Three Natural Histories
By Caitlín Eilís Barrett
To be sure, I have often proved the emptiness of so-called magic in this book so far, whenever the opportunity and occasion arose, and I will keep right on exposing it now. (Pliny, Natural History 30.1)
Take a triangular potsherd from the place where three roads meet, pick it up in your left hand, write on it with myrrh ink, and keep it hidden: “ASTRAĒLOS CHRAĒLOS, undo every spell that exists against me, [YOUR NAME HERE], for I adjure all of you by the great and spine-shaking names, names that cause the winds to shudder, and the hearing rocks to smash themselves.” (Greek Magical Papyri XXXVI.256-62)
When I came to the place where three roads meet
I could hear dogs barking after passing cars.
Moonlight slick like butter on the asphalt black
and the taste of salt all through my meat,
so sharp it made me want to eat myself.
Who goes there, drivers in the dog-mouthed moon?
Who goes there, lady of the tarmac night?
Who goes there, road that goes nowhere
but highway to a highway in a highway night?
The smell of exhaust in a new fall cold
and small creatures roaming, rabbits, voles, raccoons,
quick-nosed and anxious in the tooth-white light.
Trash on the roadside, the debris of day,
all quiet at the rest stop, faintest waft of smoke
from someone else’s fireplace a world away,
the palest tinge of orange warmth
along the edges of the leaves, against the coming cold —
and you, here, on the road – and so: what way is it
that you’re looking, or not looking, with your new moon eyes?
The most valuable kind is the color of dried blood, dark in appearance but gleaming when you hold it up; and it is because of this that Homer speaks of “purple blood.” (Pliny, Natural History 9.62)
The command Crayola holds over my color sense
Determining the ways I picture goldenrod, spring green, sea green
Purple was once a red snail juice but now smells like plasticine and construction paper The color of love and death is that red brown that purple once was
I’ve never loved a man who later died
It will happen though just as blood dries into the color that kings don
Royal we all are dressed in the panoply of our fine blood
Baby mine you learn to control the instruments so carefully
The lines you draw smash through the paper but I see you draw them
Blood is what we have between us
Love and death and the plastic smell of the crayons
Dad is alive and mom is alive and you are alive
Everybody is alive except the ones who aren’t
The smell of sex is like a crayon soaked in blood
All alive all alive we are still alive
The wood pigeon and turtledove usually lay three eggs apiece, certainly no more than two times per season, and that only if the previous brood is wiped out. And although they bring forth three eggs, no more than two ever hatch; the empty third is called the “wind-egg.” (Pliny, Natural History 10.79)
The doves’ nest in the rosebush is empty too early, and I hope
the chicks have fledged, hope it wasn’t cats
or hawks. The baby doves
tore with fierce beaks daily at their mother’s mouth,
so soft and savage, very much like him
with his so sharp teeth, still barely used,
which gently graze the words he learns
to form: each day a new-hatched word.
He likes to talk about those doves: sitting on eggs
warm, hatched it, mom dove talking,
baby doves, feet! ears!, up up up nest.
A wildly paratactic style, and avant-garde
by definition, as it comes before
the everything his life will be –
but while he tries his breath out, I can also glimpse
that other poetry, the red-tailed hawk;
he speaks in word clouds, and the hawk
that rides those clouds is hungry, cold –
Enough: he is so desperate to talk
that he actually gasps before the words come out,
his whole face contorting, arms pumping air.
All the lullabies I sing to him are inappropriate:
old ballads, where everybody winds up dead –
but I want to sing; at least they’re songs.
Hatched it! Baby doves up up up. So let’s survey
the bushes. Are the fledglings there? I need his words
to still be true, for now. Are you here still, fledglings? Let me know;
and if you can sing, let’s have the song.
Caitie Barrett lives in Ithaca, where she teaches as Associate Professor of Classics at Cornell University. She received the 2020 Orison Anthology Award in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Can We Have Our Ball Back, IthacaLit, Philadelphia Stories, On the Seawall, SurVision, Tales from the Forest, and publications by Pressed Wafer Press and Bow & Arrow Press, among others.
artificial resin, acrylic, dry pigment, Murex Trunculus, fragments of snail shell on printed fabric
70 x 90cm