“JUST IMAGINE / No dead birds because of / No dead trees because of / No dead people because of . . .” El’Jay Johnson was eight when he wrote these lines in 2000. His poem won a River of Words prize, founded by poet laureate Robert Hass, who had asked schoolchildren to write about their own watershed. “No dead trees”: the strange Dickensian fact is, that sewage from the houses of Congress was flowing with the Anacostia River through black neighborhoods around Washington. “Just imagine a kid,” says El’Jay, “living by the Anacostia River.”
Centuries of African-American poetry stand behind “Just imagine,” starting with Phyllis Wheatley’s 1773 “Imagination! Who can sing thy force!” This sentiment comes out loud and clear in Camille T. Dungy’s groundbreaking Black Nature. She generously exhibits the work of ninety-three black poets “investigating the alignment between man and nature,” some rural, some urban, some recognizably celebrative and pastoral, others exposing “an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death.” Throughout the anthology, these poems voicing “black nature” erase that adjective’s persistent slur. They turn “black” into a claim intense with passion.
Take this heart-cry by Richard Wright, for instance. In 1941, after lauding America’s southern seasons, rich with cotton, cane, yams, hogs, and corn, he deplores “our personalities blighted by two hundred and fifty years of servitude.” One sequence of earlier twentieth-century poems shows how our fruited plain was veined with misery. Claude McKay, finding “joy in the woods just now, / The leaves are whispers of song,” ends up speaking as “a man-machine toil-tired.” In “Harvest Song,” Jean Toomer joins “reapers of the sweet-stalk’d cane, cutters of the corn,” but he says, “I hunger. My throat is dry.” Arna Bontemps writes, “. . . my children glean in fields / they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.” Several years later a lynching inspired Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holliday and Josh White made famous: “Pastoral scene of the gallant south,” we hear them sing. “Here is a strange and bitter crop.” Nature can darken in the face of American history.
African-American poems, Dungy tells us, have not been brought into the conversation about poetry and human presence on our ravaged, resilient planet. This book will amend the absence. Readers may ask, How strong is this neglected poetry? The answer: as strong as American poetry overall — and maybe stronger, given the creative resistance evoked by African-American history, both long past and recent. What’s more, the literary question must also echo what any person with that heritage can rightly ask: Does this country’s long-stirring and now surging environmental movement include me?
Black Nature reveals an abundant host of recognized poets, as well as many other vital voices. Maybe El’Jay Johnson and other young writers will be showing up in the next edition. Since Bryant, Longfellow, Whitman, and Dickinson, the image of “nature poetry” has stayed traditionally white. This collection helps complete the picture, by including a people who were chained to work a foreign land and yet sustained a love for it.