Introduced to me by the poet Nikki Wallschleager, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, is a book I have quickly come to treasure, knowing that I will return to it again and again, for sustenance, pleasure, study, and teaching. Published in 2009, the book also fills in a racist gap left by too many overly white anthologies of an epoch. Why do I strike such a hard blow? For fifteen years I have been reviewing poetry anthologies to decide which books to adopt. Usually I decide to teach individual collections that can center the voices of people of color and provide excellent models for my students, but on occasion I have assigned a poetry anthology that, in my mind, doesn’t disgrace our humanity. I have found Cary Nelson’s Oxford Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, though not without its limitations, to include a racially diverse group of poets. Several poets appear in both Nelson’s Oxford Anthology and Dungy’s Black Nature: Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Ishmael Reed, Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Janice N. Harrington, Natasha Tretheway, Rita Dove, Harryette Mullen, and Claudia Rankine. Except for Rita Dove’s “Parsley” appearing in both collections, no other poem appears in both collections. I have been invigorated by reading so many poems I didn’t know by poets I admire.
Why weren’t so many of these poems already anthologized by 2009? Dungy’s introduction offers us some answers: Despite “the astonishing degree to which these African American poets and their subjects have aligned themselves with the natural world,” she says, “we don’t see much African American poetry in nature-related anthologies because, regardless of their presence, blacks have not been recognized in their poetic attempts to affix themselves to the landscape. They haven’t been seen, or when they have it is not as people who are rightful stewards of the land.” Let’s say that again: “People who are rightful stewards of the land.” Dungy particularly critiques “nature-related anthologies” and in particular names the Oxford Book of Nature Writing as an anthology excluding in Black writers on nature, but as I read Black Nature I am becoming even more vigilant about what gets anthologized, especially because Black writers has done so much to anthologize the work of Black writers from which other anthologists could collect. We must pay close attention to which Black poems and poets appear for an overall epoch or place and whether the poems are offering a limited repertoire of the Black experience, the editors thus circumscribing the range of their human experience. In a way, having such an extensive reading life, I felt cheated by not encountering many of these poems before. (Ok, yes, I could read even more individual poetry collections than I do.) Beyond the fifteen poets named above, Black Nature includes 78 more poets—with a total of 93 poets and 180 poems, poems which are almost entirely pulled together from individual poetry collections, with about 3 exceptions, notably the journal Ecotone Magazine’s 2008 folio “Over the Hills and Everywhere: Black Poets and the Natural World.” Indeed, Black people have much to say about the vegetal and animal life that surrounds them, with “caution,” and “with deep appreciation, connection, healing and peace.”
Of the 93 poets in Black Nature, some are represented with 4-5 poems across the collection, such as Lucille Clifton whose poem “surely i am able to write poems” prefaces the collection, Ed Roberson, Yusef Komunyakaa, G.S. Giscombe, June Jordan, and Janice Harrington. The 180 poems in Black Nature are organized in ten cycles, each focusing on a particular angle of this human-nature interdependence (work, pests, disasters, animals, the forsaken, spring, to abbreviate a few), and the acuity of Dungy’s orchestration of these themes is marvelous; I am in awe of how Dungy drew together so many poems from so many individual collections in that reading from top to bottom my experience deepens, thickens, complicates as the collection goes on. We come to understand how, described in Dungy’s introduction “African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land,” how “the poems reveal histories stories in various natural bodies”—robust trees resonant with the history of lynching— and “how “recognitions on the connectivity with worlds beyond the human is revealed as a necessity of spiritual and physical survival.” And Ravi Howard, introducing “Cycle Two: Nature, Be with Us” says, “These words have helped to bridge the distance between an urbanized view of blackness and the natural world, a gap that, left unchecked, leave more room for distortions.” The theme rejuvenation at the end of the book, like the cycles of nature, send us on our way. I have come to love and pass on so many of these poems—I’ve loved so many that I end without naming so many poets, I realize. I’ll end with a short Richard Wright haiku from the section pests, which is brimming with powerful poems:
I am paying rent
For the lice in my cold room
And the moonlight too.