De Humani Corporis Fabrica


after Vesalius

I know the names of almost

not the bone
between my elbow and my wrist
that sometimes aches
from breaking
years ago

and not
the plumb line
from the pelvis
to the knee

less ache than hum
in my nineteenth year
a knife blade slit through nerves
and nicked a vein

leaving the wall intact
the valves
still working
so the blood kept flooding out
till Eleanor
a nurse on evening shift

opened the wound
and made me whole again.

I have no words
for chambers in the heart
the smaller bones
the seat of gravity

or else I know the names
but not the function:
the mental foramen
the hypothalamus
the duodenum.

in our old school library
I took
a book down from the shelf
and opened it to stripped flesh
and the cords
of muscle
ribbed and charred
like something barbecued

the colours wrong
the single eye exposed:
a window into primal emptiness.

I sat for hours
and horrified
as if I had been asked to paraphrase
this body with the body I possessed:
hydraulics for a soul
cheese-wire for nerves
a ruff of butcher’s meat
in place of thought.

I’ve read how Michelangelo would buy
a stolen corpse
to study
in the dark
the movement of a joint
or how a face
articulates the workings of the heart

how Stubbs would peel
the cold hide from a horse
and peer into the dark machinery
of savage grace

but I have never learned
nor wished to learn
how bodies work
other than when they move
and breathe
corporis fabrica

is less to me than how a shudder starts
and runs along the arm
toward the wings
that flex and curl
between the shoulder blades

– so I will lie beside you here
until my hands recover from your skin

a history of tides
a flock of birds
the love that answers love
when bodies meet

and map themselves anew
cell after cell
touch after glancing touch
the living flesh

revealing and erasing what it knows
on secret charts
of watermark
and vellum.

from The Good Neighbour (Cape, 2005), copyright John Burnside 2005, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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