Add 'Weeds' and 'Spared' to Your Summer Reading List

Zachary J. S. Falck offers a rather a fascinating study of our understanding of what a weed actually is, while local poet Angele Ellis releases her latest collection. Both are worthy of being added to your summer reading list.

Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America by Zachary J. S. Falck; University of Pittsburgh Press; $40.

Spared by Angele Ellis; Main Street Rag; $10.

Summer is for many things: afternoon ballgames, splashing in the pools and taking vacations. All wonderful. However, every summer, we must contend with the villain in the mix: the yard. Front yard or backyard, it doesn’t matter, for there in the humid greenery, we will each be put to the test. Bent double and pulling from the soil the noxious growth that simply does not belong, the strange invaders with their pollen and thorny bits that stake their own claim to the magical months of summer. Yes, weeds, the enemy lurking in the grass and gardens.

Was it Sun Tzu or Von Kleist who stressed that knowledge of one’s enemy was the key to every successful military campaign? In this instance, we can turn to Zachary J. S. Falck and his primer on our seedy opponent in the trenches Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America. No, Falck’s is not a guide to the best weed-killers and homemade concoctions for the defense of your soil, but rather a fascinating study of our understanding of what a weed actually is. Definitions for what makes a weed are various and vague.

As Falck notes, “How a plant functions and how people perceive a plant are potentially conflicting rather than reinforcing aspects of what makes a plant a weed. Plants that grow rapidly are not necessarily useless. Plants that are considered unsightly may not germinate in diverse environments. That any plant can be a weed and that no plant is always a weed mean that plants are only thought to be weeds at particular times and in particular places.” As Falck makes clear throughout this brief but dense study, it all comes down to our own perceptions. The study of weeds, then, becomes a study of ourselves.

Central to our understanding of weeds is the space in which they inhabit. Generally, weeds are associated with rundown properties, vacant lots and abandoned urban areas. Falck writes, “The ceaseless changes of urban life, resulting from real estate development, cities’ production and distribution of waste, the perceptions and comprehensions of disease, evolving aesthetic norms, and municipal laws and operations allowed fortuitous flora to flourish and made them into and sustained them as urban environmental problems.” Of particular interest to Falck are the associations made by the general public with weeds and the poor and itinerant human beings who often lived in the same spaces. The identification of people as weeds is one of the more unsettling areas of Falck’s inquiry.

At times, Falck skims along the surface of this subject where a more critical eye would have been welcome, but overall, Weeds makes a convincing argument that urban ecology is an area ripe for further study.

Also in abundance this season, but happily so, are new collections from area poets. In her latest book, Spared, Angele Ellis is concerned with the esoteric and the erotic—with the transubstantiation of Christ’s body into bread and the sustenance we find in the heat and need of other human bodies. There’s a late summer’s humidity to Ellis’ lines, “Your body / prints mine on the stuccoed wall of desire – / no cerrado, only opening, coming and coming for you.”

There is a wonderful breadth to Spared, which moves facilely from a remembrance of a much loved grandmother and the cruelty which met far too many immigrants in America, “and you knew one more word, slapping / your hot face all the way home“; to the streets of Beirut and “the wind of the explosion / the glass glittering in her hair / the hole in the heart of the afternoon”; to a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art by Elvis, “His jumpsuit sprouts magic mushrooms, / his cape is a speeding silver train.” To everything and everyone in her poems, Ellis extends a grace and simple human dignity, even when such things seem to be in such short supply in this world.

Angele Ellis is both seeker and seer in these poems. Ever inquisitive, her poems wish to know the hardships and wonders of our lives, but her lines are also weighted with the heaviness of knowledge and the sadness that understanding brings with it. But always there is the devotion to poetry itself:

In the beginning, there was the Word, and the love of words. We must name, describe, explain each other as we live. From our Babel of emotion, we will translate the lost towers—make our rising voices trace the spirals of a shining bridge.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment