April is National Poetry Month, so Lofty Ambitions welcomes poet Leslie Adrienne Miller to the Guest Blog spot today.
We met Leslie when she was on a panel about research and writing across the genres that Doug organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Anna had read and appreciated The Resurrection Trade and, though she and Leslie had never met, encouraged Doug to contact her because there was clearly a lot of research behind the poems in that book. We were especially interested because the research blurred the distinction between science and art. The anatomical images were fascinating and the way Leslie talked about their role in her research and writing made for a good conference talk, which she’s adapted for our blog.
Leslie Adrienne Miller is the author of six poetry collections, including Y, which is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012. She teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
SCIENCE MEETS ART MEETS POETRY
Many of the poems in my collection The Resurrection Trade are ekphrastic pieces on anatomical images of women gleaned from archival materials. Initially inspired by my reading of Natalie Angier’s Woman, An Intimate Geography, where I first encountered the history of medical constructions and images of the female body (for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical works and the Hippocratic corpus), I became interested in the way misunderstandings about female anatomy persist long after science has presumably corrected them. These misunderstandings offered paradoxes that poetry could reframe in interesting ways.
Angier’s book led me to other, more detailed histories of art, anatomy and midwifery in Europe from the medieval period through the 19th century, historical depictions of pregnancy and the female body in art and science of the periods, advancements (so to speak) in female anatomy, and fascinating works on “the Resurrection Trade,” the business of grave robbing and its impact on the lives of women and families in 18th century Europe. I also made use of online image collections at libraries of medical history: the Bibliothèque de L’Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris (which allowed me to spend valuable time with an original edition of Gautier D’Agoty’s amazing Anatomie des parties de la generation, 1773, from which portions of my title poem are drawn); the Wellcome Library in London, the National Library of Medicine’s “Dream Anatomy” Exhibition (from which the cover image comes), the Clendening Library in Kansas City, the Anatomia Collection at Fisher Medical Library in Toronto, the Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière Museum at the Paris Institut d’Anatomie, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, to name a few.
Ludmilla Jordanova in her book Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries writes that “medicine bears an especially ambivalent relationship to the public/private dichotomy, in being rooted in the latter yet making claims in the former, a situation that explains the predisposition in medical writings and representations to the breaching of taboos” (52). When I read this passage, I understood clearly why this subject is so potent for poetry: poetry too has to navigate that odd dichotomy of public and private: forged in the intimacy of an individual’s mind, a poem, like an anatomical illustration, is a private act destined for a public audience, at once shockingly intimate and deliberately public.
The Resurrection Trade evolved with a focus in the 18th century where I found the real crux of the issues to reside in medical constructions of sexuality. It is the period of the enlightenment in Europe that brings anatomical studies completely into the same frame, historically, with issues of gender that interested me. It is also during the 18th century that the medical care of women passed largely from midwives, women themselves, into the hands (literally) of male doctors. Gross misunderstandings of female anatomy (comical and tragic) persisted well into the 20th century, and the seeds of these misunderstandings still reside in contemporary cultural constructions of women, as I hope the poems demonstrate via my juxtaposition of 20th century notions and ideas with those of earlier periods. I chose very specific stories and details to get at larger interdisciplinary issues: namely the intercourse, and/or lack thereof, between art and science, medical practice and science, and the history of gender construction as we find it written on the collective body of women.
In addition to Angier’s and Jordanova’s books, others that led very directly to poems in this collection included Elmer Belt’s Leonardo the Anatomist; Bynum and Porter’s William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World; Robert Dickinson’s (delightfully odd) Human Sex Anatomy: A Topographical Hand Atlas; Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany; and Nina Rattner Gelbart’s The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. The poems borrow freely from these sources and, I hope, serve as invitations to the reader to seek out these authors.
Antique medical drawings offer interest at so many levels: as the productions of working fine artists, they say something about art; as the tools of medical professionals, they say something about how we came to understand the physicality of the female body; as images which necessarily were almost always accompanied by text, they also have much to say about language[s]: hence my deliberate (mis)translations of notes in French accompanying the drawings, notes which seemed to say much more than the authors intended and, in combination with the images, allow us to look again at how science, art, and language itself have been co-conspirators in the construction of gender in the West. I’m certain there is more to learn and say and see in this area of study, but I intend the poems to offer a way in, to invite readers to indulge their own curiosity and collect their own idiosyncratic bodies of knowledge.
To view Dream Anatomy at the National Library of Medicine, click HERE.