Putting down “Taproot”

A Poetry Squawk
By Jee Leong Koh
Author of Steep Tea and The Pillow Book

Jee Leong Koh AuthorWhile feasting on poetry workshops at Sarah Lawrence College, for some reason I thought I should imbibe some science. The science faculty was giving lunchtime talks on a subject not in their field of specialization, in the name of continuous learning. These informal weekly seminars attracted a modest but devoted audience of about 20 people, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

It was either a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed, a pioneer species introduced into the United States from Eastern Europe. She found the weed while working in her garden and went online to research it. I followed her lead. My search turned up State Department and university 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 emigrated to the States in order to come out as gay and a poet, I was sensitive to the characterization of the spotted knapweed as an alien threat to native plants. You might call me touchy. The language of the description, so eerily similar on all the sites, started me thinking about what makes a plant a crop and not a weed. 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 a series of historical persona poems at that time (“The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity,” “The Emperor’s Male Favorite Waits Up for Him,” “The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys” etc.), I tried to stuff the knapweed into the mouth of a straw man. The first stanza 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.

Overrun by the weed of excitement, I took the draft to my writing class. I also submitted it for critique at Poetry Free-for-all (PFFA), an online poetry workshop I had belonged to for some years. The draft was justly torn apart. Neither dramatic nor a monologue, it was, as Ted from PFFA nailed it, “a book report.” Its attempt at irony was self-righteously polemic.

A PFFA exercise stimulated an overhaul of this initial draft. Challenged to write a poem in 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 also 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 momentum of a journey through lower Manhattan that climaxes in a reversal of stereotypes, in an Asian male sexually penetrating a white man. At the time of writing, I was only vaguely aware of what I know now: the men I want to top 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, like the sex, was still very, very rough, but the two different styles, highlighted by different stanza sizes, played off each other nicely. Having banged down the slats of the narrative, I then examined the selection of details. The knapweed stanzas still felt too prosaic and choked. The next thing that overran my field of attention was W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Also a poem that deploys two different styles, it accentuates the distinction through alternating two different stanza forms.

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities,
And shapes upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

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

The song measure in the first stanza orchestrates phrase and line, giving the story of Thetis and Hephaestus the appropriate classical grace and gravity. The second stanza depicting the modern world is written in iambic pentameter. The longer lines slow down the poem in order to convey a menacing dread. Though my poem was non-metrical, I thought I too could deploy shorter lines to lighten the knapweed stanzas. Shortening the lines required weeding the stanzas, a very good thing as it turned out. I reworked the tercets into quatrains, with one phrase to each line, and with a shift in the middle of the stanza, like that of Auden’s octaves. 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.

were compressed in the revision into:

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 suggestive of the weed’s dispersal, and of the speaker’s barely hidden panic. When I posted the revised poem at 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.”

Here’s the final poem, first published in Mimesis 1, and then collected in my book Equal to the Earth (Bench Press, 2013).


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 dead ended
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.

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015), named a Best Book of 2015 by the Financial Times, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His collection of zuihitsu, The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize Nominee for English Poetry. A book of essays, which includes “Putting Down Taproot,” is forthcoming from Ethos Books.