In which river did the fish swim
that mistook for a fly a hook on a line
so drew its last, that a silver blade
could pare from its flesh its still fresh
weed-green skin, to be cured
then eased around this little case,
which contains the doctor’s
shoal of fleams, and the keen one
he’s pressing now to your inner arm,
so a mere flick opens a vein
About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
There are many wonders and sadnesses in the Playfair Museum, so I was myself surprised that the object I best remembered, and which I wrote about, was an elegant little fishskin case. Two things caught in my mind: one, almost all the items in the Museum are exposures: we see body-parts usually secreted away within. The case is, however, intended to contain – or hide – other objects. The case is a sort of body. A body wrapped in skin.
And it contains fleams, the blades used for ‘bleeding’ patients. So here was an instance where a dissection had been carried out – removing the skin from a quick, deft creature, a fish – to make a case to contain the blades for cutting skin, as if some vestige of sympathetic magic were at work.