At a poetry reading and talk that Ed Roberson gave at Northwestern on November 14, 2007, he pointed out that he is a Black poet who writes nature poems. Roberson didn’t say, though he certainly could have, that his view of nature breaks as well as critiques the historical conventions of nature poetry, which is the picturesque view that enables the poet to believe there is a sanctuary outside of human reality. In contrast to much nature poetry written in this vein, particularly as the subject was initially formulated in English Romantic poetry, Roberson’s work does not view landscapes as sublime or transcendent, or as embodying proof of God’s existence. He has consciously broken with a radical literary and artistic tradition that includes William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Vincent van Gogh, but that is now both dated and diluted.
While Roberson’s statement at Northwestern might not initially seem sweeping or even unusual, it gains in resonance once you place it in the historical context of what happened in American poetry after 1960, when Grove Press published the groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960, edited by Donald Allen. The only Black poet in Allen’s anthology was LeRoi Jones. (In 1967, Jones changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka, and later to Amiri Baraka.) It is within the violent decade of 1960–1970, and what happened both in America and in American poetry, that Roberson’s self-definition must first be seen.
As an undergraduate, Roberson won the grand prize in the Atlantic Monthly’s poetry contest in 1962. In 1970, the University of Pittsburgh Press published his first book of poetry, When Thy King Is a Boy. This means that he entered the literary scene during the 1960s, when the Black Arts Movement, which Jones started in Harlem in 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, was ascendant. The Black Arts Movement and its institution, the Black Arts Repertory Theater, galvanized writers such as Ed Bullins, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez. According to Ishmael Reed—who, along with Jones and Lorenzo Thomas, was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop (1962–1965), located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—the Black Arts Movement spawned multiculturalism and ethnic writing by Latinos and Asian Americans. More than 40 years after the publication of When Thy King Is a Boy, Roberson remains the only Black poet who can claim to be a nature poet without the slightest hint of irony. His position is at once isolated and, given our current state of affairs, increasingly central. To go one step further than Roberson, he is a Black poet who writes nature poems unlike anyone else’s.
I don’t want to suggest that Roberson is without champions. Joseph Donahue has written a long, marvelous essay, for the literary journal Callaloo, “Metaphysical Shivers Reading Ed Roberson,” that explores the poet’s relationship to gnosticism. Nathaniel Mackey has been a longtime supporter and has published many of Roberson’s poems in his magazine, Hambone. In recent years, Roberson has been the recipient of the Lila Wallace Writers’ Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award. He may be “far outside that matrix of professional critics and reviewers where literary reputations are determined,” as Ed Foster said in his 1996 review of Roberson’s Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In, but he has not been neglected. Rather, what I want to press forward is the idea that the significance of Roberson’s literary achievement has yet to be recognized by the mainstream literary establishment because it challenges accepted conventions regarding the task of both ethnic writers and nature poets.
Clearly, Roberson is an anomaly, but this isn’t why his achievement hasn’t been more widely celebrated. It is because his poetry pushes back against a long-held belief that was given further credence by the Black Arts Movement, and is now accepted as a commonplace. The Black Arts Movement advanced the view that a Black poet’s primary task is to produce an emotional lyric testimony of a personal experience that can be regarded as representative of Black culture—the “I” speaking for the “we.” This tautological view of poetry is based on the use of “I” as the activating center of a discursive poem, the witness who lays out the evidence. Not only do many share this viewpoint, but it has also gone a long way in influencing how poetry written by ethnic writers has been received and celebrated in different quarters of the literary world.
From the outset of his career, Roberson did not subscribe to the widely accepted model of the ethnic poet. Instead of writing lyric poems in which he developed a comprehensive worldview based on personal experiences that were meant to be representative of Black culture, Roberson began his career writing poems about nature (“kenai lake alaska” is the title of one poem included in When Thy King Is a Boy). This and other poems in When Thy King Is a Boy were informed by the poet’s experience in working as an undergraduate assistant in limnology, the study of inland bodies of fresh water, and in gathering and studying data in places as remote as Kodiak and Afognak Island, off the coast of Alaska.
. . . the one lake on the whole
peninsula that does not freeze
is this one.
Later, in “kenai lake alaska,” Roberson writes what Nathaniel Mackey characterizes as “labyrinthine, syntactically double-jointed lines . . . ” that open words up to multiple and even conflicting meanings:
ships went down
during the goldrush when the water was highway
to what men dregged out of the earth
Roberson’s “dregged” evokes both “dragged” and “dredged,” and also helps convey the violent relationship humans have to the earth when it comes to mining.
“News,” another poem in When Thy King Is a Boy, opens with these lines:
the news is covered
today brought to you
by the same coverage
as smothered yesterday
In addition to his experience in remote parts of Alaska, Roberson was a member of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh, went on two expeditions to the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes, and explored the upper Amazon jungle. These and other experiences are the sources for many of the poems. Other sources I would mention include his motorcycling across the United States, travel in Caribbean, Mexico, Nigeria, and West Africa, sexual desire, growing older, his health, and life in Chicago. And yet for all the biography that gets into these poems, they are remarkably free of anecdote. They are informed by perception, memory, and study (forms of gathering data) rather than story (the retelling of an event). Whether camping in the Andes or walking down a street in Chicago, the poet’s multipronged destabilizing of language mirrors the unpredictable, constantly threatened, provisional world he has inhabited.
Along with pushing back against long-held conventions about the subject matter that is appropriate to ethnic writing, Roberson’s poetry challenges many received assumptions about our relationship to nature, particularly as invented by the English Romantic poets. It is this legacy and its widely accepted notions that lead the poet to state: “I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got.” Roberson uses a double negative, a common feature of Black vernacular English, to characterize his intention of uncovering what European (or White) culture’s definitions of nature have covered over (or “smothered”), as well as the cover-ups that have routinely taken place since the early 19th century, particularly in regard to the relationship between America’s understanding of nature as a bottomless cornucopia that can be exploited, and the history and ongoing bequest of the “Triangle Trade.”
As a boy there were no black boy
Rather than filling the poet with intimations of immortality, nature enables him to gain a perspective on his mortality and the abyss into which he (like all of us) is falling:
We look upon the world
to see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth
a small fern in a crevice of the cliff face
Here, Roberson consciously confronts the English Romantic tradition, which believed that there was a supernatural or spirit world that existed beyond the physical one. He doesn’t see nature as a separate entity in which he exists before going elsewhere, but scrutinizes it “in order to see [himself] in the brief moment that [he is] of the earth.”
Whereas William Wordsworth advanced that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in response to an insight about the relationship between physical experience and traces of the supernatural, and William Blake famously witnessed “a world in a grain of sand,” Roberson recognizes that he is a vulnerable thing existing on the cusp of mortality and that, like a grain of sand, he is floating in infinity. Rejecting a pantheistic view of nature, he regards himself as a scientific materialist who wants to observe what it means to be a bounded being orbiting in an unbounded reality. In poems such as “As at the Far Edge of Circling,” he expands upon a theme touched on by Hart Crane in his poem “Cape Hatteras.” Addressed to Walt Whitman, Crane’s poem meditates on our ability to recognize infinity while living in a modern industrial world, which alienates us from nature and thus reality.
Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok—your lone patrol—and heard the wraith
Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling . . .
“As at the Far Edge of Circling” opens with these lines:
As at the far edge of circling the country,
facing suddenly the other ocean,
the boundless edge of what I had wanted
to know, I stepped
into my answer’s shadow ocean,
For Roberson, the finite and the infinite are never so distinct and separate that he is able to forget that they are connected:
I entered as a man enters
a labyrinth, seeing
from hairline fracture to abyss
the magnified whisper
of memory not finish its sentence
Roberson believes that nature (earth) is part of an immeasurable continuum, which human beings cannot exist outside of. The closest he comes to articulating his vision of our relationship to the earth is when he writes about being in a plane in his poem “Topoi”:
Gaia’s gravity-swayed steps take on orbit,
we in the tropic of balance, in a basket
on her head, a blue wrap of sky, sun
ripens the thin rind of the plane to home.
The poem ends:
Sunk in time,
the footprint of life is death, the grave
there is no step out of, the compost earth.
The earth is the footprint of life.
There is no portal or sanctuary that enables the individual to transcend his physical existence, thus leaving nature behind. We become part of “the compost earth.” Knowing that there is no vantage point to be gained, and that all of his experiences will be partial and contingent, the poet recognizes that “the world / is mortality, the earth goes beyond us.” The world will one day cease to exist, but the earth will continue to exist “beyond us.” In Roberson’s view, reality (nature) is “a labyrinth.” Even though there is neither an escape from the labyrinth (or reality) nor a center to it, the fact that we are caught in it requires all of our attention.
While Roberson’s assault on poetic tradition may not be as overt as the ones mounted by the Language poets, particularly Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and Leslie Scalapino, it certainly is as subversive and demanding. Although he has never socially aligned himself with an avant-garde tradition, such as the Black Arts Movement, Language poetry, Flarf, or, more recently, Conceptual poetry, he has become, in my mind, a central figure for at least four reasons:
- He offers an alternative to ethnic writing that is conceptual, innovative, and quietly defiant.
- His view of nature is testing but indispensable.
- He has un-Whited-Out the poetry we got.
- His use of language exposes the inherent prejudices and cover-ups that have become embedded in it over time.
Based on scientific observation, data, the study of history, and firsthand experiences, Roberson believes that nature (earth) and society (world) overlap and are inseparable, and that the relationship between them must be balanced. In To See the Earth before the End of the World, the poet’s most recent book—his most jarringly visionary and bracingly apocalyptic—the first, title poem opens with these lines:
People are grabbing at the chance to see
the earth before the end of the world,
the world’s death piece by piece each longer than we
As a passionate observer and dispassionate collector of data, Roberson wants to know what it means to live in a world where there is a business that provides well-heeled consumers with a rare view:
people chasing glaciers
in retreat up their valleys
Nature is a spectacle to exploit for financial gain, and the melting glacier is being billed as a performer whose once-in-a-lifetime act is a not-to-be-missed event for people who can afford to witness it. Based on an article that Roberson read in the New York Times, in which he learned about what is happening to a glacier he used to see daily when he was living in Alaska, the poem repeatedly finds ways to focus attention on a very troubling question: where and what have the pursuit of happiness (one of the three inalienable rights asserted by the Declaration of Independence) led us to? (Behind this implicit question is Roberson’s understanding of the role that slavery played in both America and Europe’s thinking.)
The poet wonders if we can ever break out of the habits and accepted ways of living that we have acquired through time. Can we reinvent ourselves before it is literally too late?
All that once chased us and we
chased to a balance chasing back, tooth for spear,
knife for claw,
locks us in this grip
we just now see
our own lives taken by
taking them out. Hunting the bear,
we hunt the glacier with the changes come
of that choice.
Earlier in our history we were able to negotiate a series of precarious imbalances between the natural world and ourselves, but now the imbalances have tilted past the point of no return, with disastrous consequences that we seem unable to collectively face.
now— it’s days, and a few feet further away,
a subtle collapse of time between large
and our small human extinction.
The state of consciousness we must aspire to is one in which we see clearly what is in front of us as well as recognize our own mortality, which is always present and waiting. Collectively and individually, our existence is neither guaranteed nor absolute but conditional and interdependent, something we seem unable to recognize (“[a] communal instrument / with one note per player, / per person, per jar,”). The unknowable and mysterious parts of nature that we experience are not what the American naturalist John Muir called moments of “beauty-loving tenderness!” Roberson regards such humanist projections as a fictive state that exists outside of the physical universe. Rather, our life is punctuated by moments of disquieting awe that might make us all the more conscious of our brief time as mindful beings: “[t]he sight, a sci-fi alien view.” Like “a small fern” determinedly growing in the inhospitable “rock face,” human beings are both vulnerable and tenacious, always at the mercy of nature and time. No matter how substantial humans might believe they are, everyone in the end is materially insubstantial and, in that regard, inconsequential in the face of time: “Like wind, we have no / haloed shadow dappling the ground.”
Throughout his poems, Roberson persists in trying to see for himself, to sort through and assess all the available data, no matter where it leads him. The results can be dire, melancholy, harsh, erotic, tender, and sometimes comic. While he brings his study of science, and of observing and collecting information, sharply to bear in his work, it doesn’t mean that he is a literalist. A visionary power seems to heighten all of his experiences, as in the poem “Flight Record”:
Some cities look like embers of a fire
when you fly in. Against the faint points
of the glowing ash, what might have been
the scale of flames you don’t want to think about.
The leaps the poet makes in this stanza are scientifically objective as well as prophetic and apocalyptic. Every line in the stanza builds from an initial, not particularly far-fetched poetic insight that cities, seen from the air at night, resemble the embers of a dying fire. And yet the perception comes across as heightened and hallucinatory, a warning “you don’t want to think about.” Paradoxical though it may be, it seems to me that in undoing Blake, Roberson became his truest heir.
Roberson’s materialist vision of being “of the earth,” of being a thing among things, marks a significant break with a time-honored poetic tradition that centers on the “I,” as well as with the postmodern belief in the death of the self (or author), which privileges the social milieu over all else. While much of the poet’s work is rooted in personal experience—from camping in the Andes to walking the streets of Chicago—his aim is not to achieve a coherent subjectivity in which a transparent “I” discursively relays a moment or event in which a personal and cultural experience become interchangeable. In the place of revelation and transcendence, he offers this view of time:
But we are on this company line, we are on
our payroll of our clock.
We make lots of money known as
times to spend.
We are responsible for how we “spend” our time. The lines are choreographed to register the hesitations of thought and the twists, turns, and eruptions of insight and realization. Here again, the poet questions where the inalienable right to pursue happiness has led us. The poetic self in Roberson’s recent poems is as much a third person “he” on the way to becoming an “it,” as it is an “I.” For what the poet recognizes is that all of us live in infinite time, which is merciless, inhuman, and democratic in its unavoidable transformation of all that it contains. Getting off a plane, he writes:
I accept the change
from thin air, empty handed for all I’ve seen,
from air to the walk away again in all my flesh,
accept what I have to leave
of flight for feet.
In addition to accepting the consequences of infinite time (“the grave / there is no step out of, the compost earth,” the poet recognizes two other cycles of time, the historical and the individual, and how they and our various conceptualizations of them affect each other in myriad ways. Amid the realization that he is constantly moving closer to becoming part of the “compost earth,” Roberson writes poems that move in unexpected directions, shift gears suddenly, and detail the perceptions, memories, thoughts, associations, and questions he has about nature, of which he is an infinitesimal part who is able to have the following experience:
And once, coming in late down the Hudson
into Newark, I could look up Forty Second
the whole way across Manhattan like peeking
through a crack into more light than light
across the universe, by the convergences
a worm hole off to the side on night’s horizon
Each perception can suddenly and unexpectedly lead to a physical awareness of infinity, that which contains us all and cannot be fully experienced. Can we, in our boundedness, respect and honor the unbounded?
Ed Roberson’s poems detail the gamut, from the intimate and social to views of deep time and glimpses of infinity, and braid together all of these perceptual experiences. Within a single poem, he can embrace the “cicadas’ sound” and “cataclysmic novas” (“Planetarium”) without losing his bearings. I cannot think of another poet who covers as much physical space, as many different kinds of landscapes, and as many conceptions of time. He can shift between the exterior physical world and the interior domain of the imagination as fluidly as rain running down a roof. Among his many sources, I can point to the poet’s firsthand, in-depth experience of the world’s one-sided exploitation of nature; to his learning about how little humans see of the world they move through (“As if we are always asleep, / the jaguar’s tracks are there in the morning,”); to commonplaces of urban life; to his understanding of colonialism’s promotion of the use of nature; to his articulation of domestic space and relationships; to detailing his progress towards mortality. Roberson recognizes the deep roots of slavery, “un-Whiting-Out” that the destructive development of nature and colonialism, particularly in its manifestation, expansion, and growth of the slave trade, springs from the belief, often religious in origin, that there is an elected “we” that exists outside of nature and is superior to it.
Both fertile and poisoned, this is the ground from which Roberson’s poetry emerges and from which it grows. The poems in To See the Earth before the End of the World are grouped under five headings: “Topoi,” “The World, Then,” “Chromatic Sequences”: “Playground and Parks Department Music,” and “Of the Earth.” They zero in on places and events the poet has experienced, where earth and world overlap and collide.
Throughout the book, the poet ponders time passing in terms of deep time, historical time, and the individual’s consciousness of mortality, and considers how they are all connected. The poems are motivated by his belief that “[c]losely observed realities” are the most reliable measure by which one sees oneself “in the brief moment / that we are / of the earth.” Such motivation can lead to an unexpected perception of the differences between races, which the poet (or his alter ego) expresses in the poem “1948: Art and Third Grade”:
Earliest of those purely observed what
I felt only myself see by the third grade
was meat in the butcher shop pig’s feet
the skins looked like my seat partner’s hand
and I felt this sadness for her she was ugly and
she wasn’t supposed to be being white
it was my secret that I could see it
as meat and supposed to be s’pose to be really looked at
Roberson stops at the perception. His refusal to build on it or develop a generalization is one of the hallmarks of his poetry. He doesn’t try to get outside of the perception and possess it, as if it is something that could be used to market a larger view of history.
One subject Roberson returns to is the transition from flying in a plane to walking (“accept what I have to leave / of flight for feet”). At the same time, he can be precise in his awareness of being lost and circumscribed (“We can’t see over the curve, / so horizons / front for the whole beyond, / lessening limit”). Perceptions collide and blur into another (“the glass facets kaleidoscope a rose / window back / of themselves full of the flash petals of grace,”), reminding us that daily life is a matter of constantly focusing, refocusing, sorting, and making choices.
As Roberson moves from word to word, and from line to line, he is always open to turns of perception and thought, replete with interruptions, shifts, hesitations, stutterings, and unstoppable bursts, all of which he scores on the page. He doesn’t deliver his findings so much as enable his thinking and seeing to become ours. A speck adrift in the wake of the cataclysm that gave birth to this universe, he details the signposts he encounters in the labyrinth we call reality. Scientific objectivity and visionary exhilaration are indivisible. Roberson’s poems challenge readers to reorient their relationship to nature, to reinvent themselves and the way they see reality and each other. Rooted in ethics and philosophy as well as a love for scientific data and precise observation, Roberson’s poetic innovations are of the deepest kind.