Mysteriously fed by the dying breath
Of felons, by the foul odor that melts
Down from their bodies hanging on the gallows,
The rank, limp flesh, the soft pendulous guilts,
This solitary plant takes root at night,
Its tiny charnel blossoms the pale blue
Of Pluto's ice pavilions; being dried,
Powdered and mixed with the cold morning dew
From the left hand of an executed man,
It confers untroubled sleep, and can prevent
Prenatal malformations if applied
To a woman's swelling body, except in Lent.
Take care to clip only the little blossoms,
For the plant, uprooted, utters a cry of pain
So highly pitched as both to break the eardrum
And render the would-be harvester insane.
Hecht's note to the poem:
The poem is based on folklore concerning the mandrake plant, which was long believed to have magic properties. According to one botanical handbook, "its roots were an integral part of every witch's cauldron, its berries . . . used as an opiate and love potion. It was common knowledge in medieval times that the mandrake grew under the gallows from the dripping semen of hanged men. Pulled from the ground the root emitted wild shrieks and those who heard them were driven mad" (Folklore and Symbolism in Flowers, Plants and Trees, by Ernst and Johanna Lehner, p. 91).
Excerpted from The Darkness and the Light by Anthony Hecht. Copyright © 2001 by Anthony Hecht. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.