In my fourth year at Stanford, I took anatomy labs with Dr. John Gosling, Dr. Ian Whitmore, and Dr. Alan Detton. I then spent the summer of 2014 writing this poem, which I consider one of my best works. It was later published in Anastomosis, the humanities and literary journal of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The knowing limn for us these bodies of knowledge.
As dissection disciples, we’re knowing these bodies to learn, to treat, to numb;
We have worn stereoscopic glasses, swiped the touch-screen table, made notes on inky paper,
But never worn a scrub, or touched a lung, or made cuts in embalmed skin;
By using death, we seek to know that which has been closest to us our whole lives.
A teaching assistant tells us, “We’re going to do the moment of reflection soon,”
as if he is used to it.
The walkways are anastomosed between the chambers of the lab;
Each lobe is paved with a row of ceiling lights, and below them, a row of silver tables;
Between every port of forc’ed light and every ventilated bench lies a blue canvas;
Inside, wrapped by zipper and linen, floats a body that has outlasted its last memory;
Whenever we zip the canvas closed, the body is lighter and the biohazard bag is heavier.
A teaching assistant distributes his bouquet of scissors.
Before lab, we don our blue identities; after lab, we wash them; and at the course’s end,
we give them back.
When the professors find a curiosity to show us, or when students grow bored of
The ones in blue clothes move; the ones in white clothes stay.
Our objective is to commit all body parts to our own neurons.
Our objective is to gain immunity to instinctual humanity.
I accidentally look at the thin cloth covering a face
and see the body’s nostrils and gaping mouth.
We slowly replace the sallow skin with linen skin; the threads catch like hair in the zippers.
To pierce the painless epidermis may be the most painful part, and to see it bleed with seeping, streaming yellow;
Unwrapping skin from the pledged present, we sweep the fascia cobwebs of the neck,
We shave off pieces of the face and leave the shards on the chest;
Beneath the skin, the scalpel seems to part the flesh without touching it.
A student leans against a cadaver’s arm, resting his purple-gloved hand
in its outstretched one.
The symphony of oscillating saws shifts pitches as we press them into sparking tissue;
We crown the hallowed calvaria with a rubber band and trace an artificial suture
with a pencil;
Through synchrony of hammered taps and chiseled cracking, and the ripping of dura mater into jester fourths,
The hollowed skull yields; in our hands, we halve a mind; sage, sagittal, oracular but open like a book; it drips dark red matter onto the floor.
The dust of bone sinks like snow onto the crest of the auricle and rises like spicy smoke
past our turbinates.
A group of students whoops when the sternal plate finally comes off.
The body is fabric: mesenteric ruffles, peritoneal cloth, layers of meninges sewn by
sutures and spider string,
While tendons never meant to touch the light still wear it well with their silk shimmer.
A thick stitch on the right thigh identifies the site of cannulated preservative circulation.
To whom belongs the hair that’s wound in chair wheels and found stuck to
organs we’ve held?
The body serves as a table for its own detached lungs and the tools we used to detach them; it wears its heart on its sarcophagal sleeve.
A student asks about the pronunciation of “azygos.” The teaching assistant says,
“Tomater, tomahter.” I say, “You mean dura mater, dura mahter.”
These bodies are not just our models, but our puppets; we pose their limbs
and read their palms;
Their outstretched arms beg an embrace from the rolling lights that regard them
A cadaver on its stomach reaches into a professor’s pocket as he dissects its shoulder.
To show the flexion of the phalanges, a professor pulls the tendons,
and we see death beckon.
To delineate the facial nerves, a professor strokes the exposed, frozen cheek
as if it were a lover’s.
I see drips of liquid on the kitchen floor at home, and for a moment, I mistake it for
blood from a brain.
Our often tendency, to ask for valued ganglions, visuals at hand;
We cross our cruciate ligament fingers psoas to remember necrotic mnemonics;
A thing between two things; by motor car, cold beer in forty-three cans, some say to steal a real trucker’s only apple;
Ill, ilium, ileum, pleural, pericardial, periosteal, perineal, peroneal, peritoneal, peril;
We remember exceptions; the exceptional are memorable.
A teaching assistant holds a prosection of a female hip on her lap.
At the head of the table are two heads, a young one hunched over the dead one he dissects;
He looks it in the eye; their faces are antiparallel, with up and down inverted like
As pupils, we see two tenuous circles: the tendinous ring guides fibrous nerves, and the iris passes light through fluid glass.
Behind the throat, the flower-calyxed larynx is cut cruciform; medical students don’t learn the muscles for the patient’s voice.
On the digital anatomy table, extruded cylinders pierce the patients’ faces where their eyes should be.
I stuff my jacket into my bag and notice that the open sleeves look like severed arteries.
The pituitary is the keystone of the cranium, the pearl in the ossified shell,
The center of the X made by petrous bone and lesser wing, at the center of the X mapped by the chiasm of sight,
Ensconced in a Turkish throne and wearing the Willis circlet, surrounded by the sap of thought and life,
A monarch at the heart of two sphenoid and ventricular butterflies that interlock like links of a chain,
It surveys its domain from the vertex of the cliff before the cascading tiers of
the cranial fossa.
I study a piecewise face. Its right half is stripped, its left half is intact, and its top half is peeled down over its eyes.
The cadaver must not dry out; as water was the cells’ essence in life, so is it their
vessel in death.
The body seems to be melting into its water; the limbs are still, but they dance sinusoidally in their rippling reflection;
Twin seashells curl in an ethmoid labyrinth; the splenic artery leviathan hides beneath the chest of treasures;
A nautilus notes a chord; semicircular canals chart the waters along Cartesian planes;
The woven rope of chordae tendineae anchor the cuspid sails as blood flows tidally
I see a fresh head. The neck is getting blood all over the rags. The fat on the inside of the neck doesn’t cling, it spills; and the fat is not white, but saturated orange. The skin is compliant and still blushes around the sunken, drifting eyes. Nothing we’ve seen so far has looked as real or as dead as this partial man.
We take apart these bodies because they are made in the image of time and the world.
In origin, round ligaments and an oval fossil draw the one-way cycle of a fetus’s growth;
To question parsimony and design, the tendons in the ankle trace the tangled path of systemless evolution;
The tree of life grows in the cerebellum’s arbor vitae, in muscles’ wood grain and red soleus sun, in the ridges of the crista terminalis illuminated from behind;
We study existence: we see the history of the body, we see the world, and we see
the history of the world.
I feel someone walk behind me and see her out of the corner of my eye. When I turn to look, she has already gone. In her place is a skeleton hanging in a frame.
We think we are the knowing now; from bodies of knowledge, we’ve extracted knowledge
I understand a little more the intricate differentiations of being, although I have yet to witness a scalpel disinter a soul.
The students move on to seek more answers, the professors stay to answer more students, and the fragmented cadavers burn.
By sacrificing an instrument they will never play again, the donors make themselves immortal; they become part of a deathless practice.
These undertakings of physical introspection are older than we are, and they will live longer than will any one of us.
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