Marianne Boruch‘s long poem “Cadaver, Speak” first appeared in The Georgia Review in Fall 2010. Below, Boruch speaks about the project from which that poem emerged.
The body—before they opened me—the darkest dark
must live in there. Where color is wasted.
Because I hear them look:
bright green of gallbladder, shocked yellow fat, acreage
flat out under skin. To think I brought this
on myself. . . .
This thirty-page sequence of poems—“Cadaver, Speak”—grew out of a profoundly odd privilege given me in the fall of 2008 by Purdue University, where I’ve taught for twenty-three years. I was awarded the provost office’s “Faculty Fellowship in the Study of a Second Discipline” but, in fact, I had double luck. James Walker of the IU School of Medicine on Purdue’s campus allowed me to participate in his gross human anatomy course (the so-called “cadaver lab”), and Grace O’Brien—artist, and teacher of life drawing at Purdue—said yes, I could join her class, too. I’m still stunned by their goodwill. And grateful to all involved for the chance.
Poems emerging from that remarkable experience are still in progress, as is my exploration of the worlds of medicine and visual art that were opened to me. But a word about these pieces, the first draft of which I wrote during my fellowship the following spring at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, and read there with help from four other residents. Something very strange occurred as the poems came to me. Early in that first draft, one of the cadavers we dissected in Professor Walker’s class insisted on taking over. I didn’t go easily. She nevertheless pushed me aside to speak for herself, to give her take on the dissection and on her long life on the planet before she generously gave her body over so that those doctors-to-be might learn crucial secrets. She has many opinions, it turns out, including not very much liking me—“the quiet one,” the figure in the poems standing in for me—though she seems fine with everyone else. (For my part, I continue to find her good company.)
Meanwhile, I need to say the obvious: though detail and event are directly drawn from what I noticed in both classes, I imagined a great deal, in particular all the personal bits having to do with my wily speaker’s life. So here is the usual disclaimer: any resemblance to the living or the dead is—happenstance, at best. All the real names are changed. As for those doctors-to-be who kindly allowed me among them that long semester in the cadaver lab, seven—along with eight poets enrolled in Purdue’s MFA program in creative writing—joined me for a public reading of this sequence in fall 2009 on Purdue’s campus. That event was triggered by a secret wish I had: to bring together these two remarkable groups, one committed deeply to poetry, one to medicine, all fully equal in grit and passion, imagination and good spirit.
Marianne Boruch’s poems, essays, and reviews have been appearing in The Georgia Review since 1985. Her most recent book of poems, Grace, Fallen from (2008), was released in paperback by Wesleyan University Press in early 2010. Her Poems New and Selected (2004) was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as two Pushcart Prizes. Along with her position at Purdue, she also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College.