As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.(Psalm 103:15-16)
i. Sanguinaria canadensis
Long ago you married an English settler
who had come to live in Lenapehoking.
Was your clan the Turtle, the Wolf, the Turkey?
He called you Sarah.
When he saw you down by the river, was your
long black braid entwined with a length of snakeskin?
Did you wear a necklace of shell and feather,
earrings of bear claw?
Did you speak Unami or Munsee? Did you
forage in the fields and the woods for berries?
Did you play Pahsahëman with your sisters?
Did you have brothers?
Did you sing and dance to the bird-bone whistle,
cheeks and ears bright red with the sap of bloodroot?
Nuhëmati, all I can do is gather,
ii. Silene stellata
The de rigueur engagement photograph
is dated nineteen ten. In sepia tones
my mother’s mother, eighteen, dressed in lace
and linen, stands with hands behind her back.
A dark curl loosens from her Gibson Girl.
She wears a put-on smile, a cameo pin,
a sidelong glance. Her bold, defiant chin
is all I recognize of Granny here—
no slippers cut for corns, no sagging shifts
and flowered aprons, toothless gums; no grim
grass widow. As I scrutinize her pose
I well believe the story handed down—
the day when she dumped dinner on his head,
taming that wayward scallywag she wed.
iii. Collinsia parviflora
Each one was Sister Mary plus a name
belonging to a saint, like Agnes and
Cornelius, their guimpe and coif a frame
for crease-browed faces. They would reprimand
us for the least divergence from the path
of righteousness—a petty schoolyard schism
or lace-edged collar would incur their wrath:
a pop quiz on the Baltimore catechism.
But Sister Mary Jeanne, who taught third grade,
was sweet and kind, and thought it not egregious
for chestnut curls to fly loose from a braid.
She spared the rod, unlike Mary Regis.
We learned our lessons but she let us dream.
That year we fashioned butter out of cream.
iv. Nabalus serpentarius
Historically, asters, when placed upon the graves of French soldiers, were meant to represent a reversal of the outcome of their battles. Earthgall is a member of the aster family.
Two Thomases, a father and his son,
lie in a cemetery on a hill
that overlooks the Susquehanna. One,
a gunner with a young man’s iron will
to live, bailed from his doomed B-24,
endured Camp Shumen’s beatings, moldy bread,
survivor guilt, the aftershocks of war,
a rough divorce; yet worse times lay ahead.
The Army CNO. The folded flag.
The Valium.The oceans of Jim Beam.
The names imprinted on a metal tag.
The little boy in the recurrent dream.
No second chance for them, no saving grace,
though earthgall snakes across their resting place.
v. Cornus sericea
We have the last appointment of the day.
That’s how it’s done—
they don’t want anyone
to see the dog they’ll have to put away,
hear muffled sobs, feel ill at ease,
fearing a transmissible disease.
For days she wouldn’t touch her food or water.
there was so much she’d seen—
the previous summer’s turmoil when my daughter
had nearly died, then father had.
Night terrors when I thought I might go mad.
But mostly good times. As the years stacked up,
I failed to multiply
by seven. In my mind’s eye
she would always be the playful pup
who barked at birds, chased squirrels, scratched the dirt
and loved to nip the edges of my skirt.
She lies on the examination table
in this white room,
a steadfast friend with whom
I had entrusted secrets. Are you able
to stay? I nod. He shaves a spot,
inserts a catheter. Before the shot
of pentobarbital, a sedative.
She sees me. Knows.
And as her brown eyes close,
I wonder if I’m able to forgive
myself for ever thinking she
was just a dog. This vital part of me.
vi. Prunella vulgaris
Bring me a blossom of heal-all
and I’ll make a warm poultice with spit;
if you’re bruised, burnt or cut
or been kicked in the butt,
you’ll be cured, and it won’t hurt a bit.
Bring me a bucket of heal-all
and I’ll boil a medicinal brew;
then after one sip
your every guilt trip
will depart without hullabaloo.
Bring me a basket of heal-all
and I’ll dry it and grind it to dust;
wherever I sprinkle,
each wobble and wrinkle
will vanish and leave you robust.
Bring me a barn loft of heal-all
and up with my heartbreak I’ll climb;
I won’t drink it or eat it
because, though I need it,
my wounds want the heal-all of time.
vii. Taraxacum officinaleLove is like the lion’s tooth. (from “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers” —Willian Butler Yeats)
Jane, you weren’t crazy with your link—
the wild weed
when mixed with burdock proves a heady mead.
So let us drink:
Sláinte! to chicory sticks, to bitter
and to the wind-borne silver clocks
where wishes flitter!