Heal-all, angelica, alum-root,
yarrow, sweet Annie, valerian shoots —
swinging under foxgloves' lavender bells
a secret to make a sick heart well —
at that eastern farm we waded flowers
and herbs renowned for their healing powers.
Black-eyed Susans in orange beds,
yellow primroses nodded their heads
as I followed the signs into the wood.
It was plicking, dim, laundry-room humid;
mosquitoes like dust-motes blown in flight
almost haphazardly settled to bite.
Two pinks caught my eye. Bending down,
I saw a caterpillar going to town
on a faltering stem; its body was slung
underneath, like a sloth's; the feet clung;
the head chewed. Four were making a meal
beneath a spray of Solomon's-seal
whose white drops kept quivering. Paired prongs, their six front legs worked like icemen's tongs, curving to stab. The rear-guard pylons,
gray, flat-soled, ten dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
red and blue pustules edged with black.
Veering into a sunny aisle — magenta bee-balm, white chamomile — I saw dozens more, tan heads like helmets bobbing over the lambs-ears' velvet.

These maidenhair ferns were brewed for tea
to soothe a sore throat, cure pleurisy

their two-inch, humping, whiskered lines
were even strewn on the naturalists' signs.
They sprawled under the spindly buds
of red-root, used to strengthen the blood;
a jewelweed's freckled orange scoops
hung over gnawed leaves; a spicebush drooped;
this wake-robin looked pocked, that ginger torn,
violets' poulticing sprouts had been shorn,
betonys' too — I could find no leaf
that hadn't already come to grief.
Running down the path, now I could see
they were pasted to the bole of every tree;
the plicking I'd thought was rain in my ears
sounded like snips of miniature shears —
their migrant, hungry, adhering strips
made, as I stood there, sawtoothed rips
in thousands more seedlings. Soon
they'd each find a twig and start to spin;
one moon-rise not too far from this,
fresh from a crackling chrysalis,
their tawny, fluttering selves would come
tilting to this wild geranium,
alight on finer, fewer legs
and discharge arsenals of eggs.

Poem by Elise Partridge

From Fielder's Choice (Signal Editions © 2002)
with permission of the publisher, Véhicule Press, Montréal, Québec.

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