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.