Poet Camille Dungy explores the human experience in broad, often ecological terms and focuses on how we treat each other, and come to love each other.
The following is an excerpt from her collection, called “Trophic Cascade.”
2018 Colorado Book Award winner for Poetry
“What I Know I Cannot Say”
We sailed to Angel Island, and for several hours
I did not think of you. When I couldn’t stop myself, finally,
from thinking of you, it was not really you but the trees,
not really the trees but their strange pods, blooming
for a while longer, a bloom more like the fringed fan
at the tip of a peacock’s tail than anything I’d call a flower,
and so I was thinking about flowers and what we value
in a flower more than I was thinking of the island or its trees,
and much more than I was thinking of you. Recursive language
ties us together, linguists say. I am heading down this road.
I am heading down this road despite the caution signs
and the narrow shoulders. I am heading down the curvy road
despite the caution signs and the narrow shoulders
because someone I fell in love with once lived somewhere near. Right there,
that is an example of recursive language. Every language,
nearly every language, in the world demands recursion.
Few things bring us together more than our need to spell out
our intentions, which helps explain the early-20th century
Chinese prisoners who scratched poems into walls on Angel Island,
and why a Polish detainee wrote his mother’s name in 1922. I was here,
they wanted to tell us, and by here they meant the island
and they also meant the world. And by the island, they meant
the world they knew, and they also meant the world they left
and the world they wanted to believe could be theirs, the world they knew
required passwords. Think of the Angel Island Immigration Station as purgatory,
the guide explained. He told tales of paper fathers, picture brides,
the fabrications of familiarity so many lives depended on. Inquiries
demanded consistency despite the complications of interpretation.
In English one would ask: How many windows were in your house
in the village? How many ducks did you keep? What is the shape
of the birthmark on your father’s left cheek? In Japanese, Cantonese,
Danish, Punjabi, the other answered. Then it all had to come back
to English. The ocean is wide and treacherous between one
home and the other. There can be no turning back, no correction
once what is said is said. Who can blame the Chinese detainees
who carved poems deep into the wood on Angel Island’s walls.
Who can blame the Salvadoran who etched his village’s name.
Few things tie us together more than our need to dig up the right words
to justify ourselves. Travelers and students, we sailed into the bay,
disembarked on Angel Island. I didn’t think about you.
Which is to say, the blue gum eucalyptus is considered a threat,
though we brought it across oceans to help us. Desired first for its timber,
because it grows quickly and so was expected to provide a practical fortune,
and when it did not, enlisted as a windbreak, desired still
because it is fast growing and practical, the blue gum has colonized
the California coastal forests, squeezing out native plants, dominating
the landscape, and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate
the blue gum eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing,
by which I mean to say from their pods, you know what I mean
I hope, their original homes, from the well of their longing
blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me?
I absolve you. You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.
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