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Poetry Prose and Other Words

by Ken Ingham

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Book Review

Urban Nature: Poems about Wildlife in the City
Edited by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (with introduction by Emily Hiestand) Milkweed Editions, 2000

Have you ever had the urge, while waiting for a traffic signal, to get out of your car for a better look at a flock of starlings veering and banking in tandem against an early evening pink November sky? If so, you might enjoy this collection of poems. Nature exists even in our cities, and this anthology is for the most part a celebration of that fact. Although many of the poems lament our failure to better accommodate nature in our urban environments, a larger number seem inspired by the natural beauty that can still be found there if we only pause to notice. There are over 150 selections all together, some from new poets, others from known poets, all reflecting upon some aspect of urban nature, from geraniums in the office (they smell like shovels) to a salamander in the video store parking lot.

My approach to this anthology was to slowly peruse the pages, searching not for a whole poem that I immediately love - those are always rare - but for an evocative phrase, an image, sound or metaphor that stirred me enough to beg my return. With apologies for not mentioning any names, let me share a few examples. Here’s an earthmover parked across a vacant field from a sycamore whose bark curls like site maps and blueprints unrolled in a distant room, a million frogs shrieking like background music for the big bang, falling magnolia petals, the smell of road kill or fresh baked bread and beer brewing as the morning swells with promise. The second time through I recognized some places where I’d been before but realized that I had overlooked some good ones such as the horse with the colossal nostrils, squirrels embracing their way up a tree, a national convention of republican cockroaches in the kitchen at night, azaleas confused by the bright lights installed after a burglary. There are poems about seasons: a snow plow shoves aside the early morning quiet, people laughing and shoveling together, butts of mother nature’s joke; spring grass is what the earth sang; summer nights sleeping on the porch, crickets; fallen leaves flat-plastered on a wet sidewalk, bring in the houseplants - nature is most seductive when about to die.

There is a pleasing sparsity of poems about dogs and cats but birds are frequently featured, bad birds, uninvited, that swarm in and unpack right on private property, and good birds - a brave sparrow whose heart is smaller than a heart should be, a cardinal, its throat abounding with information, swans eating out of hands, an egret fishing in the feculent marsh, a thrush, its song a small aggression taken for joy. A whirlwind of chittering chimney swifts funnels down to roost, a pileated woodpecker ratchets around tree trunks, the scream of a redtail hawk strips varnish from the heart. As might be expected pigeons are popular, waddling cheek by jowl among the bag ladies, their low voltage moans, their necks scarved with liquid green rainbows, beaks evolved for gutter cracks and handouts, investigating the wonders of gum. This book is not just about literary cities like NY, SF and LA but also about Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix, St Louis, Duluth and others - how they are and how they used to be. Its about animals and dreams, childhood memories of growing-up places in a time when urban nature was less of an oxymoron, before so much of it had been squeezed out. Its about pollution (even the snowflakes stink), empty lots and potholes (earth breathing through the streets), about escaping to the park, the zoo, the botanical garden, the college campus or the outskirts of town, or merely looking out the window like that couple that made love in the afternoon thirty stories up, then watched a peregrine swoop past their room as if delivering a message from the gods. After several readings I had connected on a personal level with many of the poems, discovered some poets that I want to read more of, and learned that in some ways, nature is even more poignant when projected against a cityscape.

Invited review for The Audubon Naturalist in 2000 (Y2K)