Lyrical Landscape: Six Poems of Our Parklands


girl reading

Capturing the majesty and the experience of natural settings through written language is a tradition as rich and time-honored as the land itself. In honor of National Poetry Month, we present to you six poems inspired by the superlative scenery of the Bay Area and the Golden Gate National Parks:

On What Planet

By Kenneth Rexroth

Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter’s Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.

Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.

All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blonde hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.

While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons.”



A Massive Dying Off

By Camille T. Dungy

When the fish began their dying you didn’t worry.


You bought new shoes.

They looked like crocodiles:

snappy and rich,

brown as delta mud.


Even the box they shipped in was beautiful, bejeweled.


You tore through masses of swaddling paper,

these shoes!


carefully cradled

in all that cardboard by what

you now understand

must have been someone’s tiny, indifferent hands.




The five-fingered sea stars you heard about on NPR.


You must have been driving to Costco.

It must have been before all the visitors arrived.


You needed covers, pillows, disposable containers.

At Costco, everything comes cheap.


Sea stars, jellies, anemones, all the scuttlers and hoverers

and clingers along the ocean floor. A massive dying off, further displacing

depleted oxygen, cried the radio announcer.


You plugged in your iPod.

Enough talk. You’d found the song you had been searching for.




One cargo ship going out. One cargo ship coming in.

Crabs crawling up trawler lines.

Giant lobsters walking

right onto the shore.


You’ve been sitting in your car

watching the sunset over the Golden Gate.

NPR again.


One cargo ship going out. One cargo ship coming in.


Those who can are leaving.

The Marin Headlands crouch

toward the ocean,

fog so thick on their side of the bay

you can’t tell crag from cloud from sea.


One cargo ship headed out, another coming in.


They’re looking for a place

where they can breath.


You’ve been here less than an hour.

When the sun has finished setting

you’ll go home.




In the dream, your father is the last refuse to wash ashore.

This wasn’t what you wanted.

Any of you.

The first sign


of trouble was the bottle with the message.

That washed up years ago.

Then, so many bottles

the stenographers couldn’t answer all the messages anymore.


The women of the village wept when your father died.


Then they lined up to deliver tear-stained tissue to the secretary of the interior

who translated their meaning

and had it writ out on a scroll.


These were the answers your people had been waiting for!


That papyrus wound around your father like a bandage.

The occasion announced,

you prayed proper prayers, loaded him onto an outrigger,

set him off,

but here he is again. Stinking.



You can’t dispose of the rising dead and you’re worried.

What can you do?


Camille T. Dungy, formerly a professor at San Francisco State University and currently at Colorado State University, is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.


Once by the Pacific

By Robert Frost

The shattered water made a misty din. 
Great waves looked over others coming in, 
And thought of doing something to the shore 
That water never did to land before. 
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, 
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. 
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if 
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff, 
The cliff in being backed by continent; 
It looked as if a night of dark intent 
Was coming, and not only a night, an age. 
Someone had better be prepared for rage. 
There would be more than ocean-water broken 
Before God's last Put out the light was spoken.

Some scholars contend that this foreboding poem alludes to Frost’s childhood memory of watching his father swim from the shore of Sausalito out into San Francisco Bay. Although this routine exercise was repeated morning after morning, each and every time little Robert waited with great anxiety for his father’s “ok” sign upon reaching his target buoy.



The Golden Gate

By Edward Pollock


The air is chill, and the day grows late,
And the clouds come in through the Golden Gate:
Phantom fleets they seem to me,
From a shoreless and unsounded sea;
Their shadowy spars and misty sails,
Unshattered, have weathered a thousand gales:
Slow wheeling, lo! in squadrons gray,
They part, and hasten along the bay;
Each to its anchorage finding way.
Where the hills of Saucelito swell,
Many in gloom may shelter well;
And others —behold— unchallenged pass
By the silent guns of Alcatras:
No greetings of thunder and flame exchange
The armed isle and the cruisers strange.
Their meteor flags, so widely blown,
Were blazoned in a land unknown;
So, charmed from war or wind or tide,
Along the quiet wave they glide.

What bear these ships? —what news, what freight,
Do they bring us through the Golden Gate?
Sad echoes to words in gladness spoken,
And withered hopes to the poor heart-broken:
Oh, how many a venture we
Have rashly sent to the shoreless sea!
How many an hour have you and I,
Sweet friend, in sadness seen go by,
While our eager, longing thoughts were roving
Over the waste, for something loving,
Something rich and chaste and kind,
To brighten and bless a lonely mind;
And only waited to behold
Ambition's gems, affection's gold,
Return as remorse, and a broken vow,
In such ships of mist as I see now.

The air is chill, and the day grows late,
And the clouds come in through the Golden Gate,
Freighted with sorrow, heavy with woe; —
But these shapes that cluster, dark and low.
To-morrow shall be all aglow!
In the blaze of the coming morn these mists,
Whose weight my heart in vain resists,
Will brighten and shine, and soar to heaven,
In thin white robes, like souls forgiven;
For Heaven is kind, and everything,
As well as a winter, has a spring.
So, praise to God! who brings the day
That shines our regrets and fears away;
For the blessed morn I can watch and wait.
While the clouds come in through the Golden Gate.


Seascape with Sun and Eagle
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

than most birds
an eagle flies up
over San Francisco
freer than most places
soars high up
floats and glides high up
in the still
open spaces

flown from the mountains
floated down
far over ocean
where the sunset has begun
a mirror of itself

He sails high over
turning and turning
where seaplanes might turn
where warplanes might burn

He wheels about burning
in the red sun
climbs and glides
and doubles back upon himself
now over ocean
now over land
high over pinwheels suck in sand
where a rollercoaster used to stand

soaring eagle setting sun
All that is left of our wilderness 

“I like to think that ‘where a roller coaster used to stand’ refers to Playland by the Beach next to the Cliff House, and this eagle is one of the dozens that migrate past Hawk Hill each fall,” says Allen Fish, director of our Golden Gate Raptor Observatory—which does most of its work on and around Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands.



Alcatraz *
By Ina Coolbrith

A pearl-foam at his feet
The waters leap and fall; 
The sentry treads his beat
Upon the sun-girt wall.

Bronzed of visage, he, 
Stern, resolute as fate, 
Guard of the inner sea—
Grim Watcher of the Gate.

Born of some mighty throe
From earth’s abysmal deep, 
When, aeons, long ago, 
The Dragon stirred in sleep.

Yet over him, merrily, 
The winds blow East, blow West; 
The gulls about him fly, 
The fog-king wreaths his crest.

All day, sea-melodies
Blend with oarsmen’s stroke, 
In the Fleet of the Butterflies, 
The craft of the fisher-folk.

Then boom of the sunset gun, 
The flash of the beacon-light, 
Leaping, a warning sun, 
To passing ships of night, 

And the fleets of all the world
Salute him as they pass-
Viking of Seas empearled, 
The Warrior, Alcatraz.

*The Island Fort of San Francisco Bay 

Coolbrith, nicknamed the “Sweet Singer of California” and later named the first poet laureate of the state, published this poem in 1907 in the Overland Monthly. In the introduction to this new work, it is noted “Miss Coolbrith’s home overlooks Alcatraz, and from her study window she regarded the grim island whilst writing the poem.”

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