Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tracy Zeman on "Grass for Bone"

Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s concept “biophilia” roughly means a natural or genetic affinity between human beings and other living systems resulting from the co-evolution of “us” with “other.” Wilson claims that “the unique operations of the brain are the result of natural selection operating through the filter of culture. They have suspended us between the two antipodal ideals of nature and machine, forest and city, the natural and artifactual.” “Grass for Bone” originated from these ideas and the inherent inseparability of human, land and culture—“stream carves into gully into dusk into / bodies boiled in lye then scraped clean / turning bones into rusted machinery / a stand of pale orchids no longer.”

Throughout the series three primary motifs overlap and meld into and out of one another: grass, burial, and animal. I grew up and still live in an area that once was prairie and, until recently, knew almost nothing about it. After reading about the North American grasslands (see a swath of land beginning just east of the Mississippi river and extending to the Rocky Mountains), and its fragmented history, I began to see how the grasslands are a place of origins. Many European settlers from forested lands, however, saw the American grassland as a vast nothingness, a sea of land with only a lone bur oak occasionally breaking the horizon. The grassland’s history is one of beauty, violence and change, of displaced peoples and animals, and environmental degradation.

In the series I often juxtapose grassland images with human burial rituals, as in:

water clinging to bluestem
grass clinging to wind & sun
an “ache in the bone” a litany in negative
we stand at the river’s edge to watch
the fish swallow what’s left
of you this keno a bathing place
for the after & the rest also

Burial practices coinciding with grass and animal images tie death to land. Historically, environmental conditions influenced methods of body disposal. At times in the series, a specific “you” is buried or mourned. This “you” surfaces now and again throughout the poems, making the sequence part-elegy. Lost landscape, lost practice, lost person.

Birds, wolves, and bison, animals both extant and extinct are scattered throughout the lines as sound, or track, or bone: “define the treeline we share / with the rest carrion cardinal compass-flower / bringing a way of being with / not against.” I try to illustrate how we share and do not share our world, a world increasingly crowded, degraded, and warming. Aside from the more serious concerns, I also love playing with the language of this landscape and the beautiful vocabulary that grew from it, “bath of sedges,” “wild plum or peach leaf willow,” “copse of false / Solomon’s seal.”

Formally, I take Lorine Niedecker’s “condensary” to heart to tell this story of fragmentation in a fragmented, condensed form, with associative half-sentences and collaged half-stories. Moving through a text of broken narratives is different than reading a strictly narrative text; however, the same questions one would ask of any text are still relevant. Where and how do the images shift? What meaning is created by their juxtaposition? What is happening with sound and line? For instance, in the second section a sparrow in a minor place bumps up against a sewn sieve of redbud leaves, which is followed by the image of a noose and hoof-prints and a railroad. To me this is a stanza that explores marginalization. The field sparrow is declining due to a changing and fragmented habitat; i.e., the sparrow is only allowed a minor place. Railways are places where a number of prairie plants have been preserved but only in narrow strips. And death can be a form of marginalization, both for the dead and the bereaved.

Finally, a few of the voices and influences in the poems are Erik Seeman’s Death in the New World, Richard Manning’s Grassland, Emily Dickinson, Agnes Denes’ The Human Argument, and Joanna Newsom’s album Have One on Me.


  1. Hi Tracy,

    I wonder if you can talk about what you think is the writer’s responsibility to the current 
state of our environment. Are your formal proclivities related to that responsibility (or lack thereof, don't want to assume) in any way?

  2. I really enjoyed reading your poem Tracy! I'm sure I'll be thinking of it when I sit on my porch tonight and enjoy my native grasses and flowers!

  3. In what ways do you see fragmentation of narrative, line and image affecting a reader of your work? In what ways do you think readers find entry to your sequence, and in what ways do you think they find resistance?

  4. Hi Renee,

    That’s a tough question. I think everyone has a responsibility to the current state of our environment, particularly those of us in the western world, and especially since many governments are moving extremely slowly regarding environmental change. It seems as though the environment is and will increasingly be at the forefront of 21st century thinking, writing and art. Also, in the last few decades of literary scholarship there seems to have been a shift from “nature writing” to “environmental writing,” and “environmental writing” is broader and more dynamic than nature writing ever was. For example Betsy Andrew’s New Jersey is not frequently beautiful or in celebration of nature but clearly describes and grapples with a specific environment in a way that is real, current, and relevant to the lives that many of us live. I think it’s exciting to watch this new kind of environmental writing emerge.

    I’m not sure if my use of form is related to an obligation to write about the environment but my use of form is definitely related to how I perceive (and maybe others) the environment, i.e. fragmented, imperiled, beautiful, etc. I could argue as well that the form might also represent our relationship to nature in our evolving world using the same examples as above. I tried to approach this material in many ways, and in fact started out building poems with complete and syntactically correct sentences. Somehow that didn’t seem to work. This form seemed to suit the material and allows me play with so many alternate meanings in the lines and to constantly complicate the content.

  5. Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for your question. I think for some readers the fragmentation could certainly be frustrating. Many readers likely desire to find or create a story, something they can follow when they read a text. That’s something I often desire in a text as well. My poem doesn’t exactly invite such a straightforward reading. On the other hand, the form also allows the reader a lot of room to think and move around the text. I would hope that a reader would ask, how does this form relate to the content of the poem, and then in trying to answer that question maybe some interesting ideas would arise. I think the form might force a reader to move through the images and language slowly, line by line, a practice that could coax the images into more of a complete picture.

    Readers can find entry into the poems through engaging in the kind of reading I describe above. My aim is to create themes, present ideas, and ask questions, rather than to explain a precise moment, some exact thing I’d like a reader to take away. The lack of sentences and use of spacing and line probably resists readers and resists interpretation. I find these subjects complex and found this use of space and line the best way to discuss them. The tallgrass prairie was never fully surveyed, studied or understood before being plowed under; grief is an enigmatic and strange process. This form was also a method for me to constantly blend and blur these subjects together, something that would be less possible in a more narrative form. That blending and blurring is intentional and frustrates a single reading.

  6. Tracy,

    I greatly enjoyed reading and then your reading of "Grass for Bone." The imagery you paint is wonderful. While you reference specific dichotomies and the intertwined nature of people, their customs, and geography as the origination of "Grass for Bone," did any personal experience with nature or death play more than a minor role in your development and writing of this fantastic poem?

  7. Your writing presents a beautiful shifting of scene and sense. So many details of life both present and past gifted to us by the land through which we pass. Things so often missed in our rush to get from here to there. Thank you for the reminder to stop and smell the breeze, feel the air in which we stand and see with more than just our eyes.

  8. Dear Andy,

    Thank you for your comments and questions. Yes, personal experiences certainly influenced the construction of this poem. Or better yet, my experiences led me to research certain subjects that became the main themes in the series. Moving to Central Illinois three years (I used to live in Chicago) helped to spark my interest in the prairie and its flora and fauna. My mother-in-law is somewhat of a local plant expert, and once she realized I was interested she began to buy me books about native vegetation and take me to see these plants (many of which are in her own garden). I taught in the Honors Program at University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) for three years. UIS has three acres of restored tallgrass prairie. Every fall we took our students on a prairie field trip, and later in the semester they were required to write a project about an environmental issue affecting a local place. Many chose to write about the prairie and its decline. All of these factors triggered my interest in the prairie ecosystem. Once I started researching the prairie I was taken by how little is still known about it, and how it is and has been a sort of marginalized landscape.

    My interest in death and burial began shortly after my father’s sudden death seven years ago. I read a book called The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, which traces the history of human burial: when/where it began and why. I was totally fascinated! I started to read widely about deathways and eschatology and was captivated by the similarities and differences across cultures and historical periods. It took some time for me to see how the two issues, deathways and specific environments, were related. Their interrelatedness was not apparent to me until I began to combine the topics in the poems I was writing.

  9. I enjoyed listening to the recording of your poem; it's interesting to experience the interplay of line, sentence/syntax, and voice. What are your strategies for reading your poems out loud? Is this remaining element of poetry's history as an oral art form important to you?

  10. Hi Lisa,

    I’m glad you enjoyed listening to the poem, and thank you for your question. My strategy when reading the series out loud is to pause briefly when there is white space between phrases. And yes, the oral aspect of poetry is very important to me. During revision I read the poem aloud many times to determine where I want to make changes, how phrases and words are bouncing off of one another and what surprising relationships are created in the process. (Sometimes the surprises are welcome and sometimes not.) One reason I chose not to use punctuation in the series is to capitalize on the interplay between images, phrases and lines. I think the play between these elements becomes very apparent when the poem is heard aloud. Hopefully, the result adds complexity and meaning to the poem rather than haphazard ambiguity. I have always enjoyed reading poems (other writers’ poems) aloud because I think hearing the interaction of the words adds another layer to the meaning of the text.

  11. I enjoy the wide variety of animals you describe in your poem, but I noticed that they are not all native to the grasslands of North America. Is there any geographical significance to the animals you write about in this poem? If not, how did you choose them? Of course, there is never a need to explain why you wrote about peccaries. They are great!

  12. Thank you for your question. Most of the animals are native to the North American grasslands; however in a few sections, primarily sections 4 and 6, I include animals from other parts of the world. In section 4, the screaming piha and white-lipped peccaries are native to parts of the South American rain forest. In section 6, the stanza begins “Arabian ostrich Atitlan grebe / black-faced honeycreeper;” all are birds that became extinct in the 20th century. The black-faced honeycreeper, endemic to Hawaii is still listed as critically endangered, but only two individuals were known to exist in 2004. Similarly the California condor appears in section 9, and as most people know, was on the verge of extinction in the 20th century. Even now there are only about 300 birds in existence.

    In each case that a non-North American animal is referenced it’s because either the animal or ecosystem in which that animal exists is under threat or in the case of the animals, extinct. The reasons are typical: habitat loss, invasive species, etc. Many of these issues plague the grasslands as well. I find extinction and human-altered landscapes complex and disturbing and believe they are issues that will plaque us in the 21st century.