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Trophic Cascade

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Poems about birth, death, and ecosystems of nature and power

Winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry (2018)

In this fourth book in a series of award-winning survival narratives, Dungy writes positioned at a fulcrum, bringing a new life into the world even as her elders are passing on. In a time of massive environmental degradation, violence and abuse of power, a world in which we all must survive, these poems resonate within and beyond the scope of the human realms, delicately balancing between conflicting loci of attention. Dwelling between vibrancy and its opposite, Dungy writes in a single poem about a mother, a daughter, Smokin' Joe Frazier, brittle stars, giant boulders, and a dead blue whale. These poems are written in the face of despair to hold an impossible love and a commitment to hope. A readers companion will be availabe at

ISBN-13: 9780819578563

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Publication Date: 11-13-2018

Pages: 92

Product Dimensions: 6.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

CAMILLE DUNGY is the author of Smith Blue, winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize, Suck on the Marrow, winner of the American Book Award, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, and a collection of personal essays, Trophic Cascade. She is editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co editor of From the Fishouse: An anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade. She is a professor of English at Colorado State University.

Read an Excerpt


Natural History

The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once — smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights between California and Virginia I'd wandered into that Oakland museum. Any chance I could, I'd leave my rented house in Lynchburg.
I hated the feeling of stuckness that old city's humidity implied. You need to stop running away so much,
Mrs. Jeffers would say when my visits were over and I leaned down to hug her. Why her words come to me, the woman dead for the better part of this new century, while I think of that nest of web and lichen, I cannot rightly say.
She had once known my mother's parents.
The whole lot of them, even then, in their twenties,
must already have been as old as God. They were black — the kind name for them in those days would have been Negroes — and the daily elections called for between their safety and their sanity must have torn even the strongest of them down.
Mr. Jeffers had been a laborer. The sort, I regret,
I don't remember. He sat on their front porch all day, near his oxygen tank, waving occasionally to passing Buicks and Fords, praising the black walnut that shaded their yard. She would leave the porch sometimes to prepare their meals.
I still have her yeast roll recipe. The best I've ever tried. Mostly, though, the same Virginian breeze that encouraged Thomas Jefferson's tomatoes passed warmly through their porch eaves while we listened to the swing chains, and no one talked or moved too much at all. Little had changed in that house since 1952. I guess it's no surprise they'd come to mind when I think of that cup of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him. I thought her small-minded. In the winter,
I didn't visit very often. Their house was closed up and overheated. Everything smelled of chemical mothballs. She had plastic wrappers on the sofas and chairs. Everyone must have once held someone as old and small and precious as this.

Before the fetus proves viable, a stroll creekside in the High Sierra

It seems every one is silvered, dead,
until we learn to see the living —
beaked males and females clutching their hundred thousand roe —
working muscle, fin, and scale against the great laws of the universe —
current, gravity, obsolescence, and the bears preparing for their torpor, clawing the water for weeks, this rich feed better than any garbage bin — and these still living red ones, who made it past all that,
nuzzling toward a break in the current,
everything about them moving, moving yet hardly moving forward at all.

"still in a state of uncreation"

Little eradicator. Little leaser.
Little loam collector, connoisseur of each vestigial part. Little bundle of nerve. Waste leaker. Pump.
Little lead-in, lean-to, least known,
lucky landing. Bean, being, borne by me. Little consequence.
Little ruckus causer. Unborn.
Little insatiable. Little irrevocable.
Little given. Little feared.
Little living. Little seen. Little dangler. Little delight. Little growing. Little life. Little you.

Ars Poetica: Mercator Projection

Windhoek to Walvis Bay

Pulp the plant and plant it new, that's what termites do. We learned that from books one devoured while the other was driving. From the conferences convened inside the car. We'd come down from the highlands. Come out of acacia trees and into acacia bushes. We taught ourselves to gauge the age of a termite mound by the age of the acacia beside it. We founded a college, which grew into a university, for we had space and time. I watched one colonial town fade from the rearview and then nothing until another whitewashed town wavered in our windows, its petrol station in view a long while. I grew restless with little to do but stitch and re-stich my notions. We had assumed we would hop in the car and arrive there shortly. We hadn't adjusted our perspective yet. We wouldn't adjust our perspective for hundreds of years. I spied with my little eyes: several journeys of giraffe, a congress of baboons, a pride of ostrich (baby ostrich, mama ostrich, ostrich — gray and white and black of feather, gray and white and black of feather, gray and white and black of feather — of an uncertain age), kudu — brown and beige of pelt and antler, brown and beige of pelt and antler — and signs warning kudu jump into the road. Nearly indistinguishable from the bush, all this life lived on before us. We sighted oryx with black noses to draw heat off their brains, an implausibility of wildebeest, a band of mongoose, and several confusions of guinea fowl fowling the road. At first, we felt as close to God as Adam, and as headlong, naming every beast and bird and bush with plastic specificity. I didn't know an eland from a hartebeest, but the naming made them. We felt satisfied until we noticed how far we were past our star's highest hour. We had descended from bushes to succulents. Driven from succulents to little but lichen scattered close to the stony ground. This reminds me of Lubbock, of the scratchy plains outside of Lubbock, one of us noted, though the other was napping by then, head toppled like our top-heavy globe. This reminds me of the moon. It was not long before the gloaming of the first day in the furthest reaches of our dreams, when what we were seeing couldn't be compared to what we had seen. Rising in the distance could have been anything. Could have been fortresses. Could have been oceans. Could have been elephants. Could have been dunes. We were caught somewhere between the compact center of the earth and the earth's exaggerated edges. Trucks drove toward us with long fishing poles lodged in their front fenders. Trucks drove toward us looking like catfish on their way to a cove that was bound to disappoint. I thought I was close to understanding where we really were, but that ceased to be the point a long time ago. One of us passed a strip of dry, salty meat through our own lips. One of us passed a strip of dry, salty meat to the dog. We climbed out of the car inside a grayness and put up our tent in the wind. The sun set before we got the fire started. There were no stars to speak of, only fog and clouds and a long night sky, jackals packed and cackling in the distance, the road ahead of us still.


I will wait for you as cicada wait through winter, their August song harbored in the last thunder clap of the season. I will wait, as I wait through any drought, for the lesson.

I will wait for you as the colloquy waits on polyphony; wait for you as the bunting waits on the berry. I will wait for you,
as I wait through all the hedgerows.
I will wait for the clearing.

I will wait as the tide pool waits. I will wait as the upturned leaf before dawn.
The hangar for its zeppelin. The student for her marks. I will wait. I will wait,
untying lace, for the double binding.

As I wait for the green grandeur of luna moth,
wings once apprehended then gone out of sight, I will wait for you. I will wait as your infant tongue will wait,
unacquainted, for the first taste of cherry.

Ars Poetica: Cove Song

One and two and three: in time,
white birds hum out of the choir of air, while we tend our dark skin
with coconut oil, content to sing a welcome to the high and low tides.

The sky song is a blues the sea comes into on repeated lines. Why, even
the rocks sing, the reeds. This is how we learn what game to lure
into what traps, which scales to seek, which to keep at bay. We've heard
the mess those men have said. That all we do is stand around and chatter.
It drives them mad, our simple acts repeated for the pure pleasure of sound.

We've taught the flowers, high and yellow, how to modulate
their tone. They used to come off sharp and off-beat, but now they blend
right in. The men think themselves industrious. Sword thrusting,
sea sailing: the purposes of their purpose driven lives. It makes them crazy
to think we do nothing more than play the lyre, sing all day. Like a group
of grade school boys trounced in debate,
they plug their ears and turn away.

Only one climbed the lookout to listen. Does he hear? Even
the boulders' jaws are wide,
even the canoe's mouth joins our song.
The cloud is singing softly. Listen now,
her voice will blend with wind, with rain.


I have learned love rests on the odd assortments of petals.

Pick buttercup, pick sweet pea:
You love me. You love me.

Pick snowdrop:
You love me not.

What then shall I make of the four valves in your heart?
The twin seedpods of your ovaries?

You love me not. You cannot love.

I dream of the digits, five on each
of the hands I am hoping to hold.

Your ten toes curl and uncurl through the sea
of my unseeing.

Ars Poetica: Field Trip

They hate this stuff, want them some chicken, she said, tossing bored yard dogs boneless breasts of chicken. We understood what she meant only when the crate had been opened and five de-beaked birds stopped flapping their fleshed and feathered carcasses around the yard, bodies assigned to one pile, heads to another. The dogs drooled, but by then the children's heads were mostly bowed or covered. Sharmaine pulled her little brother's body to her chest. Maybe she was crying, though with her I can never quite tell and Tyrone was sitting all of a sudden, crouching really, and biting his knee to hold back tears. You can't do that, we said, but of course it had already been done, and she couldn't see why not, she'd grown up here, and what was it we'd brought the kids to see? The sterile packages she'd send to market later? In the old days birds fought back, she said, assuming it was the speed of the dispatch that alarmed us. I once gave up a goose what got away 71 times, ran round this damn yard near all afternoon before Old Bo got a grip on her and lost an eye for his trouble. These de-beaked things, they have no fight, she said, her hands slick from tossing expired breasts to distract the dogs, a ruddy feather planted just above her lip. On her signal, Frankie and Will opened another crate and several necks were simply severed. Bo, one eye open, head square on his paws, kept the young ones in their corner. Those dogs, they licked each other's muzzles and their own.

Trophic Cascade

After the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt of the mid century. In their up reach songbirds nested, who scattered seed for underbrush, and in that cover warrened snowshoe hare. Weasel and water shrew returned, also vole, and came soon hawk and falcon, bald eagle, kestrel, and with them hawk shadow, falcon shadow. Eagle shade and kestrel shade haunted newly-berried runnels where mule deer no longer rummaged, cautious as they were, now, of being surprised by wolves. Berries brought bear, while undergrowth and willows, growing now right down to the river, brought beavers,
who dam. Muskrats came to the dams, and tadpoles.
Came, too, the night song of the fathers of tadpoles. With water striders, the dark gray American dipper bobbed in fresh pools of the river, and fish stayed, and the bear, who fished, also culled deer fawns and to their kill scraps came vulture and coyote, long gone in the region until now, and their scat scattered seed, and more trees, brush, and berries grew up along the river that had run straight and so flooded but thus dammed,
compelled to meander, is less prone to overrun. Don't you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

After Birth

The new mothers sleep, always, in their clothes
since all their doors have been opened,

since they learned every room is a part of every other room.

The new mothers are just like the old mothers.

Common as suburban deer, the new mothers see human faces,
human faces, human faces, all these windows,
every garden trampled, every feeder emptied to spite hunger not as lovely as a birds',

and winter coming on.

About time, the new mothers are cooperative.

They measure months by the length of an arm,
the proportion of leg muscle to belly fat.

They will wait several weeks for a minute.

The trees dropped their fruit and all of us
were drawn to it. Was a time, before,
when this field was wide and welcoming.

Every door has been opened. Empty windows,
empty windows, empty windows, now, their wombs.

The new mothers live in the open, pacing the hours.

About dreams, they are like animals,
the new mothers.

Mouths to feed and flanks to warm.

Everything cleared out
and winter coming on.

Frequently Asked Questions: #1

Is she talking yet?

She curses like a scholar.

She says "MMMMMMM ffffffffffffff thhhhthththth"
which roughly translates to, "May your fate be like that of Thebes."

Her look is menacing.

I do her bidding and she retracts her curse
saying, "Ahhhh ahhhh gah wa wa."

I take this to mean, "I am the wise one.
I am the one who will steer you. Well done. Well done."


Excerpted from "Trophic Cascade"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Camille T. Dungy.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


What People are Saying About This

Joy Katz

“This is the work of a feminist whose voice is confident, authoritative—it is a book that does not wonder about or meditate on so much as sing, declare, witness, order, elegize. Dungy’s poems manifest an uneasy self-perception, but—or I should say, and—their source is strength and love. The combination makes Trophic Cascade urgent and necessary.”

From the Publisher

"Earthly and visionary, a soulful reckoning for our twenty-first century, held in focus through echoes of the past and future, but always firmly rooted in now. Each poem is a bridge in the music of a language that we believe and trust, that heals."—Yusef Komunyakaa, author of Pleasure Dome

"This is the work of a feminist whose voice is confident, authoritative—it is a book that does not wonder about or meditate on so much as sing, declare, witness, order, elegize. Dungy's poems manifest an uneasy self-perception, but—or I should say, and—their source is strength and love. The combination makes Trophic Cascade urgent and necessary."—Joy Katz, author of All You Do Is Perceive

"Earthly and visionary, a soulful reckoning for our twenty-first century, held in focus through echoes of the past and future, but always firmly rooted in now. Each poem is a bridge in the music of a language that we believe and trust, that heals."—Yusef Komunyakaa, author of Pleasure Dome

Yusef Komunyakaa

“Earthly and visionary, a soulful reckoning for our twenty-first century, held in focus through echoes of the past and future, but always firmly rooted in now. Each poem is a bridge in the music of a language that we believe and trust, that heals.”

Table of Contents

Natural History
Before the fetus proves viable, a stroll creekside in the High Sierra
"still in a state of uncreation"
Ars Poetica: Mercator Projection
Ars Poetica: Cove Song
Ars Poetica: Field Trip
Trophic Cascade
After Birth
Frequently Asked Questions: #1
Frequently Asked Questions: #2
Ars Poetica after William Carlos Williams
Frequently Asked Questions: #3
Ars Poetica Apocalyptica
Glacial Erratics
Frequently Asked Questions: #4
Frequently Asked Questions: #5
Ars Poetica: After the Dam
Mother daughter hour
Notes on what is always with us
There are these moments of permission
Because it looked hotter that way
Poor Translation
From the First, the Body Was Dirt
Still life
Characteristics of Life
Frequently Asked Questions: #6
One to Watch, and One to Pray
Frequently Asked Questions: #7
Frequently Asked Questions: #8
soldier's girl
What I know I cannot say
Assignment #3: Write About Your Favorite Book
Frequently Asked Questions: #9
Against Nostalgia
Where bushes periodically burn, children fear other children: girls
Frequently Asked Questions: #10
How Great the Gardens When They Thrive
Commute oh my dear ones
Notes and Acknowledgments