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Promise of a New Day

Here: Poems for the Planet (Copper Canyon Press), the contemporary, international eco-poetry anthology I’ve edited, bookended by a foreword from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a guide to activism by the Union of Concerned Scientists, grew out of my despair at the results of the 2016 presidential election. It grew out of my determination not to let hopelessness rule my life, out of an almost constitutional determination for which I thank my parents, and my educators, including Swarthmore College, my alma mater. Here grew out of my background as a public interest lawyer, an environmental advocate, and a poet. And finally it grew out of my love for my four young grandchildren and my concern for their future.

As I began to envision Here, I wanted to create something that inspired people and triggered hope, which could create space for action. A number of years ago, I saw a brilliant presentation on climate change by a word-famous environmental advocate. As compelling as the information presented was, it filled me with despair, and a kind of torpor. When I decided to create Here, I decided my blueprint would be one of realistic optimism, that could win people over and spur them to action. As a public interest attorney, I have learned to speak to people’s hearts, not just their minds, and, as a poet, I’ve come to believe poetry can inspire action in a way that facts do not.

Now, human life on planet Earth is threatened, and this calls for our best selves. Besides mourning what is lost, besides anger at what our government and some corporations are doing to the world future generations will inherit, this moment calls for action.

It’s bewildering why we are not doing more to address unprecedented and accelerating climate change that threatens marginalized communities, and the very existence of human life on this planet, and how we’ve let so many magnificent animals become extinct. Virtually every religious tradition sees the earth and its creatures as sacred, and this is our “common home,” as Pope Francis said. We’re all responsible for Earth’s stewardship, as it protects and gives life to us. There is so much to be done to create a better and more just world—such as addressing discrimination and bias, as well as economic inequality—but all of this and everything else requires a livable earth.

Sometimes I worry it’s too late, and that future generations will inherit an earth without moths crowding around lights at the door in summer, one without bees buzzing around flowers, one without clear seasons—spring, summer, winter, fall—I could count on as a child. But in those times, I think of my friend who was told her son had a brain tumor and couldn’t be saved. My friend found the most prominent doctor in the field and set out to have her child treated far from home. Thirty years later, that little boy has children of his own.

Just as my friend acknowledged a hopeful outcome for her son was not assured, we must recognize that the Earth is facing multiple dire threats, some would say irreversible ones.

Nonetheless, even if we are like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder uphill over and over, still it is better than sitting at the bottom with our heads in our hands. As a poverty lawyer, I kept fighting for my clients to save their homes from foreclosure, in the face of the longest odds. Now as a lawyer and poet, I believe poetry can unlock the kind of hope and courage my friend displayed for her son.

Percy Bysshe Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as they help us tap into our imaginations, our sense of what’s right, our connection to the world around us. Or as poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “[P]oetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

I hope Here: Poems for the Planet will help readers appreciate with fresh eyes what the first astronauts saw when they looked down from space at our tiny world. I hope this will galvanize them to address our environmental crisis head on, with enthusiasm and without the fear that generates indifference. Here’s goal is to reach those already engaged, and those sitting on the sidelines, in a new and inspiring way.

Poets in Here remind us to see, hear, sense, and appreciate as if for the first time our “peaceful, living earth,” as Valdemar A. Logmansbo puts it.

They bring to life the environmental peril earth and its creatures face, the “mutilated world” Adam Zagajewski describes. Here invites us to mourn, as Paul Guest does, “the polar bear drifting out of history on a wedge of melting ice.” Ann Waldman asks, “Will we fail to save our world?”

In the second half of Here, the arc circles back toward the possibility of hope, with poems by the young people who are counting on us, and on whom we’re counting, like 15-year-old Lauryn Brown, who admonishes us adults, “Nature has a voice if only you’d listen.” Poet Wendy Videlock asks us to walk our planet “like you are new to the world.” Vivee Francis speaks to the power of poetry:

.........How a single word

can set the world turning from one moment into the next in startlement.


It is my hope Here will leave readers moved, charmed, surprised, and ready to act, regardless of where they live, regardless of whether they generally turn to poetry, and regardless of political affiliation. Here seeks, as Cecil Rajendra imagines, to:


the carapace of indifference

prise open torpid eyelids

thick-coated with silver.

and encourage us to care for our earth the way we care for our children, our families, and all that we hold dear.

The poets in Here come from many nations and ethnic backgrounds, and their poems sit side by side, reminding us of the beauty of the earth, and that threats to our planet affect us all. No matter our culture, no matter where we live, no matter our socio-economic status or political party, we’re all in this together.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Guide to Activism enumerates actions that require minimal or a modicum of effort, and those that are more challenging. Even a small change by everyone touched by this anthology can influence other people and have an effect on our world. We’re skipping a stone into the sea, with the hope that it will keep rippling outward, to help protect planet Earth for our children, and our children’s children.

In this, we are far from alone. People everywhere are studying and learning what actions will be most effective to prevent the worst effects of climate change, from individual and communal to corporate and governmental. People all over the world are mobilizing. Hundreds of thousands in the U.S. attended the 2017 and 2014 People’s Climate Marches in Washington, D.C., and in New York City, and millions more marched around the globe. As of this moment, 187 countries and the European Union have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate. Although the United States government announced its intention to withdraw from the Agreement, many of our cities and states have pledged to carry its commitments forward. People on every continent are addressing climate issues with passion and a sense of urgency. In this spirit, all royalties from Here will be donated to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

When my children tell me how hopeless they feel about climate change, I remind them of what so many have said that it’s become a cliché: that it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. What’s exciting about this moment is that so many millions of candles are being lit every day all over the world.

Editing this anthology has given me hope. The poems I’ve read are so inspiring, the actions people taking so successful, that I no longer feel despair, but hope, like a crocus shooting up from the ground reliably at the beginning of every April.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama said it far better than I ever can:

Here: Poems for the Planet contains many beautiful, generous poems and ideas for action. It is my heartfelt hope that they will inspire readers who ask themselves, ‘But what can I do?’ to see that there is a way forward—learning to share the earth and its resources, while taking care of it together.

On a Saturday in the Anthropocene,

as I walk in the light of a two-rivered island
to my post office, I mourn

the last typewriter repair shop
in New York going out of business;

mourn that this moves us further
from letters, from connection,

from writing home.
I mourn that it’s so warm

monk parrots nest in Sheepshead bay,
lovely as that sight is, mourn

what we’ve done to birds:
For 150 million years they saw

their reflections only in the sea.
Then I notice a fire escape

on a two-century-old building
casting a soft shadow; I see wheels

on a bicycle that, like meditation,
seem to slow time. I remember gorillas

stay up all night to groom their dead,
and reading about a woman in Ohio

who gave every building in town
a new coat of paint after she was laid off.

At my post office, endangered too,
I avoid the self-service kiosks, wait in line

for a human. A clerk waves me over
with her smile, asks where I’ve been.

She tells me about a cruise she’s taken
with her mother, describes the buffets,

the turquoise of the ship’s pool.
Now I’m smiling too. What’s your name?

I’ve been meaning to ask for ages.
Grace, she says, I thought you knew.

—Elizabeth J. Coleman, Here: Poems for the Planet