The Mouth of Earth

The Mouth of Earth
The Mouth of Earth, Poems
University of Nevada Press, 2020

“Passionately (but never stridently) devoted to ecological thematics, these poems constitute a vivid geography of concerns and commitments, all the while maintaining…uttermost sensitivity to matters of craft…. Here is a book of uncanny calm in an era of panic. Here is substance and renewal.”

—Donald Revell

“How, as humans, have we arrived at this moment? How have we come to relate to one another and our planet and its creatures in the ways that we do? Holding the prophetic history of the American Dust Bowl at its center, The Mouth of Earth engages these questions with a compassionate, probing imagination that swerves through time as it grapples movingly with how easy it is to lose sight of the violences that shape us as well as the ones that seem to leave us unscathed. Strong is a nimble explorer of visible and invisible boundaries, and each of these poems is part of a quest toward wonder and re-envisioning, a quest to go beyond, as the best poems do, the “edge of thinking.”
—Mary Szybist, author of Incarnadine, winner of the National Book Award.

In this timely and moving collection of poems, Strong explores what it means to live in a world undergoing an irrevocable transformation, the magnitude of which we barely comprehend. A broad range of perspectives shows us different times and places on Earth while unpacking the cyclical nature of human denial and response. A series of linked persona poems about the Dust Bowl recounts the destruction of the Great Plains and how human dreams of plenty destroyed the ancient fertility and stability of the land, how heartbreak and denial contended with bureaucratic insolence. In an imagined view of our planet as it might appear millennia from now, the Earth is “a worry stone / in the pocket of space, or a mood ring / on the finger of a newly minted / god.”

The Mouth of Earth serves as both a survival guide for those seeking connection with our planet and one another as well as a compassionate tribute to what we have lost or are losing—the human consequences of such destruction in a time of climate crisis and lost connectivity. Strong’s powerful poems offer us a way toward comprehension in an age of loss, revealing both our ongoing denial of our planet’s fragility and our hunger for connection with all life.


It seems it’s not enough for us
to love the earth the way we loved, as infants,
a milky nipple. What the teacher meant

when he told his students, Carry water in a sieve!
No one could until, at cliff’s edge, he showed them—
flung the metal basket into the Pacific.

But we don’t sink into the world like that.
We rise up from the earth’s breast
and crane our necks over the grasses, distracted

by a glimpse of shiny things. You can see it
in the baby by eight months:
she’ll be nursing along in the garden of contentment

until some glint of motion snags her eye
and the world not even named yet—
that blur of green is not yet

“flock of wild parakeets in northern coastal city,”
the pink flash not yet classified
as “musical mobile of plastic ponies,”

a baby shower gift I could not bring myself to keep:
the music box rendered “The Blue Danube Waltz”
as a series of electronic beeps

while the ponies rotated, trailing a squishy plastic smell
that reminded me variously of asthma attacks,
factory workers in China, and Barbie dolls.

I saw the real Blue Danube once,
muddy with rain in Vienna, a river
whose headwaters start before the Roman Empire

and run through two world wars,
bearing fascism and Freudian psychology
and schnitzel all downriver to pour into the Black Sea

of our seemingly endless need to keep playing with matches.
To see what will catch light. I’ve heard
the real “Blue Danube” too—

once, from a man sitting alone on the edge
of the stage that was the twentieth century,
plucking the notes of the waltz on a classical guitar

with such exquisite tension between the sweeping music
of the river and the tiny syncopated pattern
of dancing feet that at least one person

in the sparse and hurried lunch-hour audience
put down her cell phone and wept.
Magpies like shiny objects too. As do

starlings, blue jays, crows. Perhaps the commonality
persists in us like our desire for flight, the way
a line of music can persist

until someone fashions the memory
of a time those notes flooded the banks of our feelings
with a mechanical ghost of itself

that plays us at our plastic worst. When what we wanted
was the green breath of those first fields,
blown toward us by the moving shapes of horses.