Anatomical Theater ~ Katharine Coles


            Bologna, Padova


            “The book of the human body . . . cannot lie.”



  1. Padova, 1543


Here, Love, Vesalius memorized lines

Parting skin and fat; laid muscle open,


Fibers feathering, pulling to bone; he steadied

Scalpel under the eyes of students elbowing


For the clearest view.  That body was done

With all stages but the last performance


Climaxing, like all love stories, in death. 

The theater in walnut not yet built.

It was winter.  Outside.  Wind on his neck.


He worked fast, bare hands conducting

With measured delicacy, though he loved


Only the body.  He played,

His back to the house, teasing notes

From organ and heartstring.  Nothing personal,


Just the ache of joints, settled blood—

No formaldehyde, nothing to keep flesh


Firm but the cold.  He opened it all himself,

Testing blade against a heart gone


Before the public hanging, the trial—slipped

To hatred, wantonness, mere hunger’s sleight


Of hand, the body’s dire urgencies

Now also gone.  Exeunt.  Spirit


Whipped.  Cast loose.  Delivered by what

I can’t tell from here.  Looking close,


Vesalius sees the heart, its separate chambers.

Executes that cut.  Given to


Abandon, the lost beat, he forgets

His audience, what he knows.  Won’t admit

For years he has imagined the body, new.


2.  Bologna 


Then, how bodies are translated,

Once they decompose, back into art.

A renaissance: the theatre so figured


Either side of the lectern, carved bodies

Flayed but still lively, leg’s jaunty cock


Holding up the surgeon, holding forth,

All in wood: loving cuts


Of muscle, veins’ traceries so precise

Each becomes a model of creation


Waiting to be electrified by touch. 

The bodies of physicians laid in rows


Regular as blank verse.  It took eight years

After the bombs fell to put it right,

I think.  The caretaker recites in fast Italian


Translated by gesture, the sweeping arm’s

Emotion carrying understanding


The way it does in opera, swelling the heart

With certain knowledge.  I still don’t know:


Who is the woman in chains?  Absent a body

They’d use a manikin, modeled for real,

Eyes wide open.  A gentle look


For one laid like a box: breast and stomach

Lifting lidlike to muscle, ribs to viscera. 

The organs’ jewel compartments.  Pudenda


Coyly draped.  Head thrown back to hair

Flown in ivory, ivory throat exposed.


3.  Padova, 1594


The first indoor performance was Fabrizios’.

Windows plastered over.  Musicians sawing


A torchlight serenade.  For all that,

Still cold.  The body in the kitchen

Undergoing stripping, plucking, as


Any woman’s for wedding, or debut.  Prepared,

The students lean over rails, tiers

So steep there are no chairs: just their breath


Raising hairs on each other’s necks

As they crane over to watch the blade


Pierce the solar plexus.  The table set.

A passed flask.  A joke under the breath. 

They’re just kids.  That dead weight still


Rising to resist.  In the wings,

A pig’s corpse understudies the human


In case the church arrives.  A trapdoor to the river. 

Lookout’s cue: Curtains.  The body falls


Away.  Slap and freeze,

As if the corpse could feel one jot of what

We feel for it, vivified.  The truth:


I don’t even know what you feel,

Though your heart sparks mine, and your brain’s

Awash in electricity—though I know


Without looking where you stand

In any crowded room.  Those old painters


Were right: the halo’s a charge

We all carry, invisible


Gift of the body to air.  It’s almost easier,

Imagining the dead.  I keep forgetting


This is a love poem: didn’t we

Reinvent the heart?  The push-me pull-you


Of its muscled art.  For you, I’d shed

Any flesh, throw off sparks and flotsam


To star the universe, which wastes nothing,

In which every thing is wasted.


4. Operations


Ten-thousand years BC.  A manual drill—

Skull and brain are nerveless, and desperate measures


May call forth more time: its measured breath

Against the breathless dark.  A comfort


Just to do something.  One skull twice

Trepanned.  The first hole healed over


Before it failed.

   The body is no poem. 

Not a painting brushed down in layers


The historian x-rays, meticulous

Lover of image and its ghosts—


Eclipse means abandonment

That figure painted over in the corner


Coming into its own again, bearded

And robed in a crimson that became


The fallen curtain, background for the still life.

Too much like the corpse.  Without the heart

The body won’t  perform.  Is not a machine, though


It hides what binds it.  What would you do

If the scientist found a way to loose you—


Unknotted from your veins, unclenched from muscle,

The bulk of rib and flesh you hardly notice

Though it turns me with all its force—


And freed you, wheeling, goosey as lost breath

Into the room’s scattering of air?


(5.  The Identification of the Remains of St. Anthony;

The Miracle of the Broken Glass


So, even the skull has its halo,

All flesh stripped to blessedness,

Beside which this restored glass

Is magic’s performance, though likely, enough


Sleeve to hide anything.  Salvation from drowning

Being the Saint’s particular trick

(St. Anthony Revives a Boy Drowned in the Lake),

Or anything to do with water, contained


(Brought back to life, a Child Fallen Into a Cauldron),

And the usual detachments, reattachments.

“Sickness,” Havasser said, “is self-destruction.”

God is—the only medicine.)


6. Bologna, Santa Domingo.


You’re right: I have a gift for Judgment

Days—bored of the quietly sacred, I’m drawn,


Before I’m close enough to see the lines,

To the set piece: Satan on our right

Upstaging Christ and shitting sinners


Already singed by his cosmic heartburn;

His handsome devils hoofed and winging


While cherubs merely hover, still on book.

Evil gets a move on; the good sit around


Looking—what else?—good in their tableaux.

This, too, is technical, in the bone:


Messages transmitted over and over,

A machine for faith.  Passion’s play running

Two thousand years and counting.  It never fails


Its cue to transport.  Not to specific awe.

Those wings and lilies.  This blood.  The human


Moves me to weep: we beat

Our hearts against a drama we reenact.

Stone, flint, chisel, paint, and gold:


Because our bodies keep remaking us

We may never settle.

                                    The judgment is

Oddly literal, and wrong: the poker plunged


Up the rectum emerges at the mouth

(Whether Christ’s blood falls upon


The upturned face of John, or a skull

Laid at the cross’s base, there’s plenty, and boneyards


To spare, and so many axes

Grinding, people forever losing their heads)—


But I’ve been distracted by mere business,

And such attention,

         7.  such elaboration


Sent Luther over the edge: not only gold,

The vaults that carry the heart up into shadow,


But scenes of wood inlaid, backing the choir,

Whose robes rubbed to glisten the ivory helmets,


Crusaders falling under holy cedars.

A snake twining a cross.   Everything frozen

For the curtain’s fall.

 People were starving. 



Still breaks the breath, it’s so precise. 

What else would you want the dying to know?  Folds

In the pasha’s cloak.  There is blood, drawn


By every chisel stroke: in angel’s wing,

In Adam’s face, turned from the garden gate’s


Opening to the performance of his life;

Blood, the idea entering Mary’s mind,


Wings aflutter.  Applause.  The world bathes in it,

And still such flight in human hand


Pulsing with mere blood.  I want mind

To play it out: the interval between


Blood and the catching heart, the valve pushed open

And muscle suffused.  Pleasure not


Requiring touch to raise it.  Mary’s pulse

Speeding at conception.  The body


Preformed for this determined plot.  Mine

Still for yours.  It only seems

Like forever.  Dear heart, even the holy


Binds each breath into some body

And sends it out again to test the air.