Poisons & Antidotes by Andrea L. Fry

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” go the lyrics of a hit song by Kelly Clarkson, the same paradox at the heart of Andrea L. Fry’s impressive collection in which she explores the clash of the nutric and the toxic,  the safe and the perilous: the noxious and the obnoxious, as the title of the book’s first section sums up.
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“Oh, I would divide the world into binaries,” she begins the poem called “The Glitter of the Simple,” but the dichotomy is never so clear, as she captures so beautifully later in the poem:
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The sacred passion flower,
ringed by purple filaments,
though its cool smile nests in leaves
of cyanide.
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Later in the poem, after having archly declared her intention to judge by appearances only, Fry more sagely notes the deceptive malleability of the world’s contents in an observation from which the collection takes its name:
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Both substance and creature slink
over a delicate border,
can so easily pass
from poison to antidote.
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Some of Fry’s poems are so deliciously specific in spelling out the world’s almost oxymoronic inconsistencies. “Jimsonweed” and “Mothballs,” which open the book, focus on these two modest objects to tease out the point. “The Flower Maker” tells the story of the accidental poisoning of a person who makes beautiful bouquets for ladies’ hair using a chemical like Scheele’s Green, a mixture containing arsenic. “She shaped the flowers, / and pinned them, // loved them like / little green children.”  Unfortunately, the flower maker got the poison all over herself, too, her hair and lashes, and eventually into her stomach and liver.
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“The Snake Charmer” is another poem that plays on the ambiguity of the safe and the dangerous. Inspired by a magazine article about an Indian snake charmer who “attempted suicide by cobra” (“your nemesis / and livelihood coiled in a basket”), she describes the man considered an “entertainer” by some and a “beggar” by others:
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Yours was like a prophet’s
mission, to travel to villages
and festivals – like a marshal
out in front, townspeople cowering
behind – to challenge peril,
dare it to come out from its
hiding, show itself.
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An oncology nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Fry knows what she’s talking about when she evaluates the risks and benefits of different drugs and therapies. “Tomfoolery” brings a smile with its curmudgeonly expression, but she speaks truth:
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Harrumph, I say!
Your cure’s as toxic as the bug itself.
A panacea that kills the lymph.
Amphotericin destroys both fungus and the host;
camphor kills moths, gives us emphysema.
Amphetamines make depressives
leap the fence….
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“Narcan,” a poem about the emergency drug used to treat opioid overdose, expresses a similar ambivalence; the “miracle” comes with a warning, “the burden / of pure gift.” “Therapy” continues the idea of the fragility of the body in response to drugs, “fondling kidneys / like pottery.”  And so we encounter “Amir” “holding / the sample of urine with a slight tremor, as if asking for alms,” as uncertain and terrified as any other anonymous patient.
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This mixture of promise and peril is particularly potent in “Return,” a poem dedicated to “the Babushkas of Chernobyl,” the old women coming back to tend to the radioactive land, “to your home, / to what they said would be uninhabitable.” The birds, the bees, even, for a time, the wolves, moose and boars were gone. “But you would not grieve.  / There was work to be done.”
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My favorite poem is the one called “The Renderer,” in which a farm mother cushions the death of a beloved ancient horse with a vision of Patsy grazing happily in Heaven, much like the story parents tell their children about the dead family pet going away to live on a bucolic farm. Unfortunately, before she can take the kids away, the renderer drives up, jerking “the brake up like he was snapping / something’s neck” and proceeds to describe how he will have to saw Patsy’s legs off before hooking her up and driving the carcass away. The mother hastily rolls up the window and starts to leave the property. They drive away in silence for a few minutes, and then:
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“Mama?”
“Yes, Jack,” I said.
“Was that God?”
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Fry’s sense of humor shines throughout many of these poems, while expanding on her theme. “Don’t Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle!” channels the snarky colleague who manages to undercut her co-workers while smiling her fake smile. “Help Desk” is a sort of surreal take on the recorded telephone message that “directs your call.” “The Show Dog” anthropomorphizes the competitors in competitions like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “The Death of Rhetoric” humorously analyzes how language has been poisoned. It starts out:
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Take whatever.
Once royal, now it dwells
like a fallen angel
in the most ignoble realm:
the syntax of a sullen teen.
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These marvelous poems brim with wit, imagination and intelligence. What doesn’t simply charm or enchant you will make you wiser. (Am I right, Kelly Clarkson?)
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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