Poem of the Week | October 17, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “What I Learned From the Gympie Gympie Plant” by Christina Olson.

Christina Olson is the author of Terminal Human Velocity (Stillhouse Press, 2017). Her chapbook The Last Mastodon won the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest. Other work appears in magazines including The Atlantic, The Nation, Scientific American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and tweets about coneys and mastodons as @olsonquest.


What I Learned From the Gympie Gympie Plant

                   Dendrocnide moroides

killing you softly is not the m.o.
of the gympie gympie plant
which would prefer instead to kill you
repeatedly & very agonizingly

using its heart-shaped leaves covered in fur
each slender hair made of silica
each glass spine filled with neurotoxin

the slightest flutter lodges the glass in skin
the poison can jolt for up to two years
survivors say it feels like being electrocuted

with hot acid     so pause here     to pity the man
who used the gympie gympie as toilet paper
they say he shot himself four days later
(this is probably legend but we’d understand)

yet the red-legged pademelon
feeds upon the gympie gympie
& the leaves feed other bugs & birds

it’s humans that take each sting personally
how we carry its glass in our skin
all these years later        still stinging
as if just any heart is ours to touch


Author’s Note

This poem is part of a new manuscript, The Anxiety Workbook, which spends a lot of time examining our relationship to the natural world and our obsession with centering humans within it. I don’t remember where I first learned about the gympie gympie plant—I’m sure I Googled “top ten plants that want to kill you” or something very scientific—but I was fascinated by how much people hate this plant. It’s just a plant! It has evolved a very specific and effective way to keep animals from brushing up against it, including human animals. And I loved the irony that these leaves that bristle with silica and neurotoxins are heart-shaped. From there, I somehow jumped to Roberta Flack and the first line popped into my head and the poem came quickly after that. There’s something very human about the fact that we’re upset with this plant because it wants to survive just as badly as we do.