Bottom Left: Camille T Dungy in front of a Indie Bookstore with her poem "Nulipara" in the window. April 23, 2018. Copyright permission granted by Camille T Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only.
unarticulated way—that’s not written down as I work through the poem. That’s where the leaps happen that take me to what I recognize as poetic thinking. Something seems to change in the music of the language and the vividness of the images in this progress, though I can’t always clearly articulate the precise steps that get me through the changes.
Jane Hirshfield, Brenda Hillman, Stephen Motika and Reginald Harris were among the group. We all got to see some of the museum’s collection, and a hummingbird nest was among the artifacts we could touch. I found the nest magical, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time.
We were members and went a lot when we lived in the Bay Area. But at the time of the visit when I held the hummingbird nest, my family wasn’t living in Oakland anymore, so I am overlaying different memories onto this description.
There’s a big window facing the cul-de-sac, with a view of a blue spruce tree and the Front Range of the Rockies. That space, the space where I would have written most of the drafts of this poem, was deep in the background in my imagination. I don’t have any recollection of its gray carpet or bright windows. Even though in early drafts I mention Colorado, I’ve cut that place out of memories related to this poem. (Above Right and Left: Flowers blooming in the yard of Camille T. Dungy's Colorado home. Copyright permission granted by Camille T. Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only)
up until a later draft. Neither of these two versions have the information about the sofas or the moth balls. I remember feeling a rush of excitement when I came to those images, and the shifting of expected language they allowed.
marked up print out of the poem, but it’s an important change that would show up at some point in a new version somewhere along the line. A version of the whole Trophic Cascade manuscript dated July 7, 2015 shows the poem appearing almost exactly as it does in the book. So that’s a pretty quick progression from the messy draft I was working with in May.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? Timothy Donnelly asked for a poem for Boston Review and so I put some elbow grease into polishing this up and sending it to him. I know that the Boston Review version has a few minor differences from what appears in the book, but these differences are on the level of the word, and centered around the part where I am naming Oakland, the museum, and Court Street. Court Street was the church where my grandfather was the minister and where Mrs. Jeffers attended until her death, but I decided this wasn’t a relevant detail for the poem. Thanks to the Boston Review publication, “Natural History” poem was honored with a Pushcart Prize and published in that anthology. In 2017, it appeared as the first poem in my 4th collection, Trophic Cascade. Now you’re reading is here!
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights
between Virginia and the West I’d happened
on that particular museum. Any chance
I could, I’d leave my rented house in Lynchburg.
I hated the feeling of stuckness that old city’s humidity
implied. You need to stop running away so much,
Mrs. Jeffers would say when my visits were over
and I leaned down to hug her. Why her words
come to me, the woman dead for the better part
of this new century, while I think of that
nest of web and lichen, I cannot rightly say.
She had once known my mother’s parents.
The whole lot of them, even then, in their twenties,
must already have been as old as God. They were
black—the kind name for them in those days
would have been Negroes—and the daily elections
called for between their safety and their sanity
must have torn even the strongest of them down.
Mr. Jeffers had been a laborer. The sort, I regret,
I don’t remember. He sat on their front porch
all day, near his oxygen tank, waving occasionally
to passing Buicks and Fords, praising the black
walnut that shaded their yard. She would leave
the porch sometimes to prepare their meals.
I still have her yeast roll recipe. The best
I’ve ever tried. Mostly, though, the same Virginian
breeze that encouraged Thomas Jefferson’s
tomatoes passed warmly through their porch eaves
while we listened to the swing chains, and no one
talked or moved too much at all. Little had changed
in that house since 1952. I guess it’s no surprise
they’d come to mind when I think of that cup
of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers
of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it
right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him. I thought her small-minded. In the winter,
I didn’t visit very often. Their house was closed up
and overheated. Everything smelled of chemical
mothballs. She had plastic wrappers on the sofas
and chairs. Everyone must have once
held someone as old and small and precious as this.
including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great.
Her honors include NEA Fellowships in poetry (2003) and prose (2018), an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and she was named a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award honoree in two categories in 2018.
Dungy’s poems have been published in Best American Poetry, The 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Travel Writing, and over thirty other anthologies. She is a professor at Colorado State University.