Archival Features, Poems


Exclusive to Poetry Northwest Online, here are several poems from Amy Glynn Greacen’s A Modern Herbal: a manuscript-in-progress that, according to its author, “shares its title with Maud Grieve’s 1931 herbal pharmacopoeia. Each poem is about a different plant – from fruits and vegetables to medicinal herbs, psychotropics and poisons – in some cases directly and in some, obliquely. It plays with botanical metaphors and with the many ways humans use and interact with plants.”

Greacen notes that “walnut trees are the only specimen in the book to rate two poems, probably because my childhood house, the one in ‘Juglans Regia,’ was surrounded by an old orchard. The concept of problematic abundance is something of a recurring theme for me – in this case, not only the literal bombardment with nuts we could never eat but the sense of being inundated by pattern, by repetition, and by memory – a faculty walnuts happen, felicitously, to enhance.

Walnuts are cultivated by grafting English walnut branches (commercially valuable nut) onto disease-resistant black walnut rootstock. Ultimately, the black walnut rejects the graft – but it can take 75 years to do it. I find this amazing, and it has challenged how I think about identity – is the grafted tree an English walnut or a black walnut? Hence, ‘Juglans Nigra’ takes the loose form of one sonnet grafted onto another.

Two poems, two trees. Or, two aspects of one tree. Even with plants, which I suppose don’t have a psyche until we anthropomorphize one into them – it gets complicated fast.”


A Modern Herbal: Juglans Regia

Abundance was a plague upon that house.
Thirteen trees, their lower limbs ghost-gray
And knothole-pocked, shaded the yard by day
And nightly, when the wind came up, would douse

The place in storms of walnuts. They’d take root;
Ruin the turf, when yanked out, leaving scores
Of little shut-fist shapes, permanent scars
On the garden. They attracted squirrels. They’d rot.

What nut had planted them? One tree produced
More produce than a family could eat.
And worse, it was their habit to secrete
A toxic ooze that doggedly reduced

To mush whatever flowers were installed
Around them. All through fall it was our job
To save the lawn from walnuts, and to fob
Them off on neighbors. Every week we hauled

Bushels of them onto the concrete floor
Of the garage. Deft hands were called for. Zeal
Or hesitance could punish fingers, deal
A death-blow to the nut, or both. Before

A final hammer tap or turn of vise
Defaced the shell, you’d see things: perfectly
Miniature skulls, their physiognomy
Suddenly clearer in their sacrifice,

Disturbing, owl-eyed faces. A design
So often replicated that I thought
It must mean something (what, though?). I had not
Read them, but there are herb-lores that assign

Palliative meaning to a plant that bears
Resemblance to a human body part.
Paracelsus had believed the heart
Was cured by heart-shaped leaves. Perhaps the pairs


Of strangely cortical walnut hemispheres
Were meant to remind us of the mind, the grave
Wizening a warning: walnuts stave
Off Alzheimer’s, and stroke, so it appears

The old Doctrine of Signatures might yet
Be onto something. But I really did
Hate those nuts, the more so if I thought they hid
Some dire message. And lest we forget

Or tire of trying to parse it, they tattooed
Our hands with stains and webs of hairline cuts
Until our fingers seemed as seamed as nuts
Themselves. As though it were contagious. Blacked

With tannin and contorted into claws
From hammering, my hands in firelight
Appeared transfigured, monstrous, when at night
We lit the spent shells. In the crackling pause

Before flame claimed them, they would weave a cloak
Of carbon; even emptied they would not
Burn clean. But now and then the heavy smoke
Enveloped us like incense, and bespoke

A meditative work: in those long dusks
The ring of hammers on the cold cement
Repeated so relentlessly it went
With us to sleep. We dreamed of hammered husks,

Of movement that became transcendently
Repetitive, a rosary of blows
From which a complicated truth arose
Over and over. Sometimes you could see

Whole worlds in nutshells – sometimes just the face
Of the squirrel skeleton we found one year
In the woodpile. It had starved, an ear-to-ear
Grimace permanently held in place

By the walnut that had lodged between its jaws.


A Modern Herbal: Juglans Nigra

You’re in an archetypal family drama
And like so many things it would be droll
If it weren’t the whole of your existence. Trauma
Now seventy years old takes and takes its toll:
You’ve had a long, productive life, of course,
But where were you in all of that? The fruit
You bore was not your own; it was brute force
Alone that had disguised you to the root
In someone else’s leaves. Now you become
You again, limb by limb. No doubt you’ve asked
Yourself what makes us who we are (the sum
Of what is done to us; quintessence masked
By histories of struggle that transform
By scarring? Or does something else inform


Identity – do each of us contain
Some fundamental grain of deeply buried,
Immutable truth?) and seen that both pertain
To you, and to the foreign branches married
To your gnarled trunk. You’d all but been remade,
Become another tree. But now your wild
Side’s showing, and the husbanded charade
You lived is over. Finally reconciled
To be one thing, you’ve cast aside a graft
That represented most of what you’d been,
Regenerating beautifully, a raft
Of fertile new limbs. And, as you begin
Anew, a ring of seeds, dropped by the old
You, sprout. Another lifetime’s stranglehold.

Amy Glynn Greacen is a poet, novelist and food writer.  She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and educated at Mount Holyoke college and Lancaster University, England.  Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The New Criterion, Southern Poetry Review, The Potomac Review and The Best American Poetry 2010.  She lives near San Francisco with her family.

Two poems, “A Modern Herbal: Nocotiana Tabacum” and “Inscription” appear in the Spring & Summer 2010 issue (v5.n1) of Poetry Northwest.

<div style=”line-height:1.4em;”>