(This is a revised and expanded
version of an essay published in Last Word on Nothing, April 29,
many poets, indeed many artists of all media, I am strongly drawn
to nature, both as a source of imagery and a provoker of emotion.
It is my belief that humans stand in a peculiar relation to nature:
We are clearly part of it and yet our consciousness sets us at the
same time outside of it. Among other things, this situation has led
us to a sense of alienation from nature, which in turn has allowed
us to see nature as a resource to be exploited, on the one hand, or
as a home to return to, to merge with.
The latter animates my favorite
English poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats. As he listens
to the melodious song of the nightingale, the poet longs to taken
out of the world of aging and death, wishing to become one with the
bird and its melody. His longing rises as he contemplates the
bird's seeming immortality that he would himself take on, "Thou
wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" Keats imagines that the
nightingale's song is the same heard by the Bible's Ruth "amid the
alien corn" and that it has sounded through the ages. Then the word
"forlorn" tolls like a bell reminding the poet that he will die and
cease to hear while the bird's song continues through eternity. The
extreme impermanence of human existence is contrasted with the
nightingale's apparent immortality.
In our time of degraded nature,
poisoned and choked bodies of water, and climate change, however,
nature suddenly appears to be exceedingly fragile and endangered.
This state is what my poem "Assateague" addresses. The sand itself
constantly shifts, reminding us that barrier islands are constantly
changing shape and size, are extremely vulnerable to the sea level
rises that come with warming oceans. The speaker is uncertainly
rooted, aware of far off storms intensified by climate changes, and
only maintains a tentative stance.
The waves curl in and lave the shore,
drop their cargo of shells and polished glass,
then withdraw, clawing back the sand.
Sanderlings scatter, poke and pick, flee
incoming waves, chase them back out,
I stand on spongy sand, solid enough
if a bit shaky, sea foam washing my feet.
Somewhere to the south on this overheating
planet, the ocean is boiling up, surging
under the lash of fierce cyclonic winds.
But for now I'm safe on the margin,
feet drawn into the restless sand.
"Katydids," on the other hand, does
offer some small hope in its reminder that these insects have been
sounding in the summer night air for time immemorial and may go on
for a long time into the future.
rises above crickets' rasp
this mid-August night.
It was ever thus
in dwindling summer, evenings
I have heard katydids my entire
life and only recently realized that they were not another kind of
cricket. One night in Arlington a few years ago I paused below a
tree right in front of my apartment building and suddenly heard
their chirping as "katy-did katy-did."
Similarly, the slow darkening of a
late spring evening can seem to both suspend time and evoke its
endless forward movement while simultaneously making the past
Dusk, Late May
This is the hour
of catbirds—broken songs deep
within the branches
Hour of crows—churning
the air, imprinting inkblots
on the slate-blue sky.
Hour of starlings— dark
shimmer, dropping fast like leaves
onto waiting trees.
Hour of stillness—
the wind drops to soft breath
ruffling grass like hair.
Hour of regret—time
timeless, suspended, voices
call from distant past.
(First published in Barren, January 18, 2021.)
Indeed, one could say that the
purpose of art is to celebrate as well as rue the impermanent
nature of existence. An artist discovers an image or a sound, or a
phrase, and holds it up for contemplation. A work of art, whether
poem. picture, musical composition, or any other form, captures a
moment of perception or imagination, and gives it longevity, if not
permanence. A true artistic production sincerely and thoughtfully
crafted outlives its creator.
A Picture of Flowers
in their moment
before the artist
also dead now
intimate and near
as the dead stars
whose light I see
at this moment
(Originally published in Mad Rush, Issue 1.)
Dharma and modern physics both
describe a universe in flux, moment succeeding moment and in
constant movement. As the Buddha says "Ardently do today what must
be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes." The artist offers a
temporary respite from the relentless flow of time.