What I Learnt from Aotea College’s Forensic Science Class

Only offered it so we’d start to idolise the cops / some agreement with the police college next door
So we didn’t become / undesirables / like so many of our friends and parents / called scumbags
And burnouts by the cops who visited occasionally / to rebuff our questions about catching rapists
Or serial killers / like they did on TV / but never seemed to encounter / on Porirua’s slow streets.

Most memorable hour was dissecting a damp rat / to determine its cause-of-death with knifepoint
And tweezer / so unlike the American Kids / who dismantled foetal pigs / and tortured live frogs
Instead of stinking rats near-bald with freezer burn / and sweet rodent faces and such tiny hearts
They looked unreal / the coils of intestine dainty / as friendship bracelets / ribs brittle as eyelashes.

Overly eager boys stabbed with their scalpels, puncturing / grape-small lungs and amputating feet
Making the girls run / by pretending to drop entrails / down shirt-backs / into friend’s mouths
Or simply chasing them between the desks / with viscera swinging from their firm tweezer-grip
As the teacher looked on / boys will be boys / clapping their hands, yelling / that we do our work.

Nothing inside the abdomen spoke up to us / although Jess yelled “It died of a heart attack” to
Undue laughter / as I moved the blade up / up against the rat’s throat / and split the trachea
The ribbed cartilage that felt so much like my own / which sprung open as if it were always straining
As if all the tension / built up over years / of keeping your throat intact / was enough to halve you.

Touched the throat of every romantic partner since / recalling the precise sensation of my cutting
Through that cartilage / revealing the ridged pathways / to each lung / and freeing the Adam’s apple
Shiny and red inside each man’s neck / like the tiny chips of glimmering Pāua spilling from the
Rat’s open wound / all opalescent and bloodless / waiting for collection / dropped in a kidney dish.

We got told off for stealing the Pāua chips because / they were meant to be used the year following
Ending up inside / raisin boxes and sock drawers / our linty pockets among crumbs / and tissue fibres
Destined to fall through the pinholes in the washing machine / glued to a handmade card for mum
Certain to leave / a sour feeling around your sternum / if you remembered their / specific origin.

We knew the teachers had planned it for us / every rat dying peacefully, whether gassed, frozen, or
Electrocuted / however they did it / but I could see them around the table / laughing about failing
Students and marital problems and drinking / Earl Grey from those brown-glass cups with those
Fragile tracheas / forcing Pāua down the throats / of frozen rats / tweezers click against buck teeth
Going down so deep / that no student could see / the sparkling / by just peering / inside the mouth.

Danny Bultitude (Pākehā) hails from Porirua, now working in Te Whanganui-a-Tara as a film archivist and general layabout. His writing has been published in several New Zealand journals and websites including Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau, Mayhem Journal, and Newsroom. In 2018, he completed an MA in English Literature at Victoria University of Wellington, researching the representation of rivers by marginalised American writers. Danny was also a recipient of the 2019 Newsroom – Surrey Hotel Writer’s Residency and named the winner of the inaugural Bell Hill Apartments Poetry Competition in 2021. Unsure how anyone allowed him to reach this point, he is simply happy and forever thankful.

Bultitude comments: 'This poem is unashamedly autobiographical. I did dissect frozen rats with shards of Pāua shell trapped in their throats for Forensic Science class. I wish I could claim it as some grand metaphor, but this was merely a strange, real moment. I believe there is a lot of power in truth and specificity – especially when providing place names and details of the landscape. I wanted to directly name Aotea College in the title of this poem, not only because of my own experiences there, but because it has changed so much in the eight years since I graduated. Uniforms have changed, the buildings have been updated, and the zoning rules have become more firmly upheld, excluding lower-income suburbs.

'"What I Learnt…" is therefore nostalgic, hoping to capture a single moment from a school that is no longer recognisable. It is a dark poem, far from sweet and uplifting, but there is life in that memory, and I’d be lying if it wasn’t positive to me. In some ways, I view it less as a memory and more as a haunting. I think of dead rats whenever I find Pāua on the beach, its opalescent beauty forever tainted. I remember the cartilage whenever I kiss a lover’s neck, an intrusive thought, an unwelcome guest. This is what secondary school is like for many people I know. A recurrent shadow trailing behind that we cannot comfortably ignore. The shadow carries countless truths about us, in all different colours. Many of us hate to remember secondary school and the person we were then, but we can’t think of anything worse than forgetting.'

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Danny Bultitude's website

Photographer credit: Isabella Howarth