Three Poems: Lessons in Alchemy, Name Your Poison, Behold, The Universal Uterus

Seanín Hughes

Editor’s Note: These poems are taken from Seanín’s debut full collection-in-progress, Reasons for Admission, wherein each poem corresponds to a reason for admission to lunatic asylums during the nineteenth century. In this selection, ‘Lessons in Alchemy’ toys with ‘hard study’, ‘Name Your Poison’ answers to ‘opium habit’, and ‘Behold, the Universal Uterus’ responds to ‘female disease’.

Lessons in Alchemy
 Every class had one: a cluster of atoms, girlish Cerberus, 
 symbiotic patriots of an island all their own— 
 fresh off the boat to bleeding, breasts, offensive body odour, 
 but already commanders in chief, chanting their gospels of adolescence. 
 Never was a cornflake girl. I was green banana sleeping
 in the peel. I was the watchword, something plump
 to sink teeth into: chubby little frump fumbling
 through an army surplus bag, scrawling frivolities in a year
 slow for entertainment. Come be one of us.
 First kiss Friday, eleven o’clock lizard flicking,
 tasting teeth. Do this, or you walk home alone. 
 I was non-Newtonian liquid, shifting cells
 to fill the flask, opaque and punchable fodder;
 impossible to miss. They were saline— 
 conductors of social code, universal solvent
 astonished at the gloop of my graceless emulsion, 
 a thick mimic curdling their veneer. It was slow erasure.
 I shrunk; became soluble in the library, the toilets, 
 the empty oratory. I could make white noise
 of collapsing walls.
 Daughters, know this: there will be young alchemists, experts 
 at sleight of hand and unseen manoeuvres— quick-fingered 
 engineers and slink-minded magicians, always ready
 to rinse clean their hierarchies.

Name Your Poison
 I’ll have what he’s having— one with the hat, respectable chap
 known for it, fills his boots— dope me like him, like that— 
 dope me clever, dope me free—dope toothache, diarrhoea, degeneracy— 
 dope me a continent of my very own, imaginary 
 kingdom to roam and rule— reach into— pull out 
 a prize white rabbit— pull out 
 horror—who needs to hunt for that, ha!— 
 dope me crowned with rubies,  
 gorgeous—imagine!—my best self 
 slit navel to nose, spilling secrets—no telling what 
 I’ll tell then, no— not one of you would be safe.

Behold, the Universal Uterus
 Two swollen brains crossed swords 
 over new land; one a believer in medicine,
 the other an expert in risk, both keen
 to unlock the forbidden red room, 
 at once both clock and bomb.
 She was slumped on the table, sedated head of Baphomet,
 while the swords debated speculums 
 as provocateurs of lust—
 she might spin like a primal cyclone, eye
 stationed in her cervix and aching to feast,
 starving red beast howling,
 at once both clock and bomb.
 They agreed on one thing— a universal theme 
 in disorder, dissipation, and decay.
 She lay quiet, not quite asleep,
 and heard it all through the walls
 of a red cave, ticking
 at once both clock and bomb. 

Seanín Hughes is a poet, mother, and full-time carer from Northern Ireland. She has had work published both in the UK and internationally, as well as selected for study at various colleges and universities. Seanín’s debut pamphlet, Little Deaths, arrived in 2019 and will be followed by her second pamphlet, She, Shapeshifter, in March 2022.