Everywhere is Archipelago


Everywhere is Archipelago

Program Note

My friend, Terri Eckel, commissioned me back in 2021 to set poetry by her favorite poet, Margaret Gibson, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate. I completed this set in March of 2022. As a student of John Luther Adams her poetry reminded me of his environmental activism. Gibson’s words celebrate natures serenity, sublimity, and absurdity, and in these stirring studies, she reminds us of our duty as guardians. I found the poetry both intensely beautiful and challenging. While getting to know this text, I had to research landforms, plant species, and famous physicists, but through the cerebral text I could always feel Gibson’s singing poetic voice, guiding me to the final double-bar. I like to think that when one sings this cycle they become the celebrant to an environmental liturgy in the cathedral of our natural world.


From the Very First, Not a Thing Is

Seen at a distance, at dusk in the glade

near the pond, two forms…

Two forms. Rounded. Bulky. Smooth

as a haunch of stone.

Why have I never before, by daylight, seen them

there in the lonely forest?

One of the boulders

raises its head from the ground this afternoon’s

light confirmed was a pied scatter, leaves

yellow and red over

tufts of newly sown grass, a fine silk green.

I lift my head in reply,

then continue to graze,

with them, the smell of the damp earth raw and comforting,

no sound but the ripping out of the earth

winter rye, like a seam

ripped, or a hem, let out because the child

has grown taller.

It is a moment as far away as my mother’s hand

Dipping into her sewing basket

for a thread, a moment whose over and under stitching

is as close as the lush steppes

of Asia, rippling lightly, just under

the shadowed sleeve of my loosely worn coat.


Because a red gash of it becomes poppies and dame’s rocket

Because it shields the dead as they undress

Because along the rim of the cattail pond, rain softens it

Because it is a rainbow, embedded

Because it is the basso continuo of pussytoes, earthworms, nomads and wheat

Because the exposed root of the oak tree rumples it,

               and deer and fox and wood thrush write on it with different feet

Because it erases the wheel that ruts it, the plow that seams it open

Because an old woman, removed from her homeland, carries it with her–

               a fistful of earth

in a mason jar whose blue-tinted glass becomes a hologram of sky around

               the dust of her ancestors

Because into rain-softened mud a child has pressed her bare feet and learned

               the weight of her presence

Because more than one woman has bedded her man, saying, “I am good soil

               for marriage…”

Because dirt is a greater philosopher than Plato– for whom the distant edge

               of the field along a skyline was

merely the shadow of a more luminous line on which the mind might compose

               strophic measures

Because I cannot step out of my body and must walk the field, each inch,

               as it changes to woodland and ridge

               mountain and the slow erosion of mountains into the plain

Because I must walk the milky way of the prairie at night and feel its surge

               and flow change to gumbo and gully, arroyo

scour hole, fell-field, and meadow–

I praise the dirt: storehouse, grantor of ground and horizon, not the Source,

               but its guardian

Beneath gender and hierarchy, beneath any division of labor, it continues,

              despite our nooks and walls, boundaries and treaties

It is what gives and receives, outlasts us, and is.


The owl belongs to Athene, the coyote to no one.

Not to the winter belly of the dark,

in which I hear the one and many voices of coyote

lift and circle. Not even to the moon.

When I want to join in,

                                        I open the kitchen door

and yip a little. How the woods fall silent then!

Not until the door clicks shut and I stand there

as if in a trance, listening, do they begin again.

Are they afraid of me? Or does my interruption

of their litanies constitute plain rudeness?

Who does she think she is?

                                                 But it’s the intimate

swirl, those high-pitched, rapturous interrogatives,

cries that lift out of a dark too deep for words–

it’s the tongue that flicks the hollow of my throat,

just here

                along the branching collarbone…

that’s the song that belongs to no one.

You know who you are. This is your song, too.


Global Warming
Even so, it’s a cold spring

I unroll the map of the watershed, and my fingers trace the blue

                threads of the rivers

as I’d touch the veins on your throat

You chant kalmia latifolia    pinus silvestris   geum odoratissimum

as if you might travel once more the fresh land of the Choctaw

                 and the Creek,

as if the hooves of your horse, like Bartram’s, might splash red

                with the juice of the trampled berries

We fill the gas tank, chart the wobble of the earth, its tilt,

                 the shape of its orbit

The words we taste– Milankovich, albedo– melt on my tongue

                  like the Greenland ice sheet

Hear the beat of the drum? That’s my heart.

Come now let us reason together

Because the honeycreeper

Because a bag of bones on a museum shelf in Mauritius 

Because clouds thicken like swam gas in the marshlands

Because the fetus will not ripen

Because the relict trillium, and the tanager, and the wren

Because the solar flare of blackflies on your skin

Because the kestrel

Because peach orchard is a memory of mildew, ash blue

Because the fetus will not ripen

Because earth everywhere is archipelago

Because we taste the words. Because we taste the words

     and they stick in our throats.