Smaller than you imagined.
More like your idea of a dog’s.
You cup it softly. Your thumb fidgets
over the fissure of a temporal lobe.
You lift it up to the side of your head
and picture your own firing in there –
If you were to lob it against the wall,
would it crumble or shatter
or liquefy or combust or bounce
back into your hands, intact?
When she (sixty-six, Caucasian, lymphoma)
donated it to science, was this the promised
afterlife? You consider biting into it
as you would a peach – and, were it not
for the bleach-like stench of toxic preservative
In ten years’ time you will think
what a privilege it was to hold that brain,
brim-filled with tomato soup recipes and original sin
and the smells of late summer and oboe lessons
and self-taught Italian and the night sky:
The Plough, The Great Bear, The Big Dipper.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2019. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2019 was Roseanne Watt.
There is a wonderful empathy at work in this poem, and that squeamish image of biting into a brain as though it were a peach is particularly brilliant. I loved the parallels drawn between the subject and its speaker, with both reaching new dimensions of meaning by the poem’s final lines. There is also a nice synergy here between the scientific language of inquiry and the poetic imagination, where neither are subordinate to the other; both require the same sense of curiosity, and both are necessary in the process of growth and understanding that this poem follows.
‘Neuroanatomy Practical’ recalls a memory of studying neuroscience at the University of Manchester. The poem explores the tension in the duality of the brain as both an inert lump of organic material and a vessel that holds a lifetime of experience. I was awestruck that the University entrusted me, a typically buffoonish undergraduate, to handle an object so delicate and precious. As a bodily organ, the brain is something ubiquitous, and yet, to cradle one, to probe at its unique secrets, to project my own mortality onto its dormant physicality was magical and utterly arresting.