Camille T. Dungy, editor: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009)

Black Nature expands the horizon of black poetry from the frequently anthologized themes of blues, social commentary, and urban pastoral and demonstrates that black is also green, a theme consonant with the twenty-first century”. – Robert Chrisman, editor-in-chief, The Black Scholar (from the back-cover).

Black Nature features 180 poems by 93 poets, from Phillis Wheatley’s On Imagination from her only volume of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) – and the first ever by any African American poet – to young  poets of the twenty-first century still in the process of publishing their own collections, and divided into ten ‘cycles’ introduced by a prose piece written by an African American poet/writer.

The late Robert Chrisman (1937-2013) gets it right: Black Nature does indeed “expand the horizon of black poetry” with its focus on writings about the natural world, even as ‘nature poetry’ covers a lot of ground, and even if the theme of nature sometimes overlap those other themes of blues, social commentary, and the urban pastoral, as in Lucille Clifton’s poem, printed on page viii (before we even get to the table of contents and Camille T. Dungy’s own introduction):

“surely i am able to write poems/ celebrating grass and how the blue/ in the sky can flow green or red/ and the waters lean against the/ chesapeake shore like a familiar/ poems about nature and landscape/ surely    but whenever i begin/ “trees wave their knotted branches/ and …”    why is there under that poem always/ an other poem?”

Many black writers simply do not look at their environment from the same perspective as Anglo-American writers, as the editor states in her introduction, and so Black Nature gives us occasion to reconsider how we think about and read nature poetry. Other poems of course more closely resemble traditional pastorals.

While not entirely avoiding/trying to avoid well known, often anthologized poem – such as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy (“I know what the caged bird feels …”), or Rita Dove’s Parsley – Camille T. Dungy has found a wealth of material that will be both fresh and new to most readers.  

It is not, as another back-cover reader would have us believe, “the richest and most comprehensive collection of poems by black poets.” For that, it would have to include the poems Robert Chrisman mentions on the “themes of blues, social commentary, and the urban pastoral” and other themes, as well as poems about ‘black nature’.

Here let us still recommend Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton’s The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000), while we wait for Kevin Young, poet and director of NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to finish the Library of America’s ‘definitive’ anthology of African American poetry from the beginnings to the present.