Thursday, January 26, 2012

`The Annual Wreckage'

The storms that blew through Houston on Wednesday started a day earlier as afternoon fog, skies like dirty milk and rising temperatures through the evening. That ominous sense of nature behaving in counterintuitive ways. A muggy chill. At dawn, muted yellow light and the stink of ozone and sewage. Wind pushing dry leaves along the pavement, making scratching sounds. Among them tumbled in the street near my car not tumbleweed but an uprooted, shrub-sized pokeweed. The lovely and toxic purple berries were gone but the racemes and leaves held on. I put it in the trunk to look at later.

Pokeweed is a poet’s dream, too pat an emblem for something – sustenance and poison, beauty and danger. An opportunist, flourishing where soil is disturbed, adaptable as a cockroach. Whitman finds it in a gone-to-seed pasture without hinting at its toxicity: “And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.” There’s much to admire in weeds, their tenacity and refusal to hew to human wishes. Amy Clampitt likes and respects them in “Vacant Lot with Pokeweed” (The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, 1997):

“Tufts, follicles, grubstake
biennial rosettes, a low-
life beach-blond scruff of
couch grass: notwithstanding
the interglinting dregs

“of wholesale upheaval and
dismemberment, weeds do not
hesitate, the wheeling
rise of the ailanthus halts
at nothing--and look! here's

“a pokeweed, sprung up from seed
dropped by some vagrant, that's
seized a foothold: a magenta-
girdered bower, gazebo twirls
of blossom rounding into

“raw-buttoned, garnet-rodded
fruit one more wayfarer
perhaps may salvage from
the season's frittering,
the annual wreckage.”

The poem is a patchwork of harmonious fragments, like weeds in vacant lots. “Weeds do not / hesitate.” The “wayfarer” ("some vagrant") is a mockingbird or cardinal, at once harvesting and sowing.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Independent of their not-inconsiderable semantic charms, I can't help but be struck by the different sound tapestries of today's Clampit poem (a well-put "patchwork of harmonious fragments") and yesterday's stately Winters elegy. One tries to hone the chaos of life with its bumps and surprises while the other has its music in the correct locations, so the surprise is more striking by being prepared for. It's a little like listening to Bach and Gentle Giant in successive cuts. Both of course are beautiful.

Nice description of an incoming storm. Pokeweed as a poetic device reminds me of this poem by Katherine Mansfield:

To L.H. B. (1894-1915)
Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
“Don't touch them: they are poisonous,” I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
“Don't you remember? We called them Dead Man's Bread!”
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where -- where is the path of my dream for my eager feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands...
“These are my body. Sister, take and eat.”