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Timothy Donnelly

Timothy Donnelly

Timothy Donnellyis the author of The Cloud Corporation and the chapbook Hymn to Life, among others. A Guggenheim Fellow, he teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts, is a poetry editor for Boston Review, and lives in Brooklyn with his family.


Raleigh filled his cargo hold with sassafras to carry it
    from the New World to England hoping it cured syphilis

which it didn't, but its fragrance was just heavenly
    enough to make you think a miracle wasn't completely

out of the question. Elizabeth herself looked out across the blue
    hypnosis of Ocean, saw infection in the form of 132

Spanish vessels and prohibited the setting sail of any
    one of England's own, having awakened to a military

need for many hulls; for masts that tower; for wind-
    loud fabrics but bettered with use; for decks seasoned

by the tread of subjects—their finer, British aspects, reserve
    and so forth. Meanwhile, John White, governor of

Roanoke, rich in sassafras but otherwise an inauspicious
    choice for the crown's toehold in the Americas, is

back in town for emergency supplies and aid, but given
    Elizabeth's "stay of shipping," won't be allowed to return

to Roanoke for years. Two long years White pounds his pewter
    tankard down, having abandoned wife and daughter

to an end without an author, his tankard cylindrical,
    lidded with an acorn thumbpiece, and filled with ale

whose froth spatters on the tabletops in meaningful patterns
    he can't yet discern: first the arrowhead of Hatteras,

then a crescent of the Armada, then at last a mitten or
   one- or three-lobed leaf of sassafras, frequent thickener

of stews for the Choctaw, who still dry its foliage and grind
    it into a powder high in mucilage, which is found

also in quantity in okra, whose seedpods are said to have
    been taken from Africa to feed the colonies' growing slave

population as cheaply as possible. High on the list of
    heat- and drought-resistant crops, okra means to live

despite untenable conditions and deserves a tribute
    unique among those owed to every plant whose leaf, root,

flower, berry, bark or fruit has gotten us as far as this
    without complaint: aloe, apple, artichoke, and asparagus

to start, then aubergine, a favorite of Alexander the Great
    who carried it from India and into Babylon despite

his astronomer's warning that the thunderous local deity
    Marduk had enough already, but the Macedonian was pretty

sure a promise to repair Marduk's temple—in ruins since
    Sennacherib toppled it, and felt by fringe historians

to have been the true Tower of Babel—might serve to soften
    the god's heart. But apparently not. Alexander's coffin,

all gold, filled with rumored honey and carried west, far
    from his deathbed in the palace built by Nebuchadnezzar

centuries earlier, came to rest in Alexandria, founded by
    and named for himself, site where his successor Ptolemy

eventually built the celebrated library that Callimachus
     worked at, and whose fiery destruction was traumatic as

a blunt force to the head of humanity. You can still feel it
    today. Cherokee drank a tea of sassafras root to dispollute

the blood in Raleigh's day, but knew never to drink it more
    than a week at a time. English colonists came, saw

and concocted a copycat tonic that mutated into the diet
    root beer I have here, its frothy head no longer an intricate

play of sassafras mucilage because the FDA determined
   a principle in the root was hepatocarcinogenic to rodent

life in 1960. Now most manufacturers add extract of soapbark
    to parrot the effect. In his Life of Alexander, Plutarch

recalls that the hero was born on the same day Herostratus
    set the Temple of Diana in Ephesus ablaze so that his

name would live forever.  Soapbark acts as a foaming agent
    in many fire extinguishers. Without his imprisonment

and brace of assistants, Raleigh wouldn't have produced
     The History of the World, whose first book states the greatest

wonder of the earth is the palm tree. I have stood beneath
    a tall one in L.A. and watched its full fronds seethe

like the mane of a lion. Diana's temple the way the Ephesian
    workforce fixed it is remembered as one of the seven
wonders of antiquity, its chalk white blinding under chicory
    blue Turkish skies. I hear the fingertips of history

thrum on tabletops in Roanoke and when popcorn bursts as it
    spins in my microwave. When I open the bag opposite

my kitchen window, the night reflects my face back in at
    me through the steam expressed from kernels to fascinate

its way back into the water cycle, in order to be the rain
    that fed the sassafras we hid in before I had to be human.


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