Of Witches, Weeds, and Words: on Gluck’s “Witchgrass”

Weeds occupy a singular linguistic space. It’s often assumed that language’s primary purpose is to name things, each word serving as an index finger meaning something along the lines of “that right there.” Call this the Adamic function:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

The word “weed,” however, is a kind of linguistic feint: it may seem to name that plant we just plucked from our garden and discarded, but in truth only names our attitude towards the plant: UNWANTED. Weed is itself a weed of language, refusing to function the way we think words should, leaving its object effectively nameless.

Louise Gluck’s poem “Witchgrass” casts this nameless state in a positive light. The poem opens with my favorite indefinite pronoun, “something,” creating a linguistic muck from which Gluck’s weed emerges.

Something
comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—

The voice of the poem then abruptly shifts, with the poem assuming the caustic voice of the witchgrass itself:

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—

The witchgrass rejects its name, casting it as a “slur / in your language.” The name “witchgrass” itself comes from a variant pronunciation of “quick grass,” referring to the plant’s fecundity (learn more about it on the University of California’s terrific weed gallery).

W-GM-PCAP-MP.002.jpg

Witchgrass, Panicum capillare.

Gluck however picks up on the “witch,” specifically its historical association with intolerance and scapegoating, suggesting that weeds serve a similar function. The plant decidedly refuses to play this role:

I’m not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion—

It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.

Like the word weed, “witch” often names, not the thing itself, but our fear and hatred, and the need project these feelings away from ourselves. The plant becomes “a little paradigm / of failure”—our failures, especially those we cannot acknowledge or confront directly.

But our articulate plant doesn’t merely reject the names we call it; it embraces namelessness. The poem concludes:

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.

Gardens are products of cultivation and care, of human intention; and a certain Garden is considered by many to be the birthplace of names. This plant “was here first…before / you ever planted a garden.” It’s the chaos/”disorder” from which language emerges and to which it returns. It is “quick”—alive, swift, protean—outstripping our intentions and our words. “I will constitute the field”: this wild fecundity founds language, allows language to emerge, change, grow, and die, but paradoxically is that which language itself can never contain.

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