The Anatomy Theater
In her poem "Dissection Prayers," which arrives near the beginning of The Anatomy Theater, Nadine Meyer invokes Andreas Vesalius—a sixteenth-century physician, considered the founder of modern anatomy, famous for his extensive studies dissecting human cadavers (a practice, as Meyer notes in "The Flayed Man," that had not been in use "for over a thousand/years, for fear that to dissect the body impedes/the soul's chrysalis"). Meyer hones in on this pivotal historical moment and restores the Renaissance sense of wonder at discovering the inner workings of the body. She reminds us, via Vesalius, that "the living would give anything . . . to know what the dead know,/to lift the pall/of flesh and find more than a charnel house,/a strung charm/of bone." Meyer's sustained focus is remarkable for a first book; from first to last the poems resonate with each other to expand and reinform the subject matter: What are the natures of body and soul? What happens to us after death, and how is the "strung charm" of art both a necessary and a flawed approach to understanding?
Choosing as her primary source material medical drawings from Renaissance anatomy texts and paintings by such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele and Marc Chagall, Meyers embarks on a series of ekphrastic poems, and the genre proves well suited for her project. She plumbs the visual text-as-body to investigate the nature of the body itself, and how we interpret it. In the title poem, Meyer meditates on a woodblock print from Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica, and she herself becomes an anatomist twice removed, [End Page 171] as fascinated as the physician by what she sees, but with sufficient distance to point out the psychological absurdities of our desire to watch and the fraught interplay between art and violence: "what secret will he withdraw next? The veined/balloon of her bladder, the umber stalk/of the umbilicus, the fetus's tiny froglike foot?"
Meyer also extends her interrogation beyond the limits of the body to the nature of the soul and afterlife, though she does so with great restraint. The souls she imagines never transcend into a world beyond what the living know, swimming "in the stippled air, among the steam of gold pieces rising/from the open womb of the newly dead: a mosaic/of ovum and gilded spermatozoa" ("The Anatomy Theater"). Or she imagines the afterlife as the soul's transformation into art: "perhaps/this grisly elegy—this ascension/from the grave to the artist's chisel—/is the only there is" (from "the Artist at the Dissection"). In fact, she begins her book with an elegy for John Donne, taking his lines as epigraph: "I am coming to that Holy roome,/Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,/I shall be made thy Musique." Meyer assists each of the subjects she describes in this musical transformation with the precision of a high lyricism and an approachable humor.
Meyer does not flinch from the complexities of war or holocaust—these are in some ways the brutal extension of an anatomist's scientific detachment. As John Koethe suggests (he selected the book for the 2005 National Poetry Series), Meyer does not sentimentalize. Instead, she uses the remove of art to stay objective, describing the body frankly in its context of ordinary objects. Nor does she spare herself from this scrutiny. In an important departure from ekphrasis, her poem "The Paper House" is an account of her own experience of surgery. No longer relying on dissection to see inside the body, Meyer studies an x-ray of her ovary "spotted with imperfections," declaring: "A fish carried its eggs loose in its side, a spider/in a sticky mesh bag.//This struggling white mass,/I would take up in my mouth and care for."
The final poem, "John Donne on his Deathbed," echoes the book's beginning. In it, Meyer engages with Donne's "Hymne to God my God in my Sicknesse," listening for "the cool clear note Donne's/physicians heard as they bent to him in death." By listening with attention, intellect and imagination, Meyer uses the poems in The Anatomy Theater to refashion the body's song and situate dissection's "firked" soul back into the fertile loam of verse. Her poems are powerful, ambitious in their subject matter and skillfully crafted. The Anatomy Theater is well worthy of its National Poetry Series acclaim.