National Poetry Month 2020, Week Three: Natalie Eilbert’s “Bacterium”

April 18, 2020

Natalie Eilbert.
Photo by Mark Koranda

Recently, a public figure—I won’t name any names—asked why we couldn’t just treat the Covid-19 coronavirus with antibiotics, complaining: “the germ (sic) has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.”

Now, it’s possible this person— despite his self-proclaimed high-IQ—skipped Biology in high school, for it is in that class that most people learn that antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses.

It’s in this class that students also learn the difference between bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are single-celled organisms, essentially living things that can thrive in a variety of environments. Viruses, on the other hand, require a living host, such as a people, plants, or animals to survive.

With that Biology lesson out of the way, this week’s poem is “Bacterium” by Natalie Eilbert. Eilbert, the author of the remarkable Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018), as well as Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015), teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

She is working on her third poetry collection, “Mediastinum,” and is also studying to become a science journalist. (I note her reference to Ideonella sakaiensis, the bacterium which secretes an enzyme that breaks down plastic, specifically PET (polyethylene terephthalate), in lines 11-12.)

“Bacterium” is a captivating poem, which I first came across in Poetry Magazine. What initially struck me about this poem is its form that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—it has elements of both the pantoum and the villanelle, with its repetition of lines, rhymes, and slant rhymes.

So, I asked the poet and she wrote that the poem is written in “a very loose palindromic form inspired by Natasha Trethewey’s poem, ‘Myth,’ which is, in my mind, a perfect poem that has haunted me since 2007.” In Eilbert’s version, she established “a stable of sentences and then reverse(d) their order.”

And then there is her almost playful exploration of etymology, which helps get at the true meaning of words, such as “graft,” “grifter,” and “to graft,” and, perhaps more importantly, “mother” and “mentor.”

I also love the way Eilbert uses verbs in this poem, often morphing them into their gerund form. “I am very, very conscious of how verbs operate in my poems,” Eilbert wrote to me. “I am fascinated by critiques of writing that point to prioritizing active over passive voice. Sometimes we need the passive voice. It is how I encountered so much of the nurturing in my life.”

For example, Eilbert thinks about the difference between “My mother braids my hair” and “My hair was braided,” saying, “The second one breaks my heart; the first is not an accurate narrative for the neglected child. Mothers and mentors have always been complicated in my life. I wanted to create something of the simulacrum of nurturing but one that is absent of love.”

Here is Natalie Eilbert’s “Bacterium,”
   

In the last segment, I tried sufficiency. They moved

my femur and a single woman braiding her hair fell

from me. I tried to warn you, this desert editorializes.

A scorpion lifts its tail, braids more active than braiding,

it hisses. I, of all people, get it. In the mornings we wake

to the kind of life we want until we turn our heads east.

The night fills without us but I warned you, I was full

already. A banana inside me blasted open a door,

my thoughts at the threshold of such a door blank. Love

transacts, a figure in the distance crowded with window.

An enzyme eats plastic, but which kind? Synthetic polymer

or the ways you tried to keep me? This is the last segment.

My mother

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. My mentor

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. I shake

out of bed. Humans continue the first line of their suicide letter.

An enzyme invents us, we invent enzymes. The plastic we make,

we must eat it. Draw a circle around time. We designed us

in simple utterances. The political term graft means political

corruption. The grifter never had an I. In the burn unit, they

place tilapia skins over human scar tissue, the killed form on top

of afflicted form, also a graft. Also a graft of afflicted form,

the killed form on top, they place tilapia skins over human scar

tissue. In the burn unit, I never had a grifter, corruption

means political, graft the political term. In simple utterances

we designed us. Time draws a circle, we must eat it. We make

the plastic, enzymes invent we, us invents an enzyme to continue

the first line of a suicide letter. Out of bed I shake with intercourse.

Time draws a circle around my mentor. Time draws a circle around

my mother.

This is the last segment. The ways you tried to keep me? Synthetic

polymer, but which kind? An enzyme eats plastic, crowded window,

a figure in the distance transacts love. At the threshold of such

a blank door, my thoughts open a door. A banana blasted inside me.

Already I was full but I warned you, the night fills without us.

We turn our heads until we want the kind of life in the mornings

we wake to. I get, of all people, it. It hisses. A scorpion, more active

than braiding, braids its tail, lifts the editorialized desert. You tried

to warn me from me. Her hair fell braiding a single woman. My femur

was moved. They tried sufficiency in the last segment.

Source: Poetry (May 2019)

You can read more about Natalie Eilbert on her website: natalie-eilbert.com and you can order her books there or through the links above.

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