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Transforming Nature with Marilyn Nelson

This week, as the fourth in a five-part series of blog posts on poems that approach nature, Carl Phillips explores a poem by Marilyn Nelson.

My Grandfather Walks in the Woods (1978)

in the light above the womb,
black trees
and white trees
populate a world.                                          5

It is a March landscape,
the only birds around are small
and black.
What do they eat,
sitting in the birches                                     10
like warnings?

The branches of the trees
are black and white.
Their race is winter.
They thrive in cold.                                       15

There is my grandfather
walking among the trees.
He does not notice
his fingers are cold.
His black felt hat                                            20
covers his eyes.

He is knocking on each tree,
listening to their voices
as they answer slowly
deep, deep from their roots.                        25
I am John, he says,
are you my father?

They answer
with voices like wind
blowing away from him.                               30

Marilyn Nelson
The Fields of Praise, New and Selected Poems, LSU Press 1997

Race is not a concern that arises in the three earlier poems I’ve considered—Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet, On being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It was Frequented by a Lunatic,” John Clare’s “To the Fox Fern,” and James Schuyler’s “The Bluet”—and for good reason: we tend to think about race when we’re the routine victims of racism, which would hardly have been the case for 18th- and 19th-century white English poets, or indeed for most white Americans since the founding of the original colonies. Nelson’s poem doesn’t specify that her speaker is black, but patterns established at the level of imagery in the first three stanzas make a black speaker likely (Nelson is herself African American, but I try not to assume an equation between speaker and poet). We learn in stanza one that the trees are black and white—nothing racial there. The next stanza states that “the only birds around are small/and black”—again, not racial, but note how the simile with which this stanza concludes associates the birds with warnings: why? For me, things click into place with the next sentence—one that would seem at first redundant: “The branches of the trees/are black and white.” If the trees are black and white, presumably their branches are, too, so why mention it? I think Nelson wants to establish a chain of associations: black and white are established colors of this landscape, blackness is then associated with warning, and the next image is of branches. For black Americans, there’s a long history of being lynched, so branches have, or can have, a decidedly negative connotation. To reinforce—confirm? —this connection between branches/trees and racism, Nelson follows with the line (speaking of the trees) “Their race is winter.” Trees, of course, have no race, not of the kind that humans do; Nelson’s assignation of the trees’ race to a particular season underscores the difference between nature and human beings, between nature and the human construct of race, which has no actual place in nature.

For me, this is enough to convince me of a black speaker. The fact of a black speaker also helps to explain the rest of the poem. Immediately following the pattern of images that suggest race/racism, we encounter the speaker’s grandfather, asking each tree “are you my father,” seeking clues as to ancestry. My own grandfather’s parents were slaves; this would certainly be true for a black grandfather in the 1970s. Nelson’s poem presents a racialized landscape, racialized by what the speaker brings to the landscape in terms of identity and history—in this sense, the natural world is threatening, dangerous, but only because of what humans have done with it. At the same time, the speaker’s grandfather turns to nature for answers about ancestry, perhaps because these aren’t findable in a human society built on and around slavery, and also because the wilderness, in being detached from racism, and by virtue of being so much older than human civilization, may be the only source that both is trustworthy enough and has been around long enough to know the past.

Do the trees answer? I see in the stanza break between the last two stanzas the clear divide between humans and the natural world. Each party has its own language. Each speaks in a language the other can’t know: English on one side of the break, tree-talk on the other side. Sometimes I think the grandfather only imagines that the trees answer, because that’s what he needs—in the way that we might call a lightning bolt a sign of something, when it isn’t. Another instance of imposing human expectations or desires upon the natural world. It’s a poem, though. One that takes place “Somewhere/in the light above the womb.” The trees have an answer, but it’s no more humanly translatable than race—than identity—itself.

This blog post is based on Foliage & Pattern, a talk Phillips gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Carl Phillips is the author of 14 books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (2004). He is a professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis.


Posted In: Close Readings