In this edition of the Village Voice, Richard Blanco recites poems to celebrate the 2016 National Park Service Centennial. For the occasion, The Academy of American Poets commissioned 50 poets from 50 states to write poems about their State Parks as a way of documenting the natural and historical sites through the poetic eye.
“A little tidbit, Campbell McGrath was my graduate school mentor in poetry. He is still the editorial voice in my head.”
Enjoy the poems listed below as they are read, and the conversation that surrounds them.
by Campbell McGrath
Green and blue and white, it is a flag
for Florida stitched by hungry ibises.
It is a paradise of flocks, a cornucopia
of wind and grass and dark, slow waters.
Turtles bask in the last tatters of afternoon,
frogs perfect their symphony at dusk—
in its solitude we remember ourselves,
dimly, as creatures of mud and starlight.
Clouds and savannahs and horizons,
its emptiness is an antidote, its ink
illuminates the manuscript of the heart.
It is not ours though it is ours
to destroy or preserve, this the kingdom
of otter, kingfisher, alligator, heron.
If the sacred is a river within us, let it flow
like this, serene and magnificent, forever.
“Old South Meeting House”
by January Gill O’Neil
We draw breath from brick
step on stones, weather-worn,
cobbled and carved
with the story of this church,
this meeting house,
where Ben Franklin was baptized
and Phillis Wheatley prayed—a mouth-house
where colonists gathered
to plot against the crown.
This structure, with elegant curves
and round-topped windows, was the heart
of Boston, the body of the people,
survived occupation for preservation,
Let us gather in the box pews
once numbered and rented
by generations of families
held together like ribs
in the body politic. Let us gaze upon
the upper galleries to the free seats
where the poor and the town slaves
listened and waited and pondered
Let us testify to the plight
of the well-meaning at the pulpit
with its sounding board high above,
congregations raising heads and hands to the sky.
We, the people—the tourists
and townies—one nation under
this vaulted roof, exalted voices
speaking poetry out loud,
in praise and dissent.
We draw breath from brick. Ignite the fire in us.
Speak to us:
the language is hope.
“Notes on the Below”
by Ada Limón
—For Mammoth Cave National Park
Humongous cavern, tell me, wet limestone, sandstone caprock,
bat-wing, sightless translucent cave shrimp,
this endless plummet into more of the unknown,
how one keeps secrets for so long.
All my life, I’ve lived above the ground,
car wheels over paved roads, roots breaking through concrete,
and still I’ve not understood the reel of this life’s purpose.
Not so much living, but a hovering without sense.
What’s it like to be always night? No moon, but a few lit up
circles at your many openings. Endless dark, still time
must enter you. Like a train, like a green river?
Tell me what it is to be the thing rooted in shadow.
To be the thing not touched by light (no that’s not it)
to not even need the light? I envy; I envy that.
Desire is a tricky thing, the boiling of the body’s wants,
more praise, more hands holding the knives away.
I’ve been the one who has craved and craved until I could not see
beyond my own greed. There’s a whole nation of us.
To forgive myself, I point to the earth as witness.
To you, your Frozen Niagara, your Fat Man’s Misery,
you with your 400 miles of interlocking caves that lead
only to more of you, tell me,
what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing.
Ruler of the Underlying, let me
speak to both the dead and the living as you do. Speak
to the ruined earth, the stalactites, the eastern small-footed bat,
to honor this: the length of days. To speak to the core
that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s
shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.
Visit This Link to explore all 50 poems.
This episode of Village Voice first aired on Boston Public Radio on May 31st, 2023.
Photo by Richard Sagredo on @unspash.com