Jasper Johns, Grey (Hart Crane)

I’m heading to Oregon tomorrow, and I can’t get Bob Kaufman out of my head.

We like to claim Kaufman here in San Francisco, but every time I go to Oregon I think of his spectacularly green poem about the state that sells a heck of a lot of grass (as in turf, people, we’re all on the up and up here) to the rest of the nation.


You are with me Oregon,
Day and night, I feel you, Oregon.
I am Negro. I am Oregon.
Oregon is me, the planet
Oregon, the State Oregon, Oregon.
In the night, you come with bicycle wheels,
Oregon you come
With stars of fire. You come green.
Green eyes, hair, arms,
Head, face, legs, feet, toes
Green, nose green, your
Breast green, your cross
Green, your blood green.
Oregon winds blow around
Oregon. I am green, Oregon.
You are mine, Oregon. I am yours,
Oregon. I live in Oregon.
Oregon lives in me,
Oregon, you come and make
Me into a bird and fly me
To secret places day and night.
The secret places in Oregon,
I am standing on the steps
Of the holy church of Crispus
Attucks St. John the Baptist,
The holy brother of Christ,
I am talking to Lorca. We
Decide the Hart Crane trip, home to Oregon
Heaven flight from Gulf of
Mexico, the bridge is
Crossed, and the florid black found.

- Bob Kaufman, from The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978

It really is green in Oregon, Kaufman was right.  And it’s raining in Oregon I hear (thus all the green), and so I think I’ll have to wear the green sweater Matthew Dickman once gave me only because I told him, repeatedly, that I thought it was a most excellent sweater.  And while I wear the sweater I’ll be thinking about his most excellent poem, “Love”:

We fall in love at weddings and auctions, over glasses
of wine in Italian restaurants where plastic grapes hang
on the lattice, our bodies throb
in the checkout line, the bus stop, at basketball games
and we can’t keep our hands off each other
until we can—
so we turn to rubber masks and handcuffs
falling in love again…..

And because the rest of that poem and so many more of Matthew Dickman’s are so much fun to read perhaps I should take his new book All-American Poem with me on this rainy road trip and fall in love with it all over again.

And in all that rain, in the sweater, thinking about love, I will think about what makes things green again.  What forces blossoms.  I'll want to come through the rain into a new kind of possibility. I'll want to read from Crystal William's third book, Troubled Tongues:

...Oh, let’s say it thus:
what is the use of color
if there is to be only one
sunrise, repeating its
shallow heart over & over?...

from “Boxed, Or When I Consider the African American”

Reading Williams' newest book, even while watching all that glorious green go by, I'll keep mindful of the need for new ways of seeing, new ways of desiring to see the world I've been born into.

And maybe I’ll take one other poet on the road with me too since, when we last talked to Lorca, we (that’s Kaufman and I, in case you’ve lost the thread) decided on the Hart Crane trip. To Oregon.  Which might mean the greyer side.  So perhaps I’ll take Michael McGriff’s grey book Dismantling the Hills.  By grey book I mean the book’s cover is primarily grey.  Unlike the poems in Matthew Dickman’s yellow book (the poems in which yellow book are bright and unabashed, cheerful and blatantly industrious) the poems in Michael McGriff’s grey book, are the quiet sort.  Think of a misty day when the outlines of things are simultaneously gentler and more startling, when sounds are muted but also incredibly clear, when you want to curl up and read something light, but what you find to read, instead, is the news.  That’s what it’s like to wander through a Michael McGriff poem. Here's a sample of the last several stanzas of his long poem, "Coos Bay":

...At the stoplight before the drawbridge
we laugh at the women from the bank
falling out of their heels

over the truck-grooved crosswalk—
the bridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,
buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,

rope-riders and mule bones.
Back home we’ll huddle around
the oil drum burn barrel,

a few weeks of newspapers
and wood scrap, trapped angels under the wire mesh
my father and machinist neighbor

dying of cancer warm their hands over.
The great heave of the Southern Pacific,
sturgeon like river cogs,

barnacle wreckage, cattle-guards.
The last of the daylight,
a broken trellis falling into the bay.

When I think of Oregon I think in color.  I think of Troubled Tongues and Dismantling the Hills along with All-American Poem and The Ancient Rain: a current Oregon resident, two Oregonians, and a San Franciscan who wrote Oregon green.

Decided. Tomorrow: these poems, my love, and the road.  What more could I ask for with all that color to peruse?

Originally Published: May 13th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. May 14, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Oregon is very much a solitudes crowded with loneliness kind of place.

  2. May 15, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Thanks for the Kaufman poem, Camille, what a delicious paean. I think we totally need a new edition of the Collected Kaufman to go with the new Spicer and Adam editions.

  3. May 15, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    Hi Camille,\r

    I also love Kaufman & Portland. The green is the upside of rain and summer is the upside of Oregon. Have a good trip. Thanks for posting the great poem.\r