Beneath the feverish chintz of
Someone else’s living room
I contemplate my own mortality,
And the thought of it wearies me.
The dowdiness of blood, you see,
Disappoints me. Especially dried blood.
Especially viscera, reclaimed by scorched earth,
Dry as dead love. We know what it’s all
For. We know what we
Amount to, each of us.
But here’s a book. A book “for the true book”,
Or so its authors would have said. The annals of
La Specola, of Florence, all in wax.
A museum, it was, of human guts. I hadn’t
Heard of it. Tussaud’s the name we recognise.
That eternal Madame, grim and primly zealous –
Making death masks of the guillotined nobility.
One moment, dignity: the next, a flying cutlet!
…As she arranged her poison peepshow (with
The sober ostentation that marks out policemen,
Hostesses, and, I’ve no doubt, the torturer):
As bloodied baskets tumbled in her lap,
So too it was that quiet Italians
Plumbed the inner man, the map.
“Our subject has been hanged.
The anatomy will begin.”
How well they knew their trade,
The old anatomists -
Cutting fresh flowers from wards
Of plagues, and pestilence, and those irrevocably maimed:
Pregnant mothers, with hair as bright as straw:
Soldiers, lovers, those who had succumbed
With apoplexy in flagrante:
Now sliced apart with deft swift knives
Before their harvest might be claimed
By browning putrefaction:
Melting away like jelly in
The brassy Florentine sun.
So fast the craftsman had to work,
Plundering at his transitory feast:
Sculpting, moulding, tinting as each cadaver,
Slippery as eels, succumbed to naked air
Charged with the zest and vice of incense.
Five hundred corpses (or two thousand)
No one knows how many the project once devoured.
Now several dozen waxworks are what’s left:
Eyes in a daze, as if in wait
For an early-morning cup of tea;
Or else, wide-shut, as though – because they’re flensed –
They’ve stumbled on the Bronx or Balham platform
And dropped their season ticket. Timeless commuters,
Are these; lamed and kept in aspic.
Their butchers, meanwhile, nosed out what they’d sought.
Rationalists, seeking a moment of vindication, must like
Jesuits make their best use of rationed time. It is significant,
I think: their most brutal excoriation.
It concerns a young virgin.
They’d got her now. Every morsel of her, these men
Owned. They’d tried her, known her, had her,
Layer within layer. So much for the eternal feminine.
She sprawled, bereft of angels. Soon to come, and
Promised for the next act: maggots must burst,
Spontaneously formed, out of her forfeited lights
- As everybody said, and would say for the next
One hundred years, they should.
Who came to loot, upon this silent ground?
What mortified potential, could its wreckage speak of?
Signor Fontana, head of those who
Came to scavenge truth amongst old meat,
Compelled by his voracious appetite,
For vindication he pressed on inside
And left in wild surmise.
Trying to shake free the lyricism of what was mute
(As one must always do, with natural worlds)
Through its seductive symmetries,
Promiscuous, beguiling as they are.
Inviting too much sense, as they must do,
And not too little. For such must be the way
Of all fortuitous, uncrafted forms.
What could the pieces mean?
One principle was sound to guide the
Cutting of a blade, one uncorrupted article
Of faith: the search “for law-like regularities”.
Stealing what had been sanctified, in
A chancel of virgin sense, of
Unredeemed significance. Self-effacing, the men
Ravished, yet still with a gaze of awe and wonder,
Before the elements could ravage, what time itself
Must shortly pulp. Perhaps they looked for the
Soul; which Galen, greatest surgeon of
Antiquity, had adduced from blood vessels
Knotted in a cow. This time there was
Nothing. Still, it was no matter.
To understand a dream one must first know
The terrain of the commonplace.
Think what instead they found:
Sepulchral polypi, that threw aside their fronds to
Embrace the sea. Banners and wreaths, arbours of
Bone, that seemed to tower and hold tight; fingers of
Flesh that reached like suckling mouths: or like
Soft rooted buds, eyeless, rapturous, blind.
Arteries and nerves,
As tall as funerary sycamores –
Cryptic and profligate as the rest of it was –
And here or there a foetus, compacted like a nut
Now destined never to unfurl, or to make good.
But materialism, you know, brings its own magic –
Or at least, the allure of function.
Consider each mechanism, still, within your secret
Self: the valleys of hair attuned to make
The most delicious pleasure;
The sure, rococo poise to bones in a joint,
Unknown, until some act of violation
Brings their ensemble to the light.
Or a curve of enfolding form, voluptuous in its
Perfection, superfluous in its rightness, needless
In its subtlety, excessive in its resource – it does
Not need to be so good. Florid,
Exuberant almost…as if it’s not for us
Still less for the divine
Yet simply, for itself.
I glimpse, through my mind’s eye, machines:
Strutting and proud upon dry dunes
Under a blazing noon. And so I’m back
Full-circle, with my own demise.
It is decay that makes us human, keeps us
Barely so. It’s not corporeal form.
All life is with us, huddled in
Degrees of smallness.
There is no infinite variety.
Instead, a requiem
Upon one note.
March 2002 Stephen Jackson
If living is the picture, our mortality is its frame. Here is a testimony to my disappointment with the frailty of the human form, which came to me following a visit to a macabre London exhibition by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens.