Three Poems

Poetry / Kathryn Nuernberger

:: Pennyroyal, Active Ingredient Pulegone, I’ll Meet You in the Centrifuge ::

Pennyroyal, smallest of the mints, with weak prostrate stems.

Pennyroyal, a purple button for your pocket. 

Pennyroyal, called Run-by-the-Ground.

Pennyroyal, called Lurk-in-the-Ditch. 

Pennyroyal, “It creepeth much” and “groweth much.” 
It comes into blossom “without any setting.”

Pennyroyal, Pliny couldn’t help himself going on at length.

Pennyroyal, creeping on my field for years.

Pennyroyal, before I knew what an old witch you really are, 
I brought you home to be a bouquet for my mother. 

Pennyroyal, drunk with wine for venomous bites.

Applied to nostrils with vinegar to revive those who faint and swoon. 

The inside of my body is very dark I think. Or maybe the skin 
lets a light in like when I close my eyes in the sun.

Pennyroyal, to relieve upset stomach.

Pennyroyal, to reduce flatulence.

Pennyroyal, to flavor hog pudding with pepper and honey.

Strengthens the gums, helps the gout, cleanses the foul ulcers. Drives out the fleas.

Pennyroyal, for menstrual derangements. 

Pennyroyal, to abort the thing.

Pennyroyal, to kill the bitch.

Pennyroyal, to take away the marks of bruises and blows about the eyes.

Pennyroyal, asked and answered. 

“By putting flies and bees in warm ashes of pennyroyal, they shall recover
life as by the space of an hour and be revived.” 

We’re so many versions of ourselves. We try this, we try that. 

Sometimes we’re efficacious. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re for.


 

:: Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire ::

          If a woman dreams of lace, it is said, 
          she will be happy in the realization 
          of her most ambitious desires 
          and lovers will bow to her edicts.

There were two Annes—the one who dreamed of lace 
and the one who dreamed of waxen seals, as there are two 
Queen Anne’s Laces—the one with the purple dot at its center 
like a needle prick of spilled blood, which is edible wild carrot, 
and the one with no dot, stalk spackled in purple like Socrates’ 
blood, it is said, though he spilled no blood when he was 
executed by hemlock, which is non-edible wild carrot 
also blooming in an upturned face of white blossoms.

Carrots, it was said, are such an aphrodisiac Caligula amused himself 
by feeding the court nothing but, then watched them rut like animals. 

When I lived in that lonely place, I bought a field guide to learn the name 
of every flower. There were not many to learn, stitched as I was to a field 
between a cascade of crop-dusted corn on the left and an ocean of soy 
on the right. Where there might have been poppies and cornflowers 
and honey bees needle-pointing the rows, only Queen Anne’s Lace 
was hardy enough to make a kingdom out of such long-barren dirt.

          My ire at these impossible, 7-dusted acres.

          My ire at the billboards with ultrasounds as big 
          as a cloud floating over the rows of copyrighted 
          beans, irrigated so green.

When everything on a tract is alive and buzzing, a fallow field 
will bloom one medicine after another. If you look them up 
in Culpepper’s guide or Pliny’s, almost all in leaf or seed or stem, 
some small dose or a large one, will “provoke the menses,” 
as the euphemism goes. When everything is alive, there is never 
a week when the soil does not offer you some kind of choice. 

When I lived in that lonely place I thought I’d turn to 
Rousseau, who understood so well what we give up 
in exchange for the social contract, who wrote the great 
treatises on romanticism and democracy from his place 
in exile. Rousseau, I thought, my antidote to this minister 
who does his abstinence-only counseling for teenage 
girls and pep talks the boys on Godly masculinity just 
one diner table over. If you knew how many times 
I’ve heard, “Our Lord is a jealous lover.” 

But he is also Rousseau who dumped his bastard children
in an orphanage. Rousseau who had no care for what
the social contract did to the women he took as lovers
and then left as lovers. Rousseau who goes on and on
about breastfeeding and natural motherhood like a man
who has no idea. Had Rousseau written his botanical letters 
to me, his “dear and patient lady,” with the tedious thought 
experiment of teaching a “most willing pupil” to visualize 
the flowers through written language alone—“After you have 
looked over my letter once or twice, an umbellate plant 
in flower will not escape you” —I would have been too eager 
to agree with his post-script. “The meanest kitchen-maid 
will know more of this matter than we with all our learning.” 

In describing the umbellate Queen Anne’s Lace in flower, 
a maid would not have forgotten to mention that crimson 
dot at the center, calling the bracid wasp to his favorite 
pollenatrix, the drop, it is said, the queen pricked from 
her own finger on the spindle of her perfect lace, the one 
that slips from a kitchen-maid when the great philosopher 
returns from the prairie of his letters to the greener pasture 
of her idealized womanhood, the mark by which a kitchen-maid 
knows which umbelliferous queen is the one who stops 
your heart and which the one that sets it beating once more.

It is said the queens upset the cows’ milk if they founder 
on too much lace. It is said the queens upset the sheep’s 
digestion, but watch the hoofed beasts and see how they know 
after a miscarriage to graze the medicine of those leaves. 

At the end of the season the blossoms turn brown and brittle 
and close in on themselves like a bird’s nest. The meanest 
maid knows this is when you gather your clumps of seeds. 
No one writes down what the kitchen-maids say, so no one 
is anymore sure whether you drink them only after sex 
or every day or when you are ovulating or for the full 
two weeks between ovulation and menstruation. Some say 
you must chew the seeds to release the tannins. Some say 
drink them down in a glass of water. Some say it is a crime 
to publish such information. Some say only that it is a liability. 
Now in the laboratories of the minds of the great thinkers 
they call it rumors and old wives tales. As if none of us 
has ever needed an old wife. As if only fools would 
allow themselves to turn into such wizened things. 

There was Anne I who was known for making beautiful lace. 
And there was Anne II who was known for her sixteen 
miscarriages, four dead children, and slipshod petticoat 
of a government. There was Anne I who employed subterfuge 
and intrigue to manipulate the King’s policies. And there was 
Anne II who had no king and no heir and no wars and hardly 
even an account of discontent among the flourishing and well-fed 
people. And yet what is said of her is only that she was Anne 
the fat, Anne the constantly pregnant, Anne the end of her line.  

          My ire at the kingdom.

          My ire at the kings.

          My ire at the philosophers who think 
          they can just reinvent the world 
          inside the eye of their own minds.

          What I want I want on terms as I dictate them. 

          My ire at my terms. 

          My ire at my impossible wanting. 

          That I can be no flower and be no field, my ire.

          That there will be more castrated queens,
          an endlace necklace of almost enough, my ire.

          My ire, if you wait enough years, the field will finally grow. 

          If you wait years enough you will be long dead, my ire.  


 

:: Regarding Silphium, the Birth Control of the Roman Empire for 600 Years, Extincted by Careless Land Management in the Year 200 AD ::

When I was just about done being married
and he was a blossomed-out nerve of seeing
himself through the ugly eyes of how I had
come to see him and myself for letting
our lives get so Tupperware-fur-molded,
for thinking I could lace and pinprick it back
with just the right delicacy, when a good
punch in the face was what a mess this bad
required. (I know, you’re thinking a punch
in the face is never the answer, but that’s
the lace talking.) When I was just about done
with the lace-throated maybe-violence, 
our daughter, who is five, told me how
he broke—she didn’t say he broke, she said 
he got really worked up—driving past
all the protestors outside Planned Parenthood
on Providence Ave., from which the university
medical school had just withdrawn funding
and also the option for residents to do
training there, how he took a hard left
into the parking lot and with our daughter
by the hand marched in with an urgency
that made the young man working the desk 
say, “Sir?” with some alarm. He took a breath
to be more steady and said, “I’m so sorry
about all of this—all of that out there—
and I just thought I’d make a donation” 
as he pulled all the money from his wallet,
some of it crumpled, a mixture of 5s and 1s,
and pushed it across the counter, our daughter
watching and looking around the room, 
studying the faces of timid and nervous
young women, I imagine, in those plastic
chairs I remember from when I once sat
in this exact waiting room myself, so many
years ago, feeling embarrassed and ashamed
because it seemed that’s what I was supposed
to feel, though if I could have felt my way
beyond supposed to back then to my 
actual self, I would have known I didn’t feel 
sorry at all, only annoyed by the tedium 
of appointments, the practical necessity
of that clean smell, the chilly dustless air
of a building with nothing soft except
the aspect of the resident, who is the only
doctor I have ever had who joked as she
put her gloved hand in my body. “I guess this
is the most awkward thing you’ll do today,
huh?” It was funny and made me feel like 
we’d been friends a long time. My husband,
who is still my husband after all, knew 
that story and I guess he wanted our daughter 
to somehow know it too. “Sometimes 
you’ll feel very alone,” I tell her on a day 
when I find her pressing her face against 
the window, watching the children next door 
play in the grass, wiping tears from her face 
as fast as they fall. “Other times you’ll be 
so wonderfully surprised by the strange bridges 
people manage to build out to you when 
you never would have expected they could.”



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when Todd Aiken said in the course of his campaign for the Missouri Senate seat that there was such a thing as “legitimate rape” and he lost the race, but Missouri still, through various other legal loopholes and methods of subterfuge, became for all practical purposes what my state senator Caleb Rowden has called in interviews “A Pro-Life state.”

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when I was living on a farm in rural Missouri and my beehive collapsed, likely due to the crop dusters overhead, and my pig died, likely due to snakebite. So I started cataloging what could live in that place.

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when my six-year-old daughter, an aspiring scientist, brought a book home a picture book about Maria Sibylla Merian, the first ecologist, who worried very much about being accused of witchcraft because butterflies were often thought to be transmogrified witches, as were women who upset the patriarchal social order.

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when my friend, the painter Sarah Nguyen, began a series of portraits of plants that have been used to assist abortions. They are collected in a limited edition artist book, How Does Your Garden Grow.

 

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016), which won the James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir Press, 2011). Her lyric essay collection is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, and Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, she is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as Director of Pleiades Press.