I’ve been meditating on poison—easing my way into a poem, I think, as I work toward completing a chapbook’s worth of poems “spoken” by ghosts.
Re-reading Browning’s “The Laboratory” was a good start… a jealous lover glorifies a chemist’s work as he crafts a poison to kill her rival.
I’m settling into exploring how poisons hinge on upsetting a balance. That is, poisons succeed by virtue of the human body’s delicacy. We’re all delicate as teacups, really. Ripe for the shattering.
Poison delivery mechanisms have a wide range in literature: arrows, wine, cloaks, crowns… Agatha Christie runs poison along a shaving razor’s edge. Christopher Marlowe cooks it into a nunnery’s broth. Shakespeare sprinkles it anywhere his characters aren’t looking.
Yet the mundane delivery of poison via teacup feels “right.” Well, metaphorically suitable, I mean. For this poem I haven’t written yet.
The soft clink of the spoon. The cup’s clatter against its saucer as both are set upon the table. That tension as the intended victim lets the liquid cool.
I think of snakes, somehow, swirling with the dissolving sugar, the rolling steam. A muscular, graceful body coiled silently within thin porcelain… its fangs flush with venom.
By ROBERT BROWNING
Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro’ these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s-smithy—
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?
He is with her, and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in, for them!—I am here.
Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,
Pound at thy powder,—I am not in haste!
Better sit thus and observe thy strange things,
Than go where men wait me and dance at the King’s.
That in the mortar—you call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too?
Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,
What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!
To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!
Soon, at the King’s, a mere lozenge to give
And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!
But to light a pastile, and Elise, with her head
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!
Quick—is it finished? The colour’s too grim!
Why not soft like the phial’s, enticing and dim?
Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir,
And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!
What a drop! She’s not little, no minion like me—
That’s why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyes,—say, “no!”
To that pulse’s magnificent come-and-go.
For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,
Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!
Not that I bid you spare her the pain!
Let death be felt and the proof remain;
Brand, burn up, bite into its grace—
He is sure to remember her dying face!
Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose;
It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close:
The delicate droplet, my whole fortune’s fee—
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?
Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!
But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings
Ere I know it—next moment I dance at the King’s!