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Five Poems to Celebrate National Poetry Month

When one tugs at a single thing in nature,
he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
John Muir

I write this at the end of what seems like the longest month of my life. For a poet here in the United States, April is almost always the loudest, stormiest, busiest month—filled with readings to attend, to give, and new poetry collections blooming every week. What a time to luxuriate and revel in the power of a finely crafted metaphor, a clever line break, or a last line that just pierces you into silence for a moment! 

But what of this year, when death and illness seem to be the only thing now blooming when we tug (or touch) each other. If you are like me, the days have been blended together, and most days, it feels like it’s perpetually four p.m. In the morning, I reflexively turn on the news to check the heartbeat of the planet with a hope that the death toll from this virus has finally stopped growing. When I find the disappointing answer, I have to will myself to go about my day, set up my kids’ online classroom stations at the kitchen table or at their desks, prepare for the hours when my husband and I set up our own online classes, and check off my to-do list. Or I could curl up on the couch and weep over missing my elderly parents who reside in Florida, worry when I will get to hug them and walk and talk with them in their garden filled with tropical fruit trees again. Worry when one of them will have to go to the store and what they will be exposed to. Worry over my friend’s lingering cough that he swears is allergies. 

But not today. Today it is seventy-eight degrees and sunny here in Oxford, Mississippi, and there is a bluebird telenovela taking place in my backyard. Once in a while, an unwanted blue jay interrupts the scene and what an actor he is—looking lost at first, then shoving the bystander Carolina wrens away from our window feeders. Squawking so loud he frightens the nesting bluebird couple. The nerve!

I wish I could tell you that this bird reverie carried me upward and onward through this most difficult of months. Not so. The reality and grief over missing my beloved students—I never got to say goodbye in person as classes were moved online over spring break a couple of weeks ago—and all the scary news of the spread of the virus and a thousand other worries for our planet and its inhabitants have kept me awake, in a state of alarm, and when I sleep—it is not sound. 

But I believe in poetry. I believe it can elevate you for even just a brief moment—not to forget the horror surrounding us (it’s there, it’s there. I can’t pretend it’s not)—but it can alter how we see the world, how we see each other. I have faith that we will be able to touch each other and break bread together at the same table again soon. Maybe not as soon as I’d like, but soon. At least that is what I tell my sons. And when that day comes, how lucky to find ourselves attached to the rest of the world once again!

Below you will find five poems, hand-selected by me, to get you started. We’ll be sharing some previously published poems on Orion’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, and email newsletters throughout the month of April. Come back and check this bounty, this bouquet, this bloom!

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Poetry Editor

 

Layli Long Soldier: Whereas I did not desire (May/June 2017)
Sally Wen Mao: Phra Nang (Fall 2019)
Oliver de la Paz: Diaspora Sonnet 44 (Winter 2018) 
Ellen Bass: Roses (Summer 2017)
Brian Doyle: Tyee (May/June 2016)

 

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Behind the Cover: Micaela Lattanzio


In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic
, we reached across the Atlantic and into the heart of one of the outbreak’s worst-hit countries, Italy, to speak with Spring 2020 cover artist Micaela Lattanzio. From one quarantine to another, we wanted to learn more about what drives Lattanzio’s ecological approach to her work, the cover art’s backstory, and how it feels to be a practicing artist while her entire country is in lockdown.

Micaela Lattanzio was born in Rome, where she currently lives and works. She attended Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts and, in 2014, won the Zingarelli Special Jury award for her work, “Silent Tales.” Lattanzio exhibits her work across the world, and, most recently, at Context Art Miami and Barcú Art Fair in Bogota, Colombia.
 

First thing’s first. You live in Italy, a country being devastated by the coronavirus. You are effectively in national quarantine. What’s it like at the moment?

Italy is experiencing a very difficult historical moment. We still cannot know what consequences will come of this isolation. We don’t know how much we’ll contain this global pandemic and how many victims it will take. What we can do is implement more empathic behavior, limit social relations, and acknowledge what is happening not as something local but a global phenomenon. Global solidarity is what we need at this time.

We must slow down and change the nature of hyper-productivity that has been driving this system. I think the time has come for silence. At this moment, our bodies are still. We need to turn our gaze toward internal spaces. The buzz of having to do has fallen asleep for many of us. Earth has begun to breathe again and people are closer, despite the distance. We can feel more united in this. Without a doubt, we are facing great change, and that can offer us an opportunity to reinvent society. Perhaps then we’ll realize that a system based on mass consumption is simply no longer viable. At the end of this path, I see two possibilities:

  1. Try and restore the system back to its previous state, or
  2. Take, through further efforts, the road to some new shared change.

It will be the primary task of those of us who make culture to inspire new pathways that can guide us to a new system. As an artist, I’m feeling the need to slow down, to devote myself to studying, reading, drawing, sketching, and creating with unprecedented experimentation.

 


The artist, with Corpus Imago Florilegio
 

 

Let’s talk about the Spring 2020 cover. What’s the backstory?

The work is part of a series titled “New Worlds.” This series investigates the relationship between man and nature, and also between microcosm and macrocosm. I find a sort of cosmic geometry that combines both the physical and invisible space of humans, a connection between us and the world.

My work is based on the transformation of photographs through a technique where images become three-dimensional matter. For me, this fragmentation is a metaphorical representation of cells and molecules. As for paintings or site-specific installations, I start from this idea that one is always generating new forms and structures through multiplication, just as it happens in nature.

 

To me, art is the vehicle that forces us to look where we cannot see,
a magnifying glass on reality, a way to observe the world in all its complexity.

 

This “New Worlds” series is really a reflection of what consequences our actions have on Earth. The series touches on overpopulation, desertification, increasing of global pollution, and the detachment of contemporary humans from their roots. I transform satellite imagery into three-dimensional pieces. It’s possible to recognize glimpses of deserts, seas, cultivated fields, cities, or roads in these images. I create a chromatic pattern, a palette made of pixels that I rearrange in abstraction, and the result is a redefinition of geopolitical and natural boundaries. These assemblages are inspired by molecular structures seen under a microscope, another way to underscore the fundamental connection between the micro and macro world.

 

 

Corpus Imago
 

You were born and raised in Rome, and currently live there. Share with us a snapshot of Rome’s contemporary art scene.

Italy has an exceptional contemporary art culture. Being a small country, there is a strong connection between cities. No one single artistic scene. Rather, it’s more a network that joins cities from north to south.

Growing up in Italy has definitely contributed to my love of history and culture. In this country, it’s impossible not to wonder about the meaning of beauty and its role over the centuries. This much I know: through art we can better understand humanity on its historical course, both from an anthropological and aesthetic level.

Much of my work stems from observing classical sculpture and fragments of frescoes and mosaics. These works have always fascinated me because they often interrogate the imagination in search of truth. The name of my series “Fragmenta” takes its name from the “Fragmenta Picta,” which is an Italian restoration technique that recomposes fragments of frescoes, decorations, or classic sculptures without entirely reconstructing the work. So this classical background, backed by a curiosity for science and philosophy, has really been the driving force behind all my work and artistic research.

 


 

 

There appears to be a strong environmental ethic guiding your work.

There is no greater artist than nature, and I am constantly inspired by this perfection. All my works are based on observing nature and its relationship with humanity. This research has pushed me to deepen bonds of biophilia.

Through my work, I try and recreate a multifaceted reality that is both visible and invisible to the eye, in order to stimulate the spectator’s inner interpretation. To me, art is the vehicle that forces us to look where we cannot see, a magnifying glass on reality, a way to observe the world in all its complexity.

 


(Video: a visual performance of the artist’s recent “Corpus Imago” exhibition.
Musical interpretation by Eleonora Betti.)
 

Molecular consciousness. Boundaries. Interbeing. Elemental borrowing. These all seem so central to your work.

The exhibition “Fragmenta: A Journey beyond the Body” was a prelude to my most recent exhibition entitled “Corpus Imago,” part of a project that’s lasted for more than ten years and investigates the body as a physical space of collective identities.

The exhibition is divided up into three chapters, which together lead the viewer on a journey inspired by the cycle of life and the transformation of the body in both physical and philosophical terms.

To truly see another body is equivalent to losing one’s own, since it involves a total immersion through entering into the skin of the other. In this series, ranging from paintings to installations, I investigate the body as a place of social rights and cultural diversity. Through the body we are in contact with the world as a space for living, where we meet in relationship with one another. In “Fragmenta,” the body becomes fluid, extending its epidermal boundaries to reveal the molecular matrix of our skin, tissues, and bones. Really, it is only the imagination that guides us toward the infinite possibilities this universe generates for us. O


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Why David Quammen Is Not Surprised

In 2012, science writer and Orion contributor David Quammen published Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. The book charts the ecology and spread of zoonoses, diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and sounds the alarm for serious political and public health actions to prepare for future pandemics.

Well, here we are.

At present, we are experiencing one of the most disruptive global pandemics in history, with stark forecasts for any improvement. We reached out to Quammen for answers on why we weren’t prepared for this outbreak, whether there is any silver lining in this development, and what safety precautions he and his wife (and their pet python) recommend during indefinite lockdown.  

 

Why didn’t we see this coming?

The warnings were there. The scientists who work on these things knew that coronaviruses should be high on the watch list, because coronaviruses mutate often and therefore evolve quickly. (They belong to a group known as single-stranded RNA viruses, notorious for copying errors when they replicate, and for fast evolution.) I was told ten years ago: Beware of a new virus, maybe a coronavirus, emerging from a wild animal, maybe a bat. Those were the warnings I put into Spillover.

You published Spillover in 2012. Why weren’t measures taken since then to prevent something like COVID-19 from emerging and spreading?

Why did the warnings go unheeded? Because of money and politics and public indifference. The money for pandemic disease response becomes available only after the outbreak has begun. When the latest one goes away, there’s never enough money available to prepare for the next one. Politicians such as our lying president don’t want to admit that disaster could ever occur on their watch. 

What’s different about this new coronavirus than previous ones you’ve written about?

The nightmare scenario, going back ten years at least, has been this: It will be a new virus, probably from one of the fast-evolving families (especially those SS-RNA viruses), such as the coronaviruses, that comes from an animal, gets into humans, transmits well human-to-human, spreads by silent or cryptic transmission (meaning that infected people may feel fine for a few days and be walking around, riding the subway, going to work, but are meanwhile shedding the virus), and kills at a relatively high case fatality rate.

This outbreak ticks all those boxes. It is the nightmare scenario. If it spreads as widely and infects as many people as a seasonal flu, as it well might, it could kill twenty times as many people.

Our global economy and transportation apparatus seem to be at the core of COVID-19’s spread, and this sort of planetary rippling reminds us of all that we share as humans, as animals, as an intermingling whole. What positive outcomes, if any, might you see emerge from this outbreak? 

Correct: We are all connected, and this event reminds us of that in a gruesomely vivid way. Bats, monkeys, apes, pangolins, civets, people: We are all animals, living together on a single small planet, dependent not just upon one another but also on the ecosystems we inhabit. If this crisis makes us permanently aware of a few points, raises them in our attention and strengthens them in our hearts, it will have some silver lining. Those points are:

  1. Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.
  2. Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.
  3. A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.
  4. Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone. 

Are we worried enough? How much of our global panic should we actually attribute to it, versus to our collective state of anxiety, which has our hands always hovering just over the panic button?

We are worried enough but still not prepared enough. Pushing the panic button is useless. People sometimes ask me, when they know I have written about such outbreaks in the past and the inevitability that more would come: “How scared should we be?” Being scared is useless. Educate yourself about what can be done, both in the short term and the long term, and do it.

There’s a ton of noise out there, misinformation and politicization of the virus and its spread. Where do you turn for updates? 

I turn to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, and other sensible news outlets, as well as lots of other sources I find online or that are brought to my attention. When my wife Betsy (who is an impassioned conservationist and environmental historian) tells me of a dramatic new fact, first thing I ask is: What’s the source? I also read a lot of scientific articles in the journals.

How many times an hour are you washing your hands?

I wash my hands often, out of habit, but even more so now than usual.

You seem like the kind of guy who makes his own hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizer? I don’t use that unless I’m in a public place where there’s no soap.

What’s the number one thing to do to remain healthy—physically and psychologically?

I feel sorry for my friends and contacts in New York, Washington, and elsewhere when I hear them say “I’m working from home.” But I’ve always worked from home. It’s not a big change for me. My wife and I, and our close, extended family here in Bozeman, Montana, are doing rigorous social distancing. I haven’t seen my father-in-law for two weeks, though he’s one of my best pals and lives just a few miles away. I’ve cancelled the gym and the dentist—inconveniencing dear people who provide services I value—for the foreseeable future. I take walks with the dogs and share dinners at home with Betsy. (All this is done, not mainly to protect ourselves but to protect others and to help flatten the curve of the case load—spread it out in time—so that our health-care system will be able to handle everybody who needs care.)

I take more walks. I drink a martini in the evening, listen to Albinoni’s Adagio for the 400th time, and read a good book. It’s just us here now, at home: Betsy and me, the two dogs, the cat, and the python. O

 

David Quammen has written fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, and has published 200+ articles for National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. He’s a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award and has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Read more on the authors website.

 

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Introducing Spring 2020

Spring 2020 arrives into homes and stores everywhere this week. In addition to ten feature articles, this special issue celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day with ten short dispatches on hope, despair, and endurance by E.O. Wilson, Pico Iyer, Amy Tan, Lauren Groff, J. Drew Lanham, David Treuer, Samantha Hunt, Elizabeth Kolbert, Elizabeth Rush, and Krista Tippett.

Features in this Issue:

  • Tim DeChristopher and Wendell Berry discuss how to live and love with a dying world
  • In “This is Rebellion,” former Orion columnist Jay Griffiths returns to raise the alarm against extinction with truth, action, and reckless beauty
  • Emily Sekine writes about impermanence, unpredictability, and disaster preparedness in Japan
  • The very first Earth Day, according to Gary Paul Nabhan
  • “Termination” is an excerpt from Louise Erdrich’s forthcoming book The Night Watchman
  • In “Flight of the Red Knot,” Deborah Cramer and Janet Essley trace a bird that transcends cultures and also brings them together
  • Photographer Chris Rainier reveals how masks connect us with something deeper
  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and Nils Bubandt swim with crocodiles
  • Lulu Miller explores life after humans
  • Orion Reviews Editor Kerri Arsenault interviews writer Jonathan Lethem about storytelling in a changing world

 

 

Lay of the Land: a portrait of an alleyway, pupfish, mansplaining on tractors, native bee conservation, and a world without us.

Poetry by: Paige Quiñones, José Olivarez, Luisa A. Igloria, David Baker, and John Freeman.

Book ReviewsOne Long River of Song by Brian Doyle; Exposure by Robert Bilott; Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People by Kari Marie Norgaard; and Heaven’s Breath by Lyall Watson.

Enumeration: “7 Stages of Grief for the Anthropocene,” by Miranda Perrone.

Broadside: Illustration by Allen Crawford, poetry by Brenda Hillman.

 

 

Forthcoming: Summer 2020

The Summer 2020 issue will focus largely on water: as a source of growth, material, commodity, and measure by which the end of humanity is gauged. We’ll follow the drip of melting permafrost and encounter otherworldly sea creatures in stories by Scott Russell Sanders and Stuart Dybek, and find art in diatoms and ocean waste. Subscribe today

The Slow Joy of Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger

IT’S SUCH A SLOW JOY,” says poet Jane Hirshfield, about the work of revising a poem. We’ve just left the trailhead for a hike on what she calls the “hem” of Mount Tamalpais. Already we’re deep in conversation about how Hirshfield produces the wise and tender poems that fill her nine poetry collections, including the newly-published Ledger.

It’s not wilderness where we walk, on the first Friday afternoon of 2020. Not by a long shot. Mountain bikers and trail runners dodge us, and other hikers pass, some with dogs. Deer Park in Marin County, California, is a popular urban refuge. “It’s a good place for two Buddhists to walk, don’t you think?” she says. (Another Deer Park, in India, is where the historical Buddha offered his first teachings after realizing the causes of suffering.)

Hirshfield walks with one trekking pole. She keeps a steady pace, drifting slightly off the trail once to forage for chanterelles under an oak canopy. No luck. She has a warm, spirited, good-humored presence, and is equally eager to talk about poems, her longtime trail horse Flame, the death of an old friend, and the necessity of wonder.

I’ve known Hirshfield since the mid-2000s. She’s a Dharma sister—we practice in the same Soto Zen Buddhist lineage—and it’s her poetry I turn to when I crave a clear, steadying voice, and a firm reminder of the immensity and promise of one human life within the vast mystery of the world that holds it.

Walking among coast oak and madrone, “musters” of mushrooms (Hirshfield’s name for the larger drifts), and animal life both glimpsed and unglimpsed is also an appropriate venue for talking about Hirshfield’s latest collection, which directly engages the urgent issues of our time, especially the interwoven crises of environmental degradation, climate change, and species extinction. It’s her most activist book yet. Hirshfield draws on her Buddhist practice and honed poetic craft to look unflinchingly at the mess we are in, but also to find refuge. The collection bears witness to Earth under duress—trees toppling, birds vanishing, oceans acidifying. But the poet holds no megaphone or manifesto. There’s a mournful quality to the work, a quiet and elegiac composure. The book is a ledger of loss and loss-to-come. Its subject is grim, but it is not a grim book. It’s a stirring call to action’s antecedent—awareness.

Humility unlocks the gates of perception—“We cannot let our ideas blind us to our unknowing.”
Humility brings us to hope, slowly, and often, joyfully.

For Hirshfield, every poem is a renewal of a lifelong intention to cultivate awareness. In writing or reading a poem, perception is porous and meaning is multi-faceted, layered, beyond argument or judgement.

“Awareness of what is, and fidelity to seeing what is with curiosity’s questioning and accuracy, are at the heart of both poetry and science,” she says. “Poets and research scientists are equally dedicated to a primary observation. We draw from the available data of our lives—by which I mean also the lives and the data we share with plants, animals, rocks, galaxies.”

Hirshfield has more than a passing interest in poetry’s affinity with science. She’s been artist-in-residence with both a UCSF neuroscience group and an Oregon experimental forest. Some of her closest friends are research scientists. It was with them in mind that she wrote “On the Fifth Day” after the White House removed climate change information from its website and muzzled federally-funded climate scientists. She read that poem on the Washington Mall at the first March for Science in April 2017, after it appeared as a full-page feature in the Washington Post. Also for the march, Hirshfield founded #PoetsforScience, curating a special collection of science-related poems in banner and poster formats, arranging for science-writing workshops, and later sending the project on to other venues. In 2019, she was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Poetry and science both safeguard truth. The role good science can play in ending the climate emergency is obvious—if that science is not silenced. When I asked Hirshfield about poetry’s ability to help protect the planet, she said: “We won’t work to preserve what we don’t care about and love, what we don’t see as ‘treasure’ or believe, as the title poem says, ‘counts.’ Some things can be counted. Some are beyond measure. Both matter. If the discoveries of the scientists are to be implemented in our human choices, they must be felt to matter. I believe research science and research poems are partners. Each undertakes indispensable work, toward shifting the culture’s tiller.”

This work of shifting the tiller happens in Hirshfield’s poems, but also in her daily life. Taking to heart the closing lines of her poem “(No Wind, No Rain),” she trusts that even the smallest action matters in ways we can’t measure. She does something every day to counter the distortions and lies and harmful policies of the current administration. She writes letters. She calls her senators. She advocates for the natural world on federal agencies’ public comment sites.

 

(No Wind, No Rain)       

No wind, no rain,
the tree
just fell, as a piece of fruit does.

But no, not fruit. Not ripe.
Not fell.

It broke. It shattered.

One cone’s
addition of resinous cell-sap,
one small-bodied bird
arriving to tap for a beetle.

It shattered.

What word, what act,
was it we thought did not matter?

 

What’s happening to language now—its appropriation to pollute the truth and attack facts—is heartbreaking for a poet, for all writers and readers, in the way vanishing coral reefs are devastating for the oceanographer, and even more so, the reef’s inhabitants. Quite a few poems in Ledger celebrate language’s abundances and fret over its limitations.

There’s a story behind Hirshfield’s poem, “My Debt,” also featured here. She wrote another poem first, “Ghazal for the End of Time,” and sent it to a friend, after sharing that it was the darkest thing she had ever written and it frightened her. (The title says a lot, but the last line is “Death said, Now I too am orphan.”) That line shook Hirshfield to the core. It was a vision of complete failure, she tells me. Such a statement meant life itself no longer exists. In apology to her friend for conceiving and sharing such a dark vision, she wrote “My Debt.”

A realization arose within writing that poem, “that it is simply rude not to be grateful for and praise all the beauty still now with us. Out my window this morning, I hear hawks’ mating cries, I see leaves, sun, dapple. I breathe the oxygen the plant world has given us….” Hirshfield wrote in an email exchange. “I am in every moment in debt to all existence, which gains nothing from my fears or my despair.”

 

My Debt

Like all
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,
copyist,
statistician.

Not registrar,
witness.

Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
the trembling
work of a spider.

To ponder the Hubble’s recordings.

It did not matter
if I believed in
the party of particle or of wave,
as I carried no weapon.

It did not matter if I believed.

I weighed ashes,
actions, 
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
calibrated
in units of fear and amazement.

I wrote the word it, the word is.

I entered the debt that is owed to the real.

Forgive,
spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
octopus lifting
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.

 

The poet is careful to add that she knows all life will not vanish from the world if we continue our ways unchecked by better manners. “Many organisms will survive our species. Evolution will continue. A different abundance will come. ‘Death says, Now I too am orphan,’ is a line about us and this world as we now know and cherish it—not all life.” The same sentiment is beautifully evoked in a poem about a pine felled by age, beetle infestation, and drought: “something else, in the scale of quickening things, will replace it, this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.”

In Hirshfield’s view, the quality we most need now is humility. More and more she has come to believe that humility is “the only ethical stance to take, and the only perspective from which we might make more appropriate choices.” Humility loosens the delusion of separateness and helps us see that our fate is “continuous with the fate of all beings.” Humility unlocks the gates of perception—“We cannot let our ideas blind us to our unknowing.” Humility brings us to hope, slowly, and often, joyfully. 

Good poems water hope, says Hirshfield, like a rain so fine you hardly feel it, “yet every apricot blossom, grass blade, and being is soaked through. Every good poem reminds us and holds the knowledge of shared fate. If you read the word mountain, for a moment you become mountain. Read ant, for a moment you become ant. This is my hope: that the recognition of shared fate might cause us to act as if shared fate is the reality that in fact it is.”

 

Mountainal

This first-light mountain, its east peak and west peak.

Its first-light creeks:
Lagunitas, Redwood, Fern. Their fishes and mosses.

Its night and day hawk-life, slope-life, fogs, coyote, tan oaks, 
white-speckled amanita. Its spiderwebs’ sequins.

To be personal is easy:
Wake. Slip arms and legs from sleep into name, into story.

I wanted to be mountainal, wateral, wrenal.

 

Poems © Jane Hirshfield, from LEDGER (NY: Knopf, 2020); used by permission, all rights reserved.

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