Poets frequently pay homage to nature — whether it be to the single sprouting cherry blossom or the blade of grass that bends toward the sun. Words, much like nature, glisten with the beauty and surprise of life. So, this Earth Day, celebrate the environment around you by delving into some modern poems which inspire and enlighten — poems that remind us of the reliable rhythms and spontaneous movements of nature.
Micro-minutes on Your Way to Work (Brenda Hillman, 2018)
“Thinking through / these things each week, you cross / the bridge: gold coils, fog, feelings … / syllables also can grow younger like / those jellyfish”
Capturing the thoughts that one can have while traveling, Brenda Hillman’s “Micro-minutes on Your Way to Work” is an ode to place. “Place” in this poem straddles the line between metaphor and reality, crossing geographies with language that recontextualizes several different kinds of movement — the mind’s movement, the Earth’s movement, and the movements of cultural awareness.
14 Love Songs (Elizabeth Jacobson, 2019)
“Could this be what it’s like for trees to lose the green from their leaves? / At noon the light shifts and the pond turns / into a mosaic of opaque green ice. / Orange carp rise in these cold watery chambers to breathe at the surface.”
In a series of 14 vignettes, Elizabeth Jacobsen confronts a nostalgia for love through her description of the varied dimension of nature around her. Jacobsen explores all that nature has to offer, from its ability to transform and shift over time to its proximity to humans. And, embedded within her words is a confession of how nature — in all its forms, colors, and appearances — can act as a larger metaphor for love.
Aubade with Burning City (Ocean Vuong, 2016)
“He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips. / Open, he says. / She opens. / Outside, a soldier spits out / his cigarette as footsteps / fill the square like stones fallen from the sky.”
“Aubade with Burning City,” the third poem in Ocean Vuong’s “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” is one of the most well-known poems from the anthology. The language traces the death, environmental destruction, and chaos that surfaced in Saigon on April 29, 1975, when the American military evacuated Vietnamese refugees and residents from the city, leaving the city decimated under North Vietnamese forces. Though 13 years before his birth, Vuong’s words reflect the chaos of such a moment of violent transition. Woven into this narrative is an intimate encounter staged between a soldier and a woman. The two juxtaposed stories of destruction and love — of the stubbornness of hatred and passion — critiques the fragility of love and its ability to be torn apart by something like war. As the environment around the lovers crumbles — as the “snow crackles against the window” — they hold onto the steadiness of love.
Poetry forces us to reimagine what nature is — what (or who) constitutes the environment we spend time in, experience trauma in, and find love in? Distinct from nature poetry, these contemporary pieces of environmental poetry explore the complicated relationships between people, the world we inhabit, and the spaces we carve for ourselves. With poetry, we enter landscapes near and foreign to us — worlds decorated by love and environments scarred by deterioration. This Earth Day, I urge you to not only read other poets’ words but to likewise share stories about your personal connection to nature.