The Alchemist’s Daughter Knows
the properties of iron, and how elements
hiss and bubble when combined. Carefully,
she eats to balance her excess yellow bile while she pores over
the philosophy of the body. She pestles
nettles, thyme, mandrake, blending remedies
for the little aches and pains, and though it is
not the panacea her father seeks, it is its own
transmutation. Outside the bailey walls she searches
for soft feathers of sage and sweetleaf pennyroyal
which she will gather into bunches to perfume
her rooms, thick loam and grass rich in her nose.
She learns not to burn the candles she dips too long
to justify her labor, and how long she must
leave her kirtles to steep, growing madder
red for the winter. Her father spends his days
staring at his scribbles, ignoring the draft
she leaves to soothe his cough. The alchemist’s
daughter uses the letters she knows
to scratch out failures and successes
in spidery script similar to the cobwebs
she uses to wrap wounds. This amuses her,
makes her consider the connectedness
of all elements, the way threads might loop
unseen between bodies. She wonders
if her father sees them.
And this, too, is a form of femininity:
bold and unapologetic behind
curls untangling into waves falling
into a path tracing the half-seen curve
of nose and lips. She looks back—
What are you waiting for? Follow me. Static,
wind only evident from the curls that flew before
the shutter-click to jut like pincers near her jaw.
Historically, ant mandibles closed wounds in the wild
in lieu of stitches, a desperate measure when no other
resources were available. Women make do.
To follow their husbands, women bargained
their services scrubbing, sewing, sexing, sutling
during wartime, moving camp to camp. One
British woman birthed a baby in winter woods
and the next day got up and found her way
to the marching columns. Like the alate females
who find their way free to start a new anthill,
the queen mothers. Follow me: aware of
the binding together, the centrality, the tendrils
spooling down the back and that most fragile
thing, that most crucial pin of long-lashed eye to eye, the focus
forcing the space between distant places to disappear,
on binding up the ragged edges, on making any lack
less keenly felt. Everything else can wait awhile. Wind whips
through threads of hair. Ants forage in a thin line down a hill.
Author’s Commentary: I'm interested in the contributions women have made to history - often unremarked or erased in the record. Both these pieces were an attempt to examine the work women have done behind-the-scenes, and how their traditional work in healing and community-building has helped stitch society together through unrecognized but significant labor. Both poems also feature my love for obscure scientific and historical factoids.
Gretchen Rockwell is a poet and supplemental instructor of English at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Glass: Poets Resist, Into the Void, Noble/Gas Qtrly, New Plains Review, and the Minnesota Review, as well as in other publications. She enjoys writing poetry about gender and sexuality, history, space, and unusual connections.