Reviewed by Meredith Boe
Any amateur gardener knows how pesky weeds can be. They get in the way, they have no value. They exist in the background, coming up through the cracks from some unacknowledged source. Intruder is a synonym, as is seedling, as is visitor.
The persistence of weeds makes them like facts, particularly the more challenging truths we bury deep and hope to never dig up. Weeds emerge nonetheless, seemingly at their own will. Horticulturist, writer, and editor Marco Wilkinson’s first book, Madder: A Memoir in Weeds, is a coming to terms with these weeds, the secrets mothers keep from their children and that families avoid discussing at all costs. Wilkinson writes the uncertainty of selfhood and lineage with a confidence that comes only with aged meditation—he mixes dream with reality, and bends time, space, and memory. Madder is a set of experimental essays that often read as poetry, demonstrating his fragmented upbringing with themes and language that wind, roots finding their way through sediment.
He discusses the properties of plants and their elements, from seeds to roots to flowers. One short section will be technical names and definitions, the next a narrative, the next poetry, as in “Root: Burdock”:
Arctium lappa, L
Burdock, possibly beurre-dock, relic of migration, footprint on the shore.
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.
Wilkinson’s knowledge of horticulture helps to connect the themes of family, inheritance, and existence to the greater world around us, to all living things. He says: “These thousands of gardens of the mind all live, overlaying each other in possibility. How to undo one for another? How to pluck out for the withering heap one life and not mourn?”
Wilkinson relates to weeds: “the little and the useless” that “knit the visible world together.” Weeds are ubiquitous, troublesome, and forgettable, just as he felt as a child. His family even referred to him as inútil, Spanish for useless. He writes that he will “burn up this uselessness to keep warm. I will burn up this uselessness to tell a story by, until the world around me catches fire.” Now he confronts the weeds of his history.
He opens on his now seventy-three-year-old mother who furiously digs up the weeds from the walk outside his home. “For her there is no question of order and its need, of the immorality of weeds or their excision. Some things must not be allowed to rise up.”
As he constructs and understands both his personal and familial identity through his relationships to the natural world and his queerness, he recognizes that much of his childhood was built on myth. He writes, “For much of my adult life I have worked my hands through plant leaves and plant roots; worked my mind through folklore and Latin names, soil and air; worked myself into this semblance of a garden, staving off the weeds.” And then, “I do all these things because I want to remember.” In trying to remember, he begins some sections with portions of his family tree, seemingly trying to make sense of where his existence fits into the order of things, as if mapping plant taxonomy.
Facts he doesn’t know for much of his life: why his father left, whether his mother had loved his father, even his father’s real name. These absences lead Wilkinson to string together his lineage in weeds, beginning with his mother. She was nicknamed “Cenicienta” by her family, which means “Cinderella,” worked tirelessly as a child, ironing napkins for a local business in a small town in Uruguay, a pass-through town for tourists coming in and out of Montevideo. She performed many other chores at her family home like collecting eggs from the chicken coop. Any romantic happiness he imagines she once sought never came, and the absence of his father is his shred of proof.
When Wilkinson was sixteen, he came out to her, but only because she read his journal when he wasn’t home. The only concern she voiced was that she would never have grandchildren. “It was so baffling, so decentering because it was not about me at all,” Wilkinson reflects. He learns to take control of this part of his story. He writes that he first kissed a man in New York, describes a sensual Ayurvedic massage he receives in India. He conveys these pieces of his narrative as fact rather than myth, self-certitudes he can carry.
Still, the story of his father remains the biggest uncertainty in Wilkinson’s life. He didn’t learn his father’s real name, which is also Marco, until he was twenty-one years old. He does not know why his father left or never wanted to speak to him. He understandably tries to uncover who was at fault. “[H]ow many times did my father hold me? How many times was he allowed?” he thinks, questioning his mother’s “fierce protectiveness.” How, then, he thinks, could anyone blame his father for abandoning ship? Still, he left Wilkinson behind, an “inconsequential thing, a weed, sick and tired of the scratches that came with it.”
Throughout, a compelling refrain haunts Wilkinson’s narrative, bringing up these very questions even as he writes through what he thinks he knows: “You’ve got it all wrong. This is not how any of this happened.”
These are theoretical, or perhaps, sometimes literal, responses to his stories from his mother, other relatives, ghosts, and his own uncertainty. Memoir is, of course, a primarily subjective format and it’s easy for any writer to imagine how other witnesses would respond to what we claim as truth. With this poignant chorus, Wilkinson emphasizes the many hindrances to retelling experience, namely other people’s memories and our own illusions, especially as memories become more distant and anything we say is suspect.
“Between oblivion and fantasy, memory.”
In addressing challenging memories, Wilkinson sometimes compares reality with what a better upbringing may have looked like. A dream: a relative teaching him to ride a bike like his boy cousins. The reality: he had to keep the training wheels on too long because no one bothered to teach him.
But the subconscious invariably controls our memories, retaining and leaving out details that change our perceptions. For instance, as he traveled with his mother to clean homes when she worked as a maid in Rhode Island, he writes that what he remembers most are the opulent houses and asking if he could help her clean so they could finish sooner. What he forgets is taste, any kind of indulgence: a Baskin-Robbins sundae, Wendy’s chicken sandwiches, and homemade hamburgers, in between jobs, sometimes at the jobs. When most of what you know is hard work and resentment, it’s easy to overlook the positives. Wilkinson observed many years of bitterness in his mother, which he finds difficult to untangle himself from. “My inheritance: this bitterness, this exhaustion,” he writes.
This inherited bitterness channels the inherent characteristics of plants, a purpose neither he nor the plants asked for. Wilkinson says that the cruelty of his maternal family is “endless, the bitter root dropped into the bones, the bitter juice an endless stream falling through generations.”
Our own roots are just like madder: rubia tinctorum, a plant with roots that make a rich red dye. As Wilkinson writes of madder, it is “life which stains, ruinous marvel, a lie alloyed to a truth.” Perhaps clearing his own path forward is coming to terms with inherited bitterness, recognizing it as the stain of someone else’s resentment; his letting go of roots as the only possible identity is embracing self-discovery and will as another. And, accepting some stories for what they are: lies, myths.
Madder is a stunning ode to the many things weeds can be—the unappreciated, the gray areas, the detestable, and the beautiful—structured as if each profound and piercing line is itself a weed Wilkinson has gathered throughout a life of foraging. His poetic, disjointed essays speak to the difficulty in reevaluating history, in trying to extract the mind’s wildflowers. It’s a delight to learn from his sprawling knowledge about plants as he sifts through memories and reveals that all kinds of weeds have process and purpose. Even the most unseen among us must make sense through stories, helping us more confidently navigate life’s thorniness.
Meredith Boe is the author of the chapbook What City (Paper Nautilus) and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, Chicago Reader, Chicago Review of Books, After Hours, Mud Season Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.