First: An Imagined History


by Nancy Devine

During the past two years we have collected and studied many hundreds of vaginal smears from normal women and those suffering from gynecologic diseases, and we feel that cell pathognomonic of cervical and fundal carcinoma can be definitely recognized.

—George Nicholas Papanicolaou and Herbert Frederick Traut, 1941, from the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine website.


I should be washing clothes
or mending,
she thinks, useful today.
She’s memorizing another ceiling,
its tea-brown water stain America-shaped.
Her legs are apart, her knees up.

Papanicolaou’s knees are against the foot
of an examination table.
He holds up a slide,
like a boy trying to focus sunlight through a lens.
“This won’t take long,” he says
and puts his right index finger in her,
opens her up somehow, deftly.

I’ll bake bread, tidy up.
She winces, feels vertigo,
an almost-fall from a tall building.
Hold my children.

Then, with a swab,
Papanicolaou collects from her
something so private,
she hasn’t seen it herself;
he daubs it onto the glass
for study later, maybe to be framed.
“That’s it,” he says.

“That is it,” Traut says,
watching rain as it smears the windows,
his breath condensing
above the one damp sill
where his left hand rests.
Beyond, sky is gray. Circa 1939.
One cloud blurs another.

I can’t forget my umbrella.
Inside, a draft, outside drizzle falls,
like eyes closing for sleep, dream.
I’ve so much to do,
she thinks as she touches her throat.
Is there time?

Nancy has been shortlisted for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize.

About the Author:

Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives. She is the writer-in-residence for the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.