Poetry Fiction 2008

Sketchbook

     Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1635

Because so often he has entered the body,
its torso, freshly sanitized, its legs and arteries,
the red curve on the under-chin executed so deftly
by the hangman’s rope; because he has entered
the forearm and cortex, the lobes and hidden
vortices, deeper, then deeper, until what remains—
shallow, undissected flesh—seems simple lines,
their one dimension shadowless;
and because he is tired and has been himself
a subject,

     Tulp crumples his page, then tries again
to sketch his caged orangutan. Placid, insouciant,
the animal slips its shallow glances upward,
downward, from the white-ruffed shape shaping it
to the lap and simple page, as the first lines quicken
and a ratted brow begins. There a nostril,
and there a shadowing, a depth that plumps
the cheek pouch, the finger’s wrinkled
vortices. Slumped at their separate walls, neither
meets the other’s eyes,

     although, equally, each
completes the circling gaze—man to beast to page
to man: two pelt-and-pipesmoke-scented curves,
dimensionless, mammalian. Tick by tick
the minutes pass, page by crumpled page.
Beyond the door, caws and yelps and the clack
of carriage wheels … and still they sit,
Tulp, the ape, content to see the shapes
they’ve known—or felt, or sensed, or turned within—
sloughed in husks across the straw.

Linda Bierds's volume of new and selected poems, Flight, will be published this fall. She teaches at the University of Washington.
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