To a Young Woman in a Hospital Bed

It starts with an urge, she says, innocent
enough: clipping her fingernails
to the cuticle, paper cuts

she slits along her hands, or scratching up
her arms in homeroom with a plastic knife
to scare the gawking boys.

Eraser burns: those competitions
to see which of her girlfriends
flinches first as she scrapes the rubber

edges across her forearms, biting
down on a wooden ruler
so she won’t scream, or stop.

Then she gets good at it: she always wins.
She does it on her own, rubbing
the eraser over black scabs, trying

to wipe away her own skin.
She experiments with safety pins, pricks
the soft flesh between index finger

and thumb, fastens them, sticks
five at a time, all in a row, and watches them
throb in a kind of dance.

She shows her friends who laugh
but cringe when she forces the eighth
pin through. And this is how she knows

something is wrong, carving the names
of rock bands into her thighs
with her stepfather’s box cutter:

Poison, Aerosmith–it doesn’t matter,
it just feels better cutting words
instead of marks that don’t mean anything.

And this suffices, this becomes
what life is, hurt by hurt: pressing a hot
clothes-iron against her arm, lifting it

to let the steam breathe out.
She presses it down again, longer this time,
harder, as the burning fills the hall.

Minutes go by. And she feels
nothing. It’s as if she’s burning
someone else’s skin, hot metal

peeling away another’s flesh, scorching it.
She watches the skin singe, the muscle
bubble, but she still can’t feel a thing.

So she stops, wraps the arm in gauze,
and goes on with her day, even forgetting
what made her want to do that to herself.

And in a way this makes it all
worth it: the fever, the infection, the dizzy
drive to the ER she hardly remembers,

the morphine drip, and the intern psych major
who asks her questions from a standard form
(even flirts with her a little),

the swell of pride she feels when she turns over
to show the scars–the deepest ones, the ones
branded on her back not even she can see.

From Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize.

Brian Brodeur is also the author of So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Poetry Chapbook Award. Recent poems and reviews appear in Gettysburg Review, Many Mountains Moving, Margie, The Missouri Review, Pleiades, Quarterly West, River Styx, and online at Verse Daily. Brian maintains the blog “How a Poem Happens,” an online anthology of over one-hundred interviews with poets.

*Photo courtesy of pjguyton2002.