Commusings: Poem Forest by Jacqueline Suskin

Jul 14, 2023

Dear Commune Community,

Seven years ago, after a quarter century as a denizen of Gotham, I transplanted to Los Angeles. The City of Angels offered a new beginning with its sandy beaches, mountain trails and ceaseless sun drench. But had I traded warm climes for vacuity?

The very first week, I wandered down to the sprawling Hollywood Farmers Market, which boasted a surfeit of fresh, multichromatic veggies even in the depths of February. Adjacent to Jack Bezian’s sourdough kiosk, an elfin poet was posted up with a mechanical typewriter. The scene felt vaguely reminiscent of my forsaken Brooklyn. She pecked at letters, improvising verse like a jazz pianist, shadowy and inscrutable against the sunny glare, a black fly in my Chardonnay – in the best Alanis kind of way.

I queued up for a poem and Jacqueline Suskin delivered something fittingly perverse. We became friendly and eventually she taught a wonderful poetry course for Commune.

The revolving door of Los Angeles rotated Jacqueline out as it welcomed me in. She absconded for woodsier environs. I can imagine a similar path, immersing myself in the leisurely rhythms of Nature and moving with her pace.

Recently, I saw a wee seedling sprouting out of an old tennis ball. We may be doomed – but she presses on. Nature is somewhere we can put our faith, not as belief in absence of evidence, but as trust in her eternal reliability. She promises a spring with every winter, and never disappoints.

I love reading Jacqueline’s work. My grip on life slackens and I linger languorously on her turns. I hope you find the same ease.

Here at [email protected] and quasi-senescent on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

Poem Forest by Jacqueline Suskin

 I fell in love with the earth when I was still a baby. Born in Michigan, attuned to the very obvious four seasons, I grew up with this earthly rhythm built into my being. Throughout my career as a poet and educator, the earth has always been my guidepost. Our planet is the place I like to take my readers and it’s the main thing I’m trying to get us all to remember through descriptive verse.

I spent over a decade learning the landscapes of California and recently moved back to my birthplace for a new chapter of life. In Detroit, I find myself relearning the plants, animals, and lakes—young again in my earnest discovery of catkin, bark identification, and pheasant call. In this newness, I find my creative work taking on a different shape as well.

• • •

How I Fell in Love with the Earth

I don’t remember being born,
but I did choose to come here.
A master in the dark,
my burning light.
I shot forth, hungry
for the ground and body.
I memorized my first moment of awe.
Standing above an overturned flagstone,
I stared at long nightcrawlers
worming in black soil. Inhaling
each color, mesmerized by the chance
that brought these pink lengths to life.
Their tenderness against
a thick crust that welcomed
them into fissures, into fine versions
of string sucked toward the core,
roaming blind, becoming and becoming.
Everything else was unlit space,
green grass moving in the void.
What perfection to break my heart.

-from Help in the Dark Season

• • •

For twelve years, I focused on my project Poem Store, writing spontaneous verse for patrons in public spaces, lugging my typewriter around, asking people to name a subject and a price in exchange for a unique poem.

I watched as listeners cried and transformed in response to this improvisational writing, these channeled pieces that seemed to hold their secrets and deepest emotions. Now, I’m focused on Poem Forest, a project that lives in the realm of education and allows me to go into schools around the city where I teach nature poetry and witness students express their ideas about the natural world.

At the end of our five weeks together, their Poem Forest starts to take shape as they read their writings aloud and plant trees together. InsideOut Literary Arts, a renowned creative writing organization, supports my curriculum and places me in urban classrooms. It seems like an obvious transition to me, from store to forest, the magic of poetry teaching me where and how to offer up my earth-loving attention. My aim is the same as it was with Poem Store: if I can get people to remember who they are, that they are the earth itself, perhaps they’ll treat it better.

Connecting to the earth can be complicated for people in urban spaces, especially here in Detroit. What looks like a rural landscape to an outsider, fields full of blooming sweet peas and towering sycamores, is actually a stretch of lots that used to be houses full of rich human life.

How do we lean into loving the natural world when it touches our grief? When you’re someone who is historically excluded from the land, how can your oppression blend with your awe?

Poetry helps create this bridge. Poetry holds the grief and celebration all at once, letting people express the strangeness of their longing, the mistakes and harm they’ve witnessed, all while loving the beauty of the earth that grows around remnants of the past. There is a justice in this space where writers safely reveal their concerns and joys when it comes to nature.

I’m here to remind us that there is no nature without us. Watching as students connect with the bigger picture, as they remember their breath in exchange with the trees, and the way the seasons affect everything around them, is a lesson for me as well. We all need help remembering.

• • •

There is No Nature Without You

How we disregard the sycamore,
the oak, the elm and the maple,
is synonymous with the way we
forget each other. Remember,
there is no nature without you.
So if seeds scorch, if soil and rain turn poison,
how can we envision future growth?
Hollow is the land without our helping hands.
Hands harnessed in hustle, clasping steering wheels,
phones and foreheads, asking why and what and who
is always trying to cut us down?
Trunks weathered and whipped by wind, branches
hung with a history of darkness, cracked
by the frigid neglect that rides with greed.
An unholy thirst shook this urban space,
made it rural-like, cut open and cited as blank property—
an empty place that couldn’t be anyone’s home.
We know nothing new arrives
without the inherent pause for germination,
or without our howling demand for shade,
and our oldest need to be renewed
by color, by every hue of green.

• • • 

My forthcoming book, A Year in Practice, continues to support this collective remembrance. This book illuminates some of the ways each season requires us to pay attention, showing us actions to perform and practices that fit the cyclical dispositions. Each chapter asks us to remember that we are gifted with a time to begin, a time to ponder, and a time to recharge.

As we strive to construct a different future and shift climate change, we need our creative magic to reach as widely as possible. Instead of reinventing the wheel and struggling to find a rhythm that enables such potent imagining, I turn to the four seasons for guidance. I study my own creative expansion and contraction throughout the year and take careful notes. By exploring the traditions and motivations of each season, I remember the venerable schedule of the earth and aim to show how each season offers me its own version of this schedule.

We don’t have to do the work of remembering alone. The earth is constantly showing us when to dig deeper and when to pause.

What time of year fills you with vigor?

What season asks you to slow down?

Are you trying to burn the candle at both ends because you feel a sense of urgency as our planet cries out in pain? Maybe this isn’t what the earth actually needs?

As I work on Poem Forest, I’m reminded that trees grow slowly, but the earth does revive and heal. We do, too. With a single poem, I watch a child find inspiration, leaning into scientific facts that link them to an understanding of interconnectedness and hope.

Just like the leaves that drop and rot in the fall, we must rest and rejuvenate as we try to develop the next phase of human life on earth. If we give ourselves the time to sync up with natural cycles, we remember that we’re infinitely held by this planet, our home, and its inherent clock that ticks within each of us.

One poem of hope and vision can offer that clarity to someone searching for it.

As I watch my work transform and move into this new shape, I hope you enjoy a transformation as well—A new season of expression and purpose building off of all you’ve already created.

What kind of forest can you nurture in your community?

What subtle lessons are unfurling now as we lean into the communal days of summer?

How can we help each other remember the earth and our connection to it?

May it be steady and celebratory, restful and inspiring, season after season.

• • •

No Seasons

The word spreads that our days
all run into one another, only blue skies,
and without night we wouldn’t sense a change.
Did you not see the full bloom of pink
along the boulevard, same as last year?
The silk floss trees are heavy
with big pods that split open
and spew white garlands of fluff.
Did you miss those hours of morning fog?
The neighbor’s high roof was cloaked.
When it’s fall, there is a feeling
in the air that lasts all day and I sit
on my front stoop to warm up in the sun.
When it’s winter, it finally rains
and I close the windows, buy chestnuts
by the pound, and bake squash in the oven.
When it’s spring, the windows are open
and the whole town goes from burnt color
to vivid green and yellow. When it’s summer,
the fans are always on high, I cut cold
grapefruit with my slender knife that Yasmine
brought from France, and I hardly ever
leave my bed but for the ocean.

-from The Edge of the Continent Volume Two - The City


Jacqueline Suskin is a poet and educator who has been teaching workshops, writing books, and creating spontaneous poetry around the world since 2009. She has composed over forty thousand improvisational poems with her ongoing writing project, Poem Store. Suskin is the author of eight books, including Help in the Dark Season, Every Day is a Poem, and A Year in Practice (Sounds True, December 2023). Her work has been featured in various publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Yes! magazine. As the Artist in Residence at Folklife Farm from 2019-2021, Suskin founded a retreat program and continues to host artists from around the world. She lives in Detroit where she works as a teaching artist with InsideOut Literary Arts, bringing nature poetry into classrooms.

Leading teachers, life-changing courses...

Your path to a happier, healthier life

Get access to our library of over 100 courses on health and nutrition, spirituality, creativity, breathwork and meditation, relationships, personal growth, sustainability, social impact and leadership.

Try Membership Free for 14 Days

Stay connected with Commune

Receive our weekly Commusings newsletter + free course announcements!