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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.



Bethany’s website

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