in awed esteem for Alice Maher
who made these things
1. Strange Seed
You plant the strange seed to see how it grows—
a beanstalk to the clouds, a better tomato,
poison apple, deadly nightshade, kudzu—
always a surprise. So the little ruddy rose hip
yawns into a peony; the grain of salt
takes fire, puffs out its cheeks of glass; the seed pearl
complicates in porcelain crinolines;
splinters thicken to hard block; the dust bunny
kicked and wincing, forgotten under the bed,
rowls itself into the junk–yard dog—that's it
in a nutshell: each snail distilling
the cowl on its back, the husk it was born to.
2. House of Thorns
A nest for Thumbelina nestled into moss,
pied–á–terre among the pommes–de–terre,
basking and burnished as a cinnamon cat
licked into spits and glossy with tending.
Look again: it's the bristling boll of sweet–gum or
sycamore or buck–eye—some spurred species—squared
to a folk profile: peaked roof, high gable
spiky with thorn—a closed house, impervious,
leathering into prickly isolation.
Where's the girl ripe for piercing, who shuttered
her windows and latched fast her doors? Where's the chink
to press an eye to? Where's the coy lip to kiss?
Oh prince, rip your hands, rip your heart out. Someone
walked through the briars with her eyes wide open,
laying her hand deliberately against each thorn—
thick at the base, fanged at the tip, each cat–clawpicked for its perfection, slicing the thumb
to the bone. Someone dried them, aligned them,
mortared them straight. Someone knew you'd come looking.
She built that house, made that bed, walked away.
3. Shirt of Nettles
Thick in the thicket gooseberries hung their lanterns
from two–inch spines; raspberries ripened into jam
on razor–edged canes. She held the gloves out
so disparagingly, you saw you couldn't win.
Ringed round by thrusting briars muscled thick as snakes,
there's not much scope for turning. Bees laced themselves
through the fretwork. The smug smile: "It's only nettles." Your hands
puffed white with the sting. Blackbirds in the hawthorn,
beaks open for the bite. Between morning
and evening a quick snap of the tongue: fling out
the changeling cursed with a quickness
too sharp for her own good. Imagine going wittingly
to pluck the nettle, leaves caught in an apron
and every slightest brush a skin–popping shock. Greening,
flattening, pinning, stitching—bite your pillow,
claw at the air, skin welting along the spine and rib
of each fine seam, each particular leaf. How long
before you strip it off, bled light as a feather—
a pain you made to grow out of,
something for Good Will, last year's fashion.
4. Ever After
Once upon a time—as long ago as that
and all forgiven. The curb falls from the tongue;
eyes cry themselves to clarity; the girl
wakes up, runs to the window, brushes
her glowing hair. But close your eyes and
it's the flay tongue, it's the whip hand, it's
the acid bath, the scald eye, the happy
ever after: fanged house, shirt of flame.
About the Author: Nathalie F. Anderson's first book, Following Fred Astaire, won the 1998 Washington Prize from The Word Works. Her poems have been singled out for prizes and special recognition from the Joseph Campbell Society, The Cumberland Poetry Review, Inkwell Magazine, The Madison Review, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod, North American Review, and The Southern Anthology, and have also appeared in APR's Philly Edition, Cimmaron Review, Cross Connect, Denver Quarterly, DoubleTake, Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Recorder, Southern Poetry Review,Spazio Humano,and in the Ulster Museum's collection of visual art and poetry, A Conversation Piece. Her new work Crawlers is the 2005 winner of the McGovern Prize, sponsored by Ashland Poetry Press and will be published in 2006. A 1991 Pew Fellow, Anderson is a Professor in the Department of English Literature and directs the Program in Creative Writing at Swathmore..
The Irish artist Alice Maher is known for her intriguingly twisted imagery — babies' heads cresting in the palms of out–stretched hands, for example, or little Irish step–dancers dwarfed inside their stiff embroidered costumes — and in particular for the objects she constructs from natural materials with the inexorable rightness of folk lore: a dress made of bees; a tailored shirt made of nettle leaves pieced and pinned together; a small house, about four inches tall, its entire surface studded with thorns.
"Shirt of Nettles, House of Thorns" © 2000 by Nathalie F. Anderson. The poem may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.