Monday, August 23, 2021

Salvinia Molesta

As I took my book and pen and spiral notebook outside to read and take notes, it reminded me of homework, in a good way, awaking in me some back-to-school spirit. And Salvinia Molesta, by Victoria Chang (University of Georgia Press, 2008) provided some sad lessons in Chinese history inside its amazing poems. And there were crows and other coincidences, too.

"Jiang Qing" is a persona poem with the epigraph: --Mao Zedong's wife committed suicide while under house arrest for crimes related to the Cultural Revolution. In it, she says

     I used to speak so smoothly in pavilions, even
     crows and clouds came down to hear.

Chang's "Ode to Iris Chang" is about "the December 1937 invasion of the Chinese city Nanking by the Japanese army," to quote the book's Notes, and another suicide. This book took me to other parts of the world, to new perspectives on my previous learning.

And I learned what Salvinia molesta is, "[k]nown as the world's worst weed," in that poem's epigraph but looking a lot like an aquatic plant in my town's water feature. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me it can be used to clean water of pollution, and I do think my town's greenery is self-watering and self-cleaning. So, hmm. But that title poem is also about a businessman tried and acquitted of obstruction of justice. 

So I keep learning. And the coincidences continue, words or images found in the other August books: cicadas, honeysuckle, pigs, cows, the moon, gardening, as in "Spring Planting": 

     I am gardening, but my mind is tilling. The crows enter my yard.
     They remind me of ink slabs

     Chinese calligraphers used--not until mixed with water did
     their black ink breathe and broth.

And then, thanks to one of Chang's Notes at the back of the book, I assigned myself a little compare-contrast homework. Chang says her poem "'Ars Poetica as Birdfeeder and Humingbird' is conversing with Louise Gluck's poem 'Witchgrass' in Wild Iris, in particular, her lines: 'I don't need your praise / to survive' and 'I will constitute the field.'" So I pulled out The Wild Iris, possibly my favorite book of poems ever, and re-read it, starting with "Witchgrass" before going back to the beginning. It hits me every time, that last line. And here's the last stanza before it, too:

     I don't need your praise 
     to survive. I was here first,
     before you were here, before
     you ever planted a garden.
     And I'll be here when only the sun and moon
     are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

     I will constitute the field.

And in Chang's poem, "I am not

     a weed, I need your praise to survive.
     The field will consume me.

     The field has chosen sides. The field is
     not hungry for the middling.

     How I hate the field and what it sees, its
     teeth digging out the ochre

     of mediocre....

Ah, the poet's worst fear! Being mediocre. And how wordplay partly disperses it! This and the other ars poetica poems in Salvinia Molesta are bracing, honest, inspiring. It feels good to be schooled so.

And it was frequently August in The Wild Iris.

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