Medicinal shows once toured Europe and America. So called doctors would drive wagons from town to town, offering miracle elixers and other entertainments. My knowledge of medicine shows come from pop culture, the image of a man more entertainer than doctor purporting to sell cures. The man stands on his box or makeshift stage and with a flourish presents a bottle with some strange liquid inside. Is it medicine, a placebo, or poison?
B.C. Edwards’ From the Standard Cyclopedia of Recipes has the same feel of such medicinal shows, with the author himself presenting an assemblage of recipes and concoctions. Each of the poems in this book is an adaptation of a recipe found in a collection of household instructions originally published in 1901 by Frederick J. Drake and Company — recipes to make pure spirits, to cure distemper in horses, to restore burnt steel, to destroy the stumps of trees.
“Ask them how much it hurts. Really.
Drive spikes inward. Ask then.
Every part until you have a porcupine,
the monster from Hellraiser
and now ask them how much it hurts.”
— From No. 674. Cure for Earache.
What unfolds is poetry as chemistry, words reacting with words to form new strange mixtures. Each time I pull the cork off a new poem, I’m not sure what I’ll get. Maybe it will evoke the ache of love, the sweetness of longing, the pain of lingering hope. Or maybe I’ll enjoy a contemplation on the nature of coffee, the preservation of birds and other animals.
“We are mostly concerned about being left alone.
We send text to each other
passed back and forth like fine sand
sifted charcoal back and forth
like we are archeologists with enormous screens
for sifting relics out of dirt.”
— From No. 757. How to make a Composition for Roofs.
As a fan of alchemy and medicinal shows and other feats of pseudo-miraculous science and a lover of poetry, this book is exactly my aesthetic. The recipes are surprising profound, strange, and compelling. Is it medicine, a placebo, or poison? What am I drinking down when I read these poems? I’m not entirely sure, but I loved the experience.