This poem reminds me how poems can arise from any experience. I especially love the references to Keats and how the poem contains so much.
Today at the college library the students check out arms
and legs—towering models of muscles and veins
perched on a stand like a hat rack. The exam
just two weeks before Cadaver Day, when they will arrive
pale-faced and woozy in my lit class. I will read them
Keats and they will think of the vastus medialis
and the rectus femoris, and how they looked not strong
and red as on the model but brown and shriveled,
spoiled like old meat. They will think of the sound of their
blade slicing into a corpse’s leg, of the tibial nerve running
long and taut like a highway straight down to the ankle,
of the precarity of their bodies made only of body.
I will tell them that Keats trained as a surgeon before
donating his body to poetry, how he died just a few years
older than them. But their mind will stay lost in the length
of the leg on the table: how the toes wriggled with a tug
on the ribboned tendons, how the toes had nails, how
the nails once grew, how an old woman with a name
once bent to trim them over a toilet bowl. And now
after all to feel so temporary, to hear finally the words
within the words uttered sacred by the preacher,
the teacher, the nurse. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty,
but a body on a table is made of parts with names
that must be known as certainly as Adam knew the names
of the animals, or at least as I know my own—name of
the body I live in, a body I’ve long thought of offering,
so I can teach again in death. But that is not for today.
Today is for hopeful plastic models that snap together
like toys. Today they color the arteries red and the veins blue,
dreaming of their scrubs and their stethoscopes,
strangers to Keats and the plague they’ll soon grapple.
Today the answer is not: Someone once kissed this spot, so tender
behind the knee, but, Gracilis, plantaris, extensor hallucis longus.
first published in The Southern Review