Monday’s Poem: ‘Ragweed,’ by Kiki Petrosino

Neither wax, nor egg, nor honey on the knife.
In garden not, nor street nor bus nor bank—
Not sleep.  Not word.  Nor will-over-will
Not lung.  Not hull, or sail.  Just crank & tread

in place [no place] & white [not white] gets hot
& seethe & seethe—my sleep like steam
not long, but less.  So less, till I am I who cracks
at last, begs air & says Am I such root?  Such rot

for rage who scrapes, who darks each swatch of flesh
each branch of mesh  & salt & bit?
This rag—it  rob
& sneak & rob & sneak, my tongue gets pins & pine & less
& less.  Can run, but run gets gone. Can bellow, bellow

change.  Only most, only half, & less & less get
here, get thick  & stick.  Not breath.

Copyright © Kiki Petrosino.  Published with permission of the author.

Kiki Petrosino is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, where she teaches literature and creative writing.  Her debut collection, Fort Red Border, was released in 2009 by Sarabande Books.  She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Arts & Academe poetry editor Lisa Russ Spaar notes: “Great Nature,” Theodore Roethke writes in his poem “The Waking,”  “has another thing to do / To you and me.”  And who has not, at one time or another, felt the truth of this statement—as victim of a natural disaster, witness of a sublime sunset or of a soul-altering birth or death, or as sufferer of any physical or mental illness or other bodily transformation, including the changes wrought by pregnancy, orgasm, exercise, and . . . . allergy?

Statistics show that over half of all Americans suffer from some sort of food, plant, or other allergy.  And while it would seem to be an earthling’s birthright to be able to breathe freely, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, from a period commencing in late summer and continuing until the first hard autumn frost, some 10 to 20 percent of Americans suffer in particular from discomforts related to the late-summer and autumn pollen effusions of ragweed, also called bitterweed or bloodweed. Symptoms range from red eyes and stuffy noses to more severe reactions, such as full-blown and sometimes dire asthma and other breathing-related attacks. Why the human body reacts in this disordered way to ostensibly harmless environmental substances remains in large part a mystery.

Kiki Petrosino’s “Ragweed,” a loose sonnet, opens with a series of negations. Nothing, the speaker suggests—no remedy, no rest, no word, no place, no act of “will-over-will”—can protect the body under siege by its own immune system. The afflicted human has no choice but to “crank & tread / in place [no place]  & white [not white] gets hot / & seethe & seethe.”  Eerily, even the descriptors “place” and “white” are immediately negated, as, with ruthless and punishing force, the allergens mount their attack, invading and robbing even sleep, until the speaker—in lines within which truncated, abrupt phrases and caesurae mimic the contraction of her breathing—cries, “I am I who cracks / at last, begs air & says Am I such root?  Such rot // for rage who scrapes, who darks each swatch of flesh / each branch of mesh & salt & bit?”

In a powerful move, Petrosino puts into italics the very “rag rage” (how provocative, these two words in juxtaposition) that her speaker has no remnant breath left to curse. Job, Patron Saint of undeserved malady, haunts the diction and the content here, but in the third quatrain, Petrosino adds her own spin to the lament, granting the ragweed a kind of antic agency: “This rag – it rob / & sneak & rob & sneak, my tongue gets pins & pine & less / & less.  Can run, but run gets gone.  Can bellow, bellow // change.”

At the cusp of expiration, the poet, in her sonnet’s couplet, suggests that when we are at the limits of our verbal and fugal capabilities (“Can run, but run gets gone”), we have as a last recourse, however halved or lessened, our primal, pre-literate ability to bellow of and for release, rescue, change.  “Bellow” is animal noise, is prior to human language. Yet the anguish in that sound—that wish to live, to be heard—is one source of lyric poetry:

Can bellow, bellow
Change.  Only most, only half, & less & less get
Here, get thick & stick.  Not breath.

As the poet moves in the final two lines from staccato anapests, into heartbeat iambs, into halting but insistent spondees, we see the poem distilling itself, as though to its most essential, surviving syllable. Not “not breath,” but “breath,” a gesture of acutely qualified and proffered hope.

(A&A illustration incorporating photos by Flickr users mcfarlandmo and homeredwardprice)

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