The Anatomy Theater
A cadaver, an anatomist and a press of onlookers in a sixteenth-century engraving inspire a twenty-first century verse.
Courtesy Daniel H. Garrison, Northwestern University
In the title poem of her debut collection, Nadine Sabra Meyer scrutinizes the title page of De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), produced in 1543 by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Renaissance anatomists inspired six additional poems in The Anatomy Theater (Harper Perennial), which won the 2005 National Poetry Series, a contest in which five renowned poets each nominate one artist’s work for publication. (Copyright © 2006 by Nadine Sabra Meyer.)
Do they strain to see the glimmer of a soul
two souls like a pair of dusty starlings?
Or is it the visceral they are interested in, this great
concourse of arms and legs and heads thronging
toward the center of the amphitheater, where,
at its vortex, a woman, the only stillness,
has, like a peach dropped in boiling water,
split down her gravid center? The rabble jockeys
toward her womb; men press through the balcony
bars, gesture largely, scrabble to touch the cloth
she lies on, a bit of thigh, or the back of the anatomist’s
cape. The anatomist, a magician in his dark robes,
his prostrate lady before him, looks out at us
(what secret will he withdraw next? the veined balloon of her bladder,
the umber stalk of the umbilicus, the fetus’s tiny froglike foot?)
and raises a finger to bid us attend. But it is the skeleton
who presides over this carnival; he sits
on the balcony railing, dead center, staff in hand.
He is regal and captive amid gaiety, at the site
of his own dissection: this room to which bodies
stolen from the gallows are brought and are made
to play their final role, organ by organ, this room which,
with its hyaline dome where at night the stars
of the firmament ring, mimics heaven.
The skeleton turns his fixed grimace toward
the vaulted ceiling, its refulgent cupola
and lambent mahogany beams. Does his soul still swim
in the stippled air, among the steam of gold pieces rising
from the open womb of the newly dead: a of ovum and gilded spermatozoa? Is the rotunda’s
cylinder of air teeming even now with colorful bits
of the dead rattling against its diaphanous dome?