Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: In “Abrus precatorius,” we love the way language collides in certain images, and we’re especially intrigued by the line, “I present luster-stripped women walled-in al hadiqa.” Can you share a little about the way you’re imagining the speaker and the scene in the poem?

Jules Jacob: The speaker is a misunderstood woman struggling for growth and free will, an insistent woman daring to question authority whose good nature turns when she is subdued and isolated. Because she speaks for many women, I imagined her in a variety of gardens—Islamic, formal Italianate, French parterre—in which she’s removed from mainstream society, much like Nathanial Hawthorne’s character, Beatrice, in his short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” to whom this poem alludes. 


RR: We read the poem as imagistically responding to the oppression of women through religion, and the Rosary Pea is a particularly potent symbol in that context. Can you tell us about how you developed the piece in terms of image and theme? 

JJ I selected Abrus precatorius to represent the oppression of women through religion and to juxtapose scientific progress versus the progress of women. There are five decades of rosary peas representing fifty Hail Mary prayers on a rosary, each prayer offered to the Virgin Mother to atone for sins. Yet this plant is more toxic than ricin; ingesting a few uncooked peas can kill you. Ethno-botanical uses in third-world countries include using a paste of the roots to speed up labor, treat abdominal pain, prevent pregnancy and induce abortion.


RR: We love the idea of a series of poisonous plant poems. How did you come to work on such a project? More broadly, has your gardening experience influenced your writing?

JJ: I’ve been intrigued by poisonous plants since my dad, who has degrees in botany and chemistry, taught me to identify plants including poison ivy, oak, and sumac when I was a kid. My interest increased after I became a Horticultural Therapist and Master Gardener. In 2017, I was contacted by poet and Master Gardener, Sonja Johanson, after she read several of my poisonous plant poems. Sonja suggested we collaborate and our collection grew out of mutual knowledge and fascination with poisonous plants.

Gardening influences my writing because it compels me to observe the intricacies and influencers of change affecting species. Without observation and inquiry, accurate adjustments resulting in beneficial change are less likely to occur. Scientific observations offer internal insights that can be expanded and shared through writing in ways that are less restrictive than plain data.  


RR: How does a poem begin for you? Do you have any favorite writing prompts or exercises?

JJ: My poems typically evolve when my curiosity is piqued and I’m compelled to expand upon an observation, something I’ve read, unexpected words and lines or personal and public events. One exercise I like—if you can call it that—is to free write on a legal pad while I’m driving. (I do not recommend this exercise unless you can steer well with your left knee.) The hum of the tires against the pavement, lack of expectations, and unscripted scenery have prompted some of my favorite “driving” poems. 


RR: You mention on your website that you are an author, poet, and advocate. What does being an advocate mean to you?

JJ: As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I help abused and neglected children in foster care who cannot speak for themselves by investigating and making recommendations on their behalf and challenging the system to do what it is supposed to do for each child. Poets also break silences, interrogate beliefs and entrenched social systems, and use persuasive speech to influence minds and hearts. Advocating through poetry is a dynamic way we can ensure injustices are recognized and repressed voices are heard.


Jules Jacob’s work appears in Issue 7.1:

Abrus precatorius, Rosary Pea”