Nonfiction from NER 43.2 (2022)
—little how and what-ifs—
—Toward some maybe future book: a straight progression off what happened. Elaboration of the journal, this journal. Prose. Or prose and poetry, when poems suit. One long whoosh. The usual suspect as speaker—me me me. Or partly that, or none of that, the voices of others. Taking over.
—Maybe only the 100-year-old speaks. Or one of the med students. Or the young artist who knew very little English in drawing class, who put his hands on each side of his face and whispered Munch, when he saw my terrible self-portrait.
—look, think, make a mark, says my drawing teacher.
—identify, appreciate, move on, says the anatomist.
—The Dissector. Or Keats’s London Dissector, 1817. Gruesome and perfect.
—all those lost unto lost, don’t look. Then you do look . . .
—How does Keats come back? Does he? Should he?
—Kinds of drawing like a dazzle of zebras: gesture, blind contour, straight lines only, curves only, x-ray to skeleton, pen and ink, charcoal, the addictive move to color, the awful self-portrait.
—How do artists’ notebooks count here? Leonardo’s drawings? Michelangelo’s? Verbatim? What they say? Or: can I get the figures in the drawings to speak? Especially those unfinished, impartial, abandoned on paper by accident or design, in-progress forever then, just lying there, about to . . . what?
—A book done as entries. As second thoughts. As letters home (cadavers from the netherworld, the foreign student in drawing class, Samar disappeared to her pilgrimage to Mecca, all leaving their mark on the page).
—My mother’s body in the hospital. Her barely-in-it. My grandmother losing language. My friend June’s shrinking memory, eighty-five years old, only a small what just happened—three hours’ worth perhaps—orbits her pointing to the moon: is that the moon?
—Which is worse? Losing memory or losing language? Are these even separate?
—(Write it! ) says Elizabeth Bishop.
—The small vial of ear stirrups in the cadaver lab. The plastic tub of spinal cords. Four brains floating in their white buckets across the white room. Listen.
—What is it, that awful scent afterwards? En route to my car or going up the stairs.
—One of the med students whose name is All of Them, as we all change into scrubs in the girls’ john says: Oh my god. I’m at a party. And suddenly I smell cadaver on me!
—The cadavers’ faces, finally unshrouded. Words toward stunned (I’m stunned), beautiful (they’re beautiful), as if the finest charcoal pencil has done its work, their eyes closed or not. Mouths simply made by line, or one is open, calling out her final silent middle-of-the-night.
—What is it to see gesture, as if one might see and freeze those standing around a swimming pool or actually in water. Or at Kmart or Payless, the deep privacy of each shopper, then just the street, some guy walking down that street . . .
—Of course a new x-ray vision kicks in deeper than skin to bone and vessel and nerve, the darkest dark, its pulse.
—Draw that, I dare you.
—Keep connecting those images, those figures somehow, says my drawing teacher. Do something with the background.
—The quietude of each model in Life Drawing. We take turns when one doesn’t show. Me, my turn on the platform, I sink into my baggy sweater. I close my eyes, fending off their eyes.
—In the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum, their blank white unseeing eyes. Time has worn off the garish colors the Greeks put there. What colors? Like Day-Glo, the docent told me. Terrible colors, she said briskly. Such bad taste, she shook her head.
—My mother near death never wanting to open her eyes in the hospital. Her pretending to sleep—I knew that. Her pretending no, not here at all. Outside all that scaffolding, men fixing something.
—The long underground passage to get to the cadaver lab each Monday, Wednesday, Friday. These are the catacombs. But it’s just a basement, abandoned file cabinets, broken chairs. I’m entering the netherworld, I think and thought at least three weeks in. Then I am rushing past it all. Simply on time. Or I’m late. The elevator door opens to a hallway to get through.
—The chainmail veil which begins at the base of the ribs, drops down, unsecured at the pelvis, its glistening golden bits of fat, the dizzy wiry turns of—of what?
—Think tabernacle. Thinking: this is where the Catholics, the Jews got their big idea. The Holy of Holies to protect all transformation is itself a transformation.
—First crucial metaphor is about metaphor: the colon, the swirling intestines which change everything into something else. Which take. Then throw the rest away.
—In Edinburgh, the surgical museum: a musket ball from Waterloo still embedded in the femur. We see the skull sliced not quite through by a saber, jagged cuts in the bony surface, the invisible ink of rage and fear down there.
—How Sherlock Holmes solved those crimes: you diagnose like a doctor obsessed who thinks of nothing else, who makes the leap, 2 and 2 equals . . . 5!
—Conan Doyle not quite or ever that doctor though his teacher, Joseph Bell, yes.
—The wiring of the body, nerves off the spinal cord, those knobs of vertebrae. But its dot-to-dot seems suspect, a city built upon city, the old house badly rewired though mainly it works.
—O what a piece of work is man . . . Does that exclaim or question? More amazing: that these jerry-built circuits spark at all.
—Before this, in utero, it’s only the gut tube, the cardiac tube, their gradual vast and intricate complications to come. We all start general and—female! Only then we grow specific.
—The stillness of the cadaver not like the stillness of the model in drawing class who longs to move her leg, her arm. For whom future is immediate and mundane: oh my god, tell me how many minutes to the ten-minute break?
—Against the ponderous, usual Latinate words for these bony, bloodless-now, fleshy gadgets in the body, give me a plain name to love: the hand’s anatomical snuff box! Yes! Right there, between the lonely thumb and the gregarious forefinger.
—But the empty spaces buried as we lie down and sleep, reservoirs to catch and hold until upright again all the excess fluids. Someone owns them. Plus the skull’s interior, its craters and peaks as if the anatomists climbed, claimed them for the record books. Little junior where one doubled down: Meckel’s Cave. O little named-after-me . . . ■