Monday, October 31, 2005

To Bewitch or Not to Bewitch: Tone in Louise Glück’s “Witchgrass”

As a plant, it was introduced from Europe to North America for erosion control in cultivated fields, but as a word, witchgrass has a somewhat more colorful history. From the Middle English, quitch grass, the word came to modern English as the homophonic quick grass, due to its nature of spreading rapidly and uncontrollably. When American farmers discovered that the hairy weed, which can grow to over three feet tall, not only spread rapidly, but refused to die - as if protected by some other power - the name quickly developed the connotation, witch grass. In her 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Wild Iris, Louise Glück uses tone to give voice to this relentless supernatural weed with her poem, which shares its name.

The opening stanza of “Witchgrass” establishes the mood – dark and mysterious:

Comes into the world unwelcome
Calling disorder, disorder—

What is named here is not a plant, nor a man, but “something.” “Something,” implies that this thing is unknown - ‘the unknown’ being a key attribute of fear.

This “something” does not have a ‘natural’ arrival: It does not sprout, as a plant; it is not born, as a man; it, rather in a spiritual manner, “comes into the world unwelcome.” Which raises the question: Why is it unwelcome? And unwelcome to whom?

Supporting this tenuous mood, Glück’s repetition, “disorder, disorder” recalls the language of a spell – in the manner of the incantations of the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Double double, toil and trouble”


“A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come!”

Having established the Salem witch-hunting mood in the first stanza, the poem dons second person in the second stanza. The tone: defensive – even defiant. As if accused of being a witch, the plant takes voice and scolds the reader:

If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another way
to blame
one tribe for everything

One can literally feel the plant’s hairs rise from the page with the phrases “you hate me so much” and “don’t bother.”

The focus of the poem narrows as the plant clarifies who has considered it unwelcome: the “you” and “your” here, refer to those who call the plant “witchgrass” – i.e. English speakers, or more generally, Man. The plant construes its bestowed name as “one more slur” and “…another way/ to blame.” The personified plant’s tone for the remainder of the poem is appropriately indignant.

In the third stanza, the plant appeals to the religious sensibility of man for a change in its perception:

as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
one enemy—

“As we both know” is nothing less than patronizing. And if one considers that modern English speakers are overwhelmingly monotheistic, “if you worship/one god…” is merely rhetorical – and certainly sarcastic. The plant’s tone is undermining its appeal to be seen in a different light. Which raises the question: Is this really an appeal for a change in Man’s opinion?

And just in case Man is too thick-skulled to notice this subtle exercise in condescension, the fourth stanza, which contains the crux of the poem, opens with the plant stating its stance directly:

I’m not the enemy
Only a ruse to ignore
What you see happening
Right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure

The plant maintains that it is not the enemy of Man. The plant asserts that the negative attention its name garners simply distracts Man from his real enemy, Satan. And while the poem has presented itself as largely literal prior to this point, it announces itself as allegorical in the lines “here in this bed/ a little paradigm/ of failure.” This “bed [of soil]” where this “what” that Man sees “happening” is a microcosm of the failures of the World.

The poem then specifies this “what” that is happening and resumes its bitterness:

… One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day

The word “precious” here is filled with vitriol. This tone is not one of attracting more flies with honey. Rather, it is the scathing tone of one who has given up the art of persuasion. And taking the allegorical clue from earlier, the “here” where the “precious flowers” die can be read as the World; the “precious flowers”: as Man, who inhabits the World. The plant is saying that despite the reality that Man dies everyday, Man still searches restlessly for meaning. The plant underscores that this meaningless searching is the real root of the problem:

and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion

and in the fifth stanza

… you… go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together

Here, the plant points out Man’s irrationality. Man’s “cause” of why the precious flowers have died is not specified. Rather, the cause is “whatever is left,” “whatever happens to be sturdier…” The repetition of “whatever” highlights the lack of rationale in Man’s process and speaks to the plant’s exasperation. The plant insists that its naming as “witchgrass” is not a result of any actual witchcraft – has no real basis - but is just another “whatever” in Man’s irrational process of “laying blame.”

If one considers that “a weed is just a flower out of place,” as the old saying goes, then “Witchgrass” is a poem of a plant bitterly asserting its flower-tude. And in the final two stanzas, the plant asserts its self-determination:

I don’t need your praise
To survive.

Finally, the plant ‘pulls rank’ on Man, attacking him with a dart of truth, which is undeniable, but also eternal:

I was here first,
Before you were here, before
You ever planted a garden.

The plant declares its seniority with, “I was here first.” It reminds Man that before Man exploited “witchgrass” for his own cultivating purposes – even before Man ever existed – the plant already lived on Earth.

This now yields a different reading of the opening stanza:

Comes into the world unwelcome
Calling disorder, disorder—

It is not the plant, who is unwelcome; it is not the plant, which causes disorder. It is Mankind. And if religion is a search for eternal Truth, then, in the poem’s conclusion, the plant leaves Man a taste of his own piety:

…I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

This is a truth which echoes. And after refuting being named for the witch for the entire poem, “Witchgrass” ends bewitchingly with these haunting lines.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Roots and Culture in Tanure Ojaide's "Akua-ba"

Nigerian poet, Tanure Ojaide writes, “The creative writer is never an airplant, but someone who is grounded in some specific place… Every writer’s roots are very important in understanding his or her work.” Ojaide’s axiom is especially true in his own work, which reflects the complex politics, religion, and culture of his birthplace in Nigeria’s Delta region. His poem “Akua-ba” is grounded in the “specific place” of the mythology of Ghana’s Akan people.

In traditional Akan’s matrilineal society, a woman’s greatest desire – and highest achievement – is to bear children. Consequentially, a woman’s inability to bear children makes her, in a sense, a failure. “Akua-ba” is based on a tale from Akan mythology of a barren woman, named Akua, who consults a priest to attain fertility. The priest orders her to commission the carving of a small wooden child, which Akua is to carry strapped to her back. Instructed to give the child beads, gifts, and trinkets and to talk and sing to the child, Akua is to treat the wooden doll as if it were real.

Fellow villagers laugh at Akua’s practice and begin calling the wooden doll, “Akua ba,” which means “Akua’s child.” Eventually, when Akua not only gives birth, but gives birth to a baby girl – prized in a matrilineal society - the same villagers who ridiculed her begin adopting the same practice to overcome barrenness.

With a flat, disk-shaped head, this wooden doll, akuaba (which is known more commonly in the West as a fertility doll) is the ideal of Akan beauty. Understanding this context of how the doll is used and its mythological basis is essential to understanding not only the content, but also the aesthetics, which inform Ojaide’s poem, “Akua-ba.”
The poem opens with a complex opening image:

a childless mother draws tears
from the cemetery of her mind
In line 1, by naming the woman “mother,” Ojaide signifies that this woman, at some time in the past, has borne a child. But by using the modifier “childless,” the poet also indicates that this mother no longer possesses this child. In line 2, “the cemetery of her mind” reveals that the child is dead.

This is an intriguing image. A cemetery is typically thought of as not holding water, but of holding its antithesis, dirt and stone. A cemetery is, rather, dry. That a “childless mother” is drawing tears from a place of dirt and stone speaks a depth of emotion that is beyond literal comprehension – that is, metaphoric. She grieves her dead child, drawing tears from a place that has no tears to give. When one considers the value placed on motherhood in Akan culture, the pathos of “Akua ba” is magnified.

In lines 3-4, as Ojaide extends the water metaphor, he introduces the first-person perspective:

In her face I see the bed that
The river hasn’t covered with sheets

The introduction of the first person here further amplifies the pathos of the poem. The scene of this grieving woman becomes even more immediate. The water of her tears, which has been drawn from a cemetery, is so overflowing that it is now called a river; and this childless mother’s face becomes “the bed” of this river. Ojaide’s specific choice of “bed” and “sheets” as images, while furthering the water metaphor, also conjure a haunting image of the empty bed of the woman’s dead child.

But all here is not loss. Line 4 suggests that this grieving is not relentless as “the river hasn’t covered” the woman’s face “with sheets” [of water]. It suggests that there is some reprieve from this outpouring of grief – perhaps, even hope.

And in the next stanza, this glimmer of hope is developed:

Even the singing bird that loses its voice
Still loves to bathe in the stream
Where its feathers will explode into colours
That relieve silences of a dumb creed
Now, Ojaide equates this mother, who has lost her child, to “the singing bird that loses its voice.” Each has lost its instrument of purpose – the Akan mother, her child; the bird, its voice. Yet, the singing bird reclaims its happiness; it still “loves to bathe in the stream/Where its feathers will explode into colours.”

The use of “stream” here is significant as it illustrates the transformative power of water. First, water appeared as the singular “tears/ from the cemetery of her mind.” Then, it became the more overwhelming “river,” or an outpouring of grief. And now, it becomes a soothing “stream” which “relieve[s] silences” of a singing bird – i.e. a stream of renewal, a stream of rebirth.

In the third stanza, the poem itself transforms into a healing device. Incantatory and ritualistic, the anaphora of “For her who” is true to the oral roots of Akan culture. Each action is a call for a total healing – of body, soul, and mind; of past, present, and future:

For her who in prayer rubs her breasts with saliva,

This first incantation is centered in the body (breasts) and rooted in the past. It is the gesture of a mother whose breasts ache for her dead child.

For her who sings lullabies to a doll,

This second incantation is centered in the soul (singing lullabies) and straddles the present. In Akan society, singing lullabies to an akuaba is a ritual done to mourn a lost child (past), but it is also a ritual done to promote fertility for a new child (future).

For her who in dreams plays in after-rain puddles

This final incantation is centered in the head and is projected in the future. The woman here does not mope in these puddles, but “plays” in them as the singing bird of the third stanza, who bathes in the stream. This is the language of overcoming, the language of holistic healing.
The poem climaxes in the final line of the stanza where the poet reasserts the first person, proclaiming, “I sing this song.”

Rather than neatly resolving the poem with a cliché equivalent to “Time will heal all wounds,” in the final stanza, Ojaide leaves the poem open-ended with possibility:

Every womb’s a gate – ahead
An evergreen livery of singer birds

Ojaide offers solace to the Akan woman in that her womb is a gate to a very lush “evergreen livery of singer birds.” The poet does not specify the number, only that it is plural. This rich, green image suggests fertility - the possibility of more children in the future.

The last two lines of “Akua-ba” are consistent with the poem’s mythological basis. As the myth of Akua offered a lesson to those who ridiculed her in her challenge with fertility, so this poem offers a lesson to the Akan woman who has endured this tragedy.

Last fruits of the season,
So dearly priced

This is no occasion to stop living, but to do the exact opposite – to hold life even more preciously.