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The Rules of Surgery

Kristin Robertson, 2014 BLR Poetry Prize Honorable Mention

recited by surgical interns at a nurses’ station 

1. Eat When You Can. Sleep When You Can. 

With the pad of my finger I collect crumb
after crumb like a hopeful, disappearing braille.

Every morning for weeks after my surgery,
I drive halfway to work and then turn around, 

head home to press my palms onto the oven, still warm
from toast, just to confirm I have been there, alive. 

Birds imprison themselves inside butterfly conservatories
we think for the watermelon and water, but what if 

it’s for the mirrors—the ones visitors use to check their shirts
for monarchs attracted to nectar-colored stripes?

How else can a bird measure its neon wingspan, see itself
swoop from branch to wrist to a porcelain fruit plate 

wild with butterfly wings blinking snake eyes?
They live their lives trapped just to prove, 

again and again, they’re flying. 

2. Touch the Patient.

We called it the tomato dance, summers so warm
we could hear them grow as we lay nightly in the grass— 

hiss swish of vine winding the wooden stakes,
the mammillary thump when the wind picked up. 

The Vietnamese gardener at the end of our street
magic-markered grins onto his pie-tin-faced scarecrows 

and whip-slung rottens into the woods. We begged him
to try our circle changeup, our knuckle curve.

One afternoon our father slow-rolled to the stop sign,
and the gardener, wearing his silk-tied paddy hat,

approached our truck’s window and lazed his elbow inside.
Our father patted the gardener’s coppery arm, 

and with a synchronous, nearly undetectable reach,
he eased the baseball bat from under our feet.

3. All Bleeding Stops Eventually. 

Wound slow to heal, I meander fretwork
into snowy streets up to Dr. Wilson’s estate sale.

Two basements of medical paraphernalia—
ebony-handled decapitation hooks,

phrenology busts, all the fringe phenomena.
I survey his bloodletting tables: fleam blades 

from fish teeth, spring-loaded scarificators.
I rest an elbow in the shark-tooth chip 

of a saucer for leeching blood and bile—
too much water and fire—plethoras 

a heart can’t cycle. This bowl, tree-ringed
and tight-lipped, worthy of long barter, 

a bidding war—oh, my honey-stained
beauty, what I’m going to do with you.

4. Don’t Fuck With the Pancreas.

Dance around it, new surgeons, like the delicate
eye, liver, or ovary of the Japanese fugu: 

My lover ate seven courses of the deadly blowfish
one summer night—sashimi, roe, salad once 

the spikes were out. With no known antidote,
the first symptom’s a tingling in its victim’s mouth, 

an intoxicating numbness. Prepared live,
scalpeled thin with special knifes and petaled

into a chrysanthemum, the funeral flower on a plate,
these pufferfish secrete their own apocrypha, 

which, young anglers, will become your pillow talk:
taped mouths scream on the slab, skin winces 

at the first slice. But you’ll also learn some truths:
once removed the poison parts are locked 

inside a metal box, scraped into a barrel
at the fish market, and burned. And the bodies 

of the blowfish? They’re preserved into lanterns
lighting the sidewalks. They’ll follow you home.