Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp: Amsterdam, 1632

by Linda Bierds

High winter. All canals
clogged with an icy marrow. And the flax—
just a blue wash in the mind of
the painter who puffs up the tower stairs.
It is the time for festival—Aris Kindt
is hanged. And soon

up through these same stairs, up
to the slope-seated deal and chesnut
Theatrum Anatomicum, the surgeons will come:
Mathys and Hartman, Frans, Adriaan,
three Jacobs, then the bleaders and barbers,
the wheelwrights, needle-makes, goldsmiths,
the potters and sculptors, two
thin-chested harehounds. A lesson!
A dissection! All the reverent, mercantile faces
peering off through the scaffolds

that are now just empty,
just a deal and chestnut funnel tapered down
to a corpse:
----------------Aris Kindt. Quiver-maker.
One necklace of rope-lace curled under his ears—
while over his body, the shadow of a painter’s hat
circles, re-circles, like a moth at a candle.

So this is fresh death, its small, individual teeth.

Rembrandt walks past the breechcloth, then the forearm
soon to split to a stalk that would be grotesque
but for its radiance: rhubarb tendons
on a backdrop of winter. He swallows,
feels the small dimplings of lunch pork

drop away. And here will be Tulp,
his tweezers and white ruff. And here,
perhaps Hartman, perhaps the shadow of
a violet sleeve closing over the death-face.
It is commissioned: eight faces
Forever immortal, and one—slightly waxen—
Locked in mortality! He smiles.
How perfect the ears, and the pale eyelids

drawn up from the sockets
like the innerlids of pheasants. Just outside a window,
the day has climbed down to the amber color
of this candlelit room. Rembrandt turns,
crosses out the sponges and vessels.
There is the sputter of wagon wheels through a fresh ice,
and in all the storefronts
torches hang waiting for a pageant—

scarlet blossoms for a new spring.

His room has turned cold with the slow evening.
Far off in a corner
is a canvas clogged with the glue-skin of rabbits—a wash
of burnt umber, and the whites
built up, layer by layer.
Now a fire, the odor of beets.
And here, where the whites buckle, will be Tulp,
perhaps Mathys, their stunned
contemplation of death. He touches a spoon,

then a curve of plump bread. All across his shoulders
and into his hairline winds a little chill,
thin and infinite, like a thread-path
through the stars:
------------------------there will be umber
and madder root, yellow ochre, bone-black,
the scorch of sulfur, from
the oils of walnut and linseed—all things of the earth—
that forearm, that perfect ear.


This is Bierd's first historical persona poem. It was inspired by a visit to the Seattle Art Museum. While there, one of the tour guides started discussing the pigments used in the paint and Bierds was taken by the natural.

The Wikipedia article on the painting is interesting.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp: Amsterdam, 1632
by Rembrandt van Rijn

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