Finalist, AWP Prize for Poetry

Finalist, Robert Dana Anhinga Poetry Prize

Semi-Finalist, Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Poetry Prize


Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama, performed experimental gynecological surgery on slave women who suffered from fistula (vaginal tears) due to difficult childbirth. Because fistula occurs as a result of prolonged labor, it can be safely assumed that most of the children died. We are only given three of the women’s names from Sim’s autobiography: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Sims built a crude hospital behind his home where he housed eleven women—mothers— who were in hope of being cured. After a series of unsuccessful surgeries, Sims declared he had successfully repaired the injuries of one woman, Anarcha, who underwent a recorded 30 surgeries. It was never proven whether or not he actually cured any of the women. After publishing his findings in several medical journals, he achieved the recognition he had always desired and became known as one of the first American doctors to conduct ground breaking work in the field of gynecology. Gynecologists today still use devices he developed, the most famous being Sim’s speculum. This collection of poetry is concerned with the women who were the subjects of his experiments.

These poems are imagined memories and stories told from the women’s hospital beds, fragments from their previous lives. The content also reflects the fact that they were all addicted to opium.


Mt. Meigs, Alabama
June, 1845

The first day is the worst. He rolls his sleeves up slow, cuffs white and crisp as gardenias. He says to lift my skirts up higher— roll them up around your waist, he says. He spreads a white sheet over the table. I climb up and crouch on my knees and hands, like Delia showed me, kneeling deeper when his naked fingers press the middle of my back. His cold hand makes my spine shiver and he tells me I’m gonna have to learn to keep still. My behind is high up in the air. Naked as the day I was born, like when that overseer turned my skirts up over my head to give me lashes. I just sit up there on that table and cry. Next thing you know, I’m sittin’ there snifflin’ and in walks a pack of white men. I jerk up, clawing at the sheet on the table and pulling down my skirts. The doctor’s eyes meet mine, and then he points from my hem to my waist, tells me this is purely scientific. A few men place their handkerchiefs over their noses. Excuse the odor, gentlemen, he says. Seems like tears were coming up out of a well. One man holds my shins while the doctor puts his tool in. Another stretches me apart. I sure cried that first time, I tell you.

Again, as if praying. On my knees. Hands locked together in petition. My body rocks with his prods, his moves. Still as you can, Anarcha, he says. The bowls of two pewter spoons are pushed in my body, yet they are kinder than his hands. He names it speculum. I lean my left wall against the left spoon, away from the wound. I believe this time I will bear it. His hands. He begins stitching with strips of catgut. Some moans curve into wails, saturating the wooden walls with something that won’t wash out. His frustration cuts the air between us. Then his wife is calling his name. The spoons are pulled out quickly, a quick suck that leaves me breathless. He tells me he will bring back silk to stitch me, after lunch. I uncurl dizzily on the bed. I no longer bother to cover up.
Days before the dead fetus came by forceps. Worked into the vagina, the metal shifted for its own comfort, then clamped around the infant’s head, dragged itself and the stiff corpse down the vaginal walls. So much force that the wall between the canal and anal cavity was severed, leaving an open wound in the vagina. Blood for days— from the uterus, still leaking afterbirth and tissue—the tears, heavy trauma, as yet unstitched, allowing urine to pool in the vaginal canal, creating an odor unbearable to the senses, though even with this, soon the doctor is able to perform the surgeries unmasked, undaunted, so familiar he is with parting her brown legs and shifting his weight between, between, the odor filling the space that separates them, binding them together when it enters his nostrils like a desperate ghost.


milk breasts
mushroomed plump
like hoe-cakes baked in ashes

they always hold milk,
like the cloud-water when a dandelion stem
is broken.

milk veins dressed in breasts.
We press the teat for milk—
milk meant for a little, lost, baby.

they’d said when it came we’d feel a tingle,
but it was as sure as a citrus press,
inside we felt a hand clutch a handle

to pull it in.
these breasts— lump-full
with milk that never sours,

now given to little unknown mouths
that draw relentlessly, spoiling
what was meant to be ours.