Emily McKeage

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) looks back on her Neues Blumenbuch from impoverished old age*

Even then, I did not leave out the bugs, be sure.
Even before Suriname, where I could really see,
and where I learned the local names for things;
before Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium,
(my "serious studies" of the transformations
of insects from one form to another -- for those
who still thought each stage a new creature);
before I took my girls, left for Frankfurt am Main
where my mother had fallen ill, leaving Johan
to write his verse; before Friesland
and its disciplines; when I made my little book
with needlework patterns for fine ladies,
perhaps a miniature or two in watercolor:
even then, I did not leave out the bugs:

antennae and pincers, thread-like legs, circling
or landed, diving into blossoms or munching
holes in leaves, transparent of wing,
or darkly carapaced. Even on garlands decked
with bows and floating strands of blue ribbon,
even on the title page, I had a bug, this time
a fine brown fellow just alighting
on a purple blossom. O, I let
dragonflies and striped-winged moths
circle the auricula, blossoms wilting.
And one time I had a huge eight-legged
black beetle, pincers wide, creep
across a marble table top, where a blue and white
Chinese vase with fantastical swamp birds
held a many-colored, fly-circled bouquet --
my beetle, bigger than the vase birds,
inching right towards the edge.

Be sure, I kept what crept on ground, leaf,
mossy bark, what flew in bright or darkening air,
even then, and sometimes, I fell asleep pitying the girls
who left out the bugs from their needlework,
missed the best part.


* inspired by the edition of Merian's New Book of Flowers, Prestel Verlag (2003), with an introduction by Melanie Klier.


A native New Yorker and lifelong student and teacher of literature, Emily McKeage's return to the craft of writing poetry has been greatly aided by work with teachers at the 92nd Street Y, including Grace Schulman, Sophie Cabot Black and Kathleen Ossip, whom she thanks. A BD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature, she continues her work on the history of love poetry as an independent scholar. Her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Sanskrit and Verdad, among other journals.

Issue 13

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