Arctium Lappa

Marco Wilkinson

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Burdock, possibly Beurre-dock, “butter”-dock, relic of the Norman invasion:

Little bear, rough burr, this is your sweet beurre offering:  she carried you across the autumn fields of time, small snag of flesh, into dream and out of it into world.

Beggar’s Buttons

I remember that my aunt’s backyard (the one where rows of corn and towers of tomatoes always grew in ordered abundance) when I was only three or four years old dropped off past the chain-link fence, a precipitous cliff of fine sand molded by rains into colorless lava flows. And in the distance the half-constructed houses. The concrete foundations like swimming pools. The wild and uncharted terraforming of what was probably once forest before I was even born into yet another somnolescent weave of curving streets and house after house of perfect families that would never be mine.

And there in the sandy scrub of the soft descent to this new becoming world were the dried-out hooks of tenacity, the seedheads of burdock catching on my little shirt as I clambered about in anxious pursuit of my older cousins lest they leave me behind. Little burr, small reminder of my own attempts to catch a ride, to stow along on a voyage to comfort and ease, to a family with a father and a mother, and a purchase on some portion of stability. You too are calling out, “Bear me,” searching searching tearing at the stitches of others’ lives trying to make your way into the weave.

After school one day a week we had our Cub Scout meeting at Bernie Mulligan’s house. His mom was our den mother; his house, our lair; the backwoods behind, our hidden laboratory for discerning male dominance. After dutifully pledging allegiance and doing kitchen science experiments, we headed outside to play like a sleuth of bear cubs. Squirming on hands and knees through the dusty dirt under an arching tangle of briars we arrived at “the Fort.” Who got to enter its precincts changed week to week and offered lessons in humiliation and cruelty. Sharpen your barbs. Tangle your snares of boyhood logic into unbreakable nets of shame and hurl. Keep another out if only to keep yourself in. The wretched’s only defense: the carefully collected burrs from outside the Fort fashioned into a ball and thrown with fury. And then run.

Burdock is a rough plant, growing in the tumble of hedgerows and forest edges, against the edge of a stone path where it cannot be dislodged. It is persistent, impertinent.  Its rough warty leaves fountain blue and green from petioles bloody as bruises. Its stalk, tenacious and stringy with streaks of violet, terminates in tender pink pricks of little thistle flowers that drying uncurl their claws. Its taproot runs deep and thick into the clenching earth.

Arctium lappa, L.: Arctium, from arktos, “bear;” lappa “to seize”

Bear bur, rough
wild growl in the hedge
at the edge of
the field patrolling the perimeter.
Little bear burrowing
in your den, deep excavations
uncover sweetness but you’re
not going anywhere without a fight.
Paw at me, rough me up.
Scratched cheeks run through
the field and the autumn sun
fills the emptied-out blue sky.
Your sleuth of siblings all
menace with spikes, barbs, fangs, and claws,
but you little bear bury
your tiny
nails in and hug, hang, hanker for
some new home away from
here before the winter crashes in.
Mother’s soft underbelly,
moist leaves and duff,
rub your cheek
into the ground
and pray
you make it
until Spring.

Philanthropium, “man-lover,” for the characteristic “love” of its burrs for any passerby


[“Like cures like.” Gravelly burdock seeds ground down will likewise grind away and dispel stony grievances lodged in all the soft cul-de-sacs of the body.]


Flinty seed at the heart of a million tiny grasping hooks. Hitching for a ride, hedging your bets you’ll take anything you can get. The first time you went to the theater with no marquee and passed through the glass doors covered over with reflective Mylar, soft ridges of corduroy pressed against the turnstile at the counter in the dim fluorescent light, and you pushed your way through.  Seated in the back, you waited to be carried away, by the grunting flicker of electric shadows on the screen or by the smooth white face that slid into the seat two away from you only a few minutes after you arrived.

(When you were seven, you and your older cousin would hide in a fort of bed sheets and chairs. You would hitch your pajamas down and he rubbed himself in the crack of your soft buttocks. His skin was darker, Indian caramel, strange against the reddish hair he shared with his father and your mother but that you lacked. You pressed your pale little cock against his ass and you were two small hooks, hanging together off the underside of loneliness. Or at least you hung there. You have no idea where he was.)

After one moment and then one more, the face slides closer, into the seat next to you. You are in a foreign land and there is the awkwardness and the thrill of not being able to communicate. Hand signals will have to suffice. The face grows hands and they reach past the waistband of his sweat pants and pull out a cock pale and white, smooth like a baby. They cradle it and coo as the face stares right into your eyes. You look from cock to screen to eyes to cock to screen to corduroy lap. Learning the language of this place, your own hands gesture nervously in reciprocal greeting, tugging in jerks at the zipper, begging the button out of its hole. You are two parents at the playground, tending to the children in your laps. After a while he leans over and his heavy breath asks, “What are you doing here? You’re too young for this. This is a place for old men.”

Across the north, the Bear lays her starry lap against the sky and tilts a nose towards her cub. The Greeks looked north and in the mountains, among the barbarians, she patrolled in the night, the arktos. Rough fur wrapped against the snowy winds in the passes. A guttural string of confusion for speech. Language from another land, out of place.

She left the textile factory at 11 p.m. and headed to her cousin’s house, her little red Volkswagen with the white pleather interior weaving up the curving slope with its headlights illuminating the frosty fog. She was going to retrieve her toddler son as she did every night from the care of her cousin, the one whose face would ultimately form his first memories and who she would never quite forgive for that. Crossing the threshold into this other woman’s home, stealing the soft, pliable form out of the crib, she wraps him in an icy blue boiled wool blanket wreathed in dark blue flowers, its pilled-up surface rough but warm.

She climbs the stairs to the apartment in the yellow house, hooking the blue parcel tight in her arms. It squirms, wakens, moves closer.

Arctium lappa is a common weed. Native to Eurasia, but naturalized across the globe. Cosmopolitan alien. Industrious immigrant. We were the children of another land. The seeds had fallen in another field. As is common in so many immigrant families, children code-switch, answering their parents’ native language with that of their own native tongue. Which is to say that we all spoke Rhode Island English to our parents’ Rioplatense Spanish and laid down linguistic borders and checkpoints, securing our homelands against the terror of being other. In grade school did you also have a deep pressing anxiety that you were not learning English the right way? That you could not handle the idioms of your world or wield a joke adequately?

Did we all secretly hate our parents for opening their mouths?

Or was it just me?

My great-grandfather was apparently a stowaway. When he hid in the hold of the ship did he have help, a conspirator, a coyote? Did he pay his way at some hidden ticket counter, or was the voyage on credit paid out over years in sweat on the other side? Looking at the Dragon Trees of the Canarias, did he imagine the Ombú of Uruguay? In the belly of this wooden whale plunged into the water, did leaves turn to roots, his roots into legs? Did he change his name, baptized in the Río de la Plata? Did he walk off the ship or was he thrown? No one now knows or cares what he did, though he was my grandfather’s father, not so far removed.

Burdock, like dandelion and so many other taprooted plants, is tenacious and resists removal. Deliberately brittle, though the main root is removed it will always break and leave some tail of a rootlet behind. Like a lizard in reverse, each tail regrows its own body, new yet identical to all the others.

People from Canelones in Uruguay, where my family took root, are all “Canarios” regardless of origin.

Brittle root, resist removal
but if you must, then leave
some of yourself behind.
Lateral roots remain wrenched
in clenching gray clay.
Where there was one

now three will be.
Birdsong in the breeze
spice from horseradish
leaves carries in a stiff wind.
When harvesting, separate
the sons from the potent father
root and plant them back in the family plot.

Who did great-grandfather no-name leave behind? Did the village in the mountains wave him down the stony road with white handkerchiefs and whistles? Did he pepper the hills with sons and a hunting party whistle him into the bowels of a boat? Remove the father, root the sons.

[My mother wanted a son of her own at any cost. Remove the father, root the son.]

By root or by bee, deep underground or caught up on the run, how did I come to be? How many times can you break the brittle root before it is exhausted?

The family used to live in the back country, among thick earthen walls stitched with hay and under thatch expertly laid by the quinchero making his never-ending circular pilgrimage across the land. In the dark smoky kitchen there was the endless kneading of dough—that mix of punch and caress, punch and caress, meting out the days unseen. In the dark drafty barn, little more than a lean-to, there was the milking of the cow and the leers and crude jokes of her brothers. In the dark rank chicken coop there was the shit-stained foraging for eggs under the pecking glare of the chickens and the restrained lip-bitten wish for something more than this flightless imprisoned life of wasted work. (Oh to produce more than just someone else’s full belly. Oh to produce a son for herself.)

She has two birthdays, March 14 and March 18. The first, her entry into the world slipping from between her mother’s legs. The second, her entry into the town ledger four days later when her father managed to finalize her birth into existence. Was the wait really as is always told because the country was so formidable, the road so long, the work of the land so pressing? Of what use this squirming mass? Candle her by the lantern and she comes up empty of seed, only a daily procession of toil, each day of kneading and milking and scrubbing curled like a tiny egg inside her.

What good is the bur empty of seed? At least it has the possibility of escape, but in the end what does it produce?

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