Visitors to Michigan’s three national parks this summer are in for a treat. In addition to the wonders of nature, they might also get an unexpected dose of literature.
In a highly unusual collaboration, the National Park Service posted nature poems by Egyptian-American poet and artist Moheb Soliman at various points in five Midwestern parks, including Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks and Isle Royale.
The poems are on standard-issue NPS brown signs and look official — until you start reading. That element of surprise or serendipity, says Soliman, 36, was half the point.
“That’s the great thing art can do,” he says, “when it just sort of sits there and doesn’t beat you over the head with its art-ness.”
That element most delights Linda Gregerson, a University of Michigan English professor and widely published poet.
“Poetry belongs in public spaces as well as in the privacy of lamp-lit rooms,” she writes from England, adding that Soliman’s approach “seems to me to be an ideal form of offering: poetry by way of gentle ambush.”
The poetry signs grew out of a 2015 project funded by the Joyce Foundation in which Soliman, who moved to this country at age 6 and grew up mostly in Columbus, Ohio, circled all five Great Lakes over four months, visiting “as many towns and wilderness areas as possible.”
The resulting body of work is site-specific and titled “H.O.M.E.S.” — for (naturally) Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
On a breathtaking overlook at Pictured Rocks you’ll find Soliman’s poem “Be prepared,” which reads, in part:
“Be prepared / Picture rocks / the size of ships / copper, iron, lime inside / sublimely leaking stripes.”
The poems, Soliman says, were meant to be site-specific.
“If it’s about a river mouth and lake, I’ll do my best to get that sign where a mouth and lake body meet.”
His subjects are both what you’d expect — nature’s marvels, etc. — and the unexpected, including allusions to immigration, identity, modernity and the environment.
“A lot of the poems refer to the immigrant experience,” Soliman says from his home in Minneapolis, shortly before setting off for Isle Royale, “or the desire to belong.”
For her part, Gregerson also likes what the undertaking suggests about NPS.
“Those who think of the National Park Service as a purely utilitarian bureaucracy without a sense of humor,” she writes, “are tonically shaken in this assumption.”
She also admires the program’s discretion.
“Those who want none of it are free to ignore the signs,” she notes. “Not least among the virtues of this project is its modesty.”