Orion Blog

Twelve Poetry Recommendations for Black History Month

 

Camille Dungy and poet friends are back with another list of stellar recommended reading. From new titles to seminal classics, you’ll want to check out these environmentally-engaged poetry collections by Black poets today, and every day.

 

Camille Dungy recommends:

 

 

 

“i”: new and selected poems by Toi Derricotte


Reading “i” is like sitting next to a woman I’ve known for years, have loved for years, and love even more in this moment. I am ever grateful she trusts me enough to whisper secrets she’s never told anyone, sometimes not even herself. Everyone seems familiar to the “i” of these poems. Even the palmetto bug, who terrifies her but who she will not kill, and who returns with a larger brood, not to terrorize the poem’s speaker, but to sing her a song. In this new and selected collection, Derricotte writes with her characteristic candor and grace. And Telly! Telly! Telly the goldfish, “his swishy tail a magisterial emblem/ of the Living God.” The “i” of these poems is not afraid to love a goldfish, not afraid to write that love into poems full of trusting sincerity and deep connection. She knocks me out every time. (Pitt Poetry Series)

 

 

Playlist for the Apocalypse by Rita Dove


Rita Dove’s first book of new poems in over a decade, Playlist for the Apocalypse is as beautiful and insistent as a cricket song. She writes of the Venetian island covered in foundry slag and made the first ghetto. A cloud of yellow butterflies a girl who will never return thinks of when she recalls home. A river. A blue sky. Chronic illness. Everyday horrors and everyday hope. Her formal dexterity and wide-ranging historical knowledge always dazzle, yet Dove writes in such a way that even the most rigid forms and difficult stories feel plain-spoken, down to earth. (W.W. Norton)

 

 

Then the War, and Selected Poems 2007-2020 by Carl Phillips

 

I think of the word “incandescent” when I think of poetry by Carl Phillips. Something that gives off light via its own heat. As if the intensity of passion in his language lights the page. The eye Phillips casts on the human- and greater-than-human-world is brightly alert. An eye that seems directly connected to his ear. His language is vibrant, reverent, and sonically rich. Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s reverent. It’s always wholly alive. What a wonderful thing to have so many new poems from Carl Phillips. As well as many of my favorites from the last decades, arranged in tighter, bolder constellations so they appear hot and bright. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

 

 

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo


Sometimes, in the midst of one of his intense, politically charged, compelling narratives, John Murillo stops. Not to smell the roses. That would be too simple, too expected, and there is nothing simple or easy to anticipate in Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. But there are birds sometimes, swooping down in a way that cannot be ignored. Swarming off a page scrawled in grief. And there are broken-necked flowers and well-tended ones, too. Beauty and hurt Murillo carries into his poems, like flowers meant for a lover. Or for a grave. (Four Way Books)

 

 

Such Color: New and Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith


Smith’s work has long been steeped in concern for the environment. Poems from her first 2003 collection, such as “Drought,” “Mangoes” and “Wintering,” were already conscious of the interplay between the human and non-human worlds, and by the time she published her 2007 collection, Smith’s “Words/ whittled and stretched into meaning.” Her 2018 book centers the toxicity of our environmental catastrophe at its core. And new poems in Such Color clarify that, for Smith, who has always attended to interplays between history, the present, and our threatened environments, “The Wave after Wave is One Wave Never Tiring.” (Graywolf)

 

 

Un-American by Hafizah Geter


In this stunning debut collection, Hafizah Geter “demonstrates how/ what’s uprooted can return/ to solid ground.” But what’s found in the soil is just as likely to be grief as relief. Even before the mother at the center of this book dies, she is already gone, and so we pass through these pages mourning alongside the family Geter describes. “In the Ohio dark,” Geter writes, “coyotes nuzzled the neck of a swan,” as if horror and beauty are always this closely aligned. (Wesleyan University Press)

 

 

White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino


It would be folly to overlook Kiki Petrosino’s White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia on a list of environmentally-focused books. I can’t read about the landscape of Virginia and the Upper South (which Petrosino vividly describes) and not think about the blood and sweat soaked into that soil. Petrosino’s exacting eye challenges reductive and redacted narratives of her native place. In this wondrously innovative collection, she renews understandings about what has grown up from that land. (Sarabande)

 

Poet friends also recommend:

 

 

Major Jackson recommends Rice by Nikky Finney

 

One of the important environmental books of poetry that needs further study and discussion is Nikky Finney’s Rice. Through poems and family photographs, Finney brings to the fore the important contributions of enslaved Africans to the coastal region of South Carolina. The tradition of planting and harvesting rice becomes allegory and lens by which to explore the cultivation of Carolina’s gold crop, but also the emergence of the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands and the spirit of resistance as embodied by her ancestors. (Triquarterly Books)

 

 

Teri Cross Davis recommends Let the Dead In by Saida Agostini

 

Guyana becomes a presence, its landscape a character, in Saida Agostini’s Let the Dead In.  These poems explore the murky mermaid-infested waters of the Pomeroon River, the abundant lilies, and other flora that blossom in its wake. To read this mythologically-driven poetry is to step into a lush environment and come out soaked to the skin. A good science-fiction book succeeds because of firm world-building and in this collection, Agostini crafts a world where the dead talk and we listen. (Alan Squire Press)

 

 

Michael Kleber-Diggs recommends Nebraska: Poems by Kwame Dawes

 

“I limp out just after the delicate chaos / of flurries covers the driveway and I shovel…” Kwame Dawes writes in Nebraska: Poems, his 21st collection, which often features the Ghanaian poet, inhabiting midwestern spaces and sensibilities. He shovels his driveway, walks his dog among geese, and draws his hand over a lavender plant, all while taking in the people who move among him. The verses here have a meditative charm that is wistful at times but straightforward like the landscape Dawes now calls home. “…There is a heaviness / that comes with being a stranger…” he notes in “The Messiness of Place,” eventually arriving at an attunement that could only result from an intimate connection to the land — not land as a place, land as a practice. The skills Dawes has acquired in a lifetime of noticing and being present seem so endemic to who he is that they travel with him wherever he goes. “I read the sky, the chase and swirl, the deep / hues and light filigree of wispy clouds, and soon / I could predict the arrival of storm…” And he was right, a storm has come to America. In Nebraska, Dawes takes it all in as though he’s seeing it for the first time, but he is too wise and self-aware, too knowledgeable of history to claim he’s witnessing in new ways or through a different lens, though he knows it may be perceived that way by some. His efforts allow us to observe his setting plainly and directly, for what it is, for what it might have been, for what it can be. (University of Nebraska Press)

 

 

Kiki Petrosino recommends Daughters of Harriet by Cynthia Parker-Ohene

 

Daughters of Harriet is an ecstatic debut, and I’m ecstatic about it. In poems full of oracular fire, Cynthia Parker-Ohene proclaims the beauty of Black life across complex terrains of time and space. These intimate, yet wide-ranging lyrics move with virtuosity from the remembered “sheen of buttercups” in a beloved grandparent’s garden to the “disturbed wavelets” of the Middle Passage still resonating, as collective memory, in the Black body. This a work of deep remembrance and song-craft, drawing innovative poetic language from the luminous, multidimensional network of Black consciousness. I find something new to cherish whenever I turn these pages. Richly textured and keenly observed, this is poetry to keep close. (Center for Literary Publishing)

 

 

Teri Cross Davis also recommends No Ruined Stone by Shara McCallum

 

Shara McCallum writes letters to the past and to the present in No Ruined Stone, making the epistolary poem a reliquary of what-could-have-beens. Within these lines is a sure and graceful voice, and with a handy timeline in the appendix, I hungrily skipped between Scotland and Jamaica, fingers greedy for the next page. This is a collection I eagerly return to, it’s freshness so enveloping and jolting. I love how it makes me question why we let history lie. (Alice James Books)

 

 

Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here

 

 

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Five Questions for Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of How Strange a Season

In Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new book of short stories, How Strange a Season, you will find a man lashed to a dock and screaming for repentance as a hurricane approaches. You will find hedge fund executives bashing in cars at the behest of a dominatrix. A peach farm hangs on by a drought-ridden thread. The Strangler is hiding in your closet. All seven stories, and one novella, traverse critical questions about power, fidelity, and landscape, and the troubled humans who live in them. How Strange a Season offers an “evocative and engrossing collection of new stories and a novella about women experiencing life’s challenges and beauty.”

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women and Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her short fiction has appeared in two volumes of The Best American Short Stories and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. She lives on a small farm in Vermont.

 

NT: Let’s start with the title, How Strange a Season. It seems to suggest something I found in the book, a sun setting on human exceptionalism, that humanity is perhaps caught in the last summer days of our own delusion. Does that check out? 

MMB: The phrasing “how strange a season” is actually pulled from a Patrizia Cavalli poem:

Onto your sea my ship set sail,
(dentro il tuo mare viaggiava la mia nave)
Into that sea I sank and was born.
(Dentro quell mare mi sono immersa e nacqui)
I am struck by how strange a season it is
And by how my body felt the cold.

You picked up on the mood exactly—the banality at the end of the world, online shopping for yoga pants as oceans die, and so on. It is a remarkable time to try and make a life. I believe it has always been, especially for certain sections of the world who have not had the relative shelter of Western privilege. But I think the existential side of what we’ve wrought as humans is beginning to press down upon even people who don’t pay attention to the natural world. I think we’ve underestimated the impact of this dread on our communities and psyches. 

We’re all trying to make sense of both the present and the future. I wanted my characters to hold that dread, for readers to feel it pressing in, that flow between person and place. But I’ve always believed that story must come in front of idea, so my hope is that the characters and the action feel larger and more engaging than any of my social and environmental ideas. 

 

NT: A central thread I tracked in these stories is your rendering of an exhausted and misguided masculinity, the violence and subsequent desperation of patriarchy, and the ruins of infidelity to partners, planet, and self. Was that something you wished to confront? 

MMB: I love that you picked up on these aspects of the book. I was thinking a lot about power dynamics, labor, gender, punishment, and redemption. I like your identification of the “ruins” concept. I’m drawn to ruins. There are some things, like plantation homes, or places where people suffered, that I prefer to see as ruins, not glorified. Sometimes ruins seem more honest—a homestead, a former political superpower, a face. But never the natural world. 

One time, a poet friend of mine was visiting me in Vermont. Annoyed by something I said, she uttered the phrase: Be careful what you valorize. The idea has stayed with me. I think America valorizes destructive forces—capitalism, industry, greed—and so many of these, at least in my mind, are traditionally masculine domains, which we continue to valorize in popular culture and academia. We eschew the humanities in favor of entrepreneurship; we turn the cameras on billionaires heading to space; we embrace hustle culture and rugged individualism; we praise stoicism and never quitting; we still want to “conquer” illness and mountains, and so on. 

Chasing conventional prosperity leaves us anxious and dissatisfied, and yet we work harder and longer every year—the carrot moves. I tried to reflect this in the vocations and motivations of my characters, particularly the father in “Workhorse.”

I think, as a species, we’re swept up in self-destructive acts—destroying the natural world that we need to survive, polluting relationships, devoting ourselves to institutions and work that will never return the ardor. And we ask for forgiveness and redemption in the last hour, when it’s late, and the consequences are steep. 

 

NT: I experienced the weight of the feminine in having to put up with so much bullshit, and how there are several moments where female-bodied characters behave in certain ways to shake out their numbness of loss, or privilege, or pain, wishing they could feel something again. There’s a delicious carnality in all of these stories, too, perhaps jolted awake by growing environmental extremities we’ve set into motion. I find “The Night Hag” bursts at the end as some fully formed archetype, a culminating force. How do we fight the numbness, and can fiction help?

MMB: I’ve always been fascinated by the human as animal and primal forces, and love the evocation of carnality here. I was absolutely going for that in many of the women, and in the arc of the “Night Hag.” I wanted the Night Hag to reflect the loss of idealization. Because let’s face it: most of us were told bogus stories about what life and love would be. 

It’s always been important for me to show women living, thinking, working, and wanting in big ways, and with big appetites. I’m interested in the idea that none of us really has to replicate the traditionally masculine performances of material success or emotionally stilted relationships. We can all pursue something more complex and tender. In my idealism, I like to think that more of us operating in a complex and tender space could heal a lot of generational trauma. 

But many of us get lulled into a monotonous condition—through overwork, pandemic constraints, past pain that makes our anxious hearts play it safe, environmental anxiety, screen addiction. At any given time, many of us could be better tending to the lives of our minds and the lives of our bodies, yet we don’t. I think it’s from this boredom and restlessness that we act out, trying to jolt ourselves into an experience, into feeling. 

I fear numbness, personally, and experience it regularly. It seems like such a waste while living on this extraordinary planet, in the proximity of extraordinary company. Narrative helps remind me of the range of experiences available to me as a human. I think the empathy developed while reading and writing fiction can help remind us of the human condition. It can put words to the experience of interconnectedness. It can remind us of the bliss that is possible in deeper connection and understanding. 

I think one of the best things we could do to fight numbness is to invest in our collective mental health—to be hopeful and excited about the future if we can, and to allow other humans around us to be their full, messy selves in our company. I think a lot of my characters are looking for that resonance, looking to be seen, desperate to feel at home. 

 

NT: So often these stories gravitate toward a sort of bourgeois emptiness, a loneliness of riches, particularly when faced with our mortality and further expedited with climate change. What legacy have we, as humans, been left, and what legacy are we leaving? Do we enjoy what beauty remains, or do we drown in guilt? Or, referencing your story “A Taste for Lionfish,” do we fight like hell and try to stuff people’s mouths with lionfish?

MMB: My plan is to stuff people’s mouths with lionfish, but I can’t do it alone. I’m actively recruiting interns. I assume every generation has had to confront mortality in different ways these last years. For me, I think a lot about legacy and substance—moving sincerely through this fraught time, holding myself accountable for showing up for my people, my planet, myself. 

Encountering and appreciating beauty, even damaged beauty, is a priority for me. Even damaged, even fraying at the seams, the world remains stunning and full of stubborn wonder. 

When I worked with Amy Hempel—a writer I deeply admire—she once told the class not to forget that real people had real jobs and lived outside of New York City. As someone who has several jobs and works outside of New York City, I appreciated this at the time and think about it every time I sit down to write. So many literary works take place in city culture or feature the wealthy. I want to write fiction that is in touch with the world and people I know.

 

NT: Okay, last question. Share with us your three favorite scene(s) of ecological tension in the book

MMG: In “Heirloom,” I love the idea of a woman trying to keep a water-starved ranch functional, and in doing so, taking advantage of a very greed-driven culture that has damaged the planet. In “Inheritance,” I like the rub between idealization and reality—the protagonist’s romanticizing of her grandmother and her later realization of how problematic she may have been; the protagonist’s love of a precarious home on a cliff; the confrontation with wellness culture and women taking pictures of themselves meditating. In “A Taste for Lionfish,” I am most drawn to the scene on the pier at the end—the self-flagellation the male character engages in, trying to rid himself of generational guilt. 

 

More Resources: 

 

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17 Poetry Collections to read during Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and we’re back with another curated list of poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends. From Trinidad to Kabul to the Arctic and beyond, through imagined kingdoms, red clay, falling snow, and lemon-scented air, here you will find tricksters and children, grief and desire, intimacy, community, and resolve written by some of the most compelling women poets of our time.

 

Camille Dungy recommends:

 

 

Trickster Academy by  Jenny L. Davis


Jenny L. Davis’s book is so funny that when I first read Trickster Academy during the quiet hour before my family woke, I laughed out loud twice. But it also cuts deep. I thought, Ouch, that’s so true. And then I might have cried. These poems about the experience of being Native in academia are riddled with difficult truths, trickster stories, and the analysis of protective exoskeletons and human remains. Red clay mud seeps around the feet of these poems and keeps them from walking too far from home. This is where so many of us live. Sit down with Davis, Fox, Rabbit, Spider, Crow, Buzzard, and Coyote to learn how things came to be the way that they are. (University of Arizona Press)

 

 

Aunt Bird by Yerra Sugarman


In these haunting and haunted poems, Yerra Sugarman conjures the story of an aunt murdered in Poland in 1942 during the Holocaust. In Yiddish, the aunt’s name meant “bird.” Sugarman speaks “the language of falling snow bending in the wind” to tell a story that must be told and retold and told again. Not because there is any healing that can happen after such atrocities, but because, despite this, she must “try to measure the sky,/ the incommensurate, hibiscus-red sky/and look for a voice that looks for its throat.” (Four Way Books)

 

 

The Thicket by Kasey Jueds

 

Entering The Thicket it’s as if I walk into another world, one where things are more vivid and alive. Like the land of fables and fairy tales, the Technicolor wonder along the yellow brick road. Sparrows are messengers, and so are crows. The dog next door grants me x-ray vision. Doors open onto magical kingdoms where girls bite straight into hanging fruit without even bothering to pick it from the tree. Except this magic world is our world, the real world, where snow falls and keeps falling and, long after someone’s been paid to clear out the old tool shed, the ghosts of chemicals once stored there haunt the air. (University of Pittsburgh Press)

 

 

Abacus of Loss by Sholeh Wolpé


In poems scented with lemon, almond blossoms, and gun smoke, Sholeh Wolpé counts losses across continents. From a childhood in Tehran to an adolescence in Trinidad and the U.K., Wolpé’s exile and recentering eventually takes her to Los Angeles and Washington D.C. In all these landscapes, the speaker of this memoir in verse meets birds and men and new parts of her own heart as the trees in the book lose, regain, then lose again their leaves. Like the holes she saw workers dig at a resort in Tulum, Mexico, to bury the nightly wash of seaweed coming out of the Sargasso Sea, Wolpé’s Abacus of Loss catches what’s torn up and battered by waves, giving the wrack back to the sands of time and memory. (The University of Arkansas Press)

 

 

How to Carry Water: Selected Poems by Lucille Clifton, edited by Aracelis Girmay


Read this book. Then read it again. Lucille Clifton spoke through the voice of the universe, casting as loving an eye on a roach as a fox as the waves from the Chesapeake Bay. Her connection to the many vibrant, unique lives on this planet is unparallel in contemporary American poetry. Her trademark compression and attention and care are as necessary today as they were when she first penned the poems in this thoughtfully selected collection. (BOA Editions)

 

 

A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi


In one of this book’s lush, thoughtful, sometimes necessarily jarring poems, Tishani Doshi writes, “the body of earth is the body of us.” Perhaps we care for our own and each other’s bodies with just as much, and just as little reverence as we care for the earth. Throughout A God at the Door, Doshi demonstrates where the divine is at work in the mundane, and places where the world severs the living from the divine. No, she is more specific than that. Doshi writes how humans destroy life, killing the divine inside others. This book’s gaze is global and copious. It moves from lost species to lost coasts to lives lost to gunfire in a maternity clinic in Kabul. But, the witness accompanies a fierce will toward survival. The language in A God at the Door is fiery and mesmerizing, as if sparked by something we might call the divine. (Copper Canyon Press)

 

 

 I Thought There Would Be More Wolves by Sara Ryan


When the woman at the center of Sara Ryan’s book moves to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is surprised not to see wolves. This book explains some reasons for wolves’ absence from that landscape even as it reveals how wolves are ever-present in the mind. Not only as metaphor, but also as kin and as kind. I Thought There Would Be More Wolves digs out bones buried by history and looks at the blood and muscle that build our mammalian bodies. “Men become the forest” and a father grooms the wolf in his girl. These poems sometimes have their teeth bared, but they can also be gentle as a mother wolf in a fur-soft den. (University of Alaska Press)

 

 

I Live in the Country & other dirty poems by Arielle Greenberg


The first poem in this collection, “I am an Animal,” lays the foundation for all that will come. The double entendre in the word “come” is intended. In this book, Arielle Greenberg never disconnects from the animal body, a body that hungers for sex and the heat of the pack. Dirty and domestic, feral and fresh, I Live in the Country is a wildly grounded and fully embodied book. (Four Way Books)

 

 

Magnified by Minnie Bruce Pratt


Observing the world as if through a lens that reveals the closeness of things and also their true contours, Minnie Bruce Pratt describes a neighborhood, its elms and arborvitae, the rain, the snow, the imminent death of a beloved, hedges, and edges, and bitter herbs. Perhaps, through these observations, grief becomes bearable. Or, perhaps, individual grief is amplified by its echoes. One poem in Magnified says, “I am writing the natural history of my world.” Another laments the knowledge that there must always be, for us all, a final word. These taut lyrics measure mourning and memory, embodiment, and embodiment’s inevitable, eventual end. (Wesleyan University Press)

 

 

The Curious Thing by Sandra Lim


As in the poems in The Curious Thing titled “Pastoral,” one of which describes “Drinks on a sunny patio” and the fate of a bird who lives inside the house, the poems in this book make clear the dubious division between the interior mind, the external body, and the greater-than-human world. Sandra Lim’s poems use images from the natural world as metaphors for the human mind, the hungry body, but they never co-opt the independent energy of the mountain, lake, stag, or rose with which her vision aligns. As in a lucid dream where nothing and everything is real, Lim writes a world that is both magically metaphorical and fundamentally true. (W.W. Norton)

 

 

Recommendations from poet friends:

 

 

Shara McCallum recommends Anthropocene Lullaby by K.A. Hays

 

K.A. Hays is a gifted lyric poet whose body of work has been built out of her enduring focus on and concern for the natural world. Her fourth and newest collection, Anthropocene Lullaby, is emotionally, intellectually, and linguistically charged. In these poems, human-caused climate change, rapid technological shifts, and examinations of the self (including being a mother) intersect and create rifts in the poet’s sense of herself and of time. I’m moved by how matter-of-factly Hays evokes anxiety in the face of environmental catastrophe and stares down grief. I’m equally moved by the poet’s virtuosic craft—the poems’ sonic echoes, sinuous yet taut syntax, and intimate, self-interrogating tone. The book is at times harrowing to read, but it offers solace too. The poet reminds herself, and us, that matter and energy are never created or destroyed. They change form. They transform, as they must and as we must. (Carnegie-Mellon University Press)

 

 

Tess Taylor recommends Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie


The Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie is one of my favorite living poets, but she’s also a tremendous essayist, and in this book, she examines things as varied as Inuit land where warming is unburying ancient tools, to prehistoric settlements in Scotland, to her own attempts to unbury memories of travels long gone. The ways she moves between the reported, the felt, the seen and the remembered are deft. She’s a compassionate witness to careful leisurely observations like this: “After 30 minutes or so, I could see colors better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.”  For those of us who are—even at this phase of the pandemic—still finding a time that demands that we wait in the slowness, books like Jamie’s offer hope that that time will give us time to imagine, unbury, and consider belonging, history and shard. From there, who knows? We may be able to dream much wiser dreams. In the meantime, Jamie, in her witness, offers us the chance to see more richly. (Penguin Books)

 

 

Petra Kuppers recommends Gentlewomen by Megan Kaminski


There’s nothing very gentle about Megan Kaminski’s Gentlewomen, an exploration of a post-apocalyptic feverish sightedness that dances on human ruins. Poems accompany three mythical women, the five-breasted Natura and her sisters Providence and Fortuna, as they walk a drowned land. Women are agents, embracing new uncertainties—“This is how we disappear/walking without hesitation into darkness—”, where a lake “devour(s) with satin tongue.” In Fortuna’s pearlescent train, “my children follow languid/beneath waves and lapsing fauna/singing songs slipped silken.” This poetry raises its prayer voice for cold mercy, and the land receives its dead. At the same time, a cross-species, pan-material aliveness marks Kaminski’s post-capitalistic layered jubilation, when “Instructions (how to hold the world)” tell us “To filter through flesh, through soil, through layers of lung and/bedrock. To siphon off downstream off diesel tank off currency flow.” Grounded in careful environmental observation, Kaminiski crafts riveting spectacles of alchemical survival, where power lines and brush fires, fly buzz and oak blight. become lyric agents in a shifting world. (Noemi Press)

 

 

Kasey Jueds recommends Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane


A multitude of silences inhabits Hyperboreal. Around, within, and beneath the poems, the vast silence of the Arctic landscape reverberates, along with the brutal silencings of its Native people. Silence also lives in these poems as a space where something else might come into being: a new way of feeling, thought, or understanding; an openness that wasn’t there before. I love Hyperboreal for its depthless and adamant beauty, mystery, and grief; for its profound intimacy with outer and inner worlds; for the way reading into its speaking and its silences calls up an answering silence in me, a desire to listen harder, listen more. “Listening,” the speaker in “Etch” says, “I began / To know so little.” (University of Pittsburgh Press)

 

 

Nadia Colburn recommends Everything Awake by Sasha Steensen


How to sleep in a world that is so full and, at the same time, so fragile? Sasha Steensen’s “Everything Awake” pulses with life, longing, and meaning. A daughter who is allergic to walnuts and has trouble breathing, the hens to care for, food to make, the poisoned river, sex with her husband, the moon in the sky, poetry itself—all the beautiful, richly described everydayness of the poems is at once overmuch and not enough. In the author’s note, Steensen writes, “My hope is that these poems might offer one humble account of care in our deeply damaged world.” This is a world of mothers, children, lovers, and landscapes that, despite insomnia, despite the damage, I want to linger in and celebrate. (Shearsman Books)

 

 

Rebecca Gayle Howell recommends Out Beyond the Land by Kimberly Burwick


Out Beyond the Land is the new collection by Kimberly Burwick, a poet of the New England coast. She was raised in Massachusetts, between Worcester and Hyannis, and she writes in the tradition of other Worcester neighbors, like Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop, whose imaginations led them not to the brick and rust of the mills, but to the nearest opposite: the Atlantic ocean. Today Burwick lives on twenty-eight lush and landlocked acres in New Hampshire, and she is the mother of a son who has a life-threatening heart condition. In Out Beyond the Land the poet stands in her New Hampshire, praying to the ocean of her own childhood, that endless, silent God. She prays for the one she most fears might one day, indeed, end. But Burwick refuses dystopia. Her contemplation is not on what might come, but what is. And what is, lives. Dense with flora, fauna, and flight, these poems are ebullient and viney. Biodiversity is unmistakable to the nervous system, and Burwick’s lines are sourced straight from her New Hampshire acres—a place I have not been, but now want to know: Paula Reds, drafts of yellow thistle, cylinders of geese, blueberries bright by variation, tintypes of goldfinch, variable hawthorn. Her poems bust their seams to name and love each creature, each plant, each being that enters the poet’s awareness, as if chanting the word alive, alive, alive to her son. The book itself is slight. It comprises just fort-five expressions—a sequence of tender, subtle lyrics each titled in that extinct, extant language called Latin, each shaped in a formal invention that is nine lines long, one line for every year Burwick’s son was old at the time of writing this book. The coupling breaks move in and out, in and out, like the breath, like the tide. It is a simple, not at all simple, remarkable work of art. (Carnegie Mellon University Press)

 

 

Tess Taylor also recommends Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman  

 

When I first read Brenda Hillman’s stunning book Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire a few years back, I admit I was a bit stumped. There were classical references to Virgil, long dedications, “minifestos” and “microseasons.” Funny symbols sometimes stood in place of letters. But over time, the book—an exploration of fire, set in an area prone to it—became one of my favorite books of the decade. The book is about fire, and language, and landscape, and late capitalism all at once. Most winning is the way it pits those forces as figures of one other, and moves in pleasurable ways between voices and registers of speech. Hillman’s poems embody a heightened, luminous awareness of the languages we speak and the languages that speak us. Again and again, her poems pose urgent questions of how to live ethically now.

In the process, Hillman does things that only a very skilled poet can do well. She writes a poem from the perspective of a pumpkin, litters her stanzas with untranslatable spirals, and weaves together the language of protest, pharmaceutical companies, Valley girls, and, oh yeah, Keats. In a poem entitled “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility,” Hillman meditates on watching policemen beat Occupy protesters. She frames it in terms of a lengthy, almost Virgilian figure of marching, underground ants. In that poem, she writes, “I distrust moral certainty and even distrust the sentence ‘I distrust moral certainty.’” With or without certainty, in search of elements that sustain us, Hillman calls us back to the heat of language, that flickering, necessary lamp. In these odd days when the world seems ablaze, I commend you to this lively, defiant, blazing book. (Wesleyan University Press)

 

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Orion Staff Recommends: What We’re Reading, Watching, and Doing This Month

Encounters with art and beauty on paper, screen, or in nature, from our hearts and minds to yours. 

To Read:

                                               

Life Between the Tides by Adam Nicolson

“The sea is not made of water,” writes English author Adam Nicolson in his wondrous new work of nonfiction, Life Between the Tides. “Creatures are its genes.” Journeying between rock pools, he reveals how each contains a universe of scuttling and frothing life utterly distinct from yet deeply connected to the world of humans, universes that have long inspired scientists and poets alike. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus saw waves crashing over rocks as a metaphor for life: “nothing is fixed and nothing certain.” Centuries later, Virginia Woolf, a writer “entranced by liquidity,” would draw inspiration from shoreline animals to create novels structured by patterns of “eddies and back-turnings.” Galileo studied the tides, as did Descartes and Newton. Charles Dickens built metaphors from mollusks. Tender and curious, this book is as much for naturalists as bibliophiles, a testament to how time spent observing that which is different from us can teach us so much about ourselves.

Amy Brady, Executive Director


In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin, translated by Sophie R. Lewis

It’s humbling—and often frightening—to spend time in a place where you’re not at the top of the food chain. But for those of us who seek out the wild, this diminution of one’s self is part of the appeal. It can be an escape from your uniqueness, your humanness, even your body—and in that way like euphoria. French anthropologist Nastassja Martin has studied and lived with the Gwich’in people of Alaska and the Even people of the Kamchatka Peninsula, diving deep into the concept of animism—the blurring of lines between the human and nature. When she is mutilated and almost killed by a Kamchatka brown bear, the act becomes, in her unfolding of events, fated. Two spirits are irrevocably drawn to one another in a violent embrace and then hybridize. To the Even, she becomes a medka: half human and half bear. In the Eye of the Wild documents this physical and psychological metamorphosis. The book had me on the edge of my seat like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, but the nervous anticipation I felt was much different. Both Treadwell and Martin are searching for something dangerously larger and more powerful than themselves. But only Martin left me wondering how our relationship with the wild begins and ends.

Tara Rae Miner, Editorial Production Manager


Still Possible

Still Possible by David Whyte

“Bring what you have” is the invitation that David Whyte offers in his new book of poetry and narratives, Still Possible. The collection takes a moment to engage with the wisdom that comes from the passage of time and the experience of all that dwells within that invisible and almost ineffable dimension of the universe. In a moment born of increased isolation and separation from the flow that our established lives hold, Whyte’s book asks me to delve into my relationship with silence and with contemplation, reminding me that I need not make “new declarations” about my intentions to grow and find my way. That the direction I choose to walk carries enough profundity to teach me if I but take a moment to listen. I invite you to do the same on your daily pilgrimage through life; and may his words be good companions on your journey.

Donovan Arthen, Director of Finance and Operations


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

I’m late to the party reading this captivating work of nonfiction from Harari, whose dry humor and expansive knowledge of human history and sociology make it a stalwart on my bedside table. Moving through the busy blip of human existence, Harari ruminates on Homo sapienss walk through natural history as the species evolved, deconstructing readers’ understanding of our own evolution. (A part that I can’t shake: Harari’s argument that people were domesticated, over time, by wheat.) If you want an overview of our triumphs, failings, and movements in and in spite of the natural world, Sapiens is a must-read. 

Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, Digital Strategist


Burnt Norton” by T. S. Eliot

There is a mourning dove who watches me through my window. Each day, I greet her. I peer onto the fire escape and wait for her to make eye contact and send me on my way. It’s become a habit, bordering on superstition. One afternoon, at a photography exhibition that I did not enjoy, I read a quote from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” It was plastered on the wall of the gray gallery.

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.”

The words had me thinking about time and dwelling. They brought to mind my dove, who draws me in each morning with a mournful call so close to the word come, before telling me to “go, go, go,” into my day, reminding me of Eliot’s next lines: 

“Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.”

Remie Arena, Editorial Intern


To Watch:

The Great Passage

It’s called The Great Passage in English. I prefer the Japanese title 舟を編む (Fune wo Amu), which I guess would literally be translated as something like “weaving a boat.” Partly, I like the Japanese title because it has the boat character 舟, which kind of reminds me of the sail of a boat, which then reminds me of someone sometime ago who was perhaps looking at the cracks in a burned turtle shell trying to pull meaning from it to understand messages from the heavens. Partly, I like it because “weaving a boat” conjures up in me an image of deliberately crafting some vessel to care for and carry some select things through the vast unknown obstacles that one might encounter voyaging on the sea. Only so many things can fit in a boat, no matter how well woven. I encountered this work in what I believe is its second adaptation (it was originally a book by Shion Miura, adapted to a film and then adapted as this anime television series). It’s about a dictionary editorial team and their work together to create a new dictionary. I think it’s a worthwhile watch because it is also about weaving a boat and what sensibilities, sensitivities, and silly asides are nestled in the hull as we sail about to see.

Ricky Green, Database Manager


Calcifier Howl's Moving Castle

Calcifer Yule Log

After watching Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki’s inquiry into the coexistence of machine and nature, my daughters and I clicked around the HBO app and were brought to this mesmerizing yule log. Calcifer, the chummy fire demon at the heart of the castle, here turns into a thirty-minute loop of wobbly flames whose roving fish eyes take in everything. There’s no dialogue, no context, just a disarming orange spirit bearing witness to your little world without judgment. We stared back in silence for several minutes, and the room felt warmer afterward.

Sumanth Prabhaker, Editor in Chief


To Make, Do, and See:

Balm of Gilead — Wildness Within

Cottonwood Balm

Last year I went down to the Flathead River one blustery day in early May. I was hoping to bottle spring—its ionic swirl of rushing water, sun-warmed stones, and the new green leaves of sleepy trees, just yawning awake. Most of all I was after the intoxicating scent of bleeding cottonwood buds, earthy and sweet. It is slow, sticky work, clipping these buds one by one from each articulated branch. It cannot be rushed. It may take hours to fill a single jar with their carmine sheen. Back home I poured good olive oil over my quarry, sealed the container, and put it out of sight—for this part, too, cannot be rushed. This alchemy requires time. That December, with snow in the air, I strained and heated the oil, watched a lump of golden beeswax soften, churn, and diffuse. The result? A line of small black-capped jars. A salve for chapped hands and cheeks. The breath and promise of spring. 

Kathleen Yale, Special Projects Editor


Royalbroil/Creative Commons

Wildlife Refuges

I visit the Mississippi Flyway when I can, most recently at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. This stretch of land, like other such areas reserved for animals, also offers respite for human souls seeking. Here, along the currently frozen Mississippi and its backwaters, is a busy passage for north-bound birds: a hyperdrive of wood ducks, a lone blue heron, trumpeter swans like fletching on an arrow of geese cutting cloud—a victory of winter. From a dark hardwood tangle, a barred owl questions. Eagles fish ice and nest in tree bends. Cardinals color the drab camouflage of early spring with a flash of song and wing. Last fall, I watched thousands of white pelicans wade here in water lilies, their expandable pouches backlit by sun and silhouetting small fish they scooped from the shallows. For such spans, cares of the day drift and I am reminded of the gift of sanctuary, of passing through, for the nourishment of water, sand prairies, bottomland savannas, this fleet of time winging past, the space to hold that thing with feathers. 

—Heather McElwain, Copyeditor

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Celebrating 40 Years of Orion

This year Orion celebrates 40 years of publishing the best in environmental writing! Deeply rooted in a history of storytelling about the natural world and conservation, we are continuing to expand our canopy with writing and art reflecting the diverse people and landscapes that make up our cultural ecosystems.

The occasion will be marked with a virtual 40th Anniversary celebration held on Tuesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m ET. Join us and continue to support new thinking about how humanity might live on Earth justly, sustainably, and joyously.

The event will include the inauguration of two new award programs. The Orion Barry Lopez Award for Achievements in Letters and Environments, which celebrates authors whose work reveals a complex and compassionate relationship with the natural world, will be presented to Margaret Atwood by Rebecca Solnit. The Orion Jane Goodall Award for Inspiring Courage in Action, which celebrates activists and educators whose voices provoke environmental stewardship, will be presented to Vanessa Nakate. The Anniversary event will also include appearances by Camille T. Dungy, Ross Gay, Lauren Groff, Major Jackson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Emily Raboteau, Jeff VanderMeer, Alice Wong, and many others.

The magazine’s landmark 40th anniversary issue, an exploration of the tangled origins of the Anthropocene, will be released in June. Contributors include Jane Hirshfield, Samantha Hunt, Amy Irvine, Lacy Johnson, Maira Kalman, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Kolbert, Drew Lanham, Ken Liu, Kyo Maclear, Andri Snær Magnason, John McPhee, Lulu Miller, Lydia Millet, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Maria Popova, Elizabeth Rush, Ella Frances Sanders, Scott Russell Sanders, Martin Shaw, Meera Subramanian, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Arthur Sze, and Krista Tippett.

“It’s been forty years since the publication of its first issue, and Orion has never felt more relevant,” says Executive Director Amy Brady. “In an age of staggering planetary change, this magazine is a leader in exploring how we can all take better care of the earth–and each other.”

Orion’s Editor in Chief, Sumanth Prabhaker, adds that “Orion has not only published some of the finest and most influential writers and artists of the last 40 years, but also created a platform for voices that haven’t historically been included in American literary culture. In the years to come, Orion will continue to celebrate the possibilities of environmental storytelling by questioning and diversifying the ways in which we write about our world.”

Register now for this completely free celebratory event! To register yourself and others, as well as make a donation or bid on auction items, visit our 40th Anniversary website.