Pause here at the flower stand—mums
and gladiolas, purple carnations
dark as my heart.
We are engaged
in a war, and I want to drag home
any distraction I can carry. Tonight
will wake to bouquets of fire
that will take their breath away. Still,
I think of my life. The way
you hold me,
sometimes, you could choke me.
There is no way to protect myself,
some brilliant defense. I want
the black iris with their sabered blooms.
I want the flame throwers:
the sunflowers. I will cut down the beautiful ones
and let their nectared sweetness bleed
into the careless air. This is not the world
I’d hoped it could be. It is horrible,
the way we carry on. Last night, you catalogued
our arsenal. You taught me that devastation
is a goal we announce in a celebration
of shrapnel. Our bombs shower
in anticipation of their
marks. You said this
is to assure damage will be widely distributed.
What gruesome genius invents
our brutal hearts?
When you touch me I am a stalk of green panic
and desire. Wait here while I decide
of these sprigs of blossoming heartbreak I can afford
to bring into my home. Tonight dreams will
in chaotic buds of flame. This is the world we have
arranged. It is horrible, this way
we carry on.
A Massive Dying Off
When the fish began their dying you didn’t worry.
You bought new shoes.
They looked like crocodiles:
snappy and rich,
as delta mud.
Even the box they shipped in was beautiful, bejeweled.
You tore through masses of swaddling paper,
in all that cardboard by what
you now understand
must have been someone’s tiny, indifferent hands.
The five-fingered sea stars you heard about on NPR.
You must have been driving
It must have been before all the visitors arrived.
You needed covers, pillows, disposable
At Costco, everything comes cheap.
Sea stars, jellies, anemones, all the
scuttlers and hoverers
and clingers along the ocean floor. A massive dying off, further displacing
oxygen, cried the radio announcer.
You plugged in your iPod.
Enough talk. You’d found the
song you had been searching for.
ship going out. One cargo ship coming in.
Crabs crawling up trawler lines.
Giant lobsters walking
right onto the shore.
You’ve been sitting in your car
watching the sunset over the Golden
One cargo ship going out. One cargo ship coming in.
Those who can are leaving.
The Marin Headlands
toward the ocean,
fog so thick on their side
of the bay
you can’t tell crag from cloud from sea.
One cargo ship headed out, another coming in.
They’re looking for a place
where they can breath.
You’ve been here less than an hour.
When the sun has finished setting
you’ll go home.
In the dream, your father is the last refuse to wash ashore.
This wasn’t what you wanted.
Any of you.
The first sign
of trouble was the bottle with the message.
That washed up years ago.
Then, so many bottles
the stenographers couldn’t answer all the messages anymore.
The women of the village wept when your father died.
Then they lined up to deliver tear-stained tissue to the
secretary of the interior
who translated their meaning
and had it writ out on a scroll.
These were the answers your people had been waiting for!
That papyrus wound around your father like a bandage.
The occasion announced,
you prayed proper prayers, loaded him onto an outrigger,
set him off,
but here he is again. Stinking.
You can’t dispose of the rising dead and you’re worried.
What can you do?
My Lover Who Lives Far
My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room
and offers supper in a bowl made of his breath.
The stew has boiled and I wonder at the cat born from its steam.
The cat is in the bedroom now, mewling. The cat is indecent
and I, who am trying to be tidy, I, who am trying to do things
the proper way, I, who am sick from the shedding, I am undone.
My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to
and offers pastries in a basket spun from his vision.
It is closely woven, the kind of container some women collect.
I have seen these in
many colors, but the basket he brings is simple:
only black, only
nude. The basket he brings is full of sweet scones
eat even the crumbs. As if I’ve not dined for days.
My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to
and offers tea made from the liquid he’s crying.
I do not want my lover crying and I am sorry I ever asked for tea.
My lover, who lives far away, opens
the door to my room pretending
he never cried. He offers
tea and cold cakes. The tea is delicious:
spiced like the
start of our courtship, honeyed and warm.
I drink every bit of the tea and put aside the rest.
who lives far away, opens the door to my room
like a man loving
his strength. The lock I replaced
this morning will not
keep him away.
My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room
and brings me nothing.
Perhaps he has noticed how fat I’ve grown, indulged.
Perhaps he is poor
and sick of emptying his store.
It is no matter to me any longer, he has filled me, already, so full.
My lover who is far away opens the door to my room
and tells me he is tired.
I do not ask what he’s tired from for my lover, far away,
has already disappeared.
The blankets are big with his body. The cat, under the covers
because it is cold out and she is not stupid, mews.
-from Smith Blue
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in
Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country.
She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Smith Blue (2011), a finalist for the William Carlos
Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of an American Book Award,
a California Book Award silver medal, and the Northern California book award; and the sonnet collection What to Eat,
What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006), a finalist for both the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Library
of Virginia Literary Award. Describing the poems in What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison as “rogue
sonnets,” Dungy said of the poems’ speakers in a 2007 Boxcar Review interview, “These are folks
who take the restrictions and traditions that have been handed to them and they do what they can to make beautiful things
with their lives […] so the fact that the sonnets follow some rules and flaunt others is a direct reflection of their
subjects.” In a 2009 review of the same collection for Pembroke Magazine, Tara Betts observed that the
collection “offers a number of ways to look at what is considered to be a part of nature, whether it is a part of
the plants or the people that inhabit a place.” As Betts later noted, “This tension of living close to passion
and death simultaneously creates urgency in these quiet poems.”
Addressing the paucity of African
American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy stated in a 2010 interview for the Oakland Tribune, “I
miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it
is a monologue.” To that end, Dungy edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
(2009), which won a Northern California Book Award and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. She was also co-editor
of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great
(2009), and assistant editor for Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (2006).
Dungy has won the Dana Award and the Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, and was a finalist
for the NAACP Image Award in 2010 and 2011. Dungy has also received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment
for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference, the Djerrasi Resident Artist Program, Yaddo, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Norton Island Artist
Recently a professor
in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, Dungy is currently a professor in the English department
at Colorado State University. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter.
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
A Review of Camille Dungy's Smith Blue by Molly Spencer, first
published at Flycatcher
Camille T. Dungy is a poet and editor known for her attention to nature, history (both the personal and the political),
and the intersection of the two. She is the author of Suck on the Marrow (2010) and a collection of sonnets, What
to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006), which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award
and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Dungy, in order to address “the paucity of African American poets in
anthologies of nature poetry,” edited the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature
Poetry (2009). She has won fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian
Society, and Cave Canem, among others.
In her third poetry collection, Smith Blue, she uses her range
of poetic skills and interests to create a catalogue of love and loss, of beauty and degradation, of the questions--large
and small--of modern life and landscape. It’s also a survival guide for those of us who wish to navigate these contradictions
deeply and well. Just a glance at the table of contents tells us we are in rich and fraught territory: bombs and emergency
plans, lovers and grandfathers, illness, ease, and truth. The collection’s prologue poem, “After Opening The
New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love,” invites us to “turn the page” into our complex
world; into the strange commingling of plenty and want, peace and war, connectedness and isolation; into a dogged persistence
amidst the myriad contradictions of modern life.
Next, we pause at the juxtaposition of beauty and war in “Daisy
Cutter.” Dungy trains our eyes on the strange abundance of a flower stand in the city, while elsewhere in the world
“children… wake to bouquets of fire // that will take their breath away.” In this poem we also experience
the complications of love, its sometimes threatening intimacy: “The way you hold me, // sometimes, you could choke
me. / There is no way to protect myself,… .” And yet, amidst these contradictions, Dungy reveals one of her
themes in the collection: persistence and “the way we carry on.” This persistence, this carrying on, can work
for good and for ill in this collection--just as it does in our lives: It is sometimes a brave stepping out into a flawed
but beautiful world, and other times an addition to the many troubles of our world wrought by human hands: war, environmental
degradation, and being too busy to pay attention to the fragile beauty that surrounds us.
The title of the collection
comes from the poem “The Blue” about an endangered butterfly whose natural habitat on the Big Sur coast has
been degraded by development since its discovery in 1948 by two UC-Berkeley undergrads, Rudi Mattoni and Claude Smith.
Before the pair could officially document and present their discovery to the science world, Smith was swept away by a rogue
wave while fishing on the Pacific shoreline at Half Moon Bay. Mattoni named the butterfly Smith’s Blue in honor of
his deceased friend. The poem begins with witness and destruction: “One will live to see the Caterpillar rut everything
/ they walk on — seacliff buckwheat cleared, relentless / ice plant to replace it, the wild fields bisected…
.” Dungy exposes the paradox that, even as we destroy the habitat of other creatures, our habitat exists amidst its
own destruction, whether human-made or wrought by nature: “this coastal stretch endangered, everything, / everyone,
everywhere in it in danger as well.” The fragility of a butterfly, the power of one sneaker wave, the tribute to
friendship cut short--each combines with the rest of the poems in this volume to underscore the contradictions of this
beautiful, terrible, dangerous and endangered, intimately known, but incomprehensible world.
collection, Dungy uses line breaks, white space, and circular language to keep the reader on the edge of life’s contradictions.
Her skills are particularly deft in the long poem toward the center of the collection, “Prayer for P—.”
The poem begins circularly, almost bewildered as, the poet infers, we have no choice but to be in this world: “The
door even, / her apartment door, / even her door // suffered cruelly.” As the poem unfolds we learn that there has
been a death; that the death was a poet’s; that even amidst abundant praise for this poet’s work, and genuine
love and affection (“remember, she was my friend. don’t let’s forget, our friend.”), the grief
of P—‘s life left her “vexed and alone,” and, ultimately, dead. “Prayer for P--” unfolds
in a duet of voices: the controlled voice of the first section alternates, later in the poem, with a voice that shames
another thing you’ve got to remember
not to forget to remember who to thank —
forget to remember, I should remind you,
let me remind you, everything you
want to call your own,
it’s not your own;
This voice wants to
overpower and oppress even as the speaker navigates isolation and grief. It’s the parent voice in all of us that says
we should’ve known better, should’ve done better, and is rendered all the more scathing by the fact that,
in this poem, it’s too late. In a later section of the poem, Dungy reminds us that “there is always more about
losing / to learn” as the poem’s speaker catalogues her own losses, as well as the losses of P--, who “abandoned
/ everything: her knives and her dishes, plants, poems, pictures, telephone, / records, everything, everyone, linens,
lovers even, her pen, her books, her name.” In the poem’s last line, we find no redemption, no bright light
leading us on except in the form of a glaring truth: “not knowing, this was one awful thing. knowing, another.”
And yet, the collection doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. In the final poem, “Maybe Tuesday Will
Be My Good News Day,” we find ourselves amidst music-making where the speaker of the poem is “one moment an
empty bell, / one moment a rubber mute.” The concept of practice circles and repeats through the poem: “I’ve
practiced / so I know what comes next.” By the end, with alley cats skirting the edges of the scene, and even with
fires flaring, we believe that with enough practice we’ll end in a togetherness: “One/Then one/Then two.”
How to carry on then, Dungy seems to say, is to persist, to pay attention to the paradoxes of our lives, and, in the end,
to stay together: one, then one, then two.
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
An Interview with Camille Dungy by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
McFadyen-Ketchum: There's a lot going on in "Daisy Cutter." I find I am particularly drawn to the way
it invites the reader in with the opening command, "Pause here at the flower stand-" then proceeds in a first person
that invokes both the "We" and the unidentified "you." It sort of feels like a conversation someone
is having over the phone in which the reader only receives half of the conversation. Talk to us about the... "behavior"/"personality"
of this poem and how it developed. Did it always start with a command? How do you think you manage to invoke the "We"
and "you" so successfully? This, after all, is something we poets are often told to avoid...
Camille Dungy: I'd love to go back and find the journals
from the days I was writing that poem to tell you if the first command was always the beginning of the poem. I somehow doubt
it. I think of the first lines of my poem, "What you Want," which feel to me to have always been extent just as
they are on the page now but which, I discovered purusing old journals, were once very different.
I wrote "Daisy Cutter" in 2003, in the lead up to the Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq, and I have to admit
I can't recall the construction of the poem at this distance. What I do remember is the urgency to write the poem. The conflict
I felt at being so horrified by what I was learning about my complicity in the death of others, and the means by which many
of those deaths would occur, in relationship to my insular concern about my own rocky relationship.
The We/you/I/we flux of the poem has a lot to do with this swiveling of
my own perspective. I was worried about other people and I was thinking about how "we" [Americans] were about
to irrevocably change the lives of people most of us would never see, really I was, but also I was worried about myself,
about the "us" that "you" [my lover] and I were still trying to create, despite our ongoing conflicts
[both the global ones and the domestic]. I'd say that's where the motion of the poem comes from.
My thoughts were in constant motion inward and outward, and my ideas about these things were conflated as well,
a fact that I was as often distressed by as I was distracted because of. Also, flowers are beautiful, but also complicated
in their own right. It's all complicated. Isn't it?
a glimpse into the personality that created the poem...
That makes good sense. "Daisy Cutter" plays around a lot with the controlling metaphor of blossoms as bombs and
this notion of beauty and the ugliness of war, the terrible ways our "gruesome genius invents" the tools of war,
and, toward the end of the poem, the speaker's reflection on her own frailty in the hands of a lover. There are a lot of
what we call political notions at work in the poem: the politics of nations and war, the politics of beauty, the politics
of the self, the politics of personal responsibility ("It is horrible, this way we carry on.") and so on and so
Talk to us a bit about metaphor, politics, and
poetry. Are you always reaching for a statement in poetry? Do you feel poetry is a tool that can be used for political purposes?
What's your take on the notion that great poems must be "about something," must have "something
to say," that they cannot simply be "beautiful?"
CD: "Are you always reaching for a statement in poetry?" No. In fact, I am rarely,
more likely never, reaching for a statement in poetry. That I might arrive at a statement in poetry upon the successful
completion of a poem is fine with me. But if I am reaching at the outset of a poem for a statement I am significantly more
likely to create propaganda than poetry.
I do believe poetry can be "about something" and that it should have "something to say." I think my point
is that I don't set out with the intention of saying one thing. In "Daisy Cutter" I set out thinking about the
fact that we had named these bombs, these awful, cluster bombs, after a flower, or after something that cuts down a flower
(perhaps that's even worse).
I was in Brooklyn in
the spring, when flower stands abound, and I was also with this lover and all these things came together in such a way,
during my drafting and my revision process, as to produce the poem you now read. I am not saying that I don't ever think
about what statement a poem might make. I think very seriously about that question during the revision process (which I
believe is a key part of the production of a poem), but I don't begin reaching for a direct statement about how domestic
and global conflicts can conflate and are demonstrated by the things we see on a flower stand. I think through poems in a
far more circuitous manner than that.
As to the part
of your question about whether poems have to do something or say something to be important, and whether beauty is enough...I
am a thinking woman, and I think thought provoking literature is beautiful. I think sound and image also accrue to create
beauty, but if I am not left with thought and feeling as well as image and sound I am often unsatisfied. Though
not always, I will admit.
Maybe I didn't answer your
questions. I think I said yes and no. This is a yes and no world. Of that I am convinced.
AMK: "Daisy Cutter" is in couplets whereas "A Massive Dying Off" plays around
quite a bit with indentation, white space, dropped lines, and sections. Talk to us a bit about free verse forms and why these
poems are in these particular forms.
Well, "Daisy Cutter is about dyads: the US citizens and the Iraqi citizens, the I and the you, the us and the them.
Couplets made sense to me. "A Massive Dying Off" is a massive jumble of complicity and rupture, loss and corruption,
stagnation and acquisition. It couldn't be contained. (In the body of the poem I try to acquire more containers, and there
are those endless container ships coming and going...) The subjects of those particular poems suggested their forms.
AMK: You play quite a bit with language as well in "A
Massive Dying Off" and seem to get quite a bit of joy from moments in the narrative like "you prayed proper prayers"
The Marin Headlands crouch
toward the ocean,
fog so thick
on their side of the bay
can't tell crag from cloud from sea.
How do you manage
to so seamlessly weave musical language without losing the reader? How much do you expect from your reader? Do you hope that
they can absorb everything the poem has to offer technically as well as metaphorically and narratively in one reading, or
do you aim for a poem that pleases the reader enough for them to return to it and, hopefully, dig a little deeper?
CD: I think that poems should be read more than once.
There are still songs that I hear from my childhood or adolescence, songs that I sang and sang and sang and sang but only
later realized I'd been singing...let me not say wrong, let me say differently than as they were recorded.
I believe that our knowledge grows with time, but I don't necessarily
think that the knowledge we had at first was any more or less valid. Well, if you thought global warming was a false theory
and now think it might be in fact not just a theory but the fundamental truth we are living with today, then I would argue
you were wrong and now you are no longer wrong. But what I'm trying to say is that I think we should return to what we read.
I don't think we can absorb everything at first glance. Not poetry. Not love. Not the realities of the planet. I think we
have to go back again and again and learn more and more each time we return.
As to the music question: I think a fundamental component of good poetry is musicality. That's deeply important
to me. I want to make sense, both in terms of logical, rational sense, but also in terms of the engagement of your senses.
Perhaps the way I manage not to lose you is I talk
to both your head and your skin at once. I want you to think and to feel, but if I just have you on one level for a while
the other can catch up.
you call "A Massive Dying Off" an apocalyptic poem? I'm kinda sorta obviously obsessed with the topic, so I'm seeing
it everywhere, but it really does seem like apocalyptic films, stories, poems, and even songs are all over the place these
days. What do you make of this?
Of course you're seeing it everywhere. We're living through the apocalypse. We've thought at other times in history that
was true. We might have faced a nuclear winter when I was a kid. When my Grandmother was a kid there were many many many
other horrible things happening all the time around her. And in the Dark Ages it was very, very dark.
But this whole warming of the planet, massive extinction, acidification
of the ocean, desertification of the continents thing, this is worth being freaked out about. We're destroying our home
base. Both for human habitation as we know it and for the survival of huge number of the other residents with whom we share
this place. Artists have our ears to the ground, and we are not ignoring the reality of the world in which we live.
Yes. "A Massive Dying Off" is an apocalyptic poem. It's not my
first, and it won't be my last.
I just love all of the imaginative moments in "My Lover Who Lives Far," particularly "The stew has boiled
and I wonder at the cat born from the steam. // The cat is in the bedroom now, mewling." and the way in which each
line of the poem builds on the next, as in "My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room / and offers tea
made from the liquid he's carrying. // I do not want my lover crying and I am sorry I ever asked for tea."
I am certainly drawn to strangeness in poetry and how poems have the power
to connect disparate images, ideas, etc...but I often wonder if such poems are more indulgent than they are...something more
purposeful...or if that is the way imaginative and strange poems are received, even if they shouldn't be.
in strangeness rather than something of more obvious substance.
Is this something you ever struggle with as a poet? How much do you allow yourself to indulge in the technical
aspects of writing a poem before you think about larger issues of meaning, how they might be read, etc?
CD: This is a really interesting question. I don't want
to write strange poems that are strange simply for the sake of being strange. I want my poems to do something.
Earlier I had a whole thing about how I didn't ask my poems to do something
before they were written, so I want to clarify.
I'm saying, in relationship to your example, is that I was having fun with the language in this poem. As I moved through
the poem I kept turning on the details I'd included, shifting the language to pun on or play with the phrases that had come
before. Things began to take a certain shape (I am visualizing a ceramic pot being spun. The way it takes shape beneath
the hand both in a way that is guided by the hand and a way that is guided by the clay). I followed that shape, but I also
remembered the path I had lain. The cat comes back. The steam and the cold and the cakes come back. The lover's tears come
They don't all come back in exactly the same
form, though, there is a reason, you discover as you move through the poem, that each detail exists. I don't just throw
in strange things and leave them there, alone, being strange. The things I put into the poem should add up to something
in the end. That's what I mean by asking my poems to do something, to construct a larger meaning.
AMK: Talk to us about how you came up with this concept of writing a poem that drives itself forward
with these weird, imaginative lines that become the subject or controlling image/metaphor of the following line? Do your
poems tend to start with this sort of structure/behavior or do they find themselves along the way?
CD: I steer clear of "do you poems tend to" answers because my poems do a lot of different
things. Once I think I know what my poems tend to do, if I play into that all the time what my poems will tend to do is to
sound like plastic facsimiles of other, better, poems I've once written.
The main thing is this: I love language. I love ideas. I love sound. I love compelling images. I love the idea
and the execution of one thing standing for three other things. I love playfulness, but there are really serious things
to explore in this world. I love the gradual unfolding of knowledge, and I love the lightening strike of awareness. I love
figuring out how to wrestle with what I love on the page.
I do this consistently, I will occasionally manage to write poems that I am comfortable saying I love. I love all the poems
you mentioned in this interview, and I am grateful that you are drawn to them too.
AMK: Thank you, Camille.
Click here to read an interview with Camille
Click here to read an interview with Camille
at Poetry Society of America
Click here to view multiple videos of Camille
reading from her work