Tag Archives: environmental poetry

Edward Harkness: Poems that Listen, Bring Us to Listen

This is a discovery I should have made long ago: Edward Harkness, a poet of place, and so much more, recording solemn and moving histories and keeping an uncommon, quiet faith with the reverence that understands what not to say. I found myself deeply moved by poem after poem. His tone is conversational, elements of the casual somehow imbued with a sense of the sacred. And so one finds truths and openings one otherwise might have missed. He is a teacher, award-winning poet and author of two poetry collections and a number of chapbooks, but most of all a man somehow in touch with his surroundings and aware of both his place and his displacement in them. Let the poetry speak for itself.

Union Creek in Winter

There’s no word for it so far, the word
for what it means to be in love with you
in our sinking world, what it means to hike
through new snow, to hear beneath
the glass of creek ice the flow of winter
percolating its way through the ravine
not quite soundlessly toward lower ground
to join the wild roar of the American River.

The word that means we’ve loved
through the avalanches of our time,
loved while the wars raged, paid for
with our taxes, loved while our loved ones
voted for hatred, for I want the false past I want
what’s coming to me, protected as they’ve been
by their skin white as this very snow draped
on hemlocks in the ravine’s wavering light.

The word that means we’re not alone,
we share that same nature wonder,
for the flicker tapping on a far-off tree,
the delicate calligraphy of a mouse’s
prints along our path, as if Tu Fu
has been here too, who knew, even then,
even in the Tang Dynasty, beauty
leaves behind its faint notations.

The word that means we will go on,
we will follow an earlier trekker’s snowshoe
trail, slog on bundled to keep the chill
from overtaking us, descend again steeply,
then climb again switchbacks above the creek
away from its cold murmurings, to our car
and the long drive back to the war zone
of now. Armed with our little courage,

we must drive straight to the front,
strap on flak jackets and begin the slow
search for survivors, slow search
for the words that might revive them.
Even now we’re feverish to make contact,
to know what to listen for, to learn to hear
those muffled cries from deep in the rubble.
If we knew the words we might save

those most weakened, most in danger of giving up.
If we knew the words we might keep the world,
its rivers, its ice, its bitterroot, its winter wrens,
its hemlocks, its moonlight, its children,
its Shakespeare, its Szymborska, its rosehips,
its green and orange lichens, its Dylan,
its kora players, its humming birds, you,
me, and our Muslim neighbor, Maya, alive.

And this, the title poem of one of his collections:

Saying the Necessary

I read of a Montana man
whose pickup
stalled in the mountains.
Cross-country skiers
found him next spring,
their skis rasping
on the top of his cab
just showing through the snow.
His engine dead, no map,
he’d apparently decided
to wait for help.
His diary calmly records
his life of being lost.
He describes the passing days,
how he rationed his crackers,
an Almond Joy,
built a few small fires at night,
ate his emergency candles,
ice from a pond,
a pine’s green lace of moss.
He hoarded every spark
from his battery.
There’s evidence he wandered
up a nearby ridge.
He might have noticed a marmot,
gold and relaxed on a rock,
or spotted mountain goats
wedged high in grey basalt.
From a pinnacle of broken
lichen-colored scree
he watched the world bend away blue,
rivered with trees.
He might have heard
the whine of a plane
in the next valley,
looking, looking.

Then the cold came.
Frostbite settled the matter
of hiking out.
He wrote detailed accounts
of the weather,
noting the clear, icy air,
little flares of stars
drawing no one’s attention.
Not so frigid this evening.
A later entry read:
Ribbed cirrus clouds moving in.
Then tender goodbyes
to his wife and daughter—
my lilac, my rose.

When the blizzard buried him,
he wrote by his interior lights,
and when the battery failed
he scratched in the dark
a strange calligraphy,
covering the same pages,
the words telegraphic,
saying only the necessary
as he starved.
In the end,
his script grew hallucinatory—
…toy train… …oatmeal…
…farmhouse lights just ahead…—
illegible, finally,
like lines on a heart monitor.
Several pages he tore out and ate.

He must have known
even words wouldn’t save him.
Still, he wrote.
He watched the windshield
go white like a screen,
his hands on the wheel,
no feeling.
He listened to his heart
repeat its constant SOS,
not loudly now,
but steadily—
a stutterer who’s come to love
the sound of his one syllable,
at peace with his inability
to get anything across.
He must have pictured himself
wading through the drifts,
traversing the heartbreaking distance
between voice and any ear,
searching for tracks,
a connector road that leads
down to everyday life.
By glow of moonlight filtered
through snow-jammed windows,
his last act was to place his book,
opened to a page marked Day One,
on the passenger seat beside him.

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Powerful Resistance Poem by Tracy K Smith

The Pulitzer Prize-winning new U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, is certainly a timely choice, and a voice for bringing poetry into our world, breaking down barriers and preconceptions. And what an advocate indeed; with the unforgettable found poem below, powerfully earth-conscious and bringing us a clear and stark vision of what exactly is happening to us and our planet as a direct result of corporate capitalist excess and greed. It’s a devastating poem that should give us all pause…and be moved to take whatever actions we have in our power to resist the now-openly-sanctioned ravaging of our selves, our bodies and our world, our only home, our future. What could be more important?? All kudos to Tracy K. Smith!
Note: the formatting of this poem did not properly transfer to this website (perhaps it could be but I didn’t know how to do it). To see the correct formatting intended by the author, please visit this site.

Watershed
By
Tracy K. Smith

200 cows more than 600 hilly acres

property would have been even larger
had J not sold 66 acres to DuPont for
waste from its Washington Works factory
where J was employed
did not want to sell
but needed money poor health
mysterious ailments

Not long after the sale cattle began to act
deranged
footage shot on a camcorder
grainy intercut with static
Images jump repeat sound accelerates
slows down
quality of a horror movie

the rippling shallow water the white ash
trees shedding their leaves
a large pipe
discharging green water
a skinny red cow
hair missing back humped

a dead black calf in snow its eye
a brilliant chemical blue

a calf’s bisected head
liver heart stomachs kidneys
gall bladder some dark some green

cows with stringy tails malformed hooves
lesions red receded eyes suffering slobbering
staggering like drunks

It don’t look like
anything I’ve been into before

I began rising through the ceiling of each floor in the hospital as though I were being pulled by some force outside my own volition. I continued rising until I passed through the roof itself and found myself in the sky. I began to move much more quickly past the mountain range near the hospital and over the city. I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness.

R’s taking on the case I found to be inconceivable

It just felt like the right thing to do
a great
opportunity to use my background for people who
really needed it

R: filed a federal suit
pulled permits
land deeds
a letter that mentioned
a substance at the landfill
PFOA
perfluorooctanoic acid

a soap-like agent used in
ScotchgardTM
TeflonTM

PFOA: was to be incinerated or
sent to chemical waste facilities
not to be flushed into water or sewers

DuPont:
pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds
into the Ohio River
dumped tons of PFOA sludge
into open unlined pits

PFOA:
increased the size of the liver in rats and rabbits
(results replicated in dogs)
caused birth defects in rats
caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and
liver tumors in lab animals
possible DNA damage from exposure
bound to plasma proteins in blood
was found circulating through each organ
high concentrations in the blood of factory workers
children of pregnant employees had eye defects
dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond
the property line
entered the water table
concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
worth $1 billion in annual profit

(It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before)

Every individual thing glowed with life. Bands of energy were being dispersed from a huge universal heartbeat, faster than a raging river. I found I could move as fast as I could think.

DuPont:
did not make this information public
declined to disclose this finding
considered switching to new compound that appeared less toxic
and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time
decided against it
decided it needed to find a landfill for toxic sludge
bought 66 acres from a low-level employee
at the Washington Works facility

(J needed money
had been in poor health
a dead black calf
its eye chemical blue
cows slobbering
staggering like drunks)

I could perceive the Earth, outer space, and humanity from a spacious and indescribable ‘God’s eye view.’ I saw a planet to my left covered with vegetation of many colors no signs of mankind or any familiar shorelines. The waters were living waters, the grass was living, the trees and the animals were more alive than on earth.

D’s first husband had been a chemist
When you
worked at DuPont in this town you could have
everything you wanted
DuPont paid for his education
secured him a mortgage paid a generous salary
even gave him a free supply of PFOA

He explained that the planet we call Earth really has a proper name, has its own energy, is a true living being, was very strong but has been weakened considerably.

which she used
as soap in the family’s dishwasher

I could feel Earth’s desperate situation. Her aura appeared to be very strange, made me wonder if it was radioactivity. It was bleak, faded in color, and its sound was heart wrenching.

Sometimes
her husband came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea,
vomiting—‘Teflon flu’

an emergency hysterectomy
a second surgery

I could tell the Doctor everything he did upon my arrival down to the minute details of accompanying the nurse to the basement of the hospital to get the plasma for me; everything he did while also being instructed and shown around in Heaven.

Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer
or that a family member had died

W who had cancer had died of a heart attack

Two years later W’s wife died of cancer

They knew this stuff was harmful
and they put it in the water anyway

I suspect that Earth may be a place of education.

PFOA detected in:
American blood banks
blood or vital organs of:
Atlantic salmon
swordfish
gray seals
common cormorants
Alaskan polar bears
brown pelicans
sea turtles
sea eagles
California sea lions
Laysan albatrosses on a wildlife refuge
in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean;>

Viewing the myriad human faces with an indescribable, intimate, and profound love. This love was all around me, it was everywhere, but at the same time it was also me.

We see a situation

that has gone

from Washington Works

All that was important in life was the love we felt.

to statewide

All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone.

to everywhere

it’s global

In my particular case, God took the form of a luminous warm water. It does not mean that a luminous warm water is God. It is just that, for me, it was experiencing the luminous warm water that I felt the most connection with the eternal.

Copyright © 2017 Tracy K. Smith.

Note re This Poem:

“‘Watershed’ is a found poem drawn from two sources: a New York Times Magazine January 6, 2016, article by Nathaniel Rich entitled, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,’ and excerpts of the narratives of survivors of near-death experiences as catalogued on http://www.nderf.org.”
—Tracy K. Smith

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Filed under African American poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, women poets, Women's poetry