January 2023
Dee Cohen on Poetry
Dee Cohen

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Giving voice to the land

Alison Hawthorne Deming creates poems that explore the natural world and enlighten readers as to the dangers of global warming and other environmental threats. Her work can be described as ecopoetry, characterized as poems with a strong ecological emphasis. “I’m interested in how poetry can bring emotion, reflection and even ethical regard into the science of climate change. As a poet, I want to have science’s back when it comes to understanding and caring for our gorgeous and beleaguered planet.” Her many books of poetry, essays, and nonfiction cover many interrelated aspects of our relationship with the natural world, from scientific to cultural to political.

Alison’s love of nature started early and  later developed into writing about environmental issues through poetry. “I grew up in rural Connecticut and spent summers in the Canadian Maritimes, so I’ve always been close to nature and astonished at the diminishment of nature by human hands. Poetry has been a way to try to reestablish an intimacy with the natural world and to understand myself as a creature of nature, as a way to heal the wounded relationship between people and nature.” When she moved to Tucson in 1990 to become director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, she confronted markedly different landscapes and the cultural implications of political policies in the area. “I’ve come to love the Sonoran Desert and all the tough critters that survive its intensity. I’ve also come to understand how the desert can be weaponized to serve an inhumane political agenda.”

At UA Alison founded the Field Studies in Writing Program, which brings grad students to the borderlands to write about both social justice and environmental issues. “I’ve led my students to write about the region through this cultural lens as well as through natural history. I love teaching and working with emerging writers honing their skills. They continue to astonish me with their brilliance and bravery. This has been among the most gratifying outcomes of my thirty years of teaching.”

Although Alison also publishes memoir, essays and other writings, she has a special connection to communicating through poetry. “I love the compression and music and intensity of poetry and how it gives form to complex emotions.” Her poems often begin as quick notes, “usually images, language, something that catches up my brain. I make a rough draft, sometimes doing research to make sure I have details right — how does a bird’s wing work? what’s the name of the mountain? what history or science can help me understand what I am seeing?” She also works with scientists to expand her knowledge. “One of my favorite things is to be out in nature with field biologists and learn from them and try to turn their scientific talk into some kind of a song.” Making the leap from idea to finished poem takes time and patience. “I work through many, many drafts, trying to see what the poem wants to be. Intuition is the guide. You cut, revise, cut, revise, add new lines, cut them, revise, until the sense that the poem realizes itself makes you jump up from the chair in joy.”

For Alison poetry is a way to “create something beautiful as counterweight to the moral ugliness that is gaining traction all around us.” She has just completed a new book of poems, The Excavations. She continues to write daily, staying receptive to new ideas and poetic images as they appear. When discussing the creation of the adjacent poem “National Forest,” Alison says, “I came to Sedona for a weekend of hiking, and every single trail was closed due to wildfires. It was a shock and disappointment for me. But I wanted to give voice to the land and what it might experience, to get past my human-centric view and see how language might bridge the human with the land in a way that expressed an ethic of care.”

For more info about Alison, visit alisonhawthornedeming.com.

National Forest

Bell Rock. Courthouse Rock. Devil’s Bridge.

Time has made the land forms

and they grow more beautiful with age.

Names come from the human world,

possession bleeding into perception.

What if the land had its own language?

No alphabet but steady drone

of grasslands, groan of mountains,

drought-fire’s scream — a drawn-out cry,

hiss of rain, simmer of seeds

stirring restless in the soil

pure presence and process

breaking into the place

made new by cataclysm.

That’s the planet speaking

and she cares about the fissures

in the dry river bed, about the lack

of ripe cherries in Washington

and blue crabs in Maryland,

savannah lions down by half.

She cares about the sunrise, dandelions,

and PCBs. She embraces whatever

we give her — blood, bone, rust

become her. She invented us

to do the work the word “care” implies,

invented us to invent words,

the thicket of endless possibilities

so death does not get the last word,

so groan and hiss could be accompanied

by our chatter, dirge, thesis, and psalm.

(First published in About Place Journal)

Dee Cohen is a Prescott poet and photographer. deecohen@cox.net.