poem by Jason Koo


Warm days I sat outside, enjoying the concrete.
The tilting chain-link fences, one strung up
With rope. The rocky soil, what was left
After my scorched-earth campaign wiped out
The weeds. The aboriginal weeds, hip-high,
Sometimes neck-high fuckers that took two hands
To free. Hard to believe such things could come
Out of that earth, which when I planted basil
Turned up chunks of rock, glass, paper, plastic,
Even some rubber balls. It wouldn’t give
Beyond two feet; my shovel edged and stopped
Against some prehistoric rock. I grew
Three basil plants in the middle of the yard,
Watering them religiously, coaxing
Them through their first few fragile weeks, until
They flourished in the summer sun and looked
—Like weeds. What made them “plants,” culinary
Herbs, while the others I waged war against
Were “weeds?” I didn’t think about this question
Much, just kept killing any upstart weeds
I saw threatening the yard. I took strange pride
In this, creating the image of my order
Against the backdrop of Robert Moses’s
Expressway cutting through the neighborhood.
Moses saw the homes and businesses
On 3rd Avenue as weeds. Then his plant raged
Into a weed, feeding on everything
Left standing, until the State, sixty years
Later, decided it was time to think
Of ways to clear it that would grow more green
Off the land. “That’s going to be a tunnel,”
My next-door neighbor, Ishmael, said to me
One night, pointing at the expressway. I found
This hard to believe. “You should buy your place.
These properties along the freeway are cheap
And going to be worth a lot more money.”
All the subtle powers at work I knew
So little about, tunneling under the ground
My efforts couldn’t crack, contending for
Empire: the State, the real estate investors,
The weeds, the ants steadily colonizing
The yard, sending swarmers through a hole
In my bathroom: and every morning I
Woke up and planted my identity
So firmly on the floor, stamping it through
The rooms so carefully articulated
With my possessions, calmly making myself
A cappuccino with a new machine
And peering hatefully at my backyard neighbor,
Who blasted his bachata all day long
And thought he could just come into my yard,
Dig up the dirt and knock down the wall
Between us, leaving all the rubble piled
On my side—which he did, because what say
Did I have in the matter? I was just
A colonist on some other powers’ land,
And even if I owned the place, like Ishmael
Did his, it wouldn’t really be mine, as his
Place wasn’t his, connected as it was
To other structures like my landlord’s, which
Was falling apart (to his indifference), and
Bachata boy’s backyard, which was turning
Into some kind of dance plantation louder
Than the expressway; which is why, when I
Went to stop the digging, I stood there soft
On softer, heaped-up earth just watching him
Ignore me, studying how he curtly worked
The ground, scooping up what looked like a skull
But was the plastic head of a coffee maker.
Poor Mr. Coffee, buried who knows when,
Or how, by (or with?) what lordly tenant,
Who once walked these grounds as assuredly
As me, grounds as shifting as the grounds
He packed each day into his machine, then dumped
The next blank morning to make way for more.



Jason Koo