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12/31/2010 07:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Lucia Perillo's 'Notes from My Apprenticeship'

In her poem series "Notes from my Apprenticeship," Lucia Perillo catalogs experiences that might have hardened her against the cruelty of disease and death: dissecting lab frogs, mice, turtles; killing sheep to feed coyotes at a Wildlife Research Center; working in an emergency room at a hospital. Perillo, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, is at her best when she shows an exuberance for life emerging from her work with condemned animals.

Notes from My Apprenticeship
by Lucia Perillo

Comparative Morphology of the Vertebrates

KNOWLEDGE SHIPPED NORTH in white plastic buckets

To pry the lid off was to open a tomb.
We began with the shark

and worked our way up through the frog and the dove--

each month we groped the swamp like fugitives

to raise the next ghoul on the syllabus.

With a bright blade I sliced through the pelt's wet mess
exposing the viscera inside, tinted with latex

--blue for the veins, yellow for lymph--

it made me feel childish to see how far

somebody thought I needed the body to be

dumbed down. Outside was dumbed down

by late day's half-dark, as snowflakes dropped into

Lac Saint-Louis, paddled in silence by great northern pike,

their insides mangled by old hooks.

No place in them conformed to its

depiction in the charts, but the first lesson

was sameness: from the frog in one bucket

to the frog in the next--

no surprises ahead in the formaldehyde of my life,

obedient fugitive

go on

roll up your sleeve,

plunge your arm in.

White Rat

ETHERIZED IN A bell jar, they resembled tiny sandbags, stacked

We carried each by its tail, their feet like newborn grappling hooks

Their insides had vaginal qualities, pink and wet and gleaming

The tissue hummed

My scalpel got jittery

I sewed up my rat as soon as I could

Because I realized the spiderwebstuff holding us here is thin

It was in fact difficult to account for all the people walking around not dead

I don't think I ever cut the gland I was supposed to, out

In the coming weeks, in lab-light, I made up little prayers-slash-songs

Like: Please white rat

Let me not have damaged you

You to whom I will be shackled all my years

You out of all your million brethren

If not genetically identical, then close

My rat went back to its Tupperware basin

With the cedar chips and the drinking bottle

That went chingle chingle whenever water was sipped

Which reassured me, knowing my rat was staying well hydrated

Though most of them languished

Which was, after all, their purpose

Though my rat stayed fat

Suggesting I'd botched the job of excising its adrenal

Not that its fatness saved it in the end

When all the living ones were gassed

Because the Christmas break had nearly come

Because of the deadline for the postmortem dissection

And time for the final roundup of facts:

Oh, rat

As you snuffle through your next incarnation

Say, as my albino postman

Or my Japanese neurologist who taps her mallet on my knee

While I try not to visualize myself with your pink eyes and flaky scalp

Your scabrous tail especially

Because I have killed plenty of other things

But none of them has claimed me the way you did


The Turtle's Heart

WHEN WE ARRIVED, each belly-shell had a hole

whose clean edge signified that a power tool had been used

by the glamorous lab assistant

still wearing her goggles,

her long hair puffed up by the grimy rubber strap.

*

When I looked down, there was the heart

bumping in the hole,

and when I looked sideways

my braid dipped in like a paintbrush.

*

Summers I spent in a WPA hut

where the turtles lived outside in a mortared pit.

Their beaks would strain open

for the pink gobs of dog food

riding the tines of battered forks my job was to clamp

into the dark hands of juvenile delinquents from the city.

One night a raccoon, or a fox, I don't know, climbed in

and opened the turtles as if they were clams

and left the hearts stretched on the ramparts

like surreal clocks--

even my thuggiest felon shivered as they ticked.

*

Little motorized phlegm-ball, little plug of chewing gum,

your secret is your frailty

once your outer walls are breached.

Makes me think of that submarine buried under the sea,

the sailors banging on the pipes

as if the water had ears.

*

Back in the lab, we fished up from the hole

the muscle's pointy end and tied it

to an oscillograph whose pen-arm moved at first in even sweeps.

Until a drop

of substance X made the graph go wild--

the heart scrawling in its feral penmanship

see what little of yourself you own.

Denver Wildlife Research Center

THE COYOTES HAD to eat, which was the reason for the few bedraggled sheep

kept in a pasture by the freeway.

We entered wearing coveralls stamped Property of the United States, the crotch

of mine holstering my knees, while my tall boss strained the hem of his armpit

when he lifted his pistol.

The sheep fell hard, as though she dropped a long way down.

He strung her up by her feet on the fence and commenced sawing with a buck

knife, to expose the entrails that shone like a bag of amber marbles.

These he tore out and threw into a bucket, before pinching off the bladder and

spilling it by the fence, where steam rose from a patch of crusted snow.

You can throw up if you want to, he said, and, because I'd been given no job

but to carry a pail, I understood this to be a kind of test.

A test to let him know what kind of daughter I would be: dogged, like a coyote,

or meek, like the sheep, when, later, we would lace the carcass with poison

to find out how much was needed to leave half the coyotes dead.

(Another test, the LD-50. LD for lethal dose.)

More sheep-daughter than dog-daughter, I did not think about the coyotes

who paced along the chain-link of their cages or about the barn owls who lived

tethered to their boxes in a field of wild asparagus.

Instead of thinking, I was making sure I didn't throw up and didn't faint,

even though the insides of the sheep were hotter than I expected and smelled

more sweet.

The Chamber

AS IN THE POEM
by William Blake, this involves a poison worm,

a worm that would make the blackbird who ate it

flap and squawk in distress

while at regular intervals I played a tape of a bird

also squawking in distress, so you see

there was this salt-box-girl regression going on

while I took notes: now the bird is squawking in distress,

my job being to watch on closed-circuit TV

and record the bird's death, were that to occur

in the chamber made from a gutted fridge

rigged up to a button in the next room

where, when I pushed, I'd hear a musical plink

over the loudspeaker as a mealworm dropped

from a crown of vials that sat on the chamber,

the crown rotating as the glass vials tipped,

one worm per plink, though I sometimes plinked twice

if the worm got stuck

or if the bird failed to squawk

in that tiny brick building that rustled with wings

from birds scritching in cages

I'd been filling for weeks,

my truck full of traps I set on fence posts at dawn,

when the red-wings clung

to tall blades in the ditches

and sang shuck-shreeek as the dirt road fumed

behind me in the mirrors, unveiling a rising

red-winged sun that I drove into

feeling immortal,

how could I not feel immortal

when I was mistress of the poison worm?

Super 8

THERE WERE SO MANY blackbirds I could not count,

homing on this patch of dusk. My boss's idea

had been to spray them with spangles

so that, if found, the finder would know

the bird had stopped here at this cornfield

behind the Super 8 motel. That is,

if he could imagine the helicopter

with its tank of glue and light.

Otherwise, he might just wonder at a spangled bird.

We untangled them from the mist nets

and brought them into the bathroom's white tile grid

thirty feet east of the blacktop stripe,

where I counted the spangles, a soldier

in the tribe of useless data. Afterward

I walked them back outside two at a time

and opened my fists, where the birds paused

just long enough to leave their own data on my palms.

Here's what we think of

your spangles, your starlight. Then the night flushed

them up into its swoon--however faintly,

the corn glittered as the birds resumed their ravening.

In Vitro/In Vivo

ONLY ONCE DID the frog come to mind: when the coroner

came to our first-aid class at the fire station,

his slide carousel set up to eliminate

the easy pukers. The frog was not dead,

but its brain had been pithed, which is what happens

when you stick a probe into the skull and wiggle.

You wind up with something dead enough

to let you stretch its tongue as thin and wide

as a cellophane sheet. The coroner said:

Here is the fat guy whose Chihuahua

gnawed through his stomach. Click.

Here is the farmer who hanged himself in his silo.

(I noted his foreshortened dangling feet.) Click.

I was taking the class with the hope that I'd get a job

riding around on the ambulance. It had been thrilling

to see how the frog's blood cells jerked,

struggling through the narrow capillaries. Here

is the woman who swallowed the bottle of Drano.

Click. Here is the man who just Sawzalled

his neck clean through. Click. Here is the guy

who shot off his head, but wait: he's still living,

which is what happens if the brain stem's left intact.

Click. The coroner said we should aim for the base

not the top of the skull and remember to turn down

the heat. Click. There are many people in this world

on whom nobody checks in very often. Click.

The warmer the room, the quicker a body

will turn black and bloat. Click.

If you have a dog it is important to leave out

what seems like an inordinate amount of dog food.

Click, click, then there was nothing

but a slab of light to signal he was through.

And it was then that I remembered the frog,

not that the coroner had spoken of frogs.

What he said was

if we saw the cops outside, smoking cigars,

that's when we'd know we had a stinker.

Similar Girl

MOST OF THE hospital's emergencies lay

on gurneys that made a chickadee noise--

eent eent eent--as they rolled on rubber wheels.

But the girl with the bellyache just walked in

clinging tight to her purse, protecting the pain,

as if she feared its being kicked.

Meanwhile an old woman whimpered in the next room

help me, God, help me
--here's the main thing I learned:

if trouble comes with an odor,

everyone scrams. That's how it was in the ER

where I ghosted the halls, for the red appliqué

the college ambulance corps wore on its sleeve--

I would rescue the beauties

who jumped off the campus walkway bridge

and lay on the pavement like old flowers pressed in books.

In the kitchenette lounge, one surly doc asked:

So who's going to tell her she's knocked up?

--cut to the girl who'd been waiting for hours

lit by a long bulb flickering out.

As for the doctors, well, it would be easy

to harp on their chuckling, or sneer at the gum

they snapped with the vampire prongs of their teeth

or the way they used cold half-cups of coffee

to drown their cigarettes. But it was they

who called me to press on the man

whose heart had run through the course of its years,

millions of spasms in the box of his ribs--

later, on my donut napkin

I would calculate: a quarter billion.

And though they made fun of the similar girl,

they brought in a step stool for me to climb on

for the minutes required for their clean consciences

to declare him dead. (Six.) Their jimmy-legs tapped

as they studied the clock, while I studied the chest

bending under my palms

while the old woman cried help me, God, help me,

and the young one hugged her purse like a doll

while tick tick tick, the miraculous ticking of ticks:

life ratcheted up inside her.

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