Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 7: Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .


Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.

* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.

In case you missed some, here are the previous posts in my famous nature poetry series:

Won–and That Much Closer to Done: NaNoWriMo 2017

This one was a doozy. I was on target with my word count only the first day and the last. The rest of the month, I was very, very far behind in my progress, skipping twelve days of writing. New challenges, all of which can be nicknamed Ethan, continued this month.

Anyway, I made it! I won with 50,515 words at 10pm tonight. That’s pretty good considering I was at about 21,000 just last Thursday, also known as Thanksgiving, which we hosted as usual. It just goes to show that anything is possible with the proper motivation. Since I’ve won every NaNoWriMo I’ve participated in since I started in 2011, I could not let this one go without trying. What I found was that the closer I got to finishing, the more determination I had to make it happen.

Here’s a reminder of my novel’s synopsis and the latest excerpt, the scene that pushed me over the finish line.


Novel title: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land

Summary drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17, novel drafted halfway 11/30/17

A tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

NEW CONTENT, 11/30/17, 10pm – Presented here unaltered from 1st draft and with a special shout-out to two fellow NaNo writers affectionately known together as “the Unicorn” because they are a prolific husband-and-wife writing team. It’s just magical.

Scene Draft: The Unicorn decides to revolt against the Crown.

Having met Alice at the reception of her and the Lion’s latest fight for the Crown, the Unicorn had become fascinated with this little human girl, a human child, all of human children whom she had thought were just “fabulous monsters.” It had tickled her hooves and made her eyes twinkle to hear that Alice had believed much the same about unicorns. They were bonded now, by the Unicorn’s initiation. “If you will believe in me, I will believe in you. Is it a bargain?” “That would be lovely,” Alice had said. Little did the Unicorn know how much she was to come to believe of Alice in this unique set of circumstances she found herself in.

Outside Drumming Town, the Lion lived to the south and the Unicorn lived to the north, from which they would meet in the middle for their weekly fight for the Crown. Before they headed home after their latest boxing match, the Lion took the Unicorn aside for a confidential chat, bloated as he was on plum cake that had not been sufficiently cut for proper digestion, though their guest Alice had tried to obey Looking Glass Land rules for serving Looking Glass cake by handing it round first and then cutting it.

When the crowd had dispersed, themselves bloated on plum cake and their brains filled with the din of the drumming that was meant, every time, to drum the fighting pair out of town, the Lion and the Unicorn could speak freely, seated on a bench in the circle where they had kicked up so much dust fighting their worthy fight.

“Unicorn,” the Lion began. “You know me. I am hot tempered, impractical, ferocious on most occasions.”

The Unicorn did not disagree with this but waited for the rest of what the Lion had to say.

“I have heard a rumor today of the most extraordinary kind, and as my faithful sparring partner, I thought it best to share it with you, get your take on it, you know, to see if you think there may be any truth to it.”

“All right,” the Unicorn said readily, “what is it?”

“Well,” said the Lion, and he looked around furtively, making sure no one lurked listening in nearby. “I heard from not one but two different sources, in the same day no less, that the White King will soon be discontinuing our regular fights for the Crown! Do you believe that? To end such a noble, glorious tradition, and what possible reason could the King have for such an insulting shutting of the door on us like that?”

The Unicorn gasped in shock and smashed his hooves against his powerfully muscled and beautifully bridled and decorated jaw. “Oh no! It cannot be true. It can NOT! We have given him no reason to worry that we might actually win—well, one of us—and actually challenge him for the throne—have we?”

“No, no, of course not, but do you think it has any merit, any chance of being true? If so, we have to do something about it, petition the King or—”

“Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear!” The Unicorn went on, shaking her silky white mane and beginning to cry profusely.

“Will you stop blubbering already!” The Lion snapped, roaring his disapproval, his impatience, before the Unicorn had even let two drops of tears fall from her long white cheeks.

Sniffling continued, but the Unicorn tried to control herself long enough to continue the conversation. But then she let loose again, unable to stop it: “Oh, I knew it! I just knew it! You cannot trust anyone nowadays, not a king, not a queen, not a knight or a– OH! Or, even, perhaps, the sources of your rumor!” Now she had hit upon something.

“Well, that is possible, I suppose. We must be wary in any case. It would be utter disaster, sheer travesty, and just a damned shame if we were not to be able to continue fighting for the Crown!”

“I know, I know,” the Unicorn sobbed. “It would be the end of quite an era, irreplaceable in majesty and moment and beauty and grace and– well, in majesty and moment, anyway.” She had retracted grace and beauty in thinking specifically of the Lion.

“Enough of your jibes, Unicorn. I am more majestic, magisterial, and magical than you can ever hope to be!”

“Oh, what a fight we should have for the Crown now!” The Unicorn piped up, tears staining both her snout and her hooves.

“You see?” the Lion quipped. “Neither the King nor anyone can stop us if we choose to fight!”

“Indeed, but not today,” the Unicorn changed tune suddenly. “I am quite tired out. We had a real bout today, would you not agree?”

“Oh, yes, quite astonishing, remarkable, one of our best yet!” the Lion acknowledged proudly.

“But do you suppose this rumor has anything to do with the visit of that Alice girl we met today?” the Unicorn asked, growing increasingly pensive as the weariness reached her bones and horsey tail.

“Hmm.” The Lion grumbled and growled and snarled a bit thinking about the girl. He did not like her. He liked her even less for the little connection she had managed to make with the Unicorn.

“Oh, stop that! She was perfectly lovely, was she not?” The Unicorn read his grumbles well enough.

He only grumbled deeper in reply.

And so the foundation was laid, when the two would find out how serious things had grown in their realm, for an even greater division between them. They would be forced to choose a side, and Alice would be the deciding factor.

Later, the Unicorn, faced with the choice that had become so inevitable, found it was impossible to forget or dishonor the bargain she had struck with the visitor Alice. When the Unicorn heard that Alice was to be exiled from Looking Glass Land—before they had got to know one another, before the Unicorn would have a chance to ask her all about human life and other humans, before the possibility of replacing one pastime with another had fully materialized—that was the last straw.

It no longer mattered whether she or the Lion took the Crown, or if the White King retained it. The White King would not continue to ruin the Unicorn’s life any further, not if the Unicorn herself had anything momentous and true and noble and gorgeous and magical and mythical to say about it. And she often did.

1,107 words in one sitting


“The Unicorn in Captivity” – the 7th and final piece of the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series, original workmanship unknown. This photo by C. L. Tangenberg is of the series reproduction in Stirling Castle, Scotland. Traditionally, along with being a pagan symbol and symbol of Christ, the unicorn symbolizes Scotland, and the Lion England, as Lewis Carroll intended in Chapter 7 of his second Alice novel, Through the Looking-Glass: “The Lion and the Unicorn.”



Pen Sketch of Ethan

So thankful

“Ethan’s Evenings,” sketch in black Pentel gel ink, 2017, by C. L. Tangenberg



Buddha, bird – an original poem

Buddha, bird – first penned 11/16/17, 1:45am
© C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha bird?
Is there one?
Is it Chinese?
Or Tibetan?
China says, Same question.
I have a question
for China.
Impertinent, no doubt,
but probative.

I wonder
if there are any
bamboo forests
left on mainland China,
where the panda
dies in slow
attrition, skirting
evolution. Natural
selection chose
for the Giant.

China’s cranes
fly more grace
than the crane-fly,
and who will die first
matters less than
to be blessed,
knowing a rise-over
in life, a lightness
of heart, a soaring soul.

Is the bird thus blest?

A soul in shadow—
umbrage thrown by
tongues of raging fire
—alights in the
brightness cast
with the heat
on the wall that’s
crumbling to cinder,
and lets go.

Long live Buddha.
Long live bird.

And it led to https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhas-birds/ Buddha’s symbolic bird could be a swan, goose, rooster, peacock, Garuda, or crow.

Backyard Brief: Harvest, Daddy, Soldier, Fly

Canada has invaded. The soldiers are legion. They are large. They are serious. Or . . . at least I thought so. Canadian soldiers, I now learn, are evidently synonymous with mayflies. Mayflies do frequent the Cleveland area, coming off Lake Erie to menace the streets and beaches only to die 3 days later. They show up on radar as if they’re rain. More aptly referred to as northern invaders, then, would be those mayflies.

What I’ve been seeing take over our neighborhood and flit their delicate ways into our house to hang out on the wall are called crane flies. These look a bit like daddy longlegs (those aren’t spiders, by the way), a bit like huge mosquitoes (which apparently I think is spelled without the “e” like Tostitos), and, I guess to me, something like Canadian soldiers.

20171009_052804_crane-fly-folded wings

Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that in English-speaking countries other than the U.S., crane flies are known as daddy longlegs, but we Americans commonly know daddy longlegs to be a kind of spider. Both have long legs, so I guess we can’t fault non-Americans for the nickname. So, in a roundabout way, Canada has invaded after all.

The plot thickens, though, because the U.S. daddy longlegs are also known as harvestmen. Harvestmen are actually an order of arachnids called opiliones. Also unbeknownst to me, not all arachnids are spiders. “Spiders are the largest order in the class, which also includes scorpions, ticks, mites, harvestmen, and solifuges.[2]” (I thought scorpions were in a separate class of arthropod.) So, although they’re arachnids, not even U.S. daddy longlegs are spiders.

True insects, crane flies by contrast are wiry aerial dancers that do not bite as mosquitoes do. Leggier than winged, in the style of powder billowing out when disturbed, they emerge from the lawn at dusk as we walk among and stir them up. The dog, already prone to chasing bugs, will perk up and pounce toward20171009_052928_crane-fly-wings-extended one or two when he notices.

What’s my point? The point is that I’ve never seen so many of these what I would normally call Canadian soldiers, and never any so huge. One we found on the wall in the family room the other day—they seem to linger in wall corners—appeared to be at least four inches in diameter from front toe to back toe, or top to bottom. Normally, they seem to max out at about two inches. This is novelty in our little corner of the animal kingdom, albeit in a slender, wispy, monochrome form.

They’ve been around for a couple of weeks now. While relatively harmless, crane flies still bother this homeowner, who likes to keep the bugs out and the human and canine animals in. Then again, our neighborhood was built on one vast universe of pavement ants, so keeping out some species of insects has been a losing battle. In that respect, I think I prefer the crane flies.

I also don’t particularly enjoy being tickled by insects while walking the dog, especially at night. Despite their not being spiders, the effect of the crane flies’ legs is to make one think for a moment that one has stepped across a spider thread, which I often do when passing trees along the sidewalk during otherwise pleasant evenings. Typically, those threads drape perfectly across my face and neck so that I’m scrambling to wipe them away. But, again, if the tickling must happen, I’d prefer the non-sticky variety. Crane flies will do.

Welcome home, Canada.


Insect Identification for the casual observer:



Encyclopaedia Britannica:







What else can you find in my backyard? Get out your binoculars . . .

Flashback Friday: Original Poem for Fall

Forget it. Resistance is futile. Fall is coming. Embrace it. Here’s some help. A new version of a poem I wrote 20 years ago for my college verse writing class. Do you like it? Does it help? Let me know what you think.  Featured image by C. L. Tangenberg

The Blue Jay and the Squirrel Disagree

by C. L. Tangenberg

It was one autumn morning, they became
quite cross while scuffling for a twig that lay
between them, and the squirrel told the bird,
“My friend, no finer twig than this exists,
and I alone must have it for my nest.”

The blue jay heard but quick and feisty squeaks;
it was mere senseless babble to his brain.
Perplexed, indignant, the blue jay cried, “What fuss
you make when clearly this belongs to me.”
And yet, the blue jay was a thief himself.
The squirrel, hearing frantic, screeching screams,
thought the jay would burn his throat that way.

They clawed and pecked each other for the prize
and danced and fluttered ’round the tiny stick,
but soon they wearied of the argument,
and in a final fling to snatch the limb,
with claws and bristled tail, the squirrel shooed
the blue jay, as she crouched and grabbed the twig
in her paws and popped it in her mouth.

She furiously scampered up her tree;
the blue jay, frantic feathers flailing, charged
the squirrel, shrieking at her angrily,
“Stop now, you thief! Bring back my fallen branch,
or by the Sun, I’ll peck you till you die!”

The squirrel, laughing, scaled the wrinkled oak.
“Sweet acorns! What a maddened bird you are!
In such a state would you trespass my home?”
And sure enough the blue jay seemed possessed,
to chase the squirrel to her nest above.

The squirrel reached her home, released the twig
and turned around to face the flying fowl;
and daring failed the blue jay as he met
the squirrel’s den; instead he perched and cried,

“You pesky squirrel! You are the Greed and Shame
of these great Woods, and from this day henceforth,
I swear I’ll sing your shame to everyone!”
The blue jay flew away and found his nest,
his gorgeous feathers splayed against the sky.

“My! My!” the squirrel panted with relief,
and raising up the twig, she thought aloud,

“What nonsense from that old, blue feather-head!
Were I to know the words he seemed to squawk,
I might have gladly answered him again.
As to the coded tongue he speaks, I’m sure
I lack the smallest clue; and too, I doubt
that any of our other neighbors do.”

Backyard Brief: Ethan’s Playground

New dog, new world