“Pliny’s Traveling Apothecary Visits the Bleeker St. Clinic” by Heather Altfeld

Heather Altfeld


Some reported products of women’s bodies
should be added to the class of marvels.
—Pliny, Natural History, Volume VIII

There is no limit to a woman’s power.
Her menstrual fluid exposed to lightning
keeps storms at bay, and the mysterious
and awful power of her blood can cause
irremediable harm. If while menstruating

she walks naked through a cornfield,
caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin
will fall to the ground. Care must be taken
that she does not walk at sunrise
with her hair disheveled and her girdle loose,

for then the crop dries up
and the bees flee their hives with her touch.
She blunts the edges of razors,
blackens the linen, causes mares in foal
to miscarry if her wily hands pet them

in their sweat. Not even fire can overcome
the power of her blood. Beaver oil,
taken in honey wine, will nourish her menstruation,
but if a pregnant woman steps over some
that has spilled on the floor,

she will likely miscarry.
The avoidance of miscarriage,
Pliny tells us, is guaranteed if tied around a woman’s neck
is a pouch of gazelle leather, stuffed
with the white flesh from a hyena’s breast,

seven hyena hairs, and the genital organ
of a stag. If only the receptionist
behind the iron bars at Planned Parenthood
would pass these pouches out,
along with the MediCal forms
and the neon condoms in the little brown bag!

How reassuring in those long days
during the first trimester
when every cramp has you traipsing to the bathroom
in terror, if the gonads of a stag rang
round your neck! Such time one could devote

to making booties and onesies! And in the event
of the misfortune of miscarriage, or a failure
to conceive, or, if you were to give birth
and then become postpartumly hysterical,
then the first line of defense would be the fat of a seal,

melted in the fire and inserted into the nostrils.
Lacking such access to the fat of a seal,
lint smeared with dolphin’s fat
and set alight can also tame
your grim suffering. As a young mother

terrorized by her three little charges,
I ran some laundry on high and fired up a dolphin,
but the whole enterprise proved more exhausting
than a Xanax and a glass of port. Today,
I am watching a sixteen-year-old girl

wrestle her two-year-old son to the floor
as he tried to take his third Dixie cup
from the dispenser, her round belly
surely the form of sorcery Pliny mentions,
when he warns of the extraordinary power

of a pregnant woman who clasps her hands
around her knees. Does she not know that the little tent
she has made of her fingers while waiting
for her prenatal exam is a terrible obstacle
to councils of war and transactions of business?

I thought of telling her, but decided
she likely has other worries—
wishing that five months ago she had not
taken in food, the eye of a hyena
mixed with licorice and dill,

which guaranteed conception within six days,
a fate that left her weeping on the toilet
when the cheap dipstick turned pink.
I imagine her lying on her back as he entered her,
hiccupping from that terrific repast

that ensured her place in our society
as a sorceress. At least she might rest assured
thinking that months later, sitting in this office,
her knock-kneed knocked-up self
could be influencing the men in offices upstairs

who are trying to decide whether to invade Troy
or play another round of darts.
Surely she was more consumed
with the knowledge that sexual intercourse
cures pain in the loins, dullness of the vision,

unsoundness of mind, and melancholia
than she was with the concern
that her mere presence here in a chair
crossing and uncrossing her nervous knees
could stop Haliburton in his tracks. In four months,

she will prove what Pliny discloses
in the eighth volume dictated from the baths
to his royal chronicler, a woman’s milk is the sweetest
and most delicate of all. For if she gives birth
to a boy, mere drops of her product

will cure rheumatic fever,
gout, affections of the ears, the sting
of a toad’s juice squirted in the eye,
fluxes of the eyes, the uterus, and the bowels.
If she bears a girl, her milk stands a small chance

of curing spots on the face. No doubt then
she will be all the rage amongst her barren
and acned friends. She wobbles slightly
getting out of the orange plastic chair;
still a starling, fallen from one tufted nest

into the sly yarn of another, yolking her arms
to chicks who will cheep and drain and torment—
perhaps there is solace in the fact
that she will no doubt go on
to prove her extraordinary powers as a woman

when one apocryphal day she will awaken at sunrise
to walk through the cornfields, bare and bleeding,
impervious to the hail and the rain and the wind,
choking the mice and the crops behind her.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts


Heather Altfeld: “Because much of my life is lived on a very practical level required of someone who teaches six different courses a term, I also have a fanciful life in which I am a practicing physician in the Medieval era, doing research on the history of prior medicine. This poem reflects my deep interest in how the magic and lore of medicine changed over time, and the elements of possibility still lay ahead of us in the fog.” (web)

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