When poet Marianne Boruch took a gross anatomy class at Purdue University, she found she had a favorite cadaver — a female who had been nearly 100 years old — of the four bodies, donated for medical study, that were in the lab.
“She was very moving to me, she reminded me of my grandmother. She physically was very similar and there was something about her that I felt connected to in some way… I stepped aside and let her be the speaker and it just totally opened up for me.”
Boruch had received a fellowship that offers faculty members the chance to take a class in a discipline different but complimentary to their own. “I wanted to put myself in a weird situation to see how I would respond, something that I had absolutely no agenda for or expectations for,” said Boruch. “I took endless notes. It was pretty overwhelming, especially the cadaver lab, as people call it, the dissection lab.”
Armed only with the cadaver’s age and gender, Boruch began inventing. She created a personality and a past for this character, who turned into the central figure of a long poem with 32 sections in her newest collection, “Cadaver, Speak”.
“For some reason, this figure, my favorite cadaver, just pushed me aside and wanted to be the speaker,” Boruch told Art Beat.
“I wanted to put her in that hovering state between life and death and in that transition period somehow. She’s not sentimental, she’s pretty tough-minded, she’s kind of a smart ass, she’s kind of wily, but she has other sides to her, too. I wanted to develop really a full human being if I could.”
Listen to Marianne Boruch read sections 6 and 8 from her title poem “Cadaver, Speak.”
What to hate most: this mummy way they’ve
wrapped our heads, thick wet towels
close, in orbit. Or the distant shock of it
I half love. The pretense that
they’ve blinded us. So they can work, of course,
without our staring back. Work—
first taking down and out what’s left of us,
gristle by gristle, siphon to sprocket, their silver probes
in those empty bits, all new words–myfossa—
is it fossi?–where the edge
of bony things once fit. Only they see
what’s pooled there.
But it galls me–that even my dismemberment’s
so predictable: my back where they little-windowed out
my spinal cord, when the slapstick flip right-side up to shoulder, arm,
hand, on to plot my middle kingdom: liver, spleen,
down to possible, my mother might have said,
shooting me that look.
Nearly a century on Earth gives a person
permission to be crabby
but not an idiot. When people write, I like
sentences that turn sudden,
unexpected. But that
didn’t happen to me. I gave away
then wore out my ending.
When my family talks, the usual blah blah goes on:
Generous. And such a good long run!
But I never ran,
I did go to college. Nothing fancy,
one of those normal schools. I was proud
of that smart enough, up
from the one-room schoolhouse, the old story–
a girl off the farm
sort of a rarity. It wasn’t exactly.
I liked words. I liked
to read–Aesop’s Fables, Housman. Frost by heart,
the story ones especially. I loved metaphor
though nothing’s really like anything else. I loved Trollope
and Dickens. Not Jane Austin–
she lied. Things don’t
mainly end up best though there’s a chance
with better. I taught school some. Didn’t care for that, no.
You have to be bossy. You have to be
certain about stars and how words rhyme, how
dollars cartwheel up and over and again
to make Johnny rich.
I just kept reading.
So what’s this fellow got to say all the time? my husband said,
holding my Frost to his ear, shaking it
like a box a voice might fall out of. You should write
your secrets too!
No secrets, I said. But I
thought about things alone
and eyed my girls like scientists as they grew–
if too much sleep would make them
stupid, if their quarrels were tied to weather, a beautiful day
and its boredom until
the spark and flash
of one simple meanness
bloomed sharp between them, for a change.
Change means: what happens
in secret. I happened, they happened, she he it happens,
a day, then a next day.
Oh to write, the way people do.
The 99-year-old cadaver might have been the poet’s favorite in class, but when Boruch turned her into a character, their relationship changed.
“I began to understand how fiction writers fall in love with their characters and just want to hang out with them. And never want to go eat dinner even — they want to just stay there and keep writing and be in the company of their character.”
During the writing process, Boruch was also surrounded by her class notes and a textbook about dissecting that she claims is similar to the one John Keats used in the 1820s — dissection practices haven’t changed all that much.
That information is apparent in the poem, where she brings in anecdotes from her notes, medical information and quotes from the students. She also brings herself into the piece, referring to herself as “the quiet one.”
“My cadaver likes everyone in the lab but me. She thinks I’m kind of a pain in the ass and sort of too arty and making all these comments all the time.”
Boruch ended up learning a lot about the body, but she also learned a lot about her craft.
“(The faces) were beautiful because they all looked like renaissance drawings, as my ‘quiet one’ says in the piece. Then, (the students) started skinning the faces because they had to do that and working on the head in this way to see the muscle structure and the nerves in the face and so on,” said Boruch.
“That was so alarming to me. I just started making metaphors, as is depicted in the poem. I realized that metaphor had a real function; it was a way to get distance from it, to make it seem bearable. No, they’re not skinning him, they’re shaving his face … Metaphor has a real healing function and I never thought about metaphor like that before. It’s not just ornamental, it really is to take the strange and make it familiar.”
Sections 6 and 8 from “Cadaver, Speak” by Marianne Boruch. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.