Book Reviews

Dispatches from the Dark

New Mexico Poet Laureate Lauren Camp’s new poetry collection “In Old Sky” centers darkness

New Mexico Poet Laureate Lauren Camp’s new book considers the cosmos. (Bob Godwin)

For many people, darkness is a space of fear, sadness or uncertainty. For New Mexico Poet Laureate Lauren Camp, a month spent in residence at the Grand Canyon National Park changed all that. Instead of trepidation at nightfall, she says, she felt safe.

Camp has authored eight poetry collections to date, and has been the state’s Poet Laureate since 2022, with one more year left to go in her tenure. Her latest book In Old Sky (Grand Canyon Conservancy, 2024) grew from her time as Astronomer in Residence at the Grand Canyon, and explores the national park—and the cosmos beyond.

When she happened upon the residency program, Camp didn’t have a background in astronomy, but had long been mesmerized by night skies. Having grown up in the suburbs of Manhattan with its innumerable lights dulling the darkness, such skies were unfamiliar for Camp. But she has now lived in New Mexico for 30 years, where the open spaces and lack of light pollution are superb for stargazing—yet still nothing like the Grand Canyon’s.

In fact, the national park gained certification as an International Dark Sky Park from the International Dark Sky Association in 2019, and launched the astronomer in residence program in 2021, inviting astronomers—professional and amateur alike—to engage with the canyon’s night skies. The program is open to scientists, dark-sky advocates, educators and writers, among others; Camp’s selection made her the Grand Canyon’s fourth astronomer in residence, as well as its only poet so far. She spent the month of August in 2022 creating programming and soaking in the park’s spirit, often walking in the evenings after the tourists were gone and the dark had descended.

“It was an adventure in so many ways to be living at the Grand Canyon for a month,” Camp tells SFR, adding that the sheer enormity of the place was overwhelming, and at first she struggled to find focus for her time there. “I had so much to think about—the whole canyon, the whole interplanetary cosmos.”

When the dark sky ranger who initiated the Astronomer in Residence program asked Camp to create “dispatches” for social media, Camp decided to approach it through poetry. Each would be a short poem, several of which were later published in the new book. Writing the dispatches, Camp found, anchored her time at the park.

“It focused my attention on what I could see in the darkness, the feeling of darkness and how to express that to people who don’t get to see pristine darkness and naturally dark skies,” Camp says.

Darkness became her focal point.

“What I found is that darkness is not a single thing,” she explains, which is partly how she returned from the residency with 810 photos of the areas surrounding the Grand Canyon at night, each one phenomenally rife with poetic possibility. Camp also learned more about light pollution, which can affect animals’ mating patterns; the blooming times of plants; and how insects feed, in addition to negative health and psychological impacts on humans. New knowledge in hand, Camp returned to Santa Fe wanting more people to care enough to work toward minimizing these effects.

“Because being under a phenomenal night sky is such an important experience,” Camp says, “I think that’s a reason for the poems to be out there—to give darkness a fair chance.”

Interestingly, Camp didn’t go into the Grand Canyon residency intending to write a collection, but after meeting with a residency manager who wanted to carry her poetry books in the Grand Canyon gift shops, she realized her work regarding darkness at the park would be ideal, and the rest fell into place: In Old Sky is the first-ever poetry book published by the Grand Canyon Conservancy.

“It feels like a tiny, comprehensive book of my experience in the astronomical sciences,” Camp says.

In Old Sky is a rather gorgeous piece of physical media, too. Vivid color photographs of canyon landscapes and the starry canopy beyond draw readers into the world of darkness Camp’s poetry inhabits. Some of the photographs come from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona where Camp spent two weeks—almost a year after her Grand Canyon residency—meeting with astronomers, looking through massive telescopes and learning more about science.

The book also features an epic poem woven from visitor responses to prompts Camp placed during her Grand Canyon residency, creating a vivid narrative of shared experience. She received hundreds of responses in a variety of languages, which she used to construct a poem according to the phases of the moon. Camp describes the project as similar to programming as New Mexico’s poet laureate.

“It’s a collaboration where I’m building the poem,” she says, “but there are all these other voices offering me their perspectives.”

For Camp, the experience always came back to darkness. Living in La Cienega, she had written about sun, light, wind and drought—and if darkness appeared in her work at all, it was an emotional darkness linked to grief, sadness and loss. At the Grand Canyon, she says, darkness felt like a gain rather than a loss.

“It was a kind of luck, not just for me but for all of us, that this darkness exists,” she says, “that this history of the world exists.”

In Old Sky Grand Canyon Conservancy Book Club Virtual Book Launch: 5 pm Thursday, April 18. Free. Online. Register online at shorturl.at/epsu9.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.