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Flesh for Fantasy

Talking to Heather McHugh about her Vesalius essay in Poetry.
"Here's what human matters come to." Samantha Hunt interviews Heather McHugh about the work of 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius and the poetry inscribed in his compendium of illustrations of the human body.
Heather McHugh once placed a Crown Royal bag containing her father’s ashes on a desk in a poetry seminar class at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. “Look,” she told her students, “here’s your big chance. For once I can show you something of mortal moment. Here’s what human matters come to.” She then invited her students to look at, and even touch, what was in the bag. (Only one indulged the offer.)

A reader of McHugh never doubts her familiarity with the stuff of humans. In her seven books of poetry, essay collection (Broken English), and numerous works of translation, one is struck again and again by her powers of observation. She seems, at times, to possess X-ray vision.

In the December issue of Poetry, McHugh turns her gaze toward the work of Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-century anatomist whose atlas, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, was illustrated by Titian’s atelier. Bone, muscle, and nerve mix with language in McHugh’s essay, reminding the reader how both poetry and anatomy aim to reveal the wonders hidden beneath familiarity.

Samantha Hunt: When and how did you first encounter Vesalius’ work?

Heather McHugh: Sometime in the late 20th century, during a brief stint as an escapee from a writers’ conference, I discovered, in a library in Middlebury, Vermont, a huge old edition of the Fabrica.

The plates were enormous. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I couldn’t get my fill. I fell in love—first with the musclemen, and then shortly thereafter, forevermore, with the man of nerve.

Your essay begins with an etymology: autopsy, from the Greek “to see for oneself.” You then suggest an alternative, “seeing into oneself.” Is etymology the poet’s anatomy?

A poet’s anatomy is nothing to write home about.

But the anatomy of poetry, I think, would be prosody or rhetoric. And that is something to write home about.

Language’s orders are of means: grammar and syntax. Its disorders are of meaning.

Etymology is etiology.

You write, “Misprision, judiciously administered, can be indispensable to the protocols of art.” I remember once being tempted to read the etymology of “desire” as “from or of the father.” What are some of your favorite false etymologies?

I meant to refer to the ways in which, line break by line break, the best poems trigger (and then disabuse us of) our own fond expectations. But hell, I love false etymologies too.

I have my own little pas de deux to do with desire.

Deflowering someone, you relieve her of the bloom of her innocence. Desiring someone, then, you get rid of her father.

Your essay is a celebration of the joys of deep observation (whether that be scientific or accidental). Under your studied gaze the word “engraving” does triple duty as the artist’s product, the writer’s penmanship, and the skeleton’s hole-digging. It makes me wonder if Vesalius ever wielded his dissection knife on an eyeball? And if so, what did you see there?

Vesalius did consider the human eye—but his drawings of the eye aren’t as detailed or accurate as his representations of the bonemen and musclemen.

I’ve noticed how lookers like to allude to Un chien andalou (and how a cinematic frame itself, faster than any eyeblink, cuts to the quick of the brain). But an eyeball all alone, on the operating table—well, that’s another kettle of fish. Some dead eyes may be lookers; none are seers.

What’s missing in the glaze on that gaze is a sensual reciprocity beloved of artists. A Titian can make a skeleton seem to ponder or lament, stand or kneel, but he can’t make a slice of eyeball seem to see.

If the artist drew a tear coming from the eyeball, we would mistake it for mere vitreous fluid.

No one word qualifies to be a poem (poetry lies in the relations among words). An eyeball in itself reveals nothing about the quality of human thought or emotion, only at most about its degree (and then only if the pupil shrinks or surges).

A student of sense needs to consult not just the human eye, but its gestural framework—context of brow, and cheek, and mouth. Therefrom will come the uncontainability of human meaning.

Give me two words, I’ll give you War and Peace.

At one point you direct our attention to the tiny letters that Vesalius and Titian used to label their skeleton parts, “as if it were language itself that had eaten the flesh away, as if even now a writer’s pestilence of letters were attacking what is left of this suffering skeleton—the letters having, moreover, a particular taste for ligatures and joints.” Does language attack image? (I think of your own poem, “What He Thought,” about Giordano Bruno and how his wordlessness is what creates such a cutting image.)

In many religious constructions, the word is permitted although the image is not—and the Judeo-Christian too has traces of this preference—Yahweh’s vowels being verboten, and the logos being X’s pen name. . . .

Language is as full of itself as anything: eager to replace, even to displace, the (relative) immediacy of the testimony of the senses . . . the dangerously absorbing immediacy of the senses. Insofar as language is a comfort and a mediation, we grow addicted to the media. (Don’t you love the dict in there?)

Part of what makes the Bruno story so powerful is the shared sense of unspeakable understanding . . . or understood unspeakability . . . no mediators (interpreters, doctrines, pieties, metaphoricians, moralists) can outshout that burning figure. (Was it Mencken who said that a government of moralists is often the most cruel, whereas a government of cynics is the most tolerant?)

Once, at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, I stood before an entire wall of skulls. I was less spooked, more astounded by how foreign this case of craniums seemed to me. In your essay you write, “Our most intimate parts come to the surface unforeseen, like gilled or underwater oddities; we don’t recognize them because we do not know ourselves, no matter how sharp are the scalpels or saws.” And indeed, on further consideration, I felt grateful that my skull and I have not yet met. This preservation of mystery is essential to living. Is it better for the poet to not know everything? To not have devices that look inside living bodies and send back full color images of a beating heart? A breathing lung?

There is no everything, except inside a cranium. (There’s no nothing, either.)

Everything and nothing are fictions—divine fictions—we construct to keep ourselves small.

Everything and nothing are conceived but not knowable (just like ourselves). Imagining they exist is a way of pushing the vastness of the unknowable towards the limits of the mind.

Nor are many things knowable. Nor is anything.

A capacity to consider the extent (the inexhaustible extent) of the unknowable is the chief condition of wisdom. We can’t know most of what’s before us, in a single moment. Undermining the conventions of extent (the vocabularies of content and container) is the job of literary reflection. Wittgenstein is half poet when he says that our lives are endless in precisely the way our visual fields are endless. (Novalis: Poetry cures the wounds inflicted by reason.)


  • Samantha Hunt is the author of two books, The Seas and The Invention of Everything Else, a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla, which will be published February 2008 by Houghton Mifflin.


Flesh for Fantasy

Talking to Heather McHugh about her Vesalius essay in Poetry.


  • Samantha Hunt is the author of two books, The Seas and The Invention of Everything Else, a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla, which will be published February 2008 by Houghton Mifflin.

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