Jim Lenfestey recently gave me a copy of his outstanding new book of poems, Earth in Anger: Twenty-five Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth.
We were both reading at an Open Book
event which had been arranged by our mutual friend, John Caddy
. The event was supposed to have happened on Earth Day, but it got snowed out and was re-scheduled for a week later. Jim hadn't been scheduled for the original Earth Day event because the launch of his new book was happening that evening. Earth arranged for Jim to read his poems two weeks in a row. I guess some of the people who drove through the blizzard to get to the original reading were a little miffed that it was cancelled. I hope they pick up Jim's book and divert that energy as he recommends with his poems.
Jim read By Azure Huron's Shore as his last offering that evening and it's the final entry in the book, but I think it should be read first. This Phaantom's quiz places the poems in an context of urgency that allows the supple rhythms of the poems more space to undulate.
BY AZURE HURON’S SHORE
NOTE: In 1848 journalist Walt Whitman and his brother
Jeff traveled to New Orleans to help establish the newspaper the Crescent. After three months, according to his own
hand-drawn map now in the Library of Congress, they returned up the Mississippi
and through the Great Lakes, passing through the Straits of Mackinac into Lake
Huron, then Erie, then Ontario. In the
1867 edition of “Leaves of Grass” he included “As I Sat Alone By Blue Ontario’s
Shores,” in which he encounters a “Phantom” who quizzes him on the qualities
necessary to undertake the American project of creating and healing a
nation. Inspired by Whitman’s
interrogation, I wondered what “many and stern” questions the Phantom would put
to poets and citizens today to undertake our necessary project, healing and
reclaiming our broken, reeling planet.
In the Invocation, I changed but one word of Whitman’s, substituting
“earth” for “nation.” The rest of the
Phantom’s interrogation came fresh through me in one burst as I sat alone by
azure Huron’s shore. Originally published
as a broadside, it may be reproduced free forever.
BY AZURE HURON’S
(An update of Walt
Whitman’s By Blue Ontario’s Shore, section 12)
Are you he who
would assume a place to teach or be a poet here on this earth?
The place is
august, the terms obdurate.
Who would assume to
teach here may well prepare himself body and mind,
He may well survey,
ponder, arm, fortify, harden, make lithe himself.
He shall surely be
questioned beforehand by me with many and stern questions.
Who are you indeed
who would talk and sing of the earth?
THE POET’S TEST
Do you know the
depth of the waters, and the height of the sky, and their composition?
Have you befriended
the trees where you live, know their roots, their crowns?
Have you studied
the rocks beneath them, to the fifth epoch?
And the birds
above, their songs and what they eat, and where they nest?
And the people who
lived there before you, and your ancestors, to the second millennium?
And the rivers and
lakes, their subtle watersheds and hidden springs?
And do you swim in
the chill and warm waters of your seas and lakes indiscriminately? And with
relish? And know the sources of pollutants threatening your waters? And fight
against the dark rain with armies of petitions and voters’ guides and drives
Are the glaciers
and the jungles your friends, the serpents and beasts and birds your guides,
the pigs of the sty your helpmates, the microbes and fungi your intimates?
Do you shun or
reform all religions that deny the primacy of the earth and its processes? That
believe mankind unable to destroy everything good? Or save everything good?
Do you accept with
joy the findings of science?
Are your taxes paid
to the federal, state and municipal authorities without complaint, as the
recognized price of civil living? Do you
wish to pay more?
Do you believe in
the Holy Trinity: the water, the grass, the air? And do you worship them every day with acts
of kindness and political clout?
Are you sickened
unto death that the biodiversity of the earth is plummeting? The Arctic sea ice
melting? The oceans acidifying?
Have you read the
4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
Or at least the
And know that its finding of warming for the most part
due to the burning of fossil fuels has been everywhere affirmed, including by
the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, even the
George W. Bush Administration?
And are you hot
with anger at the lies about the cause of changing climate spouted by those
with fingers black with oil, breath black from smoking mines?
And will you slay
with dark thoughts the miscreants at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal
editorial page and Rush Windbag and others who perpetuate those lies?
Will you fight back
with evidence and heat and love for the atmosphere which is the life blanket of
Do you firmly
believe there is no such thing as evil, but only abundant ignorance, stupidity,
shortsightedness, self-dealing, self-loathing and fundamentalist
Do you “fear a lie
as others fear fire,” as Chekhov said, and know that “inside you is an
inexhaustible fountain of ideas,” as Brenda Ueland said?
Do you believe in
families and communities green and cheerful with good schools and happy parents
and joy shouted from the schoolyards?
Have your studied
Emerson’s essays The Poet and Nature, foundation
stones of the spiritual democracy of our nation and all nations, who saw the
divine in every person and particular of nature, including these Great
Lakes? He who begat Thoreau and Whitman
and Dickinson and Bogan? Jim Bogan?
When you gaze at
the person you love, and the multitudes you love, do tears of gratitude spring
to your eyes? Do your hands fall open
in gratitude to the waters, the grass, the air?
And for people who fight for the waters, the grass, the air?
By azure Huron’s
do you stand at the
water’s edge, tasting the delicious energies of the grass, inhaling the
delicious energies of the air, and fearlessly plunge into the dark waters, for
the sake of your soul, and the soul of the earth?