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