ONARCHITECTURE- Poet to Architect: Remaking the way we see things


"My intention was to capture in language something of that enormous, terrifying, and inspiring dynamism of the sun," says poet Lisa Williams, "...how it destroys, renews, and feeds life."

In 1996, when poet Lisa Williams began working for architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart as they wrote their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, she didn't know much about environmentalism or ecology. All that was about to change. As Williams helped craft the language of the book, its ideas about the creative processes of nature and how humans can redesign industries using nature as a model began to ignite her imagination.


"I was tremendously inspired by their revelatory description of nature," says Williams, a former MFA student at UVA, who now teaches poetry at Centre College in Kentucky, "as well as by particular images and pieces of information I came across."

Cradle to Cradle goes far beyond the idea of recycling and reuse, advocating instead for the complete elimination of waste in the manufacturing process– its title is a take on "cradle-to-grave analysis," the study of a product's life-cycle. For example, the book itself is "treeless," made of a polypropylene synthetic that looks and feels like paper, and which can be as easily recycled as a yogurt container.

In essence, the book embodies its premise– that designers can create products, manufacturing systems, buildings, and developments that mine the intelligent designs of nature– such as nutrient recycling and the unique power of the sun– to allow commerce and nature to benefit from each other.  

"Working with them on their chapter about renewable energy, for example," says Williams, "I learned much more about the sun and looked at it closely in ways I never had before."

Williams said she learned that the sun vibrates something like a bell, and that there are, in fact, different names for the kinds of flames and their movements along the surface of the sun and in the space around it. 

"That idea, and image, of the tongues of flames in space led to my poem "Farthest Flame," which was one of the earliest poems written for my new book," she says.

After working on Cradle to Cradle, Williams went on to publish her first book of poems, The Hammered Dulcimer, and in 2004 she won the prestigious Rome Prize in Literature. Her newly released book, Woman Reading to the Sea, which Joyce Carol Oates selected for the Barnard Prize, features many poems inspired by her work with McDonough and Braungart.    

"At the end of 'Farthest Flame,'" says Williams, "I describe the sun as having  'a light touch, this fevered origin... after, long after, it leaves the place... repetitive, terrible, where dark is eaten... again and again by panicked tongues, where the fire and its tongues eat darkness.'"

Other poems in the book, such as "Hadean Time," "Death and Transfiguration of a Star," "Anatomy of a Skylark," "Helioseismology," and those about the oceans and the creatures in them, unfolded from those initial bursts of revelation and response to her work on Cradle to Cradle. 

"In truth, I have never stopped writing about these things, and continue to do so even today," she says.

What use did McDonough have for a poet in writing his book?

"We wanted the book to be clean and accessible yet richly dimensioned," recalls McDonough in the anthology Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, in which Williams is featured, "and that sounds a lot more like poetry than a business manual."

Although Williams wouldn't call herself a greenie, she says she did want to express the connection between nature and ourselves so that people would feel it more intensely and in a way that might be different from how one would respond to an essay on the subject.

"The poems about the cosmos, the planet, and so on are meant to be homages of a kind, but they're also intended to reestablish a connection between people and the earth and cosmos that gave birth to it," she says, "a connection that, as the work of a lot of environmentalists and scientists has made clear, has been in some ways forgotten."

So might poetry be able to help save the environment?

"I would hope that my poem about the sun could evoke a response in the reader, perhaps a refreshed admiration for its energy, beauty, and power, and a re-ignited recognition of the individual's own connection to that," she says.

Language and words are a kind of efflorescence of nature, says Williams, different from leaves and fish, but still an efflorescence. 

"In 'Farthest Flame,' my intention was to capture in language something of that enormous, terrifying, and inspiring dynamism of the sun," she explains, "...how it destroys, renews, and feeds life." 

While Williams says she did as much as she could with syntax, with words, sound, and images to capture that energy and place it on the page for others to experience, it's pretty hard to beat the real thing.

"I could only capture, if I could, an infinitesimal fraction of it," she says.

Lisa Williams reads from and signs copies of her book, Woman Reading to the Sea, at the New Dominion Bookstore on October 1 at 5:30pm.