» Poetry

Poisons and Medicines

“All things are poisons, and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”

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.
Chemicals crossing
the blood-brain barrier
create effects in the brain
that achieve results in the body,
altering perceptions
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
and hallucinations.
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
and phenobarbital
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

Anne Whitehouse is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Inside from the Outside (Dos Madres Press, 2020) and four chapbooks, most recently Surrealist Muse (about Leonora Carrington) and Escaping Lee Miller, from Ethelzine. She is also the author of a novel, Fall Love. Recent fiction includes the story “Cyclist.” Recent nonfiction is about Edgar Allan Poe: “Poe vs Himself,” “Poe and Chivers,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “Soldier, Sailor.”