BETH ANN FENNELLY
The Kudzu Chronicles
Kudzu sallies into the gully
like a man pulling up a chair to a table
where a woman was happily dining alone.
Kudzu sees a field of cotton,
wants to be its better half.
Pities the red clay, leaps across
the color wheel to tourniquet.
Sees every glass half full,
pours itself in. Then over the brim.
Scribbles in every margin
with its green highlighter. Is begging
to be measured. Is pleased
to make acquaintance with
your garden, which it is pleased to name
Place Where I Am Not.
Yet. Breeds its own welcome mat.
if all it wants
is to lay one heart-
on your sleeping back?
when the ice
machine dumps its
armload of diamonds?
The Japanese who brought the kudzu here in 1876
didn’t bring its natural enemies,
those hungry beasties sharpening their knives,
and that’s why kudzu grows best
so far from the land of its birth.
As do I, belated cutting, here without my blights,
without my pests, without the houses or the histories
or the headstones of my kin, here, a blank slate
in this adopted cemetery, which feels
a bit like progress, a bit like cowardice.
Kudzu quickly aped the vernacular—most folks assume
it’s native. Thus, it’s my blend-in mentor, big brother
waltzing in a chlorophyll suit, amethyst cufflinks.
When I first moved down South, I spent a year
one afternoon with a sad sack doyenne in Mobile
and her photos of Paris, interesting only because of her hats—
ostrich feathers, ermine trim, and pearl hat pins—
Oh, no, I don’t wear them now, they’re in the attic,
full of moths, wish I could get rid of them,
she said when I asked—and I, green enough,
Yankee enough, to believe this, said I’d like them—
and wherever I went after that, the Spanish moss
wagged its beards at me repeating her judgement—
pushy—that took a year to stop smarting—Hey lady,
where I’m from? They called me exuberant.
I asked a neighbor, early on,
if there was a way
to get rid of it—
Well, he said,
over the kudzu fence,
if you sprayed it
the Baptists would eat it—
and walked back inside his house.
September 9 and still so ripe
the bread molds overnight,
the mushrooms pop up like periscopes,
tree’s limbs wear hair nets—
really the frothy nests of worms—
the men have athlete’s foot,
the women yeast infections,
and even on Country Club Drive
they can’t keep the mold
off their cathedral ceilings
Isn’t it rather a privilege to live so close to the cemetery that the dead can send us greetings, that the storm can blow bouquets from the graves to my front yard? Yes, the long spring here is beautiful, dusk brings its platter of rain to the pot luck and the centipede grass is glad and claps its thousand thousand legs, oh once last May I flung open my door to the rain-wrung, spit-shined world, and there it was on my welcome mat, red plastic carnations spelling: MOM.
Odor of sweat, sweet rot, and road kill.
I run past this slope of kudzu
all through the bitchslap of August,
run past the defrocked
and wheelless police car
kudzu cuffed in back),
run past these buzzards so often
they no longer look up,
tucking black silk napkins
beneath their bald black necks.
Sweat, rot, and road kill—and yet
the purple scent of kudzu blossoms.
After a while, other perfumes smell too simple, or too sweet.
After a while, running these country roads—
one small woman in white,
the steel wail of the pedal guitar—
one forgets the kudzu’s
avalanche, and that’s
when it makes its snatch—
turn your head to catch—
then it holds its hands
behind its back, whistling.
Juan Carlos Garcia RIP
is painted on the road.
If you need to dump a body,
do it here.
Nothing can go wrong on a day like this,
at the county fair with my friends and their kids,
and we’re all kids wherever there’s a 500 pound pumpkin,
a squash resembling Jay Leno,
fried Twinkies and Oreos,
kudzu tea, kudzu blossom jelly, kudzu vine wreathes,
4-H Club heifers and a newborn goat which peed like a toad when I lifted it,
we’re all kids drinking lemonade
spiked with vodka, strolling between the rackety wooden cabins
waving our fans, “Jez Burns for Coroner” stapled on a tongue depressor,
then milling around the bandstand
where every third kid in the talent show sings “God Bless America,”
where the governor kisses babies,
where later “The High School Reunion Band”
makes everyone boogie from shared nostalgia and bourbon
I’m dancing in front of the speakers
and let the bassist pull me on stage, where
I dance like I do for my bedroom mirror
Behold I Am A Rock Star
I cross my wrists over my shirt front, grab a fist of hem in each hand,
gesture like I would shuck it off over my head
just to watch my fans go wild
I love Mississippi
later I tell D and A about it and they say
Neshoba County Fairgrounds
wasn’t that where the bodies of the civil rights activists were dumped?
Like the kudzu I’d stroll away, whistling,
hands behind my back,
like on a day when nothing, nothing can go wrong
When I look back on Illinois,
I see our little house on the prairie, the bubble in the level. I see
tyrannical horizon, each
solitary human pinned against the sky less like a Spanish exclamation mark
than a lower case i.
One had perspective enough to see the ways one’s life was botched.
When I look back, it is always
winter, forehead cold against bedroom window, below me the neighbor’s
offering its supplicant eyeful of snow month after month after month
to the heedless white carapace of sky.
It was either
the winter of my father’s slow drowning in liquids clear like water
from the dumb skulls of vegetables—potatoes, hops, and corn—
Or it was the winter
deep inside my body where my baby died by drowning
in liquids clear like water
cut with blood—for weeks I walked, a tomb, a walking tomb.
In the heartland I remember,
it was always winter, and if spring came at all it came like a crash of guests
arriving so late
we’d changed into pajamas, thrown the wilted party food away.
The western wind we’d waited for
hurled an oak limb, like a javelin, through the black eye of the trampoline.
It’s not fair, my mother claims,
to blame a state simply because each morning sorrow patronized my kitchen
and stood behind my barstool,
running her bone-cold fingers through my hair.
But Mama, sorrow
hasn’t managed to track me here. Strict, honest Illinois: No more.
Let me grow misty
in mindless Mississippi, a name that children chant between numbers
to measure out their seconds—
ironic in this state that’s rotten
at keeping time, where, as Faulkner wrote, The past is never dead;
it’s not even past.
what Barry Hannah writes: In Mississippi, it is difficult to achieve a vista.
Is that why we fuck so much?
Because we’re so hot to the touch?
It’s too hot to think, too hot for the paper
your fingers sweat through, we’re deep
in the dog days so why not take off
early from work, why not take off
the this and the that,
what’s a little more sweat from a bottle of Bass,
what’s a little more sweat from his hand on your ass,
why not stop, drop, and roll, why not climb up on top,
what a view of the moon, what a nice little pop,
Am I not a Southern writer now,
Have I not walked to the giant plot the kudzu wants but is denied,
Have I not paused to read the brass historical marker,
Have I not marked the twenty paces eastward with solemn feet,
enjoying my solemnity,
Have I not trod lightly on those who lay sleeping,
Have I not climbed the three steps to the Falkner plot, raised as a throne is raised,
Have I not seen his stone, the “u” he added to sound British,
affecting a limp when he returned from a war where he saw no action,
“Count No Count,” making his butler answer the door
to creditors he couldn’t pay, offering to send an autographed book
to pay his bill at Neilson’s department store
because it will be worth a damn sight more than my autograph on a check,
Have I not also been ridiculous, have I not also played at riches,
Have I not assumed the earth owed me more than it gave,
especially now that he lies beneath it, under this sod blanket, this comforter,
in the cedar-bemused cemetery of his own describing,
Have I not stooped beside his gravestone and sunk my best pen into the red dirt,
leaving it there to bloom with the others
beside the pennies, the scraps of lyrics, the corncobs and bourbon bottles,
because we often dress our supplications so they masquerade as gifts,
Have I not suspected Faulkner would scoff at this, at all of this,
but have I not felt encradled?
Common names include
Covering seven million acres,
Like the noble peanut,
a legume, but unlike the noble peanut,
forced into guerrilla warfare—
1945, U.S. government stops subsidizing Kudzu Clubs
1953, Government stops advocating the farming of kudzu
1960, Research shifts from propagation to eradication
1972, Congress declares a weed
1980, Research proves certain herbicides actually cause kudzu to grow faster
1997, Congress declares a noxious weed
Oh you can hoe it out of your garden, of course,
but, listen, isn’t that your phone?
Take heed, blithe surgeon,
resting your hoe
in the snake-headed leaves, and walking inside.
The leaves disengage their jaw bones—
cough once to choke the hoe halfway down,
cough twice, and it was never there.
When I die here,
for I sense this, I’ll die in Mississippi,
state with the sing-songiest name
I remember, at five, learning to spell—
when I die here,
my singular stone will stand alone
among the Falkners and the Faulkners,
the Isoms and the Neilsons, these headstones
which fin down hills like schools of fish.
I’ll be a letter of a foreign font,
what the typesetter used to call a bastard.
And even when my husband and daughter
are dragged down beside me,
their shared name
won’t seem to claim my own,
not to any horseman passing by.
Listen, kin and stranger,
when I go to the field and lie down,
let my stone be a native stone.
Let the deer come at dusk
from the woods behind the church
and let them nibble acorns off my grave.
Then let the kudzu blanket me,
for I always loved the heat,
let its hands rub out my name,
for I always loved affection.
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