“All things are poisons, and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” —Paracelsus
During rituals of divination,
Mayan sorcerers and healers
induced risky hallucinations
with Brugmansia candida,
angel’s trumpet. The poison
in its white, waxy flowers
and dark green leaves,
ingested or absorbed through
the body’s mucous membranes,
causes convulsions, paralysis,
coma, and death.
To dilate the pupils of their eyes
and bring a flush to their cheeks,
fashionable ladies in medieval Europe
drank juice pressed from the berries
and leaves of Atropa belladonna,
the deadly nightshade.
To enhance their beauty,
they risked their lives with a poison
used since antiquity to alter potions
and tip arrows with lethal results.
Our ancestors felt more closely
than we the embrace
of science and mystery.
We are still looking
for the boundary.
the blood-brain barrier
create effects in the brain
that achieve results in the body,
of pleasure and pain.
Reliever of illness
or harbinger of death
is a matter of degree.
Digitalis from foxglove,
lily of the valley, and oleander
strengthens the heart’s contractions
while causing blurred and double vision
Taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew
destroys cancers of the breast
and ovaries but harms the liver.
Although it induces nausea,
vincristine, an alkaloid
from Madagascar periwinkle,
is the reason why most children
with leukemia now survive.
For the stomach spasms
I suffered as a child,
I was prescribed a daily dose
of a chalky green medicine
containing belladonna alkaloids
to prevent nausea and relax me.
Derived from salicin
in willow bark and meadowsweet,
aspirin reduces inflammation,
eases headache, and lowers fever.
Years ago, my great-aunt, sick of life,
swallowed the entire contents
of a bottle and bled to death.
Anne Whitehouse’s (she/her) most recent poetry collection is OUTSIDE FROM THE INSIDE (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and her most recent chapbook is FRIDA (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2023). She is the author of a novel, FALL LOVE. Her poem, “Lady Bird,” won the Nathan Perry DAR 2023 “Honoring American History” poetry contest. A new poetry collection, STEADY, is forthcoming from Dos Madres Press in 2023.