Poem: I Circle Around but the Sky Changes

For National Poetry Month in April, Orion Magazine hosted a poetry exchange inspired by a collaboration between poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. The theme was “This Growing Season.” Orion put out a call for anyone who was interested and then matched people up randomly.

I was paired with Anastasia Andersen, who teaches poetry at the University of New Mexico (her full bio is below). Here is how she described the challenge we set forth for our poetry exchange:

We chose a writing game based on those of the French Surrealists. We agreed upon number of stanzas (6) and lines per stanza (5).  We also alternated writing stanzas, but only forwarded the final line, which would inform the next stanza. The “missing” lines of the stanzas were revealed after all 6 stanzas had been written.  We also chose a line from a poem by Robert Desnos as a title “I Circle Around but the Sky Changes.”

All we had was a shared theme and the last lines of each other’s stanzas and yet, the results were remarkably connected, with common themes interwoven throughout both our writing.

Here is the poem: Continue reading

A Reminder of Falling

My son pumped his legs against the hard plastic pedals, willing away the late afternoon heat, as he aimed his bike towards the puddle in front of him. He rocked back and forth as the pedals turned, thinking only about how fast he could go. And then, his wheels cut into the water with a hiss that seemed to split the puddle in half, like Moses with training wheels. He laughed as he looked back at the wet tire tracks drawing out behind him.  Continue reading

Google Maps, Sense of Place and the Algorithms of Our Heart

At their big developer conference this week Google introduced a slew of new features for Google Maps, but one caught my eye more than any other. Google suggested that the future of maps would be personalized. On their blog they asked, “What if we told you that during your lifetime, Google could create millions of custom maps…each one just for you?” They expand on the idea:

“In the past, such a notion would have been unbelievable: a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”

Image via Google

This led Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities to wonder if Google’s new maps might take the “filer bubble” experience into the physical world, “We may never know what we are not seeing.” While, I share Badger’s concern, I also think that we are always already rewriting the maps we use to navigate the swiftly changing world around us. The question we should ask is do we trust the maps made by Google’s algorithm more or less than we trust those made by our hearts and minds.

In the fall of 2006 Rebecca Solnit  published an essay called “Maps for the Year Ahead” in Orion Magazine. The piece offers a number of striking observations about space, place, and land in the wake of tragedy. Looking at events like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Solnit draws a connection between urban sprawl and the power of natural disasters to make us feel disoriented and, in a very real sense, ungrounded.

This reminded me of a friend of mine who led rafting trips. He once told me that each year, and after big rain storms, river guides have to re-learn the river because the river bed changes so dramatically. Solnit’s discussion of displacement and mapping made me wonder how often we have to re-learn our landscape and how quickly it can change. Continue reading

The Narrative of Our Nation

The same year that I published my first book of poetry, I learned to build trails. While building a bridge out of red maple and black ash, I thought about building a story. Moving stones to build a staircase, is not so different from moving words to construct an essay. The first time I sharpened my own ax I thought about sharpening pencils. At night, the lake where I was living looked like ink.

As I began my year of service with the Student Conservation Association, my goal was to strike a balance between my commitments to writing, community, and the environment. Sitting around the big table in our communal dining room the twenty people I would be spending the next year with introduced themselves.

Name. Hometown. Major. One other fact about yourself.

One after the other these recent college graduates described themselves in disciplines: Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Geography, Geology, Natural Resource Management, Environmental Law, Landscape Architecture, Chemistry, Forestry… and then there was me.

Everyone was surprised to find an English major in their midst. Continue reading

Disarming The Wilderness

“The first bomb dropped from an airplane exploded in an oasis outside Tripoli on November 1, 1911. […] It was Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti who leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb — a Danish hand grenade — on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first attack.”

So begins A History of Bombing, by Sven Lindqvist. In this incredibly complicated and interwoven story (Lindqvist himself describes the book as a “labyrinth,” not designed to be read cover to cover but rather as more of a choose your own adventure) Lindqvist traces a history of bombing that cuts right through the human body – literally and figuratively. The book — which I first read in a post-colonial studies course — focuses on the physical, psychological, and historical impact bombing has had on the world, with special attention paid to nationalism, class, race and power.

However, of less concern to Lindqvist is the impact of this history of bombing on the land. A recent article in Orion Magazine prompted me to go back to my bookshelf and dig up my copy of Lindqvist’s book. In “The Forbidden Forest” Johnathan Olley profiles “a small band of démineurs from the Département du Déminage” in France. The démineurs are a team of bomb experts assembled after Wold War II to find, remove and destroy the detritus of two World Wars: thousands of tons of unexploded munitions. Olley reports that “The French Interior Ministry estimates that at least 12 million unexploded shells reside in the hills and forests that rise above Verdun.” Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on Thinking

Two gems from this morning’s New York Times Book Review:

From: The Catastrophist By LEON WIESELTIER (a review of THE SECOND PLANE – September 11: Terror and boredom, By Martin Amis.)

On Sept. 10, 2001, nobody in America seemed to know anything about Islam. On Sept. 12, 2001, everybody seemed to know everything about Islam. Well, not quite; but it is really a wonder the way the arcane particulars of an alien civilization now trip off every tongue. People who would not know if a page of Arabic is upside down or right side up helpfully expound upon the meaning of jahilliyah. Sayyid Qutb is quickly overtaking Reinhold Niebuhr as the theologian about whom the un- or antitheological pronounce with the most serene authority. Nothing creates intellectual confidence like catastrophe. After the mind breaks, it stiffens; in the aftermath of grief, it lets in only certainty. In a time of war, complexity is suspected of a sapping effect, and so a mental curfew is imposed. From the maxim that we must know our enemy, we infer that our enemy may be easily known. Continue reading