The Misses Nelly to the Burgess surgeon!
This very night, a performance
Of dissection – flexing leg, belly, supple loin and eye – each one
Separated, given name, place
This husk, raised from the cold necropolis
By the hand of a lover ghoul,
A bridge of tetany, nude again
Beneath the proscenium of bone
A pretence of priesthood
Black robes, watchers of the dead
From secret vaults ‘neath the chirurgeon’s hearth
The stench of whisky billows
Ah, Nelly, Nelly!
Thy sweet scent hovers in the attic laboratory
The perfect geometer of thy span
Gleams like a moon
Thy hand, woven now in a darkening web
Once caressed another’s cheek
And played the spinet
In a drawing-room gone
Into light and dust
Gentlemen! The first cut will be made by the Kirk-Maister!
Voltaic pile, chirurgery on a speck, gas dreams,
Spine arches, bone-upon-bone
Fists bunch and quiver as though to embrace a fire
Eyelids spring open, a terrified ecstasy
She lives again!
Now, Master Barber, now
Commence your thrift
In flashes of light and song
And spring-loaded blades –
But will Nelly reveal her secrets?
Poised thus above the oak table
I remember! These feet, lips, fingers once
ran on rough loch ground
winced a little, in breath,
tapped out chords of the spirit
Dust symphonies, numinous flesh
Together, through the skins of our lives
We laughed at death
These hazel eyes,
Bathed in alchemical glass
Roll’d now smooth ‘twixt finger and thumb
A frisson of darkness in space
Behind, is nothing
Love is not eternity
In the grog-shop, the Great Doctor Liston
Can amputate a limb in thirty-three seconds!
One, two, three.
Gone, her left leg
Four, five, six.
Away, her right arm
Seven, eight, nine.
Her torso, swung like wet paper on a spit
I run through the night
Down alleyways unmapped
Past the ruined chapel
Where the bodies, newly-hung
I fancy, scream in the wind:
Guilty Ned, thy time is nigh!
Behind me, in flesh’d ranks,
The clowns of the Anatomy Hall
The opened necks of lovers, drawn, pinned, articulated in cases
of wood and glass
Rocked and swooned in noddies over the wild road
Sped through the moonless quantabulum
Through a dark gate, and at last, I have found her!
Nelly, risen moon
Wanders, lost, in the surgeon’s physic garden
Leans with a sigh ‘gainst Flodden wall
Twirls between phalanges the stem of a thistle
I reach out my white hand
Ah, my love!
Beneath the thinned voile, thy hair is finer, thy skin colder
than I remember
When last I slipped the cleik around thine ankle, laid
The pitch softly ‘pon thy lips
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.
We had a whole human body to dissect over a period of eighteen months. As the corpus of our knowledge slowly grew, the corpse before us steadily shrank. In those days (the early 1980s) we were encouraged not to wear gloves. As a teenage medical student, cutting up, pulling apart and examining every last millimeter of this body, spending more time in intimate contact with it than I had spent with any other being, it began to dawn on me that the flesh beneath my fingers, the brain half-floating in the glass jar, was actually a person who had given permission for me to dissect her in this manner and that for me this was an unimaginable privilege. In spite of the thousands of living bodies that I have examined and treated over the years since, this one corpse – her smell, her texture, the sounds and shadows of her slow dismemberment – lingers most powerfully in my memory, in the prints of my fingers. I never knew her name, nor the slightest detail concerning her life, yet after meeting her, I was never able to view the human body, or life, in the same way again. In a sense, her humanity had been stolen. But she took my innocence.
Visiting the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh I was viscerally reminded me of that time, but also I was fascinated by the exhibits and the manner in which those random segments of human flesh, drawn now into an existence beyond the temporal, ironically had become inseparable from the brain-pans of the long-deceased barbers, surgeons and anatomists – entire dynasties of them – who had plied their seeping, stinking trade amongst the ghouls and mistresses of Auld Reekie. And this, to the benefit of us all.
Ned Black was a grave-robber and murderer. Nelly was his erstwhile mistress. In death as in life, in word if not in deed, we continually attempt to dissect one another, yet still, we must return to that which we know. And we know nothing.