Nadine Sabra Meyer
The Anatomy Theater
Harper Perennial, 2006
Some TV shows came to mind with regard to what this book has. For those who remember
The living would give anything,
to know what the dead know,
to lift the pall
of flesh and find more than a charnel house…
This segment, from Dissection Prayers, at first seems a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “the truth the dead know,” but Meyer goes beyond that in this, her first collection. Each of the poems is written after a series of artworks. The book opens using the striking, grisly, and often whimsical anatomical prints of the 16th and 17th centuries, moving on to Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs and then on to a photograph of the speaker’s own surgically-removed endometriotic ovary. The lithographs and woodcuts the first section’s poems are based on are often disturbing in their whimsicality: partially-dissected cadavers going on walks or leaning against pedestals in pastoral landscapes, skeletons teaching lessons on anatomy, or cherubs taking body parts to the boiling tub for maceration. This wondrous and darkly humorous quality is well-executed by Meyer, speaking in timeless language that holds true for the most part. Occasionally it gets a bit too florid, as in Dissection Prayers’s final lines: “…their prayers/ are the susurrations of the cicada/ sloughing its shell.” or “The ice-grip stop-clenching your heart’s rondure” in the final poem of the collection, John Donne on His Deathbed. Aside from these minor instances, Meyer bypasses ornateness and goes for the greatly human. “In two hands, you carry yourself to doctors,” she writes in The Paper House, “offering up the body on a metal table, a steel shelf, a plate./ / You lay out the thing sick and invisible,/ and they look at you like you’re beautiful.” Like the early anatomists, these doctors are—as is Meyer, too, no doubt—fascinated with the machinery of the body, its toughness and fragility.
Meyer keeps the body pinned firmly to the center of each poem, first as something passive, something to be taken apart, decomposed, then as an active entity. The individual sections of the book cohere to the point that the whole collection could be seen as one long poem, as with Glück’s The Wild Iris. Across the collection, images recur, some of which are quite effective; the hoisting of a cadaver by rope and pulley, suspended from facial bones by hooks for the observers in the gallery, becomes the subject for a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph, suspended by her teeth and spinning up to the trapeze. Others tend to be a bit more artificially placed, such as the case in Dancing at the Moulin Rouge, which begins in 1895, only to have a “plastic ring/ spun across the bar/ between forefinger and thumb.” Such an instance of anachronism jars the reader out of the poem, but this is a minor item in light of Meyer’s achievement here, which is great; unflinching, dark, and hopeful, where “in the steam of the newly-killed something like sound, like thought” might rise. Among other 16th century plates not used by Meyer is an old engraving, a portrait of Vesalius. The great anatomist is pictured looking toward the viewer, the fingers of his left hand curled around a flayed forearm; reading it, no doubt, like Braille. Meyer presents to us a tough and wonderfully unified collection; an illustration of the beauty that rises from the body’s text.