Amusing Monday: celebrating our national parks with poems

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, 50 poets are writing about a park in each of the 50 states. Some poems speak of the splendor of nature, while others focus on the struggles of human beings. All of them make emotional connections to place.

River of Grass, Everglades National Park Photo: G. Gardner, National Park Service
River of Grass, Everglades National Park
Photo: G. Gardner, National Park Service

The poetry was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets as part of “Imagine Your Parks,” a grant program from the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the National Park Service. The idea is to use the arts to connect people with the memorable places within the national parks.

Each Thursday this fall, five poems are being published on a special website, “Imagine Our Parks with Poems.” As of last week, half of the poems have been published. The one for Washington state is still to come. The following is a sampling of the poetry. For more information, click on the name of the poem or the author.

The Everglades

By Campbell McGrath

Green and blue and white, it is a flag
for Florida stitched by hungry ibises.

It is a paradise of flocks, a cornucopia
of wind and grass and dark, slow waters.

Turtles bask in the last tatters of afternoon,
frogs perfect their symphony at dusk—

in its solitude we remember ourselves,
dimly, as creatures of mud and starlight.

Clouds and savannahs and horizons,
its emptiness is an antidote, its ink

illuminates the manuscript of the heart.
It is not ours though it is ours

to destroy or preserve, this the kingdom
of otter, kingfisher, alligator, heron.

If the sacred is a river within us, let it flow
like this, serene and magnificent, forever.

Campbell McGrath says the Florida Everglades is a meditative space, not a place to be dazzled and amazed at Earth’s grandeur. It is a place to find solitude, away from city pressures, “to remember ourselves, dimly, as creatures of mud and starlight.” (For the full personal note about any poem, click “more” above the title.)

Blue Mesa Vista, Petrified Forest National Park Photo: Tomošius, Wikimedia Commons
Blue Mesa Vista, Petrified Forest National Park
Photo: Tomošius, Wikimedia Commons

McGrath, who lives in Miami, is the author of 10 collections of poetry. His honors include a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.

Faithful Forest

Alberto Rios

I will wait, said wood, and it did.
Ten years, a hundred, a thousand, a million—
It did not matter. Time was not its measure,
Not its keeper, nor its master.
Wood was trees in those first days.
And when wood sang, it was leaves,
Which took flight and became birds.

It is still forest here, the forest of used-to-be.
Its trees are the trees of memory.
Their branches—so many tongues, so many hands—
They still speak a story to those who will listen.
By only looking without listening, you will not hear the trees.
You will see only hard stone and flattened landscape,
But if you’re quiet, you will hear it.

The leaves liked the wind, and went with it.
The trees grew more leaves, but wind took them all.
And then the bare trees were branches, which in their frenzy
Made people think of so many ideas—
Branches were lines on the paper of sky,
Drawing shapes on the shifting clouds
Until everyone agreed that they saw horses.

Wood was also the keeper of fires.
So many people lived from what wood gave them.
The cousins of wood went so many places
Until almost nobody was left—that is the way
Of so many families. But wood was steadfast
Even though it was hard from loneliness. Still,
I will wait, said wood, and it did.

Alberto Rios writes that he was not impressed at first with the Petrified Forest, but he came to understand how the vast expanses of Northern Arizona are “geologic in their scope — human measures are not adequate to understanding them.”

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site Photo: Billy Hathorn, U.S. Department of Interior
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
Photo: Billy Hathorn, U.S. Department of Interior

A native of Arizona, Rios is the author of many poetry collections. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona.

House of Green Thunder

Lee Ann Brown

for Carl & Lillian Sandburg’s Connemara, Flat Rock, North Carolina

As a child I was taken
to visit Connemara
as I remember
a little display of concrete poems
in the shapes of shoes
next to a typewriter
on an orange crate
let me know
I was taken
to visit poetry

All the books on the staircase
Said never back away from love
Of the word

O what is louder than the thorn
in the window of her thunder?

Wild Rutabaga Stories growing in
a thousand creeks under her ground

A song’s still a song
but sounds quite different when it’s grown

I took an upside-down photo
of their stationery on a shelf—
a copperplate sans serif

If it was a snake it would’a bit me
beaming in some past
I keep desiring like walking
down the main street
of a town that feels like
wearing a vintage dress

As we exit through the gift shop
the great-grand children of Lillian’s goats
reproduce in stuffed animal glory and bleat
O What is whiter than the milk

Every evening after dinner Carl opens up
the American Songbag of his mind
Singing O Susanna and such-like
banjo and grandkid on his knee

Some books he wrote
on an outcrop of rock
overlooking the valley

Since the beauty of the mountains
would be too distracting
to get much done

Sandburg wrestled upstairs
with tomes on Lincoln
in a room with no view

Now over ten thousand books
in a nine thousand square foot home of
twenty-two rooms and a million acres of sky

Connemara, which means “the sea,” is the name of the house where Carl and Lillian Sandburg lived from 1935 to 1966, as Lee Ann Brown describes it.

“I had a formative visit there as a child growing up in North Carolina and am revisiting Sandburg’s importance to me as a writer who also uses folklorist practices,” she writes. “In that spirit, I weave strands of others’ words into this poem. I use rewritten or collaged lines from a traditional Appalachian Ballad, from family sayings, as well as sampled or transformed lines by both of the Sandburgs, as well as from poets Kevin Evans, and CA Conrad.”

Brown is the author of four collections of poetry, including “In the Laurels, Caught,” which won the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Series Award, and Polyverse, which won the 1996 New American Poetry Competition, selected by Charles Bernstein. In 1989, Brown founded Tender Buttons Press, which is dedicated to publishing experimental women’s poetry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

Enter the word yellow here: