Jordan Davis’s “Kale” was first published in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
In a review in “The Constant Critic” (here), Jordan Davis writes:
Just as there are not that many ways to feel truly satisfied, there are not that many serious subjects for poetry. (Sorry.)
So, what is the serious subject of “Kale”?
On the surface of it, the subject is the bitter, leafy, nutritious, trendy vegetable that’s fairly tasty with bacon, although the poet doesn’t mention the bacon, or its nutritive power-pack, or its being à la mode. A marvelously productive plant, kale apparently thrives under snow and only begins to taste good after being hit with a hard frost. So there is a quality of impossibility to it, a suggestion of plenitude in the presence of want, but also a sense of “you can’t kill it,” which might matter to someone who hated the taste of it. For some people, kale may have a kind of “eat your medicine” feel to it. Another reaction might be, “Kale? What do I kale?” But the more “serious” side of kale has to be its staying power, lasting as it does beyond belief, improving under assault, demonstrating a kind of maturation, rising from the dead of winter.
Kale and its relative, collard greens, are vegetables of the common man. This is an important element of the poem. We are not talking endive, here, or white asparagus, heirloom tomatoes or artichokes. Kale is a survival food. We are talking about what is sustenance for the common man, but it remains to be seen, as the poem plays out, what that sustenance represents.
In the first line, the speaker says he can “hear James but can’t see him . . .” I feel a trap here. Sometimes a name is just a name. After all, James may just be his son’s name, after the grandfather. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the James family, all of whom craved autonomy. But then there is also James of the Bible, who had an uncertain identity and may have been any one of several people, and who advised patience while waiting for the second coming.
So I note self-reliance and reappearance. Kale, a vegetable that has a second coming of its own, being better after frost, feels born up.
It turns out, however, that James is a child who is small enough to disappear behind a snow bank, but then “pops up.”
The speaker and the boy walk to the “fenced-in garden” where their goal is kale, of which the precise word appears only in the title, and doesn’t reappear, except in alternate phrasings, such as in “tall stumps” and “low curly ones.” Our perception that these phrases signify kale “pops up,” especially following the remark James makes that “The ones buried/in snow are insulated . . .”
The word kale has a Scots origin, kale having been grown in the kailyard beside the house. In the late nineteenth century, a group of Scottish writers sprang up called the “Kailyard School.” They began producing what the Britannica calls “a sentimental idealization of humble village life” (here). It wasn’t long before there was an intense reaction to this mawkery. (Okay, mawkishness.)
One is reminded that sentimentality is like the deer in this poem; just as the writer has had to fence off his garden against the marauding deer (about which people can be, despite the ticks, so sentimental), he has to also fence off his poetry against sentimentality, which can be as equally seductive as a deer.
Does the subject of this poem seem at risk for sentimentality? It would be hard to wax too sentimental about kale, except that Davis is also talking about the life in the boy, who “pops up” and who can sound very sophisticated when he says, “The ones buried in the snow are insulated.” It’s a kind of recitation, which reminds the father of “The Pruning Book.” It’s the kind of thing that makes a parent kind of proud. Pride practically begs for pruning.
In the very next line, after the father muses over the boy citing Lee Reich on kale to him, someone says:
If you cut a butterfly bush
down to nothing it grows back
The next year twice as high.
Who says this? The boy could have, as a kind of geeky non-sequitur or parroting of an adult, but more likely it is the father thinking a constellation of thoughts: that the boy is like a butterfly bush, popping up all over and so beautiful to boot, and even if you cut him down to size he will spring back up. But at the same time, the parent might be thinking about how you have to keep cutting that old pride back down to size, and even then, it doubles back. And then there’s the kailyard sentimentality always threatening to blaze up twice as tall after you’ve cut it out.
Pruning is a theme, then, as is the work of the farm in general – plowing and fencing and harvesting. There is a backhand pride in these topics. These activities are also poetic activities, the way you shape words and experiences, editing, pruning, plowing, and picking some leaves to harvest and some to gestate.
So what’s the (serious) subject of this poem?
But wait – what’s a Flarf poet doing talking about seriousness, anyway? (Jordan Davis is one of the original Flarf poets.) Flarf (think fluff and barf) was an uppity, outrageous, in-your-face-hilarious school of poetry in the early 2000’s that is worth googling, given one of its muses was googling. It’s very easy to see how a bunch of young poets would need this, having gotten to where they were only to find that the positions with tenure had all been taken. Laughing in concert is as good for the soul as kale for the body.
I think there’s a touch of Flarf in this serious poem when the poet makes the gardener’s leaves of kale a bit like the poet’s leaves poetry. That’s the poet being not sentimental and not preening about being a poet, and it works.
But then there’s the seriousness: the hard work of the gardener, the kale itself, unsightly and long lasting, despite assault, and the way it all can also stand in for writing.
The red threads on the garden fence are a loose end. And what about that garden? Sometimes a garden is just a garden. Wouldn’t that be going too far? Wouldn’t that be a bit of Kailyard School of Poetry? Except for this: the Kailyard is where we all start and from which we all hope to emerge with a second chance.
This poem has a trust in plenty, as long as you do the work. Boys pop up, cats have kittens, and sometimes extra toes as well, words appear and reappear, butterfly bushes get cut back and grow back twice as tall, and kale goes on forever.
But you have to keep tabs on things: fencing and pruning and also minding the kids. Beyond the question of a serious subject there is the question of writing effectively.
In a couple of his Constant Critic reviews the word “plainspoken” appears, and I sense that plainspoken is a goal for him, and that part of being plainspoken is being a little self-deprecating, and a little funny. It feels important that he doesn’t give us any explanations or interpretations.
And then there is the question of what attitude he takes with his reader. He mentions in a review of Glück that she sometimes sounds “arrogant” and “premeditated” to him, and depressing in the extreme (here). Unlike Glück, what Davis has done in this poem is celebrate something beautiful in as ordinary a language as he can muster, language that reflects the process of thought. After several pages of musing about William Carlos Williams (whom he doesn’t particularly like), Davis remarks, “For me the significance of Williams is in recognizing that beauty is where you find it” (here).
This poem’s serious subject has to do with what to treasure (life, growth, change, endurance) and how to do it. With care, and with celebration. When the little boy and the man harvest the kale in the plastic popcorn chalice, it’s an everyday ceremony. And the Good Book is The Pruning Book.
“Kale” appears to be about love and work. I liked it a lot.
Well, and what about James and the second coming? I don’t know. That’s a loose end I might have to let go of. Except for this.
When I google “Jamey” I get Jamey Rodemeyer, a bisexual New York state teen who committed suicide in 2011. This is so sad I can’t think. Death and an exuberant little boy in one thought. There is no way of knowing how Davis means the name to reverberate, but this is The New Yorker, and Jamey Rodemeyer was a New Yorker. Wikipedia tells me that the New York state legislature was pressed to pass “Jamey’s Law,” legislation that would protect against cyber-bullying. Although googling is part of Jordan Davis’s poetics, and I feel justified in the move, it doesn’t really matter now what Davis meant by Jamey. Now I must stop and pray for all the Jameys of the world.
Why I think Davis could be remembering Jamey R. is that I noted how strangely the first two lines of the poem read upon first reading. That the poem has a note of resurrection when the boy “pops up” underscores the Jamey R. reading. The way the dangerousness of the snow plow and the smallness of the little boy are juxtaposed makes more sense. The fact that James is never explicitly described as the speaker’s son also makes more sense. The references to being buried under snow make more sense. The necessity for fences and protection make more sense. The intensity of return promised in the butterfly bush is all the more important.
And then there is the garden, with all its echoes of: “Why have you forsaken me?”
If Davis had Jamey Rodemeyer in mind, the poem is a means of elegy, and suddenly its guard against sentimentality is an act of an utter seriousness, and its flight of hope an act of an utter courage, and its plainspoken frame an act of utter deliberation.
I wish I could talk to Jordan Davis. I want to say: I hear things in this poem. I question it. Forgive me if I’ve made this into something more than you meant. But I hear things in this poem.
Life must be treasured. Life is an act of survival. Life must be nurtured and protected. Life is to be celebrated.