Meaning Weeds

Weeds keep appearing in this unkempt blog, here, here, and even, unexpectedly, here. And now I’ve found another springing up in Carl Phillips’s recent collection, Silverchest. It’s bold, as weeds go, appearing in the first poem’s first line:

Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly
There’s a weed whose name I’ve meant all summer
to find out: in the heat of the day, dangling pods hardly
worth noticing: in the night, blue flowers…  It’s as if
a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,
briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before, and now
I’ve seen it. It is hard to see anyone who has become
like your own body to you. And now I can’t forget.

Weeds, revisited: As a word, “weed” is almost a cipher: it’s merely an “unwanted plant,” but that unwantedness depends on the person saying the word: a plant cultivated by one gardener may be seen as an invasive weed by another (mint, I imagine, fits this double description). “Weed” also names a space of inattention, a blanket term that conveys little information about the thing itself. In this regard, it’s language at its worst. But it could also be argued that “weed” circumscribes a region of linguistic potentiality, a place just waiting for words to happen.  

Poem: With its syntactic inversion and a sly linebreak, Phillips’s first line hints that the weed’s name somehow holds a summer’s worth of meaning. But it’s a feint, with “to find out” in the second line resolving the phrase in more familiar terms. But what Phillips notices about this weed is fascinating: when it’s most visible—during the day—it’s “hardly / worth noticing.” But at night and in darkness, it offers the most to see: blue flowers.

This already complicated/paradoxical situation forms the first half of the analogy, hinging on the 3rd line’s “as if,” that describes the relationship between the speaker and “he,” presumably a lover. Working out, in aptitude test fashion, what stands for what is a bewildering experience. Is the speaker the dangling pods? Or is he the night that somehow brings things to light? And what about the lover? I’ve show others this poem, and they agree that what’s revealed is a “bad” side of him. So why does the bad side work out to be analogous to the blue flower? Or maybe he’s the pods? …

These perplexities, I suspect, are intentional, and underscore the difficulty of the too-familiar, and how it becomes the overlooked. There’s no simple name for the confusion the poem enacts. Maybe “weed”—the name of the imperfectly named—is what he meant all summer.

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