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Sample Poems by Joseph Heithaus



Ragwort
Groundsel senecio

Before death they notice sleepy staggers,
unthriftiness, weight loss, jaundice that shows
her liver giving out. One eye goes
milky. Blind, she presses her head to her
hitching post by the barn. Bruised, her urine
turns red so they have no choice but to put
her down. Ragwort by the feed bin,
probably, but the vet guesses it could
be fiddleneck, stinking willie, houndstongue,
tarweed, rattlebox, or salivation
jane, as each grass carries the same poison,
and a name that's toxic too. What could stun
so deeply their beautiful mare, but syllables stacked,
tarred boxes, the tongue's rags turning the insides black?



Insides

Between words--white space

and breath, the air moving

without sound between the intricate lace

of language with its beauty and sting.

From inside each letter, each black word

comes a kind of flower mouthed out

of the dark throat, stirred

by need or truth or doubt,

all the fecund stuff inside us

that finds thought and voice

and sound. So these poems

break out of the loam

inside me, spill from dank dirt
flower, poison, weed--monkshood, houndstongue, ragwort.



Houndstongue
Cynoglossum officinale

So much unsaid or said without words, wind
in the branches hushing, but still we speak,
still each red tongue rages, so determined

to name each stamen, petal, leaf. The creek
gets called Vermillion or Stinking or Sweet,
a cloud is measured and pronounced cirrus,

Latin for curl of hair--each word conceit
for something else. So every tongue curls
around what's seen or smelled or heard like hair,

like houndstongue, like one vine's tendrils twisting
in circles and circles around another vine
climbing, climbing, until the two combine,

the tongue cleaving, unsure what its tasting,
wanting the wind to say wild grape or pear.



Cleave

It echoes among the first words, Adam, Eve,
the butchery of her birth, the rib cleaved
from the man's breast. Imagine the blood
trailing as it might on the sleeping Adam,
down his smooth belly onto his dull pud
and what he thinks when he wakes and stands
to face her, bone of his bone, flesh
of his flesh, name of his name. Woman,
he offers the air with a flourish
of fear or hope or love before he, the man,
cleaves to her, as in cling to, hold fast, abide.
The word is split between splitting asunder
and holding like faith, it's me, you, caught under
God's cleaver, split, naked, clinging, trying to hide.


Mayapple (American Mandrake)
Podophyllum peltatum

She ate a poison apple, so begins
that familiar turn in fairytales, always
women, some hint of sex, a witch spins
the tale toward death or the sly serpent says
to eat the fruit. But apples aren't poison.

Mayapples spread along the forest floor,
a spring swell of green. Their root looks human--
that's the toxic part. The strange old folklore
of mandrakes has these human roots shrieking
when pulled from the earth. They kill with their hiss

or make the hearer deaf. Their folk medicine
cures venereal warts, herpes, syphilis--
Mandrake's poison kills another kind of poison
passed at night in hushed shrieks, bed boards creaking.