

    I can’t hold it against you though, because I just got another awesome story about Stephen Jay Gould, my beloved imaginary husband.


    So funny.

  2. You like Gould? Really? But he was SO full of it! I only used to read him because, hell, it was the first thing in Natural History magazine. And The Mismeasure of Man remains a necessary work.

    I guess my idea with this list is to plant a number of authors and titles in people’s heads, so the next time they’re at a bookstore, they’ll have plenty of ideas of what to to pick up. But if you insist on being all left-brained and searching BookFinder.com for them, that’s cool, too. I’m not putting Amazon links in mainly from sheer laziness.

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