About the author:
Emilie Hellman is a 2nd-year Liberal Arts student with an all-francophone background. Her main pastimes are drinking chai lattes, procrastinating on homework while working on a side project and napping. She is part of S.P.A.C.E as an editor and the Dawson Theater Collective as an assistant stage manager. Her career goal is to be a stage manager for the Cirque du Soleil or any festival in Montreal. Her current fixations are her black cat named Sir Wilfrid and her desire to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She also has an unhealthy obsession with cheese.
Review of Camille T. Dungy’s “Trophic Cascade”: A Fragile Balance
For Poetry with Prof. Susan Elmslie
Camille T. Dungy’s “Trophic Cascade” is a free-verse poem consisting of thirty-one enjambed lines relating the speaker’s experience of becoming a mother. She compares this milestone in her life with the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Through her use of fertile denotative and connotative language as well as comparative imagery conveyed through metaphor and simile, Dungy suggests that the resemblance between the re-birth of an ecosystem and giving birth to another human being is considerable. Nature and humanity are intimately connected and interdependent; the speaker advocates the importance of treating nature like one would treat a fragile newborn.
Firstly, the most apparent feature of the poem is its extensive vocabulary relating to nature. There are eighteen fauna species mentioned throughout the text and various references to vegetation and organic landscapes. This lexicon is generally associated not with humanity, but with wilderness description, which seems to be the central focus of the poem until near the very end. Only in the last few lines does the reader realize that Dungy is, in fact, skillfully personifying a whole ecosystem. The speaker is a new mother who makes it very clear that she considers Yellowstone to be an organic whole just like her, capable of birthing “all this / life […]” (ll. 27-8). This attribution of human characteristics to the long account of this environmental rejuvenation makes the connection between nature’s rejuvenation and childbirth much more vivid since the two are depicted as containers of all this fresh growth. The poem’s ending subverts expectations because such a scientific and objective description does not usually conclude with a short, emotional and subjective implication, but without such a closure the poem would have a completely different connotation. This juxtaposition reinforces the speaker’s perception of nature and progeny; as much as they can appear to be very distinct things, they require unity to properly function. The poem can be considered a kind of list, which creates a build-up for the reader who wants to know what the quick succession of wilderness terms is going to lead to. This choice of structure makes the resemblance explained in the conclusion have a bigger impact than if it was in another format. Another dramatic effect is created by the repetition of the names of the species in the lines seven to eleven. This recurrence emphasizes the omnipresence of these animals and suggests that they cannot be ignored just as any new life form that suddenly appears in your life, such as a child, cannot be overlooked either.
Secondly, the names of specific elements of nature mean that the reader could focus on their denotation; however, many of them have a connotation that stresses the importance of the wilderness. The title itself contains an element that hints at the poem’s parallel because, in the study of animals and other living organisms “trophic” is attributed to the “relationships between species in a food chain or web” (Anderson). This definition also has a connotative suggestion because “Trophic Cascade” is a narrative of how every single creature is intrinsically linked to others, whether they have consciousness or not, which further highlights how humans are also closely connected to nature and how the co-existence of both is crucial. Furthermore, the use of alliteration throughout the poem appeal to the reader’s sight and once again points out the similarities between the environment and the circle of life. Notably, the lines “[…] songbirds nested, who scattered / seed […]” (ll. 5-6) and “[…] their scat scattered seed […]” (l.23) are very similar to one another and are laden with hidden messages. Both refer to seed that will eventually produce new plants, which will sustain more animals and so on. Seed has a strong connotation to sperm, a mandatory ingredient for the creation of life in animals and humans, accentuating the link between fertility and nature.
Finally, even if the significance of most of the poem’s diction seems focused on the denotation of the words, lines 26 to 31 use strong similes that transform the whole text into one vast metaphor. The speaker introduces her monologue with “[…] the reintroduction of gray wolves / to Yellowstone […]” (ll. 1-2) and later she explains that pregnancy was like she had “reintroduced [herself] to [herself]” (l. 30). Both are instances of a new beginning where diversity and habit exist side-by-side. In addition, Yellowstone’s survival depends on the viability of wolves, which were reintroduced by humans, while the introduction of a new life depends on a woman being “one hungry animal” (l. 28). Dungy implies that the new mother is a wolf eager to create an individual whose first breath relies on the vitality of its predecessor. The speaker is like the wolf whose existence changes a whole ecological community in the sense that her pregnancy modified her “landscape” (l. 29) and that “the course of the river changed” (l. 29), metaphorically speaking. These metaphors imply that her body, her habits and the way things happened to her were transformed by the new being that was introduced in her own ecosystem. When the carnivorous animals were brought back to the National Park, a revolution happened in nature. For the speaker, “[…] nothing was ever the same” (l. 31) once she became a mother. Both the park and she had to adjust to a major new element brought into their lives to find once again the previous symbiosis they possessed. The freelance writer Porscha Simmons summarizes the various similes when she writes in her online article: “Dungy ties together our shared ecosystems with our internal struggles and journeys and life experiences in a way that opens new worlds of self knowledge […]”.
In summary, “Trophic Cascade” by Camille T. Dungy is a wonder of nature poetry that uses various literature and poetry techniques to relate the life-changing experience of motherhood to the reinvention of an ecosystem and how both must exist in harmony to protect each other’s fragility. Dungy also cleverly challenges the patriarchal notion of the superiority of male toughness by showing that a woman is as powerful as nature itself, as competent for growth as a revived ecosystem, and able to accomplish as much as a famished carnivore.
Anderson, Scott Edward. “National Poetry Month 2018, Week Two: Camille Dungy’s ‘Trophic Cascade’”. Scott Edward Anderson’s Poetry Blog, 14 April 2018, https://seapoetry.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/national-poetry-month-2018-week-two-camille-dungys-trophic-cascade/
Simmons, Porscha. “A Review of Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, by Porscha Simmons”. ANMLY, A Medium Corporation, 4 September 2018, https://medium.com/anomalyblog/an-ecosystem-of-interwoven-wonder-f6f08fa4906