Some museums of antiquities store row on row of
unnamed skulls. There is a day of reckoning now
a plea to repatriate lost souls, bring home bones
to territorial rest. Is it surprising the rituals we wrap
round death? Anguish felt at bodies missing, ungraved,
when loss is certain? How many symbolic coffins
have been lowered, wounds eased with the thud
of gentle earth on unimagined emptiness? There is
fierce beauty in a skeleton picked clean as carrion,
a recycling of our elementalness. Here, in this museum,
skeletons catalogued, studied carefully, are unlikely
to raise a court case. Few would want these bones back,
a rickle of deformity. Yet there is beauty in these harp
shapes: curved, sculptural. A spine bent back upon itself,
with vertebrae on which a seraph might make music.
I remember visiting a little girl in hospital, one Sunday,
a steel rod newly planted in her clarsach of a back; by
the next Sunday, stringed melody: for her, hinc sanitas.
Leaving the museum, how fine to see children jostle
for a bus; tall, straight; even their teeth wondrously
aligned, their body temples still unplundered.
Rickle: (Scots) a rickety structure or collection
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.
Skeletons provided the stimulus for this poem: those of people who had suffered from diseases such as tuberculosis or rickets. They were disturbing. However, for me, the tubercular skeletons in particular held a strange beauty.
These ‘remains’ also made me think of the wider cultural issues surrounding how we deal with the presence (and indeed absence) of dead bodies and beliefs associated with the repose of the human soul.
The Latin title, corpus vile, came to me as I contemplated the meaning of the phrase (a useless thing, suitable for experiment); also the juxtaposition of such an idea with the film Bright Young Things based on Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies (1930). The novel and film focus on the decadence of the lifestyle of the period. The contrast to the difficulties faced by people struggling with disability and their courage could not have been starker.
Thanks to the skill of surgeons so much can now be done to treat bone disorders and, more broadly, to help in the prevention of such problems. Hence the more upbeat ending to the poem.