Poems of Symbioses


This project is inspired by Harryette Mullen’s 2013 poetry collection Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary. Tanka poetry originated in Japan as a poetic form which highlighted the relationship between the poet and the natural world, focusing patterns of attention and motion through time and space. While a tanka poem is traditionally composed of 31 syllables printed in a single line of text, Mullen uses three lines with a flexible syllable count per line. Her adaptation of the formal elements of tanka reflects aspects of translation across cultures, language, and history while perhaps also indicating the shifting structures of modernization and the limitations imparted by the book as a physical object amid pressures of publishing as an institution. Despite this variation, Mullen’s poetry maintains the attunement to slow seasonal changes and fleeting impressions which are essential to classical tanka. 

Piecing together moments and images from her everyday experiences in Los Angeles, Mullen’s production of tanka functions as an exercise in finding ecological spaces, physically and mentally, within the city biome. As Mullen’s meditations locate the self within the urban sprawl which marks the physical and geopolitical backdrop of Los Angeles, she destabilizes logics driven by capital and the diesel and gas powered transportation of people and products that take masses of concrete as foundations of meaning. By highlighting images such as vines dangling from overpasses, gardens clipped and conformed to small plots of private land, and shopping bags tumbling through parking lots, a new sense of the city comes into focus in which the manmade and the natural are emerging side by side.

Mullen originally began her tanka diary not for the purpose of publication but as a daily reflective practice of walking and writing in an attempt to recover an awareness of the natural world while integrating poetry with ecology. Reflecting the patience and commitment to repetition necessary for the slow, observational style of her writing, she wrote one poem each day over the course of a year and a day. While I was not able to maintain strict adherence to the poem-a-day model, I attempted to emulate Mullen’s light touch, notational style, and critical eye. I stayed true to her version of tanka, and each one of my poems contains 31 syllables. I also follow her interest in dissonances between dislocated signifiers of naturalness and the projection of urban semblances of artificiality, though my tanka focus directly on symbioses in the everyday environment and the responses elicited from considering other modes of being in relation to vaguer definitions of species. 

My tanka meditate on aspects of interconnection such as dissolution between clear foreground-background divides, the interface of the seen and the imagined, and conditional emergence as a property of life. Specifically, my project tracks lichens within the city and beyond as markers of a pervasive symbiosis amid the looming threat of urban uniformity. It also implicitly imagines mycorrhizal networks intermixing with drainage pipes and sewer lines to form the foundations of the city. By tracking strange animal behavior and inexplicable plant growth I attempt to develop a lens for viewing symbiotic relationships as essential pieces of the modern city while also projecting conceptual frameworks for seeing symbioses in the contemporary ideological landscape.

Composing these poems brought a reflective state of mind and allowed my awareness to linger on often passed over or unobserved aspects of the everyday environment. It led me to consider the facts of life obscured by daily routine, especially in regard to the city as a biome. This opportunity for slowness, combined with the limitations imposed by the lineation and brevity of tanka, encouraged me to reconsider my relationship to language and images across space and time. Constantly working to reorder my thoughts in more concise ways prioritized the image as such without the associative dissonances of the urban landscape. It also led me to acknowledge that such dissonances are essential to the makeup of the urban ecosystem. 

My poetry interweaves images of nature which prioritize other than human life forms with my own experience of interpreting the signals conveyed by the environment. At times I try to let the environment speak as much as possible by limiting my interference in grafting significance onto images and patterns. Other times I recentralize my position in the landscape and my movement across time and space as a constituent piece of the complex modern ecology formed by both biotic and abiotic factors. Though I struggled at times to explicitly connect physical examples of symbiosis to conceptual frameworks while adhering to a strict syllable count, this project displays ways of noticing ubiquitous symbiotic relationships and imagining new ways of perceiving the built and natural structures which compose the modern world.


The sun sets at Tompkins, pink skies fade
into night. Greens and browns become gray, then black.
The image of the world returns underground

What is it like to be a fungus? sitting
on this bench I try to become a
hyphal tip—winding through the earth, connected

Probing beneath the concrete intelligence bursts.
Working with and through the self, enrolled
in the other, merging and making new

A big elm at the center of the park:
twisting branches and early buds. A hawk
perches on a limb, outlined by the faint sky

Mound of wood chips and branches resting at the
feet of a broken, moss-covered red oak,
slowly disappearing into the earth

Tufts of grass resisting landslides of
February mud, patches of dry dirt, and
dog shit—all sprouting in place and sinking still

Robins dart across a headstone-filled lawn,
easing their beaks into the dirt, slurping
down worms in one gulp; I roll on my blanket

The people streaming by outside the window
took the form of primates wearing clothes,
a genome removed from breathing modern air


The train upstate sings along a river
melted in darkness: shifting, murky waters
squeezed between dancing lights and opaque shores

We ran up a sideways hill at dusk,
hopped fences covered in blue-green lichens,
and laid on a picnic table, gazing at stars

The darkness at first concealed the splotches
that coated the picnic table, at first
concealed a bat winking through cloudy twilight

Accustomed now to light’s departure, that
blue-green pattern emerged from the wood.
I peeled off a slice and balled it in my pocket.


Morning brought an egg sandwich and a fresh patch
of grass with another tree in the center.
People and dogs probed along the dirt

We sat on the grass and dug into the earth.
Soft and cold it enveloped our dry hands;
soft and cold it wove our minds together.

The tree scattered twigs like seeds to the wind.
I took one up and scratched my fingernail
across the tip: more lichen for my pocket.

In a basement pottery studio
filled with images of mushrooms and ferns,
I pressed too hard and made an ear of the clay

Again aboard and the daylight maps worlds
of meaning. An origin of species
in my lap; an entangled specter outside

The city gleams with new billboards, new chrome
platings, new tires screeching. Sixty degrees
and the ground is moist. The bulbs are emerging

Took the A as far as it goes for
a spare shell or some kelp. I first found garbage,
luxury condos, and construction debris

Barnacle growths on rock, foamy spray, black tides.
The ocean releases need for light,
admits ceaseless streams of microbes to the sea.


Mycelia move toward nothingness
amid infinity, patch rifts in
the subconscious, collage isolated meanings

South toward Philadelphia the night spreads mist.
A faint glare diffuses along the highway,
a shamrock shake in my back pocket

The canal in DC is shallow
come spring. The low water level reveals
green fuzz and outflow pipes, corrosion and needles

Inland along an urban wood a dog
sprints after her ball, a traffic cone covers
a hole, mushrooms fruit from a fallen log

Gas station rock wall splattered with lichen,
straddled by a propane tank and an air pump,
each colonized by lichen of their own

Mossy river bed glistens in the sun;
creeping vines scavenge the sides of oaks,
steeping in light diffused by cedar fingers

Scrawny deer graze the tangle of debris
alongside the highway, chewing on twigs
and grasses, cigarette butts and fast food bags

Freezing wind rattles from all directions as
we wind along Skyline Drive; roadside
  rocks dripping icy lichen while flurries form


McDonalds, Cracker Barrel, and Exxon the
keystone species of each Virginia
exit. We are content with cheap food and gas

A pair of dragonflies connected
  tail-to-head hover and divide, freeing
our lakeside afternoon from the onslaught of gnats

The sun comes up on another Dunkin’ run,
abides another lichen-clad fuel stop,
and sets to another chicken sandwich

A continuous exchange of capital for
sustenance, an ongoing traversing
of marked ways, a sustained living with


Into a murky creek I drop from a rope.
The bottom is gunky; I imagine
microorganisms amid the sludge

Windows down we round a bend and smell
manure; we see baby cows munching on grass
to be digested by teams of young microbes

Buses and trucks crawl North up 81,
passing water towers, oil refineries,
cattle trailers on their way to slaughter

Swerving past Jersey swamps after dark,
distant lights flick into existence; wetland roots
and algae break down the city’s refuse

A moth snuck into her apartment
and rested stealthily on the wall for a night.
Come morning it was nowhere to be found

Pigeons and wrens under a bench feast on
a discarded snack: scraps of a fallen
egg sandwich with oyster mushrooms streaming out

A buzzing black squirrel dangles from a tree
  with waxy leaves; a mottled pigeon
waits below to see what shakes off of its limbs

I turned onto a street now shaded with young leaves.
A highway shone in the distance, a blue-green
patch glued itself to a brick wall