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Poetry and Medicine
October 21, 1998

Animal Locomotion

Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor

JAMA. 1998;280(15):1304G. doi:10.1001/jama.280.15.1304

Plate #197: a man and woman are waltzing
A couple of measures, their embrace
Fractured into miliseconds
Like the feelings that flit across the heart
Impossible to catch. The page
Looks like a contact sheet
Just small differences from frame to frame
In the swing of the long dress, the dark
Coattail, the angle of the shadow the woman
Casts on the man's face. Mounted in a zoepraxiscope,
The couple would waltz forever, "limited," as Muybridge put it,
"Only by the patience of the viewer." But here
In twenty-four frames we see thin slices of their time
In each other's arms. The inner infinity.
Like those cross sections of a human body I once saw
Mounted between sheets of glass on the stairway of the Museum
of Science and Industry,
The body sliced crosswise and so thin—that's the way time is sliced here
As if each moment deserves a salute, as it does during love.
On other pages we see leopards stalking
And elephants loping, and naked men
Swinging bats and pole-vaulting, and naked women
Balancing water buckets, or descending stairs
With metronome needles taped to their sacroiliacs
In their animal motion. But here a man and a woman are waltzing
In their cloths, like twenty-four couples at a dance.
The body has not changed much. Those water globules
And sinews since splashed into dissolution
Are the same as in any Y locker room
Coming into being and dying. But these two are clothed
In time. The black suit. The floor length gingham dress.
In every frame they are beautiful:
In 3 their clasped, raised hands obscure his thoughtful downward glance.
In 7 they ae both in profile, as though hurrying
To collide. In 9 her smile
Begins to emerge from shadow like a new moon.
In 17 a great wind seems to blow her east,
And only his arm locked around her waist, and his chin above her shoulder,
Keeps even the tip of her shoe still touching the ground.
Though by 24 they have come apart a little.
Oh this was the time when time began
To be counted in seconds, and love
Was first anatomized. The man and woman
Joined together in their intoxicating waltz,
A lifetime in two bars, and then a parting
As always. But Muybridge makes us see
What was always there but invisible. The horse
Lifting all four hoofs off the ground at the top
Of each gallop. And the moment
When the man and the woman
Are bound together before their parting
In infinite tenderness, empathy, and amusement—
Within their century
And its millions upon millions of split seconds.