Poetry on Environment

Butterfly on blossom. Photo by Stephen Mulkey.

Like many baby boomers, I recall a time when an unusually warm spring day was something to relish, not cause for anxiety about climate change.

My spouse, scientist Stephen Mulkey, is fond of saying, “Weather and climate are not the same thing,” but it’s natural for folks to experience weather as a harbinger of good or bad fortune, or of the changes to come.

The rainbow, the stormclouds, the hurricane, the cloudless sky, the tornado — all these have an emotional resonance for us. Because climate change is so centered on prediction, we can’t help but tie weather and climate together.

The industrial revolution sparked an interest in preserving the natural environment, an interest that continues today. One poem specifically in response to the industrial revolution is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who saw miracles in Nature and his God’s hand in all of those miracles.

Today, there are a number of magazines centered on environmental concerns that publish poetry. These include OrionTerrain, and Ecotone, to name a few.

The day the American government vowed to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change published a new issue (28.2), which includes my poem, Gift Horse. I admit to being influenced by that science dude I’m married to!

Gift Horse

Mid-century, an early spring meant
taking off our shirts between the dunes in April
,
desperate as we were to air our skin out
after months cocooned in wool. 
Even the sand
felt good, scratching our backs. 
We crossed our arms
behind our heads and watched the mare’s-tail clouds
brush the blue from the sky
. Those stretches
of mild weather out of season — 
such gifts,
we never thought to check their teeth.

Poetry in Form: Sapphics

“A woman walking in the sea in a white dress, as the water reflects the Rarotonga sunset” by Luke Marshall on Unsplash

Sapphics, as you might guess, are named for the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The form follows a strict metrical pattern that does not come naturally to me. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan once said at a reading. “I am a slave to rhyme.” Well, I am a slave to the iamb, and the Sapphic meter seems weird.

But it seemed like the perfect form for a particular poem.

Sapphics are written in four-line stanzas. The contemporary Sapphic metrical pattern for poets who write in English sounds like this:

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da da DUM da

In contrast, the more common iambic pattern goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

Why did I choose to write in an ancient Greek Sapphic form? It started with undergoing interferon treatment for hepatitis C. (Coincidentally the word “hepatitis” comes from the Greek.) The treatment gave me many nasty side effects, but the scariest one was that it wiped out the poetry part of my brain for a year.

Happily, a breakthrough came when I visited The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. This museum, in the lavish former home of the circus magnate, has a Renaissance-style sculpture garden with a number of colossal statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

But the colossal that struck me like a thunderbolt was a replica of the Rape of Proserpina (a/k/a Persephone) by the Italian sculptor Bernini. It depicts Pluto (a/k/a Hades), the god of the underworld, abducting the virgin Proserpina.

Looking up at the colossal statue, I was astonished to see that a paper wasp had made a nest in Proserpina’s crotch. A metaphor occurred to me — the first that had popped into my head in a year. But more amazingly, when I got home and started researching wasps, I learned that their Latin name is hymenoptera — after “hymen,” the tissue that is broken when a woman loses her virginity.

What a gift that was. The poem was originally published in the online journal Per Contra.

The Wasp Garden

A Sapphic verse on a copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini at the
Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

“Rape of Proserpine,” the colossus’s sign reads,
“Stone Variant,” on the theme “young girl some
God of Hell abducted became a queen.” Her
Rape is looming, yet

Here, she’s held aloft, as if ready to fly, with
Pluto’s arms her launch. See where haughty paper
Wasps, the Hymenoptera, built their nesting
Site between her not-

Yet-queen-thighs, a fortress of humming rapture,
Stingers sharpened, ready to shield them both from
Brutal injuries and regrets, to put an
End to myths like these.

Poetry with Narrative

A motorcycle parked in an alleyway. Photo by Michael Wade on Unsplash

Narrative poetry has been around for millenia. It’s a poem that tells a story. The opposite of narrative poetry is lyrical poetry, which tells about a moment, a feeling.

In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.

But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.

You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.

Ladies Night

Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip

It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next.
 The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece
so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.

Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground.
The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light.
 The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? 
This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.