seashell in sea foam
Photo by SARAH GRANGER on Unsplash

Cancer Surgery on Half a Shell by Mariel Herbert

Hey beauty in the Betadine bikini,

waiting to be plumbed by mute

instruments, let me stain your sacred

pools dark; submerge beneath

your topography, inflate your belly

with the east wind and search for gold:

apples buried in seabeds. I hold my breath

and unearth turned fruit. Unfathomable.

O Aphrodite—sea-foam ovaries...

spirited away by the exacting tide.


Mariel Herbert writes mythic poetry, haiku, and senryu. She also runs a few science fiction and fantasy reading groups. Her poems have appeared in Dwarf Stars 2022, Liminality, and Uppagus, among others. Mariel lives in Northern California with her family, one high-maintenance dog, and many low-maintenance books. She can be found online here.

Author's note

The first draft of “Cancer Surgery on Half a Shell” was written years ago during my medical training. The opening line, and the allusion to Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, arose spontaneously one early morning. Experiences in the operating room required that I be more present in my own body, and to consider how I relate to gender and to my family history. While the language of this poem is playful, this lightness serves as an entry point to heavier themes: power and authority, gender as symbol and as action. I hope the reader can bring their own body, story, and self to the poem, too.