poetry & anatomy


Dealing with the body is a complex problem, raising a mass of emotional, scientific, artistic and social issues. While the modern study of anatomy adheres to the highest ethical standards, this has not always been the case.

The poems on this page examine different aspects of the history and practice of anatomy: Chiara, one of the first recorded dissections; Mary, the last of Burke and Hare‘s victims to be sent to the Edinburgh anatomists; and an introduction to a modern-day anatomy class. The video of The Boy with Two Bodies explores the social framework of 14th Century Florence, when a mother of conjoint twins could be held responsible for the parlous state of local politics and the economy.

Ian’s chapbook A Skeleton of Desire is a collection of poems that are based on the human body in various ways. Much of the imagery is derived from re-interpreting the original meanings of the latin names for body parts, diseases, and the environment they exist within.

Abbess Chiara, Montefalco, 1308

“… her body should be preserved on account of her holiness and because God took such pleasure in her body and heart … After vespers or thereabouts, the said Francesca, Margherita, Lucia and Caterina went to get the heart, which was in a box … And the said Francesca of Foligno cut open the heart with her own hand and opening it they found in the heart a cross, or the image of the crucified Christ.” ~ Sister Francesca of Foligno (1318)

Understand that we, your Sisters, do this
out of respect for the truth of your testimony.

Understand that we do this
out of love and dedication,

that we acknowledge
the gifts of heavenly grace

bestowed upon you
beyond your material desires,

freed of devilish contrivance
or fabrication or calumny.

So forgive us, dear Sister,
as we peel back your incorruptable skin

like the petals of a flower
barely touched by this morning’s sun.

Forgive us, dear Sister,
when we expose your maw

when we cover your sinews
with herbs and fragrant spices

like a tender young lamb
ready for the fire.

Please, forgive us, dear Sister
once we have cleaved

your unkissed breast
and found the evidence for God

encased so securely within
your miraculous, blameless heart.

Published in urban biology (2012)

Mary Docherty, Edinburgh, 1828

The victims of William Burke and William Hare, and how much the anatomists paid for the bodies, according to Burke’s notebook:

“Joseph, lodger (10 pounds); Abigail Simpson, salt seller (10 pounds); Old woman, lodger (10 pounds); Mary Patterson, prostitute (8 pounds); Effie, cinder gatherer (10 pounds); Drunk woman,  from police (10 pounds); Old woman & deaf-mute grandson (16 pounds); Woman (8 pounds); Mrs Ostler, washerwoman (8 pounds); Ann MacDougal, distant relative (10 pounds); Mary Haldane (8 pounds); Peggy Haldane, Mary’s daughter (8 pounds); Daft Jamie Wilson, street beggar (10 pounds); Mary Docherty, beggar (5 pounds).”
                ~  after Ruth Richardson ‘Death, Dissection and the Destitute’ (2000)

How remarkable it is
after all this time,
despite my lowly station,
my miserable and uneventful life,
you still talk about me,
you still know my name.

My miserable and uneventful life;
my wayward, my errant son.
Why else visit this drear stonegrit town?
Why else would I succumb once again
to miasmic devils and spirits
bewitched by riffling midnight vapours?

I might then have missed that William Burke,
his hands around my soused old voice box,
his hands covering my wrinkled hide with straw,
his hands selling me for the anatomist’s knife,
his hands lifted to Almighty God
in preparation for the final drop.

By now, the townsfolk have had their skimmington,
they have shouted and marched
through the Surgeon’s Square,
they have seen revealed upon the table
the raw and bloody entrails
of death traded for unholy death.

Of course, nothing I can say will change
the minds of those choleric soft-palmed toffs,
who reap profit from our thankless labour,
whose one grand speech after another
punish the walls of Parliament, whose sentences
reek with the stink of the Poor House.

Perhaps, after all, you can appreciate
that I only dreamt of Ireland,
of the chances I could have taken,
of the life I might not have lost.
Perhaps, after all, you can appreciate
that I wish you have never heard of me.

Published in urban biology (2012)

Introduction to Anatomy

 1. Presentation

She lies before us, naked, of modest proportions, her hair closely shorn.
She seems relaxed, yet her arms are stiff, not with the rigor mortis
favoured by crime writers, but with the embalming solution her preparators
gently washed through her arteries and veins. Despite the years passed
since her death, there are no signs of decay: she is perfectly preserved.

Beneath the skin, we are very much the same: her muscles, radiate like fans,
overlap like feathers, across her ribcage. A little deeper, her heart. Perhaps,
she envisioned this moment, this space, when we see for ourselves that which
she only ever felt, when we share our ancient lineage, our animal inheritance,
beyond gender and race and any form of ephemeral social construction.

2. Exploration

They are broad shoulders. You don’t get a build like that without a lifetime
of hard work. His is what people call a big frame, heavy boned, even at his age.
You can see the reinforcement on his scapula, along the spine, around its borders,
where all those massive muscles attach: trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapulae,
the rhomboids, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major.

You can’t help but wonder. Perhaps he was a labourer, a wharfie, a builder or brickie.
Or maybe he was a footballer, or some other sportsman, who liked to keep up
a bit of form. There is a tattoo on his arm, but we cannot see it from this angle.
Enclosed in protective wraps, we cannot see his hands. Are there scars? Calluses?
Are any finger-tips missing? Was there a wedding ring?

We return to the shoulders. Gently, someone folds back the layers. Quietly,
someone recites their names, muscle by muscle, muscle by muscle. They are
his muscles. They are our muscles. They are muscles that will be observed,
knowingly, again and again, as we lift our luggage, as we open a door, as we
hold hands, as we wave in welcome and farewell.

3. Revision

It is a beautiful body. You just have to keep looking. Of course, that is why it is here,
why we are here. So we can look, observe, learn. The limbs, once graceful, lithe,
are now unbound, exposed by a new kind of release, untethered by tendons,
ligaments, or retinacula.

We are invited to touch, to explore, the flexors and extensors, abductors and
adductors, the rotators, the evertors and invertors. We must be careful, as if peeling
back a flowerbud’s newly formed petals. We must pay attention to their relations,
their rightful place, beside, above, below each other, so easily disrupted in memory
by a wayward glance or misplaced word.

She has a beautiful body. Even on this cold afternoon, long after the stiches re-uniting
her belly have ceased to heal; long after whatever was wrong with her liver had failed
to improve; long after she had applied the last coat of opalescence to the nails of her
fingers and toes.

Published in Etchings 12: VisualEYES (2013)

Here is a video of a long poem The Boy With Two Bodies originally published in urban biology with an audio version on the urban biology – audiodraft CD. Taken from a well-known historical case of conjoint twins, as chronicled by Giovanni Villani (1276-1348). The twins were seen as an omen of impending disaster for Florence, and their mother was held to blame. This poem explores the story from several points of view including the city elders, the church, and, of course, the mother.