St. John’s University, Queens, New York, United States (Winter 2014)
Andreas Vesalius’ The Fabric of the Human Body marks not only a milestone in medical history but, by virtue of its extraordinary illustrations, offers ample evidence of medicine and art complementing each other. The frontispiece of the work depicting an audience witnessing a dissection performed by Vesalius portrays a number of curious observers, including physicians, medical students, clergymen, laymen, officials and the common man. Their reactions to the uncommon scene before them are discernible in vivid facial expressions and body language. Yet, one powerful means of communication is absent—the power of speech. How much more could we share the moment with them, gain from their experience, acquire new knowledge with them, exult or suffer with them at the exposure of the fabric of the human body—if only they could speak!
At present, some five hundred years after Vesalius’ audience appeared in print, we are able to hear their voices. They speak to us through the art of poetry as created by their descendants, current physician-poets and medical students who transmit their emotions in verse, all the while coming to grips with the same reality that disquieted their antecedents. Representative of such individuals are Kirsten Emmott, Jack Coulehan and David Chun.
Kirsten Emmott uses her knowledge as a physician to explore female identity in her poem “Anatomy.” After hearing a poem that compares women to “deep underground mines,” she counters “Women are not holes” and proceeds to offer her own view. In so doing, she brings to mind the female who is central to the frontispiece, both in terms of her physical position and in the interest she generates—the cadaver. Like her sixth century predecessors, Emmott is knowledgeable regarding the structure of the female body. She identifies and labels its component parts in precise language, performing a verbal dissection, as it were, in thirty four lines of verse. All the while she retains the language of poetry, including metaphor as in the lines “the womb is a pear-shaped muscle/the space inside it is a flat space/like the space inside an envelope.” In such manner does she create her poem, except for the last four lines where she undercuts her previous description by providing a non-scientific glance of women, “but when we are walking about/or sleeping or sitting/or talking over coffee or thinking/women are not holes.” The words could be spoken by Vesalius’ disemboweled cadaver as she suffers the loss of human identity likely to occur when a person becomes an object. One wonders what sort of woman the cadaver could have been in life. The answer remains mute. Emmott, nonetheless, breathes life into the female image as she invites us to see women engaged in daily activities that reveal their volition. Such revelations do not accompany dissections. They expose the subject’s personal nature.
In his poem “Anatomy Lesson,” Jack Coulehan thinks back to his medical school training. He recalls retrieving a cadaver from storage and, in the process, brushing his knuckles against the corpse’s beard and cheeks wet with formaldehyde, which causes his eyes to burn. Years later, the mature physician participates in an ethics discussion where one contributor uses the term “abomination” in describing a related issue. In a flash, Coulehan sees himself once again cutting up the corpse. His eyes now tear “for all offenses/to the heart—yours, mine–/for the violence/of abomination.” The physician’s language brings another issue to the fore—the rejection of the clergy who looked with disfavor upon Vesalius’ work. One can hear the poet debating the issue with the clerics represented in the illustration, witnesses who do not mask their disdain. Coulehan acknowledges the conflict between medicine and the church and confesses to committing a violent act. Looking on the face of the cadaver, he paraphrases the Act of Contrition customarily recited by Catholics during confession, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.” The line of poetry reads “Bless me, Ernest.” Thus the physician begs the cadaver’s forgiveness for the sin of abomination committed against him and simultaneously calls him by name, restoring his human identity.
The absolution he achieves is the transformation of his tears to rain “staining your canyon walls/filling your stream,/touching the blossoms.” Nature is renewed. What has been seen as an act of abomination is transcended by the life-giving power of the knowledge gained. In the end, Coulehan supports Vesalius’ work.
The students gathered around Vesalius prefigure their modern counterparts in experiencing psychological distress at the spectacle before them, even as they welcome the rite of passage transforming their ordinary life to the extraordinary, challenging life of a medical professional. One such counterpart is David Chun. In his poem “Forgive Me,” Chun lays bare his sensitivity, like Jack Coulehan, to committing a violation that requires forgiveness Chun recalls his personal involvement with death, his deceased grandparents and a fellow student. His act of abomination has been in failing to recognize the human dimension of the corpses he has cut up. He has made a distinction between his beloved dead and the non-personal cadavers before him whom he considers little more than tools in a learning process. He confesses “I have lost sight of your real worth/I ask for your forgiveness.” The lifeless, mutilated bodies who are ranked according “ to their color and smell” could, one day, “Save someone from the darkness.”
- Chun, David “Forgive Me” in The Inner World of Medical Students: Listening to Their Voices in Poetry by Johanna Shapiro, Radcliffe Publishing Ltd. 2009, Abingdon, UK and New York.
- Coulehan, Jack “Anatomy Lesson” in Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians edited by Angela Belli and Jack Coulehan, University of Iowa Press, 1998.
- Emmott, Kirsten “Anatomy” in Primary Care: More Poems by Physicians edited by Angela Belli and Jack Coulehan, University of Iowa Press, 2006.
ANGELA BELLI, PhD, is professor of English at St. John’s University in New York. She has served as Chair of the English department and as President of the New York College English Association. She is the author of Ancient Greek Myths and Modern Drama: A Study in Continuity, New York University Press and coeditor of Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians and Primary Care: More Poems by Physicians, University of Iowa Press. She is the editor of Bodies and Barriers: Dramas of Dis-Ease, The Kent State University Press. Her participation in the meetings of professional organizations has been devoted to exploring issues in modern drama and literature and medicine. Her many contributions to literary and medical publications have had a similar focus.