“Let’s try again,” he says.
I could, but I wear this pressed flower around my neck, as all the girls once wore a
charm, and it will not let me believe never anymore a promise.
I could, but the archangel gave Adam yellow blossoms of rue that he might have
clear sight. And Eve, merciful midwife that she was, snuck her own bouquet.
I could, but it is rue in Saint Hildegard’s curious book of visions and apocalypses that
is the remedy for melancholy.
I could, but rue is bitter, hence regret and rue is the antidote to plague, hence the fair
I could, but the basilisk’s breath, which causes plants to wilt and stones to crack, has
no effect on rue.
But the weasels who hunt the snakes first gorge themselves on rue, the herb of grace,
and graverobbers in shackles traded the secret recipe to the Vinegar of the Four
Thieves for their freedom.
Rosemary, sage, lavender, rue, wormwood, meadowsweet, cloves, campanula roots,
two ounces of angelic, three pints of strong white vinegar, horehound, and large
measures of camphor protects the wearer against pestilence and plague.
I could, but could you tell me the name of even one such star that constellates the
ocean of these endless brown fields?
“Our Savior rebuked the Pharisees their superstition in paying tithes in rue.”
The priests used rue to see the witches and the witches used rue to see the priests.
Da Vinci and Michelangelo both took rue to preserve their vision and keep it sharp.
I could, but blind men can’t paint virgins.
I could, but when I wanted to, you were nowhere to be found.
I could, but I like you better when I hardly recognize you this way.
I could, but for how rue loves the rocky, sandy soil. But for how it makes a yellow
meadow of this fall-down stone wall.
I could, but I don’t even think I could.
I could, but I don’t think I will.
Out my window I have a little city lawn that slopes
down to the asphalt. The single drop of dew bending
the bulb of a wild onion reminds me of The Old Man
Who Asked Why. He hung onto his perch of steeple
at the top of the moon, unflinching, refusing to say
anything but “Why?” He was visited by the Angel
of Other People’s Troubles, who grew so angry
and tired of this that he threw The Old Man Who Asked
Why down from his steeple on the moon all the way
to the earth. As he fell he grew younger and younger
until he was a young man, a teenager, a boy, a baby,
touching the ground softly just in time to be born.
I’m making a little notebook of pressed flowers
with my daughter. We learn their names in Latin
and we learn the names the midwife-witches
would have used. If they are safe to eat, we eat
them; we brew them and dry them and salve them.
It is a way to know them and a way to know
ourselves as creatures among them.
There was a kind of peacock flower Maria Sybilla
Merian drew flawlessly, its stamen uncurls like
a luxurious tongue licking butterflies right out
of the air. The yellow cheeks of petals buttercup
their way around the seductions of vines.
The rich depth of those seeds – crushed
they make the richest black ink in the world.
It was the kind of ink John Stedman might have used
to record the sights that greeted him when he
stepped onto the country of that flower’s far shore.
In his notebook he wrote his first impressions
of the Dutch colony of Surinam:
“A revolted negro hung alive on a gibbet
with an iron hook stuck through his ribs,
two others chained to stakes and burned
to death by slow fire,
six women broken alive on the rack,
two girls decapitated…”
Maria Sibylla Merian, the great woman botanist
and first ecologist, having escaped her marriage
and then her country, returned home from Surinam
with an indigenous woman. She brought also
such treasures as frog eggs in jars of brandy
and butterflies pressed between the pages of a book.
Trunks of chrysalises and snakeskins and other
botanical specimens were a kind of hedge fund
a divorcée naturalist could leverage to the fashionable
armchair collectors of Frankfurt. She said in letters
that she had suffered fever and disappointment.
Though likely she was not so disappointed as she
might have been, being still upper class and European
in the Age of Empire. Would she have imagined
this other woman to be her friend or her property?
No matter how long I linger over
the botanical textbooks, I can’t figure out
the difference between monocots and dicots.
We pull apart the old tulip, take scissors
to the part where the pedicel meets
the ovary. I’m wondering if we might
be able to see the ovule. Instead we find
an ichorous mess of pale, hardening green.
“The Indians, who are not treated well by their
Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children,
so that their children will not become slaves
like they are. The black slaves from Guinea
and Angola have demanded to be well treated,
threatening to refuse to have children. They told me
this themselves,” Maria Sibylla Merian wrote
in her footnote to the portrait of that beautiful flower.
She does not name her source for this knowledge.
Maria Merian’s first book was about caterpillars.
She was a most unusual artist and a most unusual
scientist for how she painted insects on their host
plants. Because her plants were always surrounded
by their pollinators, she is called the first ecologist.
Even as a girl who had been given a present
of a silkworm, it was dangerous and must be kept
secret, this interest in things that creep and crawl
and grub. Before she discovered metamorphosis,
it was thought the flying things spontaneously
generated or were tormentors sent up from Hell.
She had to be cautious with her propriety –
butterflies were still believed by many to be
transfigurated witches doing the devil’s work
to sour the milk. It was the end of one mean age,
everyone so hungry or afraid of being hungry
again, and the beginning of another; she would
have been foolish to think herself safe from
the accusations of those who feared witches, those
who feared women, and those who feared science.
I like the defiance of the plants. They are
at odds with themselves – they do one thing
and also do its exact opposite. You can treat
the burn of stinging nettle with a compress
of stinging nettle. One dose of a plant
will save a life and another will end it.
With tweezers and a microscope you can see
how any bouquet is collection of revolution.
Before she set sail for the islands, she was cautioned
and cautioned again that white women in warm
climates succumbed “to copious menstruation,
which almost always ends, in a short space of time,
in a fatal hemorrhage of the uterus.” Also that
“the intense African sun” will produce “black babies,
regardless of the mother’s complexion.”
These admonitions were of no concern to her.
To escape her husband she joined a religious sect,
the Labadists. They had a vision of a world filled
with daughter communities, of which Providence
Plantation in Surinam was one. There is a saying
about how the day comes when it is more painful
to a bud to hold onto its flower than it is to open.
But what to make of the letters home?
“The wild ones are hostile as tapirs,”
“The heat is so extreme we cannot work.”
“Here no one thinks or speaks of anything
that is not sugar cane.”
“The slaves refuse to work when the saints
are so good to them, so we must resort to the same
beatings and blows used by the fallen.”
The slaves who survived had their accounts too:
“In slavery there was hardly anything to eat.”
“It was at the place called Providence Plantation.”
“They whipped you there until your ass was burning.”
The Merian family crest Maria had printed on frontispieces
of each of her books was a stork holding a snake in its beak.
An echo of the Madonna crushing the serpent beneath her
bare feet, it is meant to be a symbol of justice and piety.
She didn’t know much Latin. Women had no occasion
to learn it. She used instead the names the indigenous
people used and footnoted each flower with the uses
the indigenous people knew. She had the idea a plant
was not an object you picked out of the field, but a point
of intersection for pollinators and predators and fruit
and weather. She might have extended this ecology
even further to include the human societies that grew
up around them. Perhaps she did. She left the plantation
saying she had grown ill. She left the Labadists too.
In 1647 in every ditch and byway of Europe there were
plants growing that you could have used to prune back
the abundance of your body, but you’d have had to catch
a witch-in-butterfly to get the recipe. In the footnotes
to a book of pretty flower engravings this woman’s secret,
revealed in such plain terms, is very great and dangerous.
The post-colonialist historians are wise to ask
what Maria Merian thought the landed gentry
who bought her books would do with such information
they paid her so well to receive. Open an apothecary
for women like her, revolutionaries of independent means?
More likely they would have cleared their property lines
of such plants that might reduce the propagation
of their investment in human capital. There is a point
at which giving so much benefit of the doubt becomes
another exploitation and the conditional tense
just a grammar for the naïve or the lying. Maria Sibylla
Merian was many things, and included among them
is the fact that she could be self-serving and cruel.
A woman with no name and no story is holding out
a flower. I don’t know this woman. I have tried to imagine
her. I have tried to imagine being her. To be human,
after all, is to look at each other and imagine how
it would be. But then again, maybe we are not
so capable of everything we imagine ourselves to be.
It could have been any of us, but it was her
who lived her life, her who died that life,
her whose name the botanist never once
bothered to write down in a footnote
or journal or dashed-off letter. Most likely
it was her secrets so carelessly given away.
That seed makes the darkest ink
a blank page has ever swallowed.
There is an old man who will not stop asking
why. Our ears will not stop ringing with it.
There is an answer that is a silence that grows
longer and deeper as you peer into it.
It is one of the most vibrant blossoms
to spring out of this earth –
its crimson tongue, the ocher of its petals.
It feels sometimes as if she has reached down
and taken hold of my hand.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink, which received the James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone, which won the Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, is forthcoming from OSU Press in 2017. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life. Recent poems have appeared in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Field, Prairie Schooner, West Branch and elsewhere. Nuernberger is an associate professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press.