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.