Monthly Archives: June 2010

Urban Mullein

Verbascum thapsus

Projekt Runeberg: CAM Lindman: Bilder ur Nordens Flora. 1917-1926.

A vacant house in my neighborhood sports a good paint job, a well-kept lawn, and a hedge garden with three, very tall mullein plants. Apparently, the folks who are paid to mow the grass do not know that “Cowboy Toilet Paper” is not a popular landscaping plant.

Though near enough, the three plants grow separated by a distance which would suggest a deliberate planting. At over eight feet tall, they make a fetching place to stop on an otherwise concrete and asphalt tour of this part of urban Indianapolis. The plant is a weed, an invasive from Europe. Invasive, but with a longer history on this soil than have many of my relatives. Verbascum thapsus has some merit (medicinally, structurally, and in pure, but restrained tenacity … it can also be used to harvest fish) and perhaps it has a claim to this place which equals my own. As weeds go, I prefer it to the monocultural, yellow stretches of drab and squat day lilies planted in city medians.

For the vacant house, however, it is a sad but fitting monument. No one lives there to rip it from the garden, but (even sadder) someone meant to garden, but left the work unfinished. Mullein seeds rest in the soil for years waiting for someone to scalp the sod and start a project. Exposed, they germinate. Two years later (two years after a garden’s false start) they shoot up a bloom spike and prepare to drop their tiny seeds nearby. Biennials, the plants will die this winter and fall over sometime in the spring. The surrounding weeds will prevent a new crop of mullein. Thus, so it is, for one year only, a vacant house boasts the most interesting hedge garden on its street.

Oppen’s “Return”

As I promised many months ago, I am remembering the poetry of George Oppen again. This week I am returning to his poem “Return“. I marked the poem as one I would want to read (now and then) for many years. I was pleased to discover, therefore, a comment by George’s wife (an artist and writer) in which she speaks for a poetry that will sustain re-readings:

So you see that if there’s a lot in it of course it’s hard to understand on first reading. But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that’s most important to me is poetry that’s been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it. So it’s kind of inconsequential, the criticism that it’s difficult. (Oppen, Mary, and Dennis Young. 1988. Conversation with Mary Oppen. The Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (Fall): 18-47.

So, with Mary’s implicit support (she died in 1990), I’ll confess I do not understand (as is often the case) this poem. In fact, writing about poetry is a constant reminder of how little I understand of the poems I read. With this poem, I struggle to identify the pronouns (Who cannot be “reconciled” to whom? What is the “it” of “how imagine it”?), to piece together the syntax, to locate the particulars (Who is Petra? And in what place and time? In what context does she beat the sound of relief on her washpan?)

All the same, I marked “Return” for future readings. What was it, in the face of such limited knowledge of what I was reading, that earned my attention?

The familiar.

For the poetry reader (if not always for the poet too) the familiar leads, gives the reader an entry or a safe place, a seeming firm cognition on which to build a reading. In this poem, I found my own familiars, those simple moments of recognition that are in themselves worth remembering, worth returning.

First, the opening scene. In opposition to “the earth” (an allusion to Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, but also the clay of all creation), the poem opens with the image of asphalt from a moving vehicle, the landscape blurred, the drone of commerce. Although this might have been the return trip from the Oppens’ exile in Mexico (communists in the McCarthy era, the Oppens had left town), my own mental stock of particulars recalls long childhood car trips to Arkansas, the hypnotic and absolute boredom of the passing rows and rows of soybeans and rice.

And next, the sequoia. What child or adult has not looked on the trunk of a great tree in wonder? How is it that the massive, rooted wood rises? And when a great tree descends, does the compost equal the soil it borrowed to ascend so wide and high?

Also, the poet’s daughter’s encounter with the horse. Although Linda’s “welcome” is central to the poem, perhaps the center focus of the poem, I am more drawn to the contrast, the empty blocks, remote mechanics, razed buildings, the “city gone”. The concluding heaviness of human architecture devoid of the living haunts the page:

Of streets boarded and vacant where no time will hatch
Now chairs and walls,
Floors, roofs, the joists and beams,
The woodwork, window sills
In sun in a great weight of brick.

Here the familiar is one of opposites (mostly), the stark sadness of vacancy. Empty buildings memorialize failed expectations, mark lost life. Although not everyone knows whole blocks of a ghost town, we all live with (or walk into and out of) vacancies.

After the familiar, which is to say: after four days in which I read nothing else other than “Return”, I have begun to appreciate (not “comprehend”) the pacing, the transitions. The second sentence, the blurred Sunday drive, is itself a remarkable transition. As the landscape passing by the car window blurs, so do subject and predicate. I have never written a sentence that is at once so awkward and so skillfully exact:

But we drive
A Sunday paradise
Of parkway, trees flow into trees and the grass
Like water by the very asphalt crown
And summit of things
In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess.

Where do we focus our attention in this sentence? “[W]e drive”? “[O]we”? “”[F]low”? The asphalt crown? “[W]e possess”? I have read this sentence so many times and each time I think I have it under my thumb, but it slips away … like “the dim / Sound of the living”.

Finally, I also admire Oppen’s interruptions and overlapping parenthetical phrases, marked in the poem by dashes. “Return” includes these with seeming abandon, but they do not (as they would in a lesser poet’s work) indicate mere sudden changes, or a lost train of thought. Rather, what Oppen drops, he picks up again and drops and picks up again. In fact, at times, the “pick ups” are interwoven. Similar to a book with alternate beginnings and alternate endings, interchangeable and inseparable.

The first parenthetical begins after the line “From the ground together—” with “And we saw the seed,” but where does the initial thought complete itself? I think it resumes with the first line of the last stanza: “Whatever—whatever—remote”. If so, this is the only true interruption, the only true abrupt shift of the mind in the poem. The other, nested and overlapping, parenthetical phrases are shorter. The second phrase, ending with “Stood in the room without soil—” is interrupted by sixteen lines; lines which are in turn interrupted by (beginning with “A sap in the limbs”) the five concluding lines of the first parenthetical. This resumed expression is likewise severed by the second parenthetical rekindled. Therefore, one might read (coherently): “Beyond the streets of the living— …  / … —we had camped in scrub”. Similarly, “A sap in the limbs” resumes from “Stood in the room without soil—” and (now that I write about it) also the first thought. One might read, therefore: “No one is reconciled, tho we spring / From the ground together— / … / A sap in the limbs”.

“Return” is a very slippery and, yet, elegant poem. Although I may never hold it in one coherent piece in the mind, I will be reading it.

The Manchineel: Metaphor and Tree

Plant toxins are a perfect gateway to the study of intellectual history: what we knew, how we knew it, how we taught what we knew, and (of course) just how wrong we were. After all, the human knowledge of what’s edible predates written history … and yet there are a few unfortunate, unwitting guinea pigs in every generation. I might be one of these fools some day; I have a habit of tasting first and asking later.

On the other hand, I also have a habit of collecting useless information about plant and animal toxins, so maybe it all evens out.

Hippomane mancinella

M. Hocquart. "Phytographie Medicale" by Joseph Roques, published in Paris in 1821

Here are my notes on the Manchineel, a subject which I had not remembered until this week.

A tropical tree, the Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) belongs to the euphorbiaceae family. Euphorbias are notirously toxic. I own a few. One is usually advized to avoid the latex sap. Manchineels, however, also produce a fruit which has (to begin with) a pleasant taste. The tree’s name means “little apple”, but the Spanish go all out with “manzanilla de la muerte” (the little apple of death). The tree spreads as its fruits drift on the tides and so, because the fruits are often found on the beach, the tree is also known as a “beach apple.”

Curiously (or not-so-curiously) the medical literature likes to justify its attention to the plant by noting that popularity of Carribian vacations (Earle; Strickland).

Eurphobias (the spurge family, 7,000 species) developed their toxic sap (rich in alkaloids and terpenoids) to deter herbivores. Insects, but people too (Webster).

In 1942 an unlucky soldier “came into contact” with a tree, didn’t wash his hands, and (later) had to piss. He described the growing pain on his penis to be “like tear gas burning my skin”. So, he knew what tear gas felt like and assumed others knew as well! Lesson: do not put tear gas on your genitals (Satulsky).

The Manchineel is not useless. As one of the few shore side trees in the salt water tropics, it reduces coastal erosion … and frightens tourists! (James; Pitts).

Thirty minutes of sea water bathing is suggested for skin contact, but if you eat it … you’ll probably live to regret it (Satulsky). One guy survived 24 fruits! (Howard). Milk is suggested as a remedy for the burning throat (Strickland).

The Manchineel has a fairly long history in written lore; the exaggerated accounts of poisoning lend themselves to the imagination. In 1526 Oviedo y Valdes wrote home to warn the royalty:

All the Christians in that land who serve your Majesty believe that there is no antidote so efficacious for this poison as sea water. They wash the wound well, and in this way some have recovered, but not many. . . . So that your Majesty may better comprehend the power of the poison of this tree, I say that if a man lies down to sleep for only an hour in the shade of one of these manchineel trees, he awakes with his head and eyes swollen, his eyebrows level with his cheeks. If by chance a drop of dew falls from this tree into a man’s eyes, his eyes will burst, or at least the man will go blind. (Howard)

The horrors of the Manchineel have since appeared in at least one opera (L’Africaine), novels, and even on screen (Wind Across the Everglades).

The tree has sprouted in the sands of a few poems as well. In addition to matter-of-fact references in the poetry of Caribbean poets (including Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott), Coleridge includes it as an extended metaphor in of one of his less-read poems, “To the Rev. George Coleridge”. Describing “chance-started friendships” that became costly and painful, Coleridge writes:

… A brief while
Some have preserv’d me from life’s pelting ills;
But, like a tree with leaves of feeble stem,
If the clouds lasted, and of a sudden breeze
Ruffled the boughs, they on my head at once
Dropped the collected shower; and some most false,
False and fair-foliag’d as teh Manchineel,
Have tempted me to slumber in their shade
E’en mid the storm; then breathing subtlest damps,
Mix’d their own venom with the rain from Heaven,
That I woke poison’d!

Of course, Coleridge woke to many poisons and, although at least one was plant derived, these were not the poisons of the Manchineel. Nevertheless, I think that Coleridge latches on to the most surprising and worrisome aspect of the tree. Plenty of potential edibles are truly poisonous, plenty of plants will punish those who touch them, but the Manchineel casts a risky shadow. When the rain or dew falls from the tree it burns the unlucky persons camped below … waiting out a passing shower or spending the night on the beach seemed so benign. While not exactly a false friend, the tree does provide a false shelter.

Coleridge was not happy with the metaphor, it seems. Or, at least his boyhood teacher James Bowyer would have disapproved. In the Biographia literaria Coleridge recalls Bowyer placing the word on a list of over-used and ill-suited metaphors. In the case of the Manchineel, the metaphor is too suited, too easily applied, as Coleridge (through Bowyer) contends:

Nay certain introductions, similies, and examples, were placed by name on a list of interdiction. Among the similies, there was, I remember, that of the Manchineel fruit, as suiting equally well with too many subjects …

Perhaps too far away to have heard Bowyer’s warning, Rodolphe employs the tree in a letter he writes to Emma in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

[T]hat delicious exaltation, at once your charm and your torment, has prevented you from understanding, adorable woman that you are, the falseness of our future position. Nor had I reflected upon this at first, and I rested in the shade of that ideal happiness as beneath that of the manchineel tree, without foreseeing the consequences.

Again, it is the innocent, even idyllic seeming shade which burns its victims and seers itself into a file cabinet of literary metaphors.

As for me, I am no Coleridge … I am not even a Bowyer, so I have no intention of dropping the Manchineel’s poison into my poorly built metaphors. I prefer irritants closer to home; for this, I keep Opuntia potted in the backyard.


Earle, K. Vigors. 1938. Toxic effects of Hippomane mancinella. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 32, no. 3 (November 26): 363-370.

James, Arlington. 1996. The Impact of Recent Tropical Storms and Hurricanes on Dominica’s Beaches. CSI papers 1. Environment and development in coastal regions and in small islands (CSI); UNESCO.

Pitts, J F, N H Barker, D C Gibbons, and J L Jay. 1993. Manchineel keratoconjunctivitis. The British Journal of Ophthalmology 77, no. 5 (May): 284-288. PMID: 8318464

Satulsky, Emanuel M. 1943. Dermatitis venenata caused by the manzanillo tree. Archives of Dermatology 47, no. 1 (January 1): 36-39.

Strickland. 2000. Eating a manchineel “beach apple”. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.) 321, no. 7258 (August 12): 428. PMID: 10938053

Webster, G L. 1986. Plant dermatitis. Irritant plants in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae). Clinics in Dermatology 4, no. 2 (June): 36-45. PMID: 3719513

Eight-and-a-half Innings

We took three of the children to an Indianapolis Indians baseball game on Monday. The kids payed little attention to the game. (Hot dogs, cracker jacks, popcorn, and peanuts were on the dollar menu.) It was the second Indians game and probably the fifth or sixth professional game I’ve attended. Back in the very late 70s I saw the Cincinnati Reds play the Montreal Expos in Cincinnati. I remember the van ride, the seats (third base), and hoping for a foul ball. I think Tony Perez was playing. I liked his card.

I almost remember attending a minor league game in Louisville, but in any case, I took a long, uninterested, aimless break from baseball. (I like athleticism and competition, but I am not much for fandom.) I did not see another game until I had my own, uninterested children in tow. Exemplifying the aimless disinterest, my most memorable experience sitting in a baseball stadium has little to do with baseball and much to do with a fondness for insects. I remember one night, nearly a decade ago, at a South Bend Silverhawks game. A lone praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) rose over the seats and the stadium roof. She seemed huge in the evening light and summer heat. Tilting this way and that and hovering, at once a hulking, opportunistic predator and (had there been a bird nearby) easy prey.

At Monday’s game, I did not see any insects. I remembered the mantis, however, when a mourning dove flew up out of the right field bullpen. While the mantis seemed fragile, but dangerous, the dove appeared to be overweight and a poor flyer. It too flew over the stadium, flapping awkwardly to clear the double-deck seating. It would have been an easy target for one of the city’s pigeon-fed, pet falcons.

The Indians (a.k.a. the “Tribe”–the mascot is neither an Indian nor a Tribe, but Rowdie, a red bear with a baseball for a nose; Rowdie is probably a rodent pretending to be a bear) defeated the Columbus Clippers (they cut a lot of hair in Columbus) 5 to 3. Indianapolis had the lead at the end of the game, reducing game time to 8.5 innings. In their first, beginning-to-end baseball game, the kids were eager to leave in inning six … but we stuck it out.

Here are the all-important game stats: 8 hot dogs, 4 bags of peanuts, 4 boxes of popcorn, 3 boxes of cracker jacks, 3 beers, 2 usher redirects (the kids were standing at the wrong time), 1 bag of chips, and 1 mourning dove.

Oil and Aesthetics: When will the poets ever shut up?

Oil is a dominant source of energy in the United States, supplying the nation with approximately 40% of its energy needs. … No oil spill is entirely benign. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations.
— Jonathan L. Ramseur. Oil spills in U.S. coastal waters: background, governance, and issues for Congress. CRS, April 30, 2010. [PDF – 383 KB]

Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes alternating between baths with a one percent solution of … dishwashing liquid and clean water. The wash time varies depending on the amount of oil, and the size of the bird, but on average it takes two people 45 minutes and 300 gallons of water to do a thorough washing.
IBRRC: How oil affects birds. June 3, 2010.

Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!
–Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, the Whale (1851).

A popular narrative in recent Western aesthetics holds that the horrors of the Second World War stupefied the artistic sensibilities of 20th century. It came in several flavors (including: beauty is dead, progress is dead, God is dead, meaning is dead, and order is dead), but was premised, by and large, by the problem of evil. In other words, whatever deity it was that the artist had once worshiped, it was no longer worthy of admiration. Without a god to praise, without an aesthetic ideal, without a cause, the poets fell apart or fell into a noisy silence. (“Noisy” in that poets seldom shut up. If they have nothing to say, they babble on, honing their craft, singing: nothing to sing.) This was, the story goes, the end of the modern, the beginning of postmodern.

Clearly, I do not subscribe. First, evil demands more than silence in response; ceding resistance to passivity and chaos is neither clever nor artful. Second, as I’ve said, no one really ever shuts up anyway–the author without authority is, nonetheless, a loud mouth. Finally, my God is not dead and: “He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out'” (Luke 19:40 NRSV. oremus Bible Browser).

Nevertheless, the times justify a longing for silence; the refusal to sing, may become the song of resistance beside the rivers of Babylon. And, at times, sin’s deep reach screams into the fibers of our personal and social existence. Realizing personal inadequacies, the poet might honestly join Donald Davie: “I held my tongue, and also / I discontinued my journals / … / … my calling: / it commits me to squawking / and running off at the mouth ” (“The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted”. Collected Poems, pg 382).

In any case, to speak is to implicate one’s self. And sometimes to speak is to realize just how deep the foul roots of greed and lethargy grow into the human soul. The oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is inking over the ocean in a great slick of poems. The “Deepwater Horizon” well holds all the rhymes anyone with ears should care to hear. Readers, where would we be today without our oil? What would our world be without the wretched convenience of “modern” transportation? Where would our sources of income go? And all the food we have eaten? The distances we travel for family and career? Our educations and even our books? What would be of nearly all or our ease and leisure?

Each and every word we have written and read is now rising, in great, reeking gallons in the Gulf. If there was ever a time to hold our tongues, it is now.