Exposing a Heart, Does The Surgeon Think of Love?
[The Surgeon, painted in 1952 by British realist Irene Blake, has hung in the same alcove at the British Museum for three decades.]
When you left, I wanted quiet,
Craved it the way some women
Want French chocolates or a second home
In Knightsbridge. So I ran each day
To silence, as far as the Circle Line
Could take me, to Bloomsbury
And the British Museum.
I took my Das Kapital, my sorrow
And your German dictionary and climbed
To a back alcove and a single leather chair.
I read and waited, leaning forward to listen
To no sounds at all.
When the mornings were cold again,
I began to notice things,
Like an invalid who one day
Surprises herself by showing some interest.
I looked finally at the picture
Above my head. It made me smile at first:
Five hunched figures in an operating room,
Bunched around a slab of table
Like wallflowers at a crystal punch bowl.
But not The Surgeon. Knife in hand,
He’s the scene’s bright center, a candle
Burning to completion. Candle hands
Betraying passion, tapering fingers
Extended in precise and knowing faith.
Day after day, I watch those hands
Cut into a human heart.
I see the scalpel lift bits of history:
Small betrayals, tiny rifts,
Blood red sorrow scraped clean away.
My Surgeon whistles Lohengrin
And Heals hearts whole of you.
While in college at Berkeley, I befriended Trey, a young lover of verse. He studied English at a university in Tennessee and is now a minister in the United Methodist Church. One winter night, we got drunk on red wine and read e.e. cummings to each other. My volume of the Complete Poems still bears rose-colored stains on some of its pages.
Trey sent this poem to me in California with an inscription on the back, written in faint green marker and cummings-like font: “this poem is so ana…i read it and thought immediately of YOU!”
Through all of my schools, travels, and phases, I have never let go of this poem. I don’t talk to Trey anymore, but I treasure his gift. It is a photocopy, typewritten and duplicated with lines and creases from a Xerox or mimeograph machine. A single whole punctures the top center, revealing its former place on my bulletin board.
The author’s name is conspicuously absent. I’ve always assumed that the poem was written by a former student who’d studied abroad in London. In my mind’s eye, I saw this poem passed around by generations of impressed English professors.
When Trey said this poem was “me,” he was referring to Marx and the German dictionary. He was also probably alluding to my love of art.
But I love this poem, ten years later, because of its language and form. I love its lack of stylized meter and rhyme, revealing a humbly defiant ability to flow with innate diction and pace. Most of all, I love the careful details describing a decadent, heartbroken ritual of retreat.
I, too, have used public transit to go and sit with a favorite painting like an old friend. I’ve never known the luxury, though, of treating one as the backdrop for some reading. I know a fellow who flees to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to do just this. With his student identification card from Columbia University, he gets in for free, finds a seat to curl up in and reads, wandering tourists notwithstanding. The only public places where I’ve felt comfortable enough to curl are Californian cafés and empty church sanctuaries.
When the building housing Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum was threatened with removal, one voice objected, claiming the museum as “his church.” It occurs to me now, after an umpteenth reading, that the British Museum, too, is this poet’s church.
Published in The Penwood Review, vol. 12, number 2, Fall 2008 issue. ISSN 1092-5155. www.penwoodreview.com
Copyright © 2007 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.