Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often. It is no surprise, then, that the poetry in her collection Trophic Cascade is filled with motion and displacement. Sometimes the displacement is due to travel and adventure, sometimes flight. Even what might seem stable or rooted, like an overflowing collection of Sports Illustrated magazines in the poem ‘Still life,’ is painted as precarious or fleeting. One might call this realism.
The title poem of the collection, ‘Trophic Cascade’ illustrates the power of diversity with joyous urgency. Diversity begets diversity. The simple addition of wolves to Yellowstone National Park creates an explosive development of new life. The park is an environment packed with creatures who depend on each other’s lives and deaths—and feces and architecture, even—not simply for individual survival, but for the continued existence of their species.
If the park is made up of these living beings, and these living beings make up the park, is it possible to differentiate them from each other? The berries need the wolves, and the wolves need the deer, and the deer need the berries. Each creature is Yellowstone, and they are also each other.
Each creature is Yellowstone, and they are also each other.
This concept isn’t only applicable to Yellowstone, of course. The implication is that everything is part of everything. Everything is everything. It’s an old cliché (one I was taught to avoid in a writing class), a potential existential trap. But it’s also an important reminder. Humans can’t be separated from the environments in which they reside, and those environments can’t be separated from the Earth. We are all connected. We are all everything.
Camille illustrates this with straightforward language, almost scientific, but not unfeeling; words like “reintroduced” and “anticipated” sidle up to “haunted,” “fathers,” and “compelled to meander.” She plays no linguistic tricks, letting the facts of the biodiversity deliver their beauty themselves. With the final couplet of ‘Trophic Cascade’, she shatters the pane of glass that falsely separates “humans” and “nature.” The first human to appear in the poem is herself. She mirrors not an individual creature but the park itself, as one completely changed by the introduction of new life.
Under Camille’s gaze, cycles of birth and death, grief and joy, take on their rightful symbiotic brilliance. In poems like ‘Frequently Asked Questions: #4’ motherhood and evolution, feeding and nutrition become erotic subjects. The question is posed at the top of the poem: “Does she have teeth yet? Does she bite you?” The following descriptions of what the speaker’s daughter bites are grounded in what mothers do for their children. They speak for them, they feed them, they offer themselves up to be consumed. What is more erotic than consuming and being consumed, losing oneself to another? “She bites me/and the world gives up/its treasure.” With a new child, the speaker becomes the world—which is to say, everything.
Throughout the collection, Camille simultaneously shows us intimate details of her own life and what we all might lose if we choose not to embrace change.
I read Trophic Cascade with the same joyous urgency with which I describe the title poem, even those poems that are painful. Camille’s treatment of grief and pain is unflinching, and that is what makes it bearable—the blunt recognition of its existence and necessity. The wolves bring biodiversity to Yellowstone by feeding on the deer. Without wolves, the park’s overpopulation of deer kept other important species from thriving. In this sense, death is not a grim reality, but a powerful, even magical force. We should treat it with respect and awe.
Camille’s treatment of grief and pain is unflinching, and that is what makes it bearable…
As I read, a line from her introduction to Black Nature, a poetry anthology which she edited, takes residence in my mind. She quotes bell hooks: “When black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed… When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
Well, takes residence is not quite right. I have been thinking of this line since I read it over three years ago, shortly after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had left the ad-plastered, paved metropolis of Manhattan for something, I hoped, more grounded. Less familiar to the rational, above-the-shoulders mind I’d reluctantly come to rely on, more familiar to the skin on my fingertips and the bottom of my feet. Something recognizable by the flora building its own ecosystems in my gut.
I found it: suddenly I was surrounded by unsettling talk of a sixth extinction, and the unfamiliar but intriguing idea of ecopoetics. Suddenly, I felt the precarity of existence. That we all stand at the edge of survival is not an idea reflected in Wall Street or Times Square. In New York I focused instead on my own, individual survival. Just get through the day, I’d found myself thinking almost every day.
I underlined the bell hooks quote, flagged the page, photographed it and sent it out across the country. Finally, I felt, someone has given me permission, and not only permission, but reason, and not only reason, but necessity, to believe in magic again! I could suddenly frame the recognition of magic, the commitment to observing it daily, and the refusal to let it go as radical acts. How else could I subvert the forces of capitalism that wanted me to believe, instead, in them?
Camille’s poetry suggests that magic exists in every particle of matter, including our own. These poems recognize the sacred in everyday life, point out the magic in medicine and mothering, the life in death, the joy in responsibility to our families and to our ecologies. Trophic Cascade is an example of subversion through the creation and acknowledgement of beauty. It is radicalism through observation, through breathing in this world.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (10/26/22) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Camille’s biography and poetry on Poetry Foundation.
Order Trophic Cascade from Bookshop.org.
Read bell hooks’ biography and poetry on Poetry Foundation.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: River valley captured in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming USA. Photo by Austin Farrington on Unsplash.