From anatomical dissection to poetic reconstruction – by Marianne Boruch
The words that first jolted –
that still haunt me –
came from American anatomist Jim Walker –
his cheerful –
“Sure – but would you like to visit the lab right now? We just unwrapped the heads.”
It dawned on me then, a dangerous truth: if awarded this Faculty Fellowship in a Second Discipline, I’d have to take it. My application was to participate, as a poet, in the Indiana University Medical School’s dissection lab on my campus at Purdue University. This is what prompted my conversation with Jim that day. At the same time, I would be applying to take part in a life drawing class in Purdue’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts.
Was I out of my mind? Yes. But wasn’t that the point? I needed to get out of my mind – right? And where was that? I had no idea. Before long, the chance was offered. And take it, I did. No choice in the matter. It was too richly troubling not to do it. Too many unthinkable worlds would open.
This profundity befell me in 2008. I was given leave to spend 18 hours a week in class that autumn – 12 hours in Gross Human Anatomy, where, with 16 new medical students, I was issued a locker and scrubs and a copy of The Dissector – probably the most unsettling how-to manual on Earth. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it would be two hours of lecture followed by two hours of dissection – of staring, cutting, taking notes on the cadavers of those who had generously given their bodies for this purpose. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I took pencil, paper, crayon and my questionable skills into the Life Drawing class to try and try again to see on paper with the help of Grace O’Brien, crack artist in her own right. Models young, old, male, female, struck their poses statue-still.
Bodies living and dead, from August into December: unnerved, overwhelmed, I made it home each day and wrote down what I could bear to put into words. In her remarkable book Kyrie, fellow American poet Ellen Bryant Voigt got it disquietingly right:
Have you heard a dead man sigh? A privilege, that conversation.
Those notes I took? When I finally witnessed what my anatomy teacher had first offered – which I’d politely declined a year earlier – this is the entry I made in my journal:
14 November – Cadaver Lab.
The moment is huge: the day the heads are unwrapped – off with the soaked towels. But first, Jim Walker’s lecture on head and neck, all the valleys in the bony concave of the skull, the holes in that bone where nerves and blood vessels thread, the layering of skin, bone, sub-cu, the brain stem out of which true cranial nerves emerge. As usual, I’m skimming the surface, barely holding on.
Finally. We change clothes and enter the lab. The students just starting to take off the towels and there they are: four faces, turning these cadavers into human beings. How even to write about this? They’re stunning. Beautiful, darkly radiant, so heart-stopping in their particularity. Here we were, all term, into every corner of their bodies with probe and scalpel, into the most private of places. It is only now – with the face – that they seem human, two women and two men with lives, childhoods somewhere back there, memories of afternoons, of evenings, years of sleep and dream, hard work, sorrow, deceit, remorse, joy, pride, indifference, anger. I can’t get those faces out of my mind.
All have their heads shaved. A trace of beard is apparent, a gray fuzz on both men.
I ask Jim: “Does the hair grow after death, as Whitman says?”
“No,” he says…
Everywhere the kids are at work, manning the circular saws, the smell of bone-seared, a kind of smoke in the air though not quite a haze. To lift out the brain is a complicated task.
It would be spring before the poems started. On sabbatical from Purdue and awarded a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre in Italy,
I began to write. Or was it really me? My favourite of the four cadavers (yes, one has favourites) was 100 years old when she died. Small, with pale blue eyes, she was unfailingly moving to me. I kept scanning my notes and then began. But the truth is she pretty much pushed me aside, insisting that she be the speaker, thank you very much! And speak she did, the poems coming quickly to make what eventually turned out to be a sequence of 32 more or less equal parts.
She had much to say – about her life and certainly the lab where she grew fond of the students and the teacher, having nothing but disdain for me, the nervy interloper, “the quiet one” who wanted “to put a caption” on everything. My cadaver slowly revealed herself, and such a wise-ass: wry and tender, by turns clearly furious, perplexed, always surprising me. She had lived on a farm and in town, educated in and largely out of school. Mostly she was trying to figure out the mystery of dissection itself – the what, and why, and how.
Here is one of those poetic pieces, triggered in part by the journal entry above but altered by my speaker’s edgy grip on things:
My father loved to reckon. Reckon this,
reckon that. By which he meant
thinking. And my uncles, always recollecting ––
about livestock or the war, about weather.
That’s a mulling back, to pull it out of
pure dark until it stands still
against all elsewise.
Here they memorize me until my parts
could be anyone’s –– that’s the point, isn’t it? ––
though not the hands. They’re mine completely,
my oddball double-jointed thumb prized
and passed down from my mother.
Like when they finally unwrap
our wrapped heads in this horrid florescence,
we are, perfectly, not
one another. Yes, the quiet one says in her
deliberate italics: so beautiful, like
those Renaissance drawings, exactly who they are…
So, would Leonardo do me up this
exactly –– excuse me –– that I’m left
the most toothless, dumb-witted of hags?
His charcoal crooks my head on its little stalk
back –– no, not a flower. But some
cobalt in his kit that day.
A thin watery blue still floods each eye
in real time.
Such beauties we are now –– yeah, sure.
And until the quiet one figures everyone’s
sick of her saying it, she’s
Nothing like my own staring
straight up ––
Writing poetry is a private act. You do it alone, but it’s tricky: too much wilfulness stops the lyric impulse cold. Hence W H Auden’s insistence that reading a poem is to overhear it, an idea directly in line with Yeats’s well-worn notion that this genre is “one’s argument with the self” and not the world. Which is to say, forget the agenda; most poems begin with a stirring, a strangeness; you hang on, silencing the self, paying attention, not knowing what might come next. However important clarity might be, most poets don’t start with thoughts of an audience, or worry how to engage that audience. Keats himself observed how we “hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”.
But my cadaver wanted to argue with both self and world, to have her say, to be a point of reference between the living and the dead. Surely the muted shock of the dissection lab had deranged me: my speaker’s words seemed to come through me, not from me. I was beginning to think like a fiction writer whose characters darken and charm, take over, change the life of the one who imagines them. Or I was starting to see in my blurry side vision the human importance of poetry as conduit, an underground passage through medicine’s cool, meticulous curiosity.
My cadaver soon went public. The following fall at Purdue, a group reading of the sequence took place before a large, enthusiastic audience. My fellow presenters were volunteers, my poetry students in the Master of Fine Arts programme in English and some of the medical students who had dissected that cadaver a year earlier. Thus half of my readers had known my speaker first hand, by heart, and seemed duly pleased, if startled by her transformation. As for the sequence apart, in the world, it ran in The Georgia Review in 2010, earning a media award for that journal.
Fast forward to Scotland then, January through June last year, where I was warmly welcomed as a Fulbright Visiting Professor by Professors Dorothy Miell, Jo Shaw, James Loxley and Alan Gillis, and Janet Rennie in the University of Edinburgh’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, together with Professor Susan Manning at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Among other things, I hoped to complete my eighth collection of poems – Cadaver, Speak – a book taking its name from the sequence, though the first half of the manuscript remained an unruly thing, poems or almost- poems also about the body but cast in my own voice.
I had assumed the long poem was almost finished but I’d have another chance to understand what was at stake. A second group reading of ‘Cadaver, Speak’ was on the docket, this time in the most perfect venue on the planet, the Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre in the University’s Old Medical School. Through a courtyard, up a flight of stairs, one goes slack-jawed in wonder upon entering that vast, vaulted room, all wood and superb acoustics, high ranked seating in the classic half-round style befitting an anatomy theatre of the late 19th century. Who had peered down from those seats to whatever bodies were dissected and studied so closely? Conan Doyle, for one, I was told. Such silence now; mysterious, enormous. This is it, I said to my husband, who had come with me to check out the room, both of us looking up to absorb the austere beauty of the place and, as was usual for us in Edinburgh, the great fortune of our being there at all.
I was teaching a Master’s-level poetry workshop at Edinburgh. Four of my students plus two other poets in the PhD programme in English were willing to do this mad thing, read with me for ‘Cadaver, Speak’. Luckily I had also fallen in with a group of extraordinary medical students meeting rather clandestinely in whatever spare room they could scavenge each Monday evening to discuss literature, poems and stories they found involving medicine and illness. They brought Ted Hughes to our attention, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, among others. I added Tom Andrews, Tony Hoagland, Lucia Perillo, Tomas Transtromer, of course doctor-poet William Carlos Williams. The medical students deeply impressed me, their hunger to read on their own together with no thought to academic credit, well beyond the course some had taken in the medical humanities programme.
It is how they read that so engaged me – for empathy, yes, to see and feel from an inside perspective, to narrow the gulf between doctor and patient. What wasn’t predictable was the way the very tools of poetry informed them about medicine itself. Sylvia Plath’s famous ‘Tulips’, for instance, set in hospital, written with a painful recovery in mind, fiercely morphed those gift flowers at bedside into “sudden tongues” and “red lead sinkers”; they opened “like the mouth of some great African cat” – images that take fear and define it, even control it. I asked the students if diagnosis worked as metaphor does, a habit of knowing, of finding out in a more surprising sideways way, an obsession of mine for months now. Four from the group volunteered for ‘Cadaver, Speak’. So my readers would again be young poets and young doctors-to-be.
We got to work. Over biscuits and fruit at our first meeting, we read through the sequence. I’d assigned three sections to each, taking on the first and last bits myself, my cadaver’s voice shared among us, her wily take on this collision of past, present and future by way of the dissection lab. Their voices – Scots in the group, others from England, a Chilean, an American – layered and laced in almost musical ways. Any apprehension I had about their being understood (given my clueless American ear) quite dissolved when I realised the obvious: those listening would be Scottish, English, and full up to exhaustion with television and films from the USA. They’d know these voices, even relish the various inflections. The students and I met individually too, discussing what and how they would read, imagining my cadaver’s words before such an audience and in such a place.
Then we didn’t have to imagine. “The simplicity of just having us reading it, combined with the history of the location was very powerful,” Francesca Heard, one of the medical students, reflected later. But simplicity isn’t so simple. In a late rehearsal, we were wisely advised by theatre scholar Professor Olga Taxidou, who urged the shyer readers to find one or two moments in each piece to pause, to look up or shift their voices in order to draw in their listeners, even as she praised their crucial, quieter thread in the weave, as compelling as the sound of those already confident on stage. I had worried about my more timid readers, whether they would reach the audience at all. Here Olga was telling them to cherish their uncertainty but to throw in points of contrast, to heighten its poignancy. Nuance and shading were key, the riveting thing. I learned much that afternoon, as teacher, as writer – about going with the grain, not completely against it, about tonal range and variation, about the human complication I’d hope for in my speaker, her reserve of courage and strength coming through in ways at times more hidden, through hesitation, second thoughts.
Clare English of BBC Scotland had questioned me about ‘Cadaver, Speak’. Later it was edited for radio by Serena Field. The taped interview took place in Edinburgh’s remarkable Surgeons’ Hall Museum, whose director, Emma Black, had graciously opened it to us. We spoke among shelves of ghostly jars – knee joints and ribs and damaged hearts floating eerily in their elixirs. I invited our listeners to the reading. People did turn up, about 150 that night: medical professionals, students of every stripe, artists, scholars, writers and teachers, others from the community, Edinburgh and even farther afield, who had heard about the reading and got curious. Many lingered on at the reception to share their experiences in medicine and beyond.
We played Bach at the start, and a bit of Arvo Pärt’s poignant ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ via cello and piano, after Dorothy Miell, Vice Principal of the University, made her remarks.
Then the sequence came to life, into present tense. Russell Jones, one of the poets, recalled that “reading at ‘Cadaver, Speak’ was a process of realisation. All merged to create a sense of disturbance, acceptance, sadness, joy.” One by one, we readers took turns channelling my speaker who looked inward and askance in exactly the spot so many before her had been dissected and undone.
But we were putting her back together, in her own words.
Marianne Boruch, a former Guggenheim Fellow, is a Professor of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she developed the MFA Program in Creative Writing, serving as its first director for 18 years. Her published work includes: seven poetry collections, most recently Grace, Fallen from (Wesleyan, 2008) and The Book of Hours (Copper Canyon Press, 2011); two collections of essays on poetry; a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler (Indiana, 2011); and poems in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, Poetry, the Edinburgh Review, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Paris Review, American Poetry Review and elsewhere. Her eighth collection of poems – Cadaver, Speak – is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2014. She hopes to return to the UK when Cadaver, Speak is published, to give readings and workshops, and do further writing and research. Extracts from her current work have been copyright cleared by The Georgia Review, 44:2 (2010). She can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).