Anatomy Lesson (Jack Coulehan)

One of the first steps to becoming a doctor is dissecting a human cadaver in the gross anatomy laboratory. Students, at least in the past, were not encouraged to think much about the person, but many years after I had this experience, I was sitting in an ethics discussion, and in talking about some multiple organ transplants, one of the nurses who was there used the term, “abomination”. And somehow that term, “abomination”, gave me a flash, made me think about my experience so many years ago and I wrote this poem called “Anatomy Lesson”.

When I move your body
from its storage drawer,
I brush my knuckles,
Ernest, on your three-days
growth of beard. Cheeks,
wet with formaldehyde,
prickle with cactus.
My eyes burn and blink
as if a wind of sand
blew through the room.

Bless me, Ernest,
for I cut your skin
to learn positions
and connections
of your parts—caves,
canyons, fissures, faults,
all of you. Show me.
Show me your flowers,
your minerals, the oil
of your spleen.

Do not mistake these tears.
These tears are not
for your bad luck
nor my indenture here,
but for all offenses
to the heart—yours, mine—
for the violence
of abomination.
Think of my tears as rain
staining your canyon walls,
filling your stream.
They touch the blossoms.

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think the term “abomination” inspired this poem?
2. How do you feel about the use of that word, and how is it similar or different from how you view the experience of cadaver dissection?

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