Backyard Brief: Influence


a poem by Carrie Tangenberg

for C & M

    hydrangea blooms 
         toss at strips of 
                 sheets of snow 
          on the terrace 
     tan under 
         crisp white crust 
Some escape
    twirl    ceaseless    swirl 
 off spring 
      from the 
         parent bush

Blended brown  
       latte foam 
         that’s cooled 
      too long        stiffened
 to firmer       spray        bound
    as paper petals or 
          bubbles stick 
       as one 
against the 
       gusting brisk

Wintered over
         snapped off
     stems at       shrub       edges
  Then sheared
near the base 
      gain new names 
         in the hands of 
  neighbor children
         like “power beam”
          and “shield of power”

They invent the
    rules of their game
          as they play it
    but never figure
            club or mace or 
       sword, even when I 
 suggest it
    They need not 
            make blunt their 
    force,     strike or     trauma, 
                      come out 
         from fragile 
 magic sprig

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.

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: )

“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.

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:

Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance

You’re only supposed to say it once, but here I go: “Ethan, come!” * smooching, thigh slapping * “Ethan! Here, bud! Come!”

Every day, several times a day, a high-pitched, friendly beckoning call issues forth from my lips. And every day, a big-eared, brown-eyed, wiry-framed, red/tan, 11-month-old, Vizsla/hound-or-something mixed breed dog stands and stares in the direction of my call. The duration of that standing and staring depends on several dog-driven factors: location within the house, outdoor circumstances, time of day, number and type of distractions, degree of hunger, sound of a rustling kibble bag, how long he’s been awake, mood or degree of playfulness or fear, amount of time I’ve been gone, and others.

My dog doesn’t come when I call him, whether indoors or out. Well, that’s not entirely true. He does maybe one-third of the time, but more often outside than in. What can one do but shake one’s head?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read at least half a dozen dog training and behavior books at this point and watched videos and demonstrations. We’ve worked with a personal dog trainer and taken a group obedience class. We’ve consulted a separation anxiety expert and our veterinarian. We train and condition our dog in obedience, agility, and anxiety-reducing socialization every day. We try our best to follow the rules of training, to ensure the behaviors we intend to instill are the ones taking hold. We set boundaries, rules, and limitations, in the spirit of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.

Although still young, Ethan’s quirks seem to make him a peculiar case, which adds an extra degree of confusion to many things we try to do with him. And we do a lot. He’s our baby, after all, so we keep trying.

I take Ethan for a walk of at least one mile, on a long lead so he can trot and run a bit, almost every day, including 24-degree Fahrenheit, 18-degree wind chill days. The three of us even took a walk on a day in 10 degrees, until Ethan’s frosty paw pads sent us back home. We exercise him indoors when it’s too cold outside. We’re working on getting him comfortable walking on a moving treadmill.

We feed him gradually and dynamically with treat- and kibble-dispensing toys and puzzles to keep his mind sharp and digestion even. I’ve taken him to half a dozen different metro parks, a few pet stores, and people’s houses, including the neighbor’s with their dog who is a vigorous playmate.

I rub under Ethan’s chin for encouragement as often as he’ll let me, praise him generously nearly every moment of correct, compliant behavior, play with him daily, let him sniff my face frequently and sometimes lick my ears, and then further intensify our bond with belly rubs and traces of human food from this plate or that bowl.

I love affectionate dogs, and I hope mine becomes more comfortable with me one day.

Ethan was introduced to us as a “shy” dog, but the label isn’t a perfect fit anymore. He’s afraid of certain things and people in certain circumstances; he’s a bit unpredictable in fear and trust. There are things and movements that make him “shy” away from us, his owners, but sometimes those things only make him stop or sit and look at us funny.

Trust is first, they say, which means that after seven months together, we still can’t take him anywhere off leash, including our unfenced yard, because he can’t be counted on to obey us more than he obeys his fear. Sure, he’s got a collar with tags, an embedded ID chip, and up-to-date shots. But when your dog doesn’t fully trust you and is easily scared by unanticipated stimuli, he’s easily put in danger.

When I take Ethan for a walk and let him wander ahead a bit on the longer leash, sometimes he responds to his name by turning around, at which point I praise him enthusiastically and reach in my pocket for the kibble reward. He trots slowly back to me, sits readily (he sat well from day one) without being asked, and gobbles up the treat. I release him with an “okay” to continue walking, and we’re back in the groove. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

We spent a lot of time teaching him to bound back to us at the sound of his name, excited for the goodies at the end. But if he’s too busy sniffing, which he often is, or he’s found something on the ground more exciting to nibble on, also not infrequent, or, he’s too wary of us to return, then he will not respond to his name or the “come” command, either by returning or even looking up.

His mind is intelligent and stubborn. However ill-founded, when dogs learn them young, preconceived notions of danger and survival die very, very hard, if at all. Whatever happened to him, he’s having trouble “forgetting” what it taught him. Or, and this is also likely a factor, fear is in his genes.

Even the walk itself is not a foregone conclusion. Before we can get him out the door, we have to corral him. We’ve had Ethan since mid-July 2017, but a few months ago, into his adolescence, when new behaviors sometimes form, he developed a mistrust of the harness, the leash, and us with either tool in our hands. You’d think a dog so eager and apparently happy during the walk would be rushing to go out the door rather than bolting to hide from us in the other room. Not so with this one.

As far as we know, we created no negative association with the harness or the leash. It’s possible he could dislike the feel of the harness or being led as a condition of being allowed to walk, being pulled on, etc. It seems more likely, though, that he just doesn’t like being reached for with a tool he knows will control him in some way, or just being reached for, full stop. He’s up and down on that one, too.

Many hours have passed—days, at this point—hours of coaxing, treat luring, patient waiting, sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, following slowly, approaching laterally, backpedaling encouragingly, exiting the doorway to the deck, corralling him in the bedroom, switching leashes, collar grab desensitization practice (incomplete, I admit), trapping, cornering, tricking, switching directly from tie-out to leash, and rearranging our order of steps so we get dressed last of all before the walk.

We’ve eliminated sudden movement and surprise grabbing from behind. It’s all slow and steady now. After a few tries of our offering food, letting him have some, using yummier food, and trying to reach for him, he decides he prefers not to eat after all. And this is one extremely food-driven dog; we use his kibble as his most common treat. He knows us, he knows we won’t harm him (I hope), and he’s been on dozens upon dozens of walks with us before. Still, and more than before, Ethan’s intractable mind dislikes something about getting ready for a walk.

His extreme skittishness can be quite maddening. He’ll dodge the leash very skillfully for half an hour, and avoid crossing certain thresholds because he knows I can corner him there. I’ll stop trying and ignore him, and then, not five minutes later, he’ll hit the chimes to go outside. Other times, the leash or harness avoidance episode will last so long, and so mentally tax us both, that he’ll take a nap afterwards. Sometimes I join him. That’s one confused puppy—and owner.

To desensitize him to the fear and counter-condition him with a happier response, it’s our job to pinpoint the exact what, how, where, when, with whom, and why of his fear. We must identify the trigger, every trigger, of his anxiety, eliminate it, and replace it with bliss and passionate joy.

We’ve found sample procedures to follow, broken out step by step into daily and weekly schedules. We just have to choose, commit and see it through. Some anxieties will take weeks to treat; others, we hope, will go more quickly. I’m not looking forward to this work, which we’ve already started doing informally, and which is looking more and more compulsory the more I read about it and study my dog.

That crazy feeling increases with his next moves before an attempted excursion–whether a walk or a car ride. Like a light switch flicking on, once he’s captured, Ethan submits, albeit sheepishly, and waits patiently by the door to be led outside. Even better, once we are outside, he quickly falls into walking as if he’s fallen out of bed—exploring, scent tracking, surveying, and exercising along the sidewalks, yards, devil strips, clearings, and playground of our neighborhood. He enjoys car rides just fine, too, though he can get a little car sick with excess hills or turns.

These days, Ethan’s fears are overpowering his desires. Ethan has taken the same Intro to Agility course twice. He loved it the first time and seemed to love it the second time, though he also seemed a bit more confused about what to do, even though we did practice in between course runs. However, when we were practicing focus forward today for agility, even when I upped the ante with a higher value food reward—chunks of dried beef roll—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me enough to grab his harness without killing and roasting him on a spit.

After a few successful runs, his suspicion began to outweigh his interest in the exercise, so I called it quits. I preferred not to find myself chasing an unleashed, untethered, unfenced-in chicken of a puppy across the neighborhood—no matter how delicious he’d be.

Early on in our relationship, I wondered if he was showing aggression, but he’s more nervous in his warnings. He seldom barks, unless frustrated, bored, or playful. He has never barked at other people or dogs outside, only at us and our dog sitters in the house when he wants something or doesn’t like what we’re doing or not doing. Usually, it’s when I’m gone, and others are left to fend for themselves with him.

After making some headway in our first few months together, between teaching him to trust and teaching him to obey, now we’re not getting far with either. Some results have plateaued while others seem to have eroded from the hill of progress.

I think he knows what many words mean, even if he doesn’t follow basic commands consistently. He understands “no” and “ah-ah-ah” as deterrents, and he shows respect when we’re eating after we tell him to “go lay down,” sometimes with a follow-up gesture, eye contact, or saying his name low and warningly. His powerful nose makes him rude while we cook, too, but with repetition, I can get him to lie down and stay put–for a while.

Ethan reluctantly gets that “all done” means no more food. He knows to go into his crate when I say “in your bed” in the bedroom. He has been exposed to “sit,” “come,” “stay,” “down,” “up,” “look,” “place,” “yes,” “wait,” and “okay,” but his understanding of these is unclear because his reactions are inconsistent. He may realize that “stairs” means we’re going to throw treats up and down them so he can run and eat at the same time. He has learned to nose the chimes on the sliding glass door handle when he wants to go outside—even when he doesn’t have to relieve himself. Sometimes he just does it out of boredom.

He’s clever and sensitive enough to learn what he wants to learn, in his own way.

Although rather mellow when not afraid, Ethan is definitely an athlete. When he does make it out the door, he climbs on boulders and flat rocks around the neighborhood, jumping up onto higher ones and down off them again. Sometimes, while playing the mountain goat, he looks for a treat right away. Other times, he just moves on to the next thing, needing no more reward than the climb itself.

He walks the ledge perimeter of raised flower beds at the playground and allotment entrance. He ascends and descends hills, crosses streets, and trudges through snow happily. He even has the athletic build of a deep-chested, sleek-legged racing hound. He’s pretty fast when he can stretch those legs.

He is more curious than nervous around people and dogs on the walk. He likes to crunch on acorns, despite our protests, and he prefers eating rabbit and deer scat to sniffing it. Thankfully, we can prevent his ingestion of dog poop . . . most of the time.

As good, brave and adventurous as he can be, Ethan has had to learn to tolerate boredom because his indoor fears often prevent us from doing things. He has mastered destroying toys, for one.

Gradually, we got him used to a more flexible schedule than he started with, but maybe he still needs old routine more than we think. He naps for good portions of both day and evening, though, and he doesn’t freak out when we don’t go for a walk first thing. His acceptance of the new patterns actually seems pretty strong.

He has been learning frustration tolerance gradually, learning that he can’t always get what he wants, at least when he’s not too afraid to want. When he is afraid, all he wants is to be left alone, to flee, to hide, to run away, to duck and cover.

I think it’s fair to say he’s teaching us more frustration tolerance than he’ll ever have to know. It’s deeper than being incorrigible. Ultimately, it’s his tolerance of fear that we really have to counter-condition. Only in our dreams can we afford to believe it’s just a phase.

As I’ve said, Ethan does have his moments. He loves to play, he’s learning not to bite during play, and, once guided, he’ll stop playing and settle down. He greets known guests happily now, he falls asleep readily day or night, and stays asleep all night, entering his crate without hesitation or verbal command.

He hasn’t peed or pooped in the house even once since the very few times last summer during his adjustment to his new home. He chews on nothing but his toys, and he chews a lot. He’s not so high energy as to be a constant barker or annoying jumper, humper, or counter surfer. He’s pretty chill, he can be totally hilarious, and he is, of course, the handsomest dog on Earth. These are not small victories. We’re grateful that the rescue organization, who gave him his name, chose us to care for Ethan.

But Ethan’s got a long way to go to be a happy, comfortable dog most of the time. It will probably take years if he ever gets there. Although he’s a sprinter, this will be a marathon for all of us. It’s not what I was hoping for, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want a special “pet” project this time, which we had with Elyse, our chronically ill first dog. For now, Ethan does have good physical health, but we’re already dosing him with anti-anxiety medication to support his behavior reshaping.

I’m beginning to think my dog trainer’s preference always to look for a good breeder is the right idea. Rescuers, God bless you, she says. The thing is, when you’ve done all your homework and still end up with piles of work beyond the already large amount that comes standard with raising a dog, it’s sometimes, well, intolerably frustrating. Then again, it’s life, not just how one acquires a pet dog, that’s like that proverbial chocolates box.

I just hope we get a chance to see the benefits of what will become substantial investments of focus, time, money, energy, and emotion. Ethan has great potential, after all. I hope it’s true that, if anyone can do it, we can. Meanwhile, we continue enjoying the good stuff and eagerly await the spring.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?

To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:


Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.

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 . . .