Cypress Knees

Some name them knees,
those roots of the cypress
trees in that murky swamp,
rising up out of the water,

though their legs beneath
them, the feet, the toes,
even the bodies down there
at the mud’s bottom still

haven’t shown up yet.
So far, it’s only those bold
knees that point the way.
Some say perhaps they rise

up just for balance, or
for air; I’ve heard of both.
But it’s probably not true
at all in that swamp where

alligators kill for play
and snakes live for poison.
Instead, those knees probably
rise because bones never

will stay down for long
where they are buried and
like to rise up out of their
watery graves to rattle us.

I know those knees are
that first awakening, that
restless beginning of how
the dead find their way back.

Sue Owen
from her book The Devil’s Cookbook
Louisiana State University Press, 2007
reprinted with permission of the poet
Used by permission of the poet.


For an English Classroom

Lesson Plan for Sue Owen’s “Cypress Knees”
by Margaret Simon

The cypress trees of Louisiana are beautiful trees. They can tell the weather with their fine needles. The ones in my backyard are beginning to turn brown. Soon I will have to sweep the deck to clear off all the fallen needles. This way I know that fall is near.

Sue Owen takes us beyond the physical appearance of the cypress tree and into its soul. How many of us have seen the knees of the cypress and wondered about their purpose? Sue Owen helps us see them for more than wood and soil. We see a burial ground and life inside the swamp.

I love the way Sue Owen plays with language in her poem. The tree is personified and has body parts that rise up out the swamp because “bones never stay down for long,” especially in a swamp. Try some language play with your students.

Discuss double meanings with your students. Advertisements use puns all the time to get their point across, “Nothing runs like a Deere.” Find puns and double meanings in the newspaper, magazines, other books and poems. Using double meanings can make your reader think twice about what you are writing about. Don’t we all see cypress knees differently now that we’ve read Sue Owen’s poem.

Try a double meaning in your writing. Begin with obvious ones, the leg of the table, an arm of the chair. Try on new ones, “Dawn slowly brightens/ the empty baseball field,/ polishing the diamond/ until it shines.” (From Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher) Do not explain the double meaning; leave that to the reader’s interpretation. Like the alligator lives for play, take a moment to play with language and see where it may lead.

For a Science Classroom

Lesson Plan for Sue Owen’s “Cypress Knees”
by Laurie Williams

Read the poem aloud in class and have students note the characteristics of the cypress tree as they listen.

Discuss the possible reasons why cypress trees have “knees.”

What causes the cypress to have knees? Do any other trees have knees?

What happens below the water line? In the poem, Ms. Owen calls the roots below the water line the feet and toes. Do the roots below the water line look like feet and/or toes?

What areas where cypress trees grow?

What does the cypress need from its environment in order to survive?

In the poem, Ms. Owen calls the knees bones and ties them to the dead trying to come back. What is the life cycle in the swamp? What nutrients does the tree need to survive and where do those nutrients come from?

What other plants have unique growths?

For a writing project, choose a plant and write a poem detailing its characteristics. Use “Cypress Knees” as a model.

For a Math Class

Lesson Plan for Sue Owen’s “Cypress Knees”
by Laurie Williams

Hand the poem out to students and have them read it silently.

After they have read it once, have them go through the poem and circle the human body parts mentioned. Knees is mentioned several times, have them circle each instance.

After they have circled the body parts, have students go through the poem again and box or underline the tree related words.

What is the ratio of human body parts to tree related words?

Is that ratio equal throughout the poem?

Does any one portion of the poem have more human body part words? more tree related words?

How many words total does this poem have?

How many of those words are human body part words? tree related words?

What percentage of the words is human body part words? tree related words?

For a writing exercise, have students choose a math concept and write a poem detailing and personifying that concept. Use “Cypress Knees” as a model.

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