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Poetry and Medicine
November 22/29, 2000

The Anatomist

Author Affiliations
 

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 2000;284(20):2566. doi:10.1001/jama.284.20.2566

In this colony of bones,
he steps between cadavers
like a priest, benedictions on his lips
for the souls that no longer
inhabit these houses. His tapered
fingers guide my scalpel under
flickering lights, unzipper caverns filled
with flowers and serpents. He recalls
the prison camp near Shanghai
where he peeled the husks
from bodies punctured by bamboo,
enough holes to let the blood
run through like colanders. There,
he fell enraptured with cartilage and bone,
the way calcium wraps itself
in lamellae like rinds of bark,
becomes padded by muscle, tailored
in skin. He dissects from clavicle to coccyx
by torchlight and the rustle of rice
in the paddies, discovers how tendons
shackle tubercles, pull fingers and toes
like marionettes. He knows breath's end.
Death is his sextant
beyond the stockade's pyre. I study
his maps on heft of heart, pre-ordained contour of brain. One winter
to voyage from pole to pole, to see
with Caravaggio's eyes, flesh's truth.
In this cathedral of bones he points
like a compass past supplicant hands
to anatomic north, each unwrapping
of skin with reverence, each body part
handled like a reliquary. Disrobing
of eyes reveals a celestial gaze
on the brink of another world. He
remembers his face reflected
in the pond of a soldier's last glance,
the sound of body bags
being zippered until dawn. We
are his disciples at the last table,
inheritors of priestly secrets.
In death he shares his humble skeleton
wrapped in linen, wills his body
to the pallet for dissection, an offering
to students of the human constellation,
exalted as the nameless soldiers
who gave their final gift to him
for resurrection in the classroom of war.

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