Pharmako/Poeia by Dale Pendell

Dale Pendell’s ‘Pharmako/Poeia – Power Plants, Poisons & Herbcraft’ was originally published in 1995. This review  is written from the updated 2010 North Atlantic edition. Pendell is an author and poet whose written works include ‘Inspired Madness: The Gifts of Burning Man’ (2006) and ‘Living with Barbarians: A few Plant Poems’ (1999), as well as developing the political concept of ‘horizon anarchism’, which he first enunciated at Burning Man 2006. ‘Pharmako/Poeia’ is the first of a trilogy of books dealing with power plants.

Today’s world is highly specialised. In the academic universe there are thousands of bubbles floating about that contain the aspects of very small areas of study and research. This tends to fly in the face of history, when in the past it was more typical for the individual to be, if not skilled in, at least versed in many sciences and humanities. In Pharmako/Poeia however, Pendell demonstrates that the art of a cross-disciplined approach is not only still alive, but has the power to augment understandings above and beyond its parts. He reveals the depth to which scientific/poetic dichotomies are often no more than categorical fallacies, which have been wrongly extenuated in post-enlightenment thinking.

A poet and long-time student of ethnobotany, Pendell draws together the relationship between psychoactive compounds and humanity into a powerfully constructed narrative. He turns the language of what he names the Poison Path back on itself and it has the effect of not only being lyrically beautiful, revealing the depth to which the relationship is embedded in the philosophy and thought of ages, but it is also a combative reversal of a language that modern Establishment lyricism might intern for its own; for the word ‘poison’ is never so simple. As the great beat poet and student of Zen Gary Snyder so aptly wrote in his introduction to this text: “This is a book about danger: dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance, and dangerous temptations by the seductions of addictions both psychic and cellular” (Pendell xiii). Pharmako/Poeia takes the naivety of linguistic understanding and reveals the complexity of “dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance” that lay in individual and state understanding, through its poetic narrative.

“We are all intoxicated, We were born into an insane asylum, a world crazy-making. We believe what we see and hear. The real myth is the myth of sanity, of rationality: it’s a disease that is eating away at the earth. All the poisons flow from our denial. We deny our madness, we forget our crimes, we dismember the corpse, we imprison our children. We need poison to poison the poison, to remember the sacred nature of intoxication, the green body of the young god” (Pendell 207).

The Poison Path is a conflation of the many disciplinarily bubbles. For instance, history, ethnobotany, bio-chemistry, psychopharmacology, anthropology and literature all in various way become purporting-perspectives of understanding. What grounds these bubbles into a single plateau is poetry, for if this book is anything, it is a poetic narrative, the sort of form and thinking that first gave birth to all these disciplines. The allies, which is to say the plant-becoming in its relationship with the ‘poisoner’ becomes the characterisation of the complexity, it is the poetry bringing to life the categorical distance, which is created by the divorced understanding of only a single bubble. The effect of this, is to make the reader ultimately aware that it is narrow-minded to take a linear, fascisizing perspective on the human-poison relationship. It makes one aware that the application of an ally relies heavily on the intention, the knowledge and the bent of the poisoner.

For example, Pendell discusses sun and moon medicine, wherein the first refers to the ordinary grounding of our everyday, the paths of health and routine, cemented as it is to a statist vigour. And where the second is the groundless way and for the moon doctor “realities scatter before him like tarot cards to the wind” (Pendell 18). But, as Pendell so astutely writes, every doctor, or poisoner, must have knowledge of both in order to do the “Great Work”. Like the Thanatopathia, tasting of death section that includes tobacco, or Nicotiana tabacum, wherein Pendell in a single pen stroke can write: “Tobacco is a model of ambiguity: healer and killer, ally and seducer. As poison, it is the type” (Pendell 31). For while it ravages humanity as an owner of the individual, it can also be owned as a primary shamanic plant. As he says, if one cannot kick the habit, then one is no doctor, one should not proceed on the poison path. What in popular health circles is an ‘addiction’ is better described in poetry as a seduction, and that reveals with more clarity the multiplicity of the human-poison relationship. But for the Great Work, for the poet-scientist, the doctor of sun and moon, it is perhaps necessary to recognise the addictive and the seductive as lines of flight that embody a fuller journey. To know these paths is to not be lost, or owned.

“Euphoria is a middle child, born between consciousness and sleep. It is a condition of peace and well-being, like that which follows orgasm, and not everyone reacts to it the same way. Some are entranced by the radical stillness, and lie unmoving, without thoughts. Others are so glad to be freed from the rude pushing and shoving of desire that they take advantage of their reprieve and set about finishing some piece of work. Some just let their minds drift, half awake, half dreaming, and let the yearning visions try to coax their souls up from the somatic twilight of their bodies” (Pendell 118).

Louis Lewin’s Phantastica plays an important role in the text. In many respects, it is his early categorisations of psychoactive plants that Pendell looks through and builds upon with his own inimitable style, often citing the great German pharmacologist throughout the text. Alongside Lewin’s five-fold grouping of euphorica, hypnotica, inebriantia, excitantia, and phantastica, he adds the aforementioned thanatopathia, to the psychoactive listings. Pendell concedes that such categorisation can be “coarse, but has the value of tradition” (Pendell 44). This speaks volumes of the whole text, which is an accumulation of the wisdom of ages. In times past, the allies were known through their effects, but as the bubbles of specialisation began to leave the poetic grouping through a becoming-molecular, and a cultural-contingency, these groupings are fractured, rearranged and multiplied. The idea of a revolution in grouping plays out through Pendell’s narrative in minor sub-headings of common names, related species, taxonomies, effects, poesis, the ally and pharmacology. Yet, even without these small italic adjunctives, nothing is so overtly placed as to destroy the poetic flow, seemingly mimicking the multiplicity of perspectives, leading to an ultimately fruitful journey for the reader. Fruitful in style, in knowledge, and in narrative voice.

The great joy of Pharmako/Poeia lies in the simultaneous drawing out of simplicity and complexity. Simple, so far as it draws together the vast territory of the human-poison relationship into a single, poetic alchemy; yet complex, in that it blows apart the narrow simplistic understandings that stratify each bubble of understanding. This is a truly excellent book and should be on the shelves and minds of all poisoners, all students of life, literature and ethnobotany. Whether your poison is Salvia divinorum, tobacco, alcohol, Nitrous oxide, or bitter berry, or even just the unquenchable thirst of a psychoactive knowledge, this text should be a given.

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2 Responses

  1. You can listen to Dale Pendell’s 2006 Burning Man talk, “Horizon Anarchism” at

  1. October 26, 2011

    […] Herbcraft och Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path. Läs PsyPress recension av boken här, kolla in en recension på Dreamflesh eller läs en intervju med Pendell […]

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