St. John’s Wort, a review

St. John's Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin. Published by Animal Heart Press.

It’s hard to say what Alexus imagined when she titled this book, St. John’s Wort. It’s the name of a European medicinal shrub known for treating depression. Like most of the world, if you consider the book at face value, you’ll think it’s therapeutic, that it calms and elevates your experiences. 

It does. 

However, as you read through the poems, over and over again, to make sure you don’t miss a beat or the depth of meaning folded neatly in between lines and stanzas, you’ll realise that Mayo Clinic was perhaps right. As one of the top possible side effects of St. John’s wort (the shrub), it lists agitation. Which is what you feel when you’ve read these poems.

Alexus doesn’t look at the world around her and burst into flowery language. Instead, her poems are deliberate. Each line, each syllable rings with meaning, and whether or not you directly relate to it, you feel what she sees, and you see what she feels.

Imagery is for the ear as much as it is for the eye, you learn as she describes in Laughter,

“I know God laughed
when night bathed tabletop-
tabletop cradled the New York Times, a pound cake. I sang carols over the brushed, high-hat hiss of a Vanilla Coke can.”

Alexus’s poetry isn’t simple. Layers upon layers of complexity lie in each poem, and she makes you work to reap the sweet benefits of the sadness lingering in those hard words. 

“When I learned my father had an aneurysm, I thought about the day his brother had the aneurysm.
I thought about Plath, then Hughes
then about how suddenly I needed to buy pudding
from the grocery store.”

When referencing a father dying of aneurysm, not everyone draws a parallel with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“, where she confesses struggling to forgive her father’s involvement in the Holocaust and his lack of self-care that resulted in a gradual demise. Alexus cleverly matches the Plath reference with the seemingly related Hughes, while instead, with a subtle streak, alluding to pulmonary artery aneurysms, a rare autoimmune disease first described by British physicians Hughes and Stovin.

Good poetry resounds though your being, leaving blotches of reality, like ink on paper, marking you for life. This collection of poems takes it further—you have to marvel at Alexus’s wordliness, the way she’s melded poetry with dark reality, and the way she’s dejargoned medicine, revealing it in bits, like droplets on whiskey, just enough to hit you with a boldness that momentarily disarms you.

It’s not, however, a book you need to pair with a high-edition dictionary—although a nice Riesling surely complements. Scattered throughout the book, in snippets that speak the truth as it is, are poems so simple and so pristine that you can’t help but pause to inhale the beauty of words.

“What among us won’t, one day,
Be turned inside out?”

She asks in such tepidity that it strikes you, slices through your pretence, as intense as hot knife through cold butter.

Alexus ends that poem, Year of the Rabbit Hole, hinting at self-help, while artfully voiding her voice of the unworthiness that comes with such books.

This collection is a chain, flaunting a range of topics, all bound by the string of tragedy. Every poem is an ode to an incident in life—sometimes personal, often not—leaving you with a shudder, questioning you, and enticing you to question the world you see.


Musings from reading St. John’s Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin and published by Animal Heart Press.

The writers

Sylvia watched in silence as they filled into her home. Strangers, coming in twos and threes, cooing hellos, waving arms, wandering in in boots, flip flops, and sneakers. Women of all ages, of all sizes, short and long-haired, short and short-haired, tall and bushy, heavy and muscly, injected her home with giggles, palm rubs, applause, and all the liveliness she’d long yearned for.

They sat around in a circle, clutching glasses of Scotch, sipping, cubed ice flipping within. Sharing tales of yonder, eyes wide in wonder, cosying by the fire as embers leapt into flames, the friends laughed through the night. Sylvia pined throughout.

With dawn rose the women, tired to the bones, yet souls refreshed. And they took their places, wielding metal boxes, tap tapping away before daylight, in peaceful concentration, as beads of condensation left windows for the sun. 

All the while, the women wrote. For they had money and finally a room of their own, just as Sylvia intended.


Image credit: Rowan Heuvel

Self, thy name’s Esther

The first time I read a few lines attributed to her, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. Thanks to the collection board that’s Pinterest, I discovered plenty of gut-wrenching, heart-clenching verses that Plath had written. Hooked, I went on a rampage of Sylvia stalking. Before I knew it, she’d become one of my favourite writers. I’d read about her curious suicide, and I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of her life. Her story strengthened my affection for her and somewhere between feeling respect and pity towards her, I found myself doting after her as well.

Wonderful though it all was, I’d become addicted to Plath despite reading none of her works in complete. That’s how I came upon The Bell Jar—guilt-ridden and hungry to prove to myself that I know the author I adored.

Before flipping through its pages, I didn’t know what to expect from The Bell Jar. Wanting to figure it out for myself, I read none of the reviews and asked no one I know what they thought of the story. As I began reading, I grew fascinated by the protagonist of the story, Esther Greenwood. The reason, I later realised, is that she’s in no way special. Unlike many other protagonists with their exceptional talents shining through print, Esther was simple in all sense.

The book opens with her in the middle of a writer’s scholarship—something I could appreciate as an aspirer myself. Little by little, as the story progressed, I found parts of myself relating to Esther. She reminded me of my deeper self—the unassuming, uninterested self that often prefers solitude, dabbling in self-doubt and incessant imposter syndrome.

It was later that, as the narrative turned to Esther’s psychological issues, I understood that Esther isn’t just me, but she’s every other person, too. Not only was her behaviour characteristic of me, but she was also an embodiment of the natural evolution of the teenage mind.

It’s not easy growing up, and it’s even more difficult when you’re alone and lacking guidance. That’s most of us. That’s Esther.

That’s why it became tough to separate myself from the character. I became so involved in her life that I wanted to see how each day of her life unfolded. As she cringed, so did I. As she ran away from accepting herself, as did I. I followed her every move, her every decision and instinct as if it would all affect my life in a way.

It was as if were in a vortex where Esther—who struggled to find her own way—would guide mine.

By the time I finished the book, I could do nothing but stare at the wall. I felt intense pleasure within me, a silent jubilation. Esther was recovering. She had hope in her life. Although the book didn’t affirm she found her utopia, it hinted toward it. And having gone through her life with her, relating her every moment with mine, I felt as if my own life would be fine after all. It was as if I’d ridden a roller coaster—dizzy and unsure of what I’d face next, weak in the knees with butterflies in my chest—but had come to a secure halt with my entire being intact.

I couldn’t talk about the experience for days after I’d read the book. I didn’t know how I felt, and finding the right words seemed herculean. But as time went by, my feelings also evolved. From seeing myself in Esther, without a conscious effort, I began relating everything I knew of the author’s personal characteristics with that of Esther Greenwood. Then it hit me that the author herself battled with depression and psychological issues. I began to revere Esther as much as I did Sylvia. And my respect for the writer increased when I understood that she had manifested herself in Esther, giving readers a hint of what she herself was going through during her lifetime.

What a wonderful way to express oneself. Also, a little sad.

Of Madness

Sylvia
Image courtesy: Pinterest

The heart yearns. To go places, to see things, and to delve in knowledge worth delving.

But sometimes, you can’t do more than you can. Sometimes you have to bow your head and accept: Life’s a game of cards, and you got the Joker. It’s all part of the larger truth.

And it will make you mad. You could either let it kill you, or let it motivate you to thrive through the madness.

And I choose the latter.