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Poetry and Medicine
February 18, 2004

Anatomy Lesson

Author Affiliations

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

JAMA. 2004;291(7):796. doi:10.1001/jama.291.7.796

You think you have seen death before,
how the dead look so dead when they're dead,
but pulling back the stainless cover,
you are unready for that form as gray
and cold as a late November day,
wet, with limp brown stems of day-lilies,
like lifeless hair hanging over unhearing ears
into the silver trough.
Perhaps it would be easy to begin to view
yourself as a doctor here, in a Rembrandt pose,
bending over unbeckoning fingers,
but the smell of formaldehyde
is overwhelming, and you feel
you are only pretending, violating
the only part of this person
still left on earth.
And where does all this fat come from?
Globules stick to your instruments
and stain your atlas with greasy smudges, so
although you take care to wear your apron,
you find one of the yellow bastards
on your sock as you cross your legs
hours later, after lunch in the cafeteria.
Is that your respect for the dead?
Or does it come years later, after you
have filled a couple of graveyards
with corpses in silent decomposure?
Their spirits visit you in quiet times,
as you sit alone in your car, waiting,
or awaken, sweating, just after three.
The hairs on your neck rise, tingling,
as the dead tell you things, and you listen.