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,
roll up your sleeve,
plunge your arm in.
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:
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
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
how could I not feel immortal
when I was mistress of the poison worm?
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.
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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