Poem: 'Lessons of the Knife'
 
In 2016, Aleksei and I (Lev) hit some momentous speedbumps in our life, including near death, health insurance woes, and extreme pain issues due to undertreatment. There were also some huge milestones: Twitter crowdfunded Aleksei's first part-time wheelchair, my first short story was published, I sold or had published multiple important poems to me, Aleksei began drawing and painting again, Aleksei and I wrote and finished a first draft of a novel currently in the editing phase, and Aleksei and I swung through some all-time health lows to create what is to date some of our best work. We're excited that we're going to get to share that work with you through Patreon. We'll be experimenting with Patreon a fair bit as we get going, so expect some changes as we figure out what people want the most and are most interested in!

I thought the best way to start off the new year would be to release my only poem not currently available to read for free. Multiple people have asked for this poem, which is extremely important to me; since rights reverted around my birthday in October, I'd planned to release it then, but it is now the first of hopefully many poems that will become publicly available through Patreon.

First published in the anthology 'Spelling the Hours', the poem is about Dr James Barry, the pioneering Victorian doctor who was England's first trans person to be licensed an MD. Dr Barry is a figure of huge personal inspiration for his style, his fashion, and personal life as a bisexual trans man in a hostile world. The medical arguments and innovations he devoted his life to (including his pioneering obsession with sanitation) are a major inspiration in the Candlepunk setting of the Azemur universe. To read more about the historical man, try Rachel Holmes' biography "Scanty Particulars".


"The Lessons of the Knife"

Cinch yourself in and roll your sleeves up.

The world is full of wounds to repair.

Your Edinburgh education must pay for itself

if you are ever to become who you are meant to be.

This Empire is sweating beneath a chronic disaffection,

you have a revolutionary’s fervor

to upend the world that has made you

and the whole world is dying

for a doctor who gives a damn.


Red boots splash in city puddles. The piss reminds you of classwork.

You saw a bladder, body opened on the autopsy table

in your private lessons on anatomy and surgery.

Who was she, your cadaverous subject?

You share a few features: a womb, soft tissue,

maybe the range of your voice-- but no, you do not share

much more than that, and even those small things

cannot be spoken of.

Your cuffs ruffle as you practice Latin to compose your thesis.

To honor that dead pauper, probably stolen post-mortem,

you will remember the lessons of the knife.

How her anatomy is like your own.

And different.

Someday you will save someone as no one saved her.


The world is wide

for a military doctor. You go where you are commanded:

to South Africa, where you fall

trembling before love and live forever in Cupid’s shadow.

The Cape is creaking, crying, groaning, straining

like a woman in labor, pushing to birth

the end of the Empire. And you, with your soft, small hands

you want to be a midwife in attendance, to deliver

that better world-- through sanitation, regulated medicine,

and the end of cruel institutions.

You will not deliver new world orders: just new life,

a cesarean, one of the first. But maybe it is no small birth,

to bring the sick from the edge of death, to buy more life

for those damned to ugly, sudden ends,

to see the wheels that turn the colonial machine,

to look without flinching, to shout:

these are people, too.


Diseases are ugly, but you are not afraid

of bile and boils, even when there is no cure.

Everyone deserves to be treated,

even if only to ease in death.

Sickness does not have to fester: your hospitals will be clean,

your patients fed, and if you can prevent an illness—

who cares what feathers you have ruffled?

The soldiers' diseases do not frighten you, miasmas

will not deter your path. Even pharmacology

is not beneath you: anything to end preventable suffering.

There must be a way to slow death, you know it --

endlessly, you inoculate, and always,

you are thinking about sanitation.


You are like a broken record: in Cape Town, Kingston,

on Corfu, St Helena, the same refrain.

No one should die from deprivation. Clean water, fresh air,

a varied diet, disposal of waste-- poverty kills as often

as untested patent medicines. Purgatives cannot save weak patients.

But nursing, clean water, local medicine,

and humane treatment for all people

might save a few from miserable death,

or soften its suffering, when it comes.

You make enemies as fast as friends -- faster, perhaps, you never

can keep quiet. You bend all the rules that aren’t your own,

but medicine’s oath of service is unyielding. The world is dying,

of bile, of shit, of sweating fevers and bloody lungs.

Your Crown marshals Death and demands

you slow his advance.

There is so much to be done, and you are only one man…

but you accept no excuses, not even from yourself.


You are questioned, always,

for your associations, even more than your habits: your friends

of revolutionary fervor and abolitionist aspirations,

the young women who recall you in a flutter as their favorite flirt,

the man you loved open-handed for all your life,

though it never served you well,

the locals of Kingston and Cape Town who could not be

Good Society (sometimes bought freedom,

as if it is yours to give or anyone else’s to take away)

even for the man who traveled with you

across the empire, your photographed companion,

the wrong race to be remembered by English society

as even having a name.


You ask anyone who hears you to bury you in your clothes,

not give your body away

when yellow fever burns your blood, and makes you frail,

thin and drawn. Your whole life you have tried (and failed)

to be something other than a spectacle (they laugh

at your starched collars and high voice, but not your conversation)

but at least you will never be a specimen—

dissected, cut open, secrets laid bare, the body forced to confess

things the spirit denies, a post-mortem ventriloquism.

So you have been called to trial,

for crimes against nature (whose? not yours, nor his-- )

for insults rendered and authority challenged,

but never for your workmanship, and this life,

bound in your jaundiced body,

compressed in heavy coats and starched linen--

this is your greatest work of all.


You never loved London, but you still die there,

where you have never had a chance to clean up

the waterways that poison you. In Kensal Green you are buried,

details wrong: July 1865 is not your 71st birthday.

You go to the ground to stay as you had lived, the subject

of unanswered debate. Everyone wants to know:

who were you before you were yourself,

from what kind of childhood seed was the doctor grown?

But what matters is what remains:

James Barry, Inspector-General,

who saw the point of all life, a surgeon and a gentleman.

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