Bethany Pope wrote this poem, in her own words, “after far too many back issues of ‘The Lancet’ and yellowed journal entries about clouds of killer sparrows.”
Accompanied here by the work of Dutch anatomical artist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731).
A knock on the door, so
innocuous, answered in the clinking
of sovereigns passed hand to hand,
to be drowned in a purse of cheap leather.
The purchase laid out for dissection;
So much meat on a slab.
Undressed only partially, bleeding
from the head, skin and hardening muscles
slowly agreeing with the temperature
of tabletop. And why not? The students
have yet to arrive with their sketch pads
and charcoal. There is a strong smell
which the good doctor relieves
by opening the windows. The sparrows
alight. Three of them, sharpening their beaks
on the windowsill, aligning their pinions.
The old man lays his scalpels on leather,
A gleaming row, arranged by dirty fingers
-a gentleman’s hands are kept clean by culture,
cleansed by the rhythmic flow of hereditary blood,
whose process no one yet understands-
the door resounds youthful excitement,
the students filter in. Incision, incision,
a red node held up to meet
the first light it has ever known.
A student in the back row displaces
a perched sparrow from the corner of his pad.
He adds a shadow, with a delicate stroke,
to the corner of a bloodless liver, deeply pleased.
There is the scent of butcher shops, a few small,
quiet sighs. The doctor’s descriptive intonations, muffled
by torso, his feet displacing mouse-like birds
With every readjustment of his weight.
They cheep and hop in brownish clouds,
pecking at the leakage. Two hours’ work,
or less, the job is done. All that remains
is final dispersal. The students leave
their payment in coins that rattle against
the slaver by the door, or choke the gaping mouth
of a plaster African left out to accept them.
They grasp their hands with their good teacher,
honored to come to grips with his greatness.
The good man turns his hot face to the light,
taking in the open window, feeling the breeze.
The flesh on the table awaits its dénouement.
He rolls up the skin, a good heavy rug,
his footsteps scattering sparrows,
mentally measuring a number of wallets.
As he scrapes up the fat, to be sent to the renderers;
calculating the price of rich soap. The bones will be boiled,
clean, and buried with all the others in a small patch.
of earth. The old man works hard at this reclamation,
at his feet the gentle sparrows flutter in clouds,
fighting for scraps.