Saturday, December 20, 2008

Poem: Taproot


His words desert him this morning for downtown Manhattan,
carrying briefcases, newspapers and coffee. They do not speak
to each other. They’re thinking of memos, faxes and phonecalls.
They do not look at him, a Chinese wetback waiting to be picked
for a day’s work. Tiny jaws gnaw at him and he wants Matt.
The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black mottled bracts on stem tips.
He hurries past fat black women prodding snappers which gape
on beds of ice, past the row of crones blistering next to their red
talismans and Iching hexagrams, their faces cracked
like parched ground, past the old men hunched over their paper
chessboards, rolling a cannon across the river or retreating an elephant.
Small populations can be uprooted
by digging and pulling. If they’re established,
spray Picloram at point five pounds
per acre when the plant is a bud.
He passes a boy practicing a Yao Ming hookshot seen on TV,
two young men outside Kowloon Trading stacking empty crates
into a van, the New Land Arcade that squats a quarterblock
and catches the eye with its tall, electrified gold letterings,
and clones of knickknack shops that claim Little Italy.
The weed is not just hungrier. Its taproot
secretes catechin which triggers natives
to kill their own cells. It is not just lean,
as one scientist puts it, but mean.
He plunges, two steps at a time, into Canal Street Station.
In the car’s electric lighting, he looks for Matt
in the young white men and lurches into them. The train shrieks.
Fulton Street. The grid has crazed into a maze deadended
by tower blocks, to be traced with the red thread of a previous visit.
Trials are being carried out
to determine if bioagents work.
The weevil is a candidate. A species
of seedhead gallflies looks promising.
He pulls Matt, word made flesh, out of his standard chair, out
of the office and its mite dusted carpet into the men’s and locks
their mouths. He works his man’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt pulls his tan shirt over his head and arms. The tenant bends
over his white boy’s blue veined torso. This is also his farm.


Putting Down Taproot

For some reason I thought I should imbibe some science while feasting on graduate writing workshops. At informal weekly seminars, in the spirit of continuous learning, the science faculty was giving brief talks on a subject out of their field of specialization. The talks were open to all. They attracted a modest but devoted audience, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

Was it a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed? I don’t remember. It was a woman who found a new weed while gardening, and went online to find out more. I followed her lead.

My research turned up university and state department websites aimed at American farmers. The websites, with titles like Idaho’s Noxious Weeds or Invasive Plants of Wisconsin, were similarly organized: Description, Prevention, Management. Having just arrived in the States, and hoping to find love and work here, I was sensitive to the characterization of the spotted knapweed as an alien threat to native plants. The language of the description, so eerily similar on the sites, started me thinking about what makes a plant a weed, and what makes it a crop. Human needs, yes, food, clothing, shelter. But also cultivation, which necessarily implies human culture. The difference between weed and crop is, in a significant sense, a cultural distinction.

As I was writing at that time a series of historical persona poems, I tried to stuff the knapweed into the mouth of a straw man, the first three stanzas of which went like this:

An Immigration Official Speaks on Pest Control

The spotted knapweed has dispersed from ten
counties to three hundred and twenty-six,
reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks.
Thirty-five states index it an invader.

You can identify it by its pink
to purple flowers, at times white, settling in stiff,
black-mottled bracts
on tips of terminal stems.
It winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.

From central Europe, Russia and western Siberia,
this Eurasian weed arrived in discarded soil
used as ship ballast.
Riding on undercarriages,
it migrates along highways, railway tracks, utility lines.

Overrun by the weed of excitement, I took the draft to my writing class, as well as submit it for critique @ Poetry-Free-For-All, an online poetry workshop. The draft was justly torn apart. Neither dramatic nor a monologue, it was, as Ted from PFFA nailed it, “a book report.” Its polemic was self-righteous and unimaginative; it does not question itself.

A PFFA exercise stimulated an overhaul. Challenged to write a poem with a mixture of different styles, I thought of weaving a personal narrative through the knapweed rhetoric, in alternate stanzas. I did not merely want to put a face to the debate, as immigration advocates would say, I wanted to speak of my desires—to write, to love, to take root—fierce desires that seemed to justify anti-immigration fears.

A narrative would also give a shape, a momentum to the poem, in this instance, the shape and momentum of a journey through lower Manhattan that climaxes in a reversal of stereotypes, in an Asian penetrating a white man. I was only vaguely aware of what I know now: the men I want to fuck are men I really like, and so, the apparent act of possession is, for me, also one of surrender. The clues to this lay in the last three stanzas of my next big draft:

In the train’s electric lighting, he searches for Matt
in the young white men and loves each one. The train sings.
33rd Street. He comes up for air, and wades
to the tower block. Stopped by a dark-suit,
he scribbles his name, number and address at the front desk.

Small populations can be uprooted. If not, spray Picloram
but not near streams. Experiments are on-going to determine if
bio-agents work. A species of seed-head attack flies seems promising.

He sees Matt hunkered down in his trench. He pulls
the fighter out of his chair, out of the white office, out of
sight, into the bathroom, and closes his sphincter-
mouth on his mouth. He works Matt’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt puts a leg up on the china bowl. He grips
the shaft of Matt’s torso and plants his rice. This is also his farm.

The writing was still rough, but the two different styles, underlined by different stanza sizes, played off each other nicely, as Harry, Searcher and Autumn @ PFFA helpfully confirmed. Harry also suggested replacing “seed-head attack flies” with “seed-head gallflies” to lower the noise volume, a suggestion I accepted immediately.

Having banged down the slats of the narrative, I examined the selection of details in the poem. The knapweed stanzas still felt too prosaic and choked. I did not think of writing them in prose; the next thing that overran my field of attention was Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Also a poem that deploys two different styles, it accentuates the distinction through different line lengths.

xxxxxShe looked over his shoulder
xxxxxxxxFor vines and olive trees,
xxxxxMarble well-governed cities,
xxxxxxxxAnd shapes upon untamed seas,
xxxxxBut there on the shining metal
xxxxxxxxHis hands had put instead
xxxxxAn artificial wilderness
xxxxxxxxAnd a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
xxxNo blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
xxxYet, congregated on its blankness, stood
xxxAn unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

(from the opening of “The Shield of Achilles”)

The song measure orchestrates phrase and line, giving the story of Thetis and Hephaestos the appropriate classical grace and gravity. Though my poem was non-metrical, I thought I could lighten the knapweed stanzas by using shorter lines. Shortening the lines required weeding the stanzas, a very good thing as it turned out. I reworked the 3-line stanzas into quatrains, with one phrase to each line, and with a shift in the middle of the quatrain, like that of Auden’s octet. For instance, the first two knapweed stanzas:

The spotted knapweed has migrated to three hundred
and twenty-six counties, reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks. Forty states index it an invader.

The weed winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.
You can identify it in summer by its pink to purple
blooms in stiff, black mottled bracts on stem tips.

became in the revision:

The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black-mottled bracts on stem tips.

The stanza moves more quickly, at a speed more suggestive of the weed’s dispersal, and of the speaker’s panic. When I posted the revised poem @ PFFA, romac agreed with Lola Two’s assessment that “the italicized conceit is carefully phrased (it could easily have lapsed into textbook prose) and effective. An excellent example of ironic illustration.”

And yet. And yet. What if prose is the right form for the knapweed material which, after all, is written that way on all those university and state department websites? What if my revision of the knapweed stanzas was based on the wrong diagnosis of the problem? What if my creative writing teacher was right, the knapweed stanzas are overly intellectualized and emotionally manipulative, and should be removed? The field of possibilities. To turn once more to the conceit, how does one distinguish between crop and weed? The published poem once fed, clothed and sheltered me. It will not do now, but perhaps it may for someone else. Pizza, anyone?


Michelle said...

Striking images.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for reading, Michelle.