19 October 2009

Kudzu: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #8

Kudzu isn't a literary trail as such, but kudzu is inevitably part of every Southern literary trail: part of the surroundings, part of the landscape, of the nature of the South. Kudzu, quite simply, is unbelievable in so many ways; it's medicinal, helping alcohol abusers reduce their intake; it's a good animal food; it can be used as furniture, such as strong tables; it can prevent soil erosion. And yet it's a menace, as it wraps its tentacles around everything: almost every rural landscape in the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi in particular) is smothered in kudzu. I once looked out my hotel window and saw nothing but this plant wrapping itself round telegraph poles, tree branches, everything it could get a hold on: it engulfs everything.

Kudzu was introduced from Japan into the US in 1876 in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, when it was seen as an exotic, ornamental plant. It was effectively used against soil erosion, but the problem with kudzu in the South is that it grows far better there than in Japan or China: it takes over everything, and many millions of dollars are now spent in controlling a plant that is in effect a weed. We passed vast symphonies, or cathedrals, of kudzu, endless kudzu creating beautiful patterns by the side of the road, but unfortunately could never stop at an opportune moment to photograph it.

There are many, many references to kudzu in literature, but perhaps the Georgian James Dickey's poem 'Kudzu' is the most famous. This is the first half of the poem, and gives more than an adequate flavor:

'Japan invades. Far Eastern vines
Run from the clay banks they are

Supposed to keep from eroding.
Up telephone poles,
Which rear, half out of leafage
As though they would shriek,
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows

At night to keep it out of the house.
The glass is tinged with green, even so,

As the tendrils crawl over the fields.
The night the kudzu has
Your pasture, you sleep like the dead.
Silence has grown Oriental
And you cannot step upon ground:
Your leg plunges somewhere
It should not, it never should be,
Disappears, and waits to be struck

Anywhere between sole and kneecap:
For when the kudzu comes,

The snakes do, and weave themselves
Among its lengthening vines,
Their spade heads resting on leaves,
Growing also, in earthly power
And the huge circumstance of concealment.
One by one the cows stumble in,
Drooling a hot green froth,
And die, seeing the wood of their stalls

Strain to break into leaf.'

Arlene Fleet, the protagonist in Southern-born Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama (2005) and whose 'daily ramblings' page on her website is entitled Faster than Kudzu believes that she has murdered the monster Jim Beverley by hitting him over the head with a bottle and kicking him in the kudzu. The recurring nightmare, of course, is that winter will turn the plants to leafless bones and reveal the body. Kudzu can't cover everything all the time.

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