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American Poet Elizabeth J Coleman
Photo Credit: Website of Elizabeth J Coleman

My Poetry Corner July 2021 features the poem “On a Saturday in the Anthropocene” from the anthology HERE: Poems for the Planet (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) edited by Elizabeth J Coleman an American poet, public-interest attorney, environmental activist, and teacher of mindfulness. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Swarthmore College, she practiced law for over thirty years and has served as an executive at several organizations.

In 2012, she received an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She credits Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness for her decision to become a late-career poet. She lives in New York City where she runs Mindful Solutions LLC and is president of the Beatrice R and Joseph A Coleman Foundation.

In the anthology HERE: Poems for the Planet, Coleman brings together her love for poetry, for justice, and for our planet. With a foreword from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, HERE explores our planet’s beauty and plight through the vision of 128 living poets from all over the world.

“When we see photographs of the earth from space, we see no boundaries between us, just this one blue planet, a natural world that supports us all. Therefore, we have to see humanity as one family and the natural world as our home. It’s not necessarily somewhere sacred or holy, but simply where we live—so it’s in our interest to look after it,” writes the Dalai Lama.

The anthology is divided into five sections. In the first section that puts us in touch with the beauty of our planet, Kentuckian farmer and poet Wendell Berry gives us “The Peace of Wild Things” (p.40):

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

In the second section, Kyle Dargan, poet and literature professor at The American University in Washington DC, is among the poets who give witness to the environmental peril faced by Earth and its inhabitants. The selected excerpts are from his poem “Daily Conscription” (pp.61-62):

I think of race as something akin to climate change, / a force we don’t have to believe in for it to kill us. / I once believed in the seasons… // But we are losing spring and fall – tripping / from blaze to frost and back. And what’s to say / we won’t soon shed another season, one of these / remaining two, and live on either an Earth / of molten streets or one of frozen light? 

Camille T Dungy, an award-winning poet and English professor at Colorado State University, joins other poets in the third section to celebrate animals and mourn their extinction. In “Characteristics of Life” (pp.105-106), she speaks for animals without backbones:

I speak for the snail… // I speak for the damselfly, water skeet, mollusk, / the caterpillar, the beetle, the spider, the ant. / I speak / from the time before spinelessness was frowned upon.

The fourth section gives voice to young poets like Maia Rosenfeld, an undergraduate at Brown University in Rhode Island. Her poem “Snapchat Summer” (p.149) speaks of the virtual world where so many of our youth live:

Your summer hides in an app on your phone, and a million / views won’t make it real / enough, your picture frame memories will never be as real / as folk songs and sundresses,… // Your summer is pixilated and fleeting. / When your phone runs out of memory, / will you, too?

Coleman’s featured poem, “On a Saturday in the Anthropocene” (pp.160-161), appears in the fifth section that inspires action through poems imbued with hope and vision. On her Saturday walk in New York City to her local post office, the poet mourns the loss of places and simple things that once connected us, the ways we have destroyed the habitats of birds and other wildlife, the fast pace of life that ruins relationships, and the replacement of humans by machines in the workplace.

as I walk in the light of a two-rivered
island to my post office, I mourn

the last typewriter repair shop
in New York going out of business;

mourn that this moves us further
from letters, from connection,

from writing home.
I mourn that it’s so warm…

[…]

At my post office, endangered too,
I avoid the self-service kiosks, wait in line

for a human. A clerk waves me over
with her smile, asks where I’ve been….

The two women connect at a personal level. Over the years, the poet had never taken the time to ask the clerk’s name. What’s your name? she now asks the clerk. The name Grace is no coincidence.

Mother Earth clamors to be heard. All is not well. Our individual beliefs and alternate realities mean nothing in the grand scheme of our collective lives. If we are to avert climate and environmental disaster, we must connect with each other and with the other living beings with whom we share this planet. Doing so with grace is a good place to start.

To read the complete featured poem, “On a Saturday in the Anthropocene,” and learn more about the work of American poet Elizabeth J Coleman, go to my Poetry Corner July 2021.