Online Edition: Fall 2003

Rattlesnake Plantain

Heidi Greco

Anvil Press ($10)

by Nathan G. Thompson

In order to understand Heidi Greco's poetry, start with the title of her new book: Rattlesnake Plantain. The pairing of a poisonous snake and a wild plant used to heal burns and stings, it feels like an entire world. Add to this birds, spiders, clouds, angels, disease, and intimacy, and you end up with a collection that is both otherworldly and very much of this earth.

The poems in the book's first section all have definitions of different wildflowers as epigraphs; these ground the poems and also expand the reader's view of their subject matter. For example, in a poem about children in Zaire, Greco uses the Common Mullein, defined as having "medium to dark green" leaves and a habitat of "roadsides, garden edges, field margins, or otherwise disturbed land." Not only does this image reflect the homes of the children, but it also tells the reader something of their character. In order to survive, they must be tough, resourceful, and able to deal with being constantly exposed.

This is true of many of Greco's poems as well; they have the ability to make do, to take things seemingly unpoetic and make them sing. An overfilled bladder, for example, becomes a "lemon" to be squeezed, to get "rid of you / poison in the bloodstream." In this atmosphere, even insults can be transformed. She takes up the word "redneck," and its link with country music, and then reminds us that we all "yodel / in the shower /. . . warble to the din / of heated waters." Greco concludes from this that "we are all really rednecks / . . . [who] love that country music," the music of our hearts: the raw, pure sound of being alive.

Indeed, there is much rawness in Greco's poems, not in the language, but in terms of suffering, both human and non-human. One woman loses her breasts to cancer, while another has her head bashed against a stair by an abusive boyfriend. In one poem a spider hangs on for dear life, while in another, the spider slowly drowns in a bathtub. While some poets wallow in the misery of these situations, Greco simply touches down upon them for a moment, just long enough for the reader to feel the jolt. The dog in the poem "Brown Dog," for example, is "still shy / when the man comes too near / lifts his hand // for anything."

It is this glancing quality that seems most apt in describing Greco's best poems. They are poems where angels appear, family members disappear, and small birds worry "about cats that can fly." At times, Greco loses this lightness and becomes bogged down in narrative and personal history. In addition, there are more overtly sexual poems towards the end, which fall flat in a literalism not present in any of the other poems. However, these poems are the exceptions, and the journey the book takes us on is worth it. Rattlesnake Plantain is like a "light within the body" we use to "work our way toward morning."


Fall 2003 Table of Contents