earthweal weekly challenge: NATURAL FORCES


When I was 13 my parents separated, with my father remaining in Chicago and the rest of us – mother, three boys, a girl and a dog — moved to Florida, into a split-level pool home in a development that had been carved out of an orange grove. My memories of that first summer hovers in the swimming pool back of that house and is thick with the pulpy sweetness of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our yard.

That summer puberty assaulted me in a wave, a drenching splash of pool water that drew up into a ziggurat of salty hormones. Everything was amplified — a girl in the pool became a siren, my first drag on a cigarette irreverent as a black-light poster, pop harmonies on poolside transistor radio becoming hymns in an immense cathedral — “Close to You” by the Carpenters crossed by Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” (It was 1970).

A time of powerful awakenings. Memory points to a girl visiting her grandparents next door who came over to swim. I delivered my first kiss in that pool. The next summer it was the burning pentacoastal faith my heartbroken mother fed us all into. I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean on my birthday in 1971, and when the minister held me back into the wave I felt this immensity wash through all the way to my soul.

I point to those things as formative, but that’s a homo sapiens for you! So much of my hormonal initiation was naturally sourced. Florida back then still was wild, unkempt, savage, burning. Storms brewed up daily and marched across the state, dumping our neighborhood with thunder and germens at the same time every afternoon. Fresh squeezed orange juice was demoniacally sweet. At night the sounds of undeveloped monstrosity chattered and hissed and slithered on the other side of the tall wooden fence in our backyard. And the ocean — sheer heave and suck of Grendel’s mam, delirious and salty and dazzled.

After two years my parents decided to give their marriage another go, so we left that wild house in Florida for grey old Chicago, a sad, brutalized, freezing ghetto next to deep dead Lake Michigan. My parents didn’t stand a chance. In two years they split a second and final time , my father heading for gay New York City and my mother back to Florida with my kid brother and sister. I finished high school then fled West where I went dug into books, went mad, developed a terrible thirst for booze and abandonment in rock n roll bands.

My mother once sent me a care package of brownies and a couple of vials of shells and sand, writing in a noteThere’s as saying that if you get Florida sand in your shoes, you must always return. Within a few years I had crossed the continent was living again in Florida. I have remained there since.

Was it that Florida sand, or my mother’s voice next to it? I’ll never know, but natural forces were ever behind the yearnings and wild imaginings which eventually found voice in poetry. It makes me wonder if we are all naturally shaped, a nautilus of self defined by loud winds and great tides.

If I only weren’t blinded by my poor fool species, trapping my identity in self-awareness, a continuous narrative of I against World. Questing, adventuring, finding treasure. The voice in my head is of a hero at his height, a stature of strength grappling the day’s opponent. When I look in the mirror I expect to see a guy in his mid-30s (How disappointed I am nowadays!). It’s the musician at the end of his world tour, the poet I thought would make a name for himself.

The world is least visible behind him, even though he owes every breathing and thinking moment to that world.  Why is my vision so singulre? Why can’t I see and celebrate the 13 year old amazed and enthralled and horny and intoxicate on salvos of sun and storm, with tides from the Earth’s own adolescence washing hundreds of miles inland every day and the moon this enormous face you could virtually touch?

Does anyone master those natural forces? Or do we simply appropriate them, eating swords of sunlight until our image flashes day and night? Look at the places where nature is most mastered — I think of gated suburbs —houses there dominate the landscape, imperial accumulations of mortar and ego. Can anything intrude there? Moonlight in such places is fainter than starlight; an ironic echo at best.

Humanity has become the devouring dragon, eating world and dreaming of nothing much in deathless surfeit. That is mastery as we have come to know it. But at what peril? We come to know that too well. Here in Florida, my approaching old age is like Beowulf facing off with the dragon again very late in life. Florida is maleficent, her coasts flooding, her interior burning, and storms of Titan magnitude hurling something billions of years old at us, a fraught, interstellar abyss not meant for humans to survive. I think you know who will win this final battle, though the man in my mirror devoutly refuses to believe it.

In his 1996 book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram reminds us that shamans – the ancestors of poets — were not masters of nature but master mediators of humanity’s place in the world at large:

The traditional or tribal shaman … acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape of the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies and “journeys,” he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it … The sorcerer derives her ability to cure ailments from her more continuous practice of “healing” or balancing the community’s relation to the surrounding land. (7)

Maybe we’re past reckoning—I fear so—but as poets we can only treat what we can, and after the terrible freeze this past week in Texas — a blast of Arctic air wound from Siberia to Canada and then, thanks to our damaged jet stream, blasted south into the American Midwest and Deep South — it’s clear we owe homage to the natural forces which have shaped us. (Well I remember too blasts of Canadian wind slicing through the concrete canyons of Chicago in January—an atheist absolute.)

For this challenge, write about natural forces as protagonist and hero, speaker and subject, beloved and lover. Tell us about sun-gods and wind-raptors, oceanic heart-sharks and  mastodons of freeze. Remember a time when nature was bigger than anything else. Personify, magnify, glorify nature into this magnificent, maleficent more-than-human tenacity which we foolishly attempt to appropriate. How have natural forces shaped you?

I leave you with the following poems as example.

The challenge remains up until 4 PM EST Friday, 2/26.

— Brendan


John Clare (1829)

The thisteldown’s flying
Though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying,
Now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain
now boils like a pot,
Through stones past the counting,
It bubbles red hot.

The ground parched and cracked is
Like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is,
Bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter
Like water indeed.
And gossamers twitter,
Flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron
Glitter hot i’ the sun.
And the rivers we’re eyeing
Burn to gold as they run.
Burning hot is the ground,
Liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round
Sees Eternity there.



James Wright

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At the touch of my hand,
The air fills with the delicate creatures
From the other world.

from This Branch Will Not Break (1992)



Denise Levertov

When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world’s hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.

from The Jacob’s Ladder (1961)



A.R. Ammons

Peripherally the ocean
marks itself
against the gauging land
it erodes and

it is hard to name
the changeless:
speech without words,
silence renders it:
and mid-ocean,

sky sealed unbroken to sea,
there is no way to know
the ocean’s speech,
intervolved and markless,
breaking against

no boulder-held fingerland:
broken, surf things are expressions:
the sea speaks far from its core,
far from its center relinquishes the
long-held roar:

of any mid-sea
speech, the yielding resistances
of wind and water, spray,
swells, whitecaps, moans,
it is a dream the sea makes,

an inner problem, a self-deep
dark and private anguish,
revealed in small,
by hints, to
keen watchers on the shore:

only with the staid land
is the level conversation really held:
only in the meeting of rock and sea is
hard relevance shattered into light:

upheld the clam shell
holds smooth dry sand,
remembrance of tide:
water can go at
least that high: in

the night, if you stay
to watch, or
if you come tomorrow at the right time,
you can see the shell caught
again in wash, the

sand turbulence changed,
new sand left smooth: if
the shell washes loose,
flops over,
buries its rim in flux,

it will not be silence for
a shell that spoke: the
half-buried back will
tell how the ocean dreamed
breakers against the land:

into the salt marshes the water comes fast with rising tide:
an inch of rise spreads by yards
through tidal creeks, round fingerways of land:
the marsh grasses stem-logged
combine wind and water motions,
slow from dry trembling
to heavier motions of wind translated through
cushioned stems; tide-held slant of grasses
bent into the wind:

is there a point of rest where
the tide turns: is there one
infinitely tiny higher tough
on the legs of egrets, the
skin of back, bay-eddy reeds:

is there an instant when fullness is,
without loss, complete: is there a
statement perfect in its speech:

how do you know the moon
is moving: see the dry
casting of the beach worm
dissolve at the
delicate rising touch:

that is the
expression of sea level,
the talk of giants,
of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,
spoken in a dampened grain of sand.

Title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, 1963


earthweal weekly challenge: ALREADY DEAD


After the second failed impeachment trial of Donald Trump, it is impossible not to see the Senate Republicans who refused to convict an inciteful, lying and corrupt party leader as anything other than already dead. Resolute in their denial of reality (that includes climate change and the pandemic), they are committed to maintaining an ever-shrinking power base by every means possible.

Together they are like a foot mashed to the gas pedal of a car that has already crashed into smithereens against a wall and like a ghost doesn’t know it yet. Not guilty resounds with the iron echo of already dead.

Those senators (two of whom represent my flooding Florida) are the day’s most evident and eloquent metaphor of humanity’s collusion in the extinction of life on this planet. Three and a half billion years of living evolution and much if not most of it is now endangered by the actions of just one species over an infinitesimal 10 thousand years, the most grievous toll of that in the past microscopic 250 years and the lion’s share of that in the present generational nanotide we occupy as game-ending berserkers bawling Not Guilty while hitting the gas pedal.

The bottle of Budweiser I threw out the window of my Datsun careening home one night 20 years ago will take a million years to biodegrade; the Styrofoam cup I drank coffee from at an AA meeting 10 years ago will last almost forever, far longer than it will take the Himalayas to grind down to nothing. Who says recovery is happy, joyous and free? The casual waste of my one big human life has joined a gyre in the Pacific so thick and poisonous that foraging albatrosses of our generation will probably be the last to feed on the ocean after 30 million years of continuous gliding loops across the main. That cup will be the only record of life after some tiny geologic blip to come, because there will no more life to become fossil record. Just Styrofoam cups, plastic bags and glass shards—the human eternity.  The Ancient Mariner has a long ways to go.

And we’re already dead. If you don’t know that yet after counting up the Nay votes in the US Senate, crank up the air conditioning (here in Florida the other day it hit 85 degrees F) or tally how much garbage WAS sent from your house to the landfill in the past year. Now multiply such woebegone self-interest by ten billion repeat offenders, and you’ll wonder just how far back it was that we smithereened the wall.

Hagakuri (meaning “hidden leaves”) is a guide for the samurai warrior drawn from commentaries by the clerk Yamamoto Tsunetomo, former retainer to Nabeshima Mitsushige (July 10, 1632 – July 2, 1700), the third ruler of what is now Saga Prefecture in Japan. It states that the warrior’s code of bushido is really the Way of Dying: “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.” By living in constant awareness of one’s death, it is possible to attain a transcendent state of freedom. It is by being already dead that one finds true life.

While already dead is a handy motto for the Anthropocene, it does not permit us to do nothing. There is much we can do to reduce and save and sustain our world, alleviating somewhat the suffering of those not caught on the edges of change. It is our responsibility as the species who gets to decide the fate of the world. And yet we must never forget that we are already dead and vastly chained to the millions of animal, plant and sea life we have ended as casually as crumpling a Styrofoam cup and tossing it into the trash.

A paradox of this human moment is that for all our destruction, our species has never been more aware of its responsibility as a sentient species to care for all of life. One of the tiniest blooms in our onrushing Ragnarok is that whales have been saved, old-growth forests protected and attempts made to slow, perchance to one day cease, fossil fuel production. A tenderness which allows us to understand the enormity of the tragedy.

We are living in the Anthropocene, the crown of human ruin. But while doom is the easy word for it, and we destroyers may not wax too poetic in that penumbra. We are also living on in the Cenozoic Era as well, part of a 66 million year life experiment. As seers and sayers, we have to hold up the complex web of life we have entangled in fishing line and Senate denial and digital disruption of the mind and weigh the enormity of it, for both the tribe’s entire right to existence and the Cenozoic achievement of all life since that last great extinction event. We may be already dead, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have purpose.

Something in us has to die in order to link the organum Thom van Dooren describes in Flight Ways:

… Synchrony asks us to be attentive to the way in which the multiple and diverse flight ways that constitute Earth’s diversity are also delicately interwoven with one another. The Black-footed Albatross, like any other species, is not a flight way through an empty void, but an entangled way of life, bound up in and becoming as part of a specific multispecies community. In Rose’s (2012b) terms: sequence “involves flows from one generation to the next. Synchrony intersects with sequential time, and involves flows amongst individuals, often members of different species, as they seek to sustain their individual lives” (129). And so there is an important sense in which, in addition to being carried through time by the efforts of their own generations, species also carry one another, nourishing and being co-shaped as members of a particular entangled community of life.— (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law) (p. 42). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Without the colossal burden and waste of self “we” can go back to our only real role as fleeting exempla of life. Already dead frees us from clutching at something that was never more than the mirage of modern comfort. Clutching for the suburban dreamscape we place the wall down the road just out of sight (at least we’ll be dead by then) instead of where it must be, already in tatters behind or above, while we, the silt of time, sink into the abyss.

For this challenge, write about Already Dead. What does Already Dead look and feel like, what echoes do you hear in the registers of extinction, what gifts and/or freedoms does it bestow?

You can, of course, go ronin and write whatever you please.

If all this sounds strange and off-key my apologies, I’m on new medication and it turns my thoughts strange. Better challenges surely to come.