Review of The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers by Christine Butterworth-McDermott

Cover of The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers: a close up of a well known painting by the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti called Proserpine, 1874, a side-view of a white woman with brown hair in a roomy blue pleated dress with one hand holding the wrist of the other hand that is holding a pomegranate that has a quarter section removed, exposing the interior of the pomegranate.

The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers by Christine Butterworth-McDermott

Fomite Press, 2023

128 pages, $11.16

Review by Alicia Elkort

Imagine gazing at a vase filled with an abundance of gorgeous flowers—the freshness, the beauty, the lush scents…then imagine that one of the flowers is Belladonna, a nightshade that contains a chemical that if ingested can cause blurred vision, fever, fast heartbeat, hallucinations, convulsions, coma, or, in the worst-case scenario, death. In the world of Christine Butterworth-McDermott’s fourth book of poems, The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers from Fomite Press, the world of flora and fauna is one that presents as a bouquet of extraordinary flowers, but upon closer examination reveals a doorway into the underbelly of human emotions and actions. 

The very first line of the first poem in the collection, “I Hear You’re Sick of Pomegranates,” begins, “You’re lying. Desire is just dormant.” The reader never learns who the “you” is, but I imagine the poet is talking to herself, telling herself, “You know your own coat / must be thrown back, your own life broken / open and plucked.” Throughout the book, the poems elucidate the betrayals, the violence, and the losses of women and men vying for love and for power. She uses the language of flowers, history, and the stories of mythology and legend to respond to the deep vein of dysfunction running through our relationships. The poems are medicinal, the soothing words of a spell, breaking open the heart in order that it might be freed to revel in the natural senses, to feel desire once again. 

In the poem “Honeyfed,” a beautifully wrought eight-line poem, repetition creates forward momentum, from “You kissed me against the lilac’d gate,” to “You pushed me against the lilac’d gate,” to “You left me against the lilac’d gate, / your scent so heady it attracted bees.” What starts out as innocence turns to loss and betrayal, but the implications of the poem are complex. The surface of the poem implies that nothing is redeemable in this experience and that the character of the poem will be stung by this wounding. But lilacs as a species represent renewal and confidence while the purple hued petals indicate spirituality. The character of the poem is abandoned after being assaulted, but the implication is that the character of the poem, while suffering in the moment, is also learning to make honey, is being fed honey as the title implies. It might be a sarcastic title, or the double meaning might be intended. Many of the poems in this collection do this double work as this poem does.  

The voice in the poem “Filtering Particle from Pain,” finds herself not without fault, drawn to the allure of the forbidden. She admires fire ants, wants to touch them: 

I know I should not
be tempted by the texture of cinnamon,
the color of curry—but the need to touch
the forbidden itches at my fingers.

Who among us has not known better and done worse? Who has not heeded the call of the mysterious and the dangerous. In one of the more haunting poems in the collection, “The Lesson of Aconite or Wolf’s Bane,” the poem attempts to sympathize with the darker jealousies of the Curry Killer, named so because in 2009 she went to the apartment of the man who had left her for a younger woman after a sixteen-year relationship and sprinkled aconite in the leftover curry food in the fridge. That night the man and his fiancée ate the food. He died within an hour of arriving at the hospital while the fiancée, who had eaten much less of the food, was given an antidote and survived. Aconite is also known as wolf’s-bane, and the poem repeats three times the refrain “feed the wolf,” which calls to mind the hungry wolf of the fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood.” The poem ends:

as she sprinkled, thinking
how he wounded her after sixteen years,
she should have known      he should have
known how cornered dogs bite,
how beewolves sting.

One of my favorite poems in the collection (there are so many I favor) is “Rue (The Thoughts of One Ophelia),” where the verb “rue” is used contrapuntally to the herb “rue,” and then to the verb “rule.” The bitter taste of the leaves led to rue being associated with the idea of regret. However the Catholic Church came to use rue to bless its congregants by dipping the herb into holy water and then sprinkling that water across the heads of parishioners. 

You make me
rue all I have done.

Midwife, supply me rue
a way out of this
supply me feverfew

supply me licorice
bittersweet
thick blood will come

Here Ophelia calls for the herbs that would end a pregnancy. In asking the midwife for rue, she is asking for a blessing, a way out, as in the last stanza, the last line that ends the poem with no punctuation, no ending:

Oh, thick blood come,
please oh miracle
oh God,
undo, undone

The layered tragedy of this poem is that while the poem is left hanging with no punctuation to declare its finality, we know how things end for Ophelia. There is no miracle, no blessing at all, only regret. 

Though many of the poems are full of foreboding, of betrayed and betraying lovers, of partners too drunk to show up for their own birthday parties, of wounded soldiers aching “to embrace any kind of flowering” (from “Night Blooming Cereus After Desert Storm”), there is also a perceptible shift towards wonder. In the poem, “Fight or Flight,” the character of the poem sits before a window with binoculars in anticipation of witnessing the flight of an owl that crouches in a tree. While unsure whether what she sees in the night is simply a mass of leaves, the phone rings in the background, leaving her with the choice of answering the phone or maintaining her look-out. Inside of that telephone ring, we are bestowed an entire story by the line, “I don’t know if you’re calling to apologize…” The character of the poem ignores the telephone and waits, her focus on the tree and the mass of leaves:

Then, out the window, the mass unfurls, the talons
release the branch, the wings spread as the owl
reaches outward, flies into the air.

The overall lesson of this poem and perhaps the entire collection and then perhaps for the poet as well is that the way to escape the woundedness of life and lift oneself to freedom is to intentionally take our focus off the people and ways we are wounded. Instead we can become enraptured by the beauty that exists around us including the beauty of compassion and kindness. If we are steady, we will witness the magnificent creature that is an owl (that by metaphor is us) taking flight. There will be lift, and there will be freedom. 

The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers is a collection to savor, to inhabit, and to enjoy the immense craft evident in the poems and in the poem-making. Butterworth-McDermott interlaces her immense knowledge of plants and mythology in every poem. And while the collection as a whole exposes darker emotions, the reader also comes to understand that not only are we blessedly resilient, but much of that resilience lies in our own choices—whether to succumb to our baser instincts or choose better in action and word. The poem “Predictions” warns us: “We must be careful what magic / we practice, what heaven we intend…”  

In the final poem in the collection, “Texas February, with Yellow Flowers,” the character of the poem is at home with her husband and daughter enduring a freak snowstorm that withers the flowers outside. While there is much to fear or lament at the mercy of a freak snowstorm with the power down, the poem demonstrates that even when we are at the mercy of outside forces, the forces of growth and regeneration are ever active. The last stanzas leave the reader filled with possibility:

So much blooms in winter.
Restored, warmth creeps through us, hard
places turn soft again. I think of the Japanese
trio I read about once. We are like the Three
Friends: the pine, the bamboo, the plum
of our daughter between us. In these winds,
we bend rather than break, wintersweet.

Alicia Elkort, a white woman with short reddish brown hair, glasses, freckles, and a smile.

Alicia Elkort’s first book of poetry, A Map of Every Undoing was published in 2022 by Stillhouse Press with George Mason University, after winning their book contest. Alicia’s poetry has been nominated several times for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Orison Anthology, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She reads for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and works as a Life Coach. Alicia lives in Santa Fe, NM where praise and clouds are part of her everyday experience. For more info or to watch her two video poems, visit Alicia Elkort’s website.