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Poetry and Medicine
May 8, 2013

In the Specimen Room

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to

Author Affiliation: Institute for Translational Sciences, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston (

JAMA. 2013;309(18):1871. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.150943

Guppies in a bowl—a pool of
Goldfish glide across, as if tugging the line
Between the living and the dead.
Looking out from jars, row after row,
Are inhabitants of land and water.
The smell of formaldehyde incises minds
Already ajar with surprises.
The instructor carefully slices
Cross-sections for slides—the urge
For preservation pervading every second.
This, a whole human brain (cerebellum, hypothalamus . . .
Like zoned territory, a roadmap),
Mirrors an inner space.
The folds of intelligence, the spurs
Of emotion, the lobes of memory now shelf
Pieces. Some connections still intact, but merely
Symbols now. The split shank of air,
Sticky with lacerations
The instructor seems to inflict
With his glittering ferrule, waving it about,
Simulating the shapes of organs.
Students take notes on Anatomy, watch him
Explain a terminology for body parts
With the grace of a symphony conductor.
Flag-labels display names:
Classifications by phylum, genera, species . . .
Critical regions of organs: exposed,
Named, explained. Each name a miracle:
Tongue-twisters, undergraduates marvel,
As they peer in awe, taking in light
To illuminate an inner land already stashed
With images. And now
They must make room to imbibe
The puzzle and the miracle
Of a hundred human parts—
One step at a time—as they build
A slow arduous stairway
Their minds can step out on.

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