This analysis on “Anatomy” was written during my second-semester English course called Poetry in the Liberal Arts program. Professor Sue Elmslie was the instructor and the one who encouraged me to submit my essay to the Dawson English Journal. I thank her for inspiring me to continue to work diligently when the pandemic first arrived and my motivation was low. Thank you, Professor Elmslie, for nurturing my love for poetry and for allowing creativity to flow through your class. I am almost at the finish line of the Liberal Arts program and excited to attend university, where my passion for reading and writing will grow.
Mortality and Wisdom in Anne Caston’s “Anatomy”
By Anastasia Paraskevopoulos
The title of Anne Caston’s “Anatomy” carries considerable weight. Anatomy, in the most popular sense, deals with biology concerned with bodily structure in organisms usually revealed through dissection. However, one definition we tend to overlook is the study of the internal mechanisms, the inner workings of an organism. Just as the poem’s speaker is required to excise the internal organs of the cadaver, the poet slices open the concept, or “body,” of mortality with surgeon-like precision to reveal its inner workings. Through her use of imagery, poetic form, and symbolism, the poet explores the fragility of life.
Caston’s “Anatomy” and the rest of her poems in the collection Flying Out With the Wounded derive from her experience as a practical nurse. Her familiarity with hospitals is visible through her vivid description of the speaker’s setting:
I walked to the long, windowed wall / along the back of the Anatomy Lab / and passed myself back and forth / through the dull midwinter afternoon lights watching how the dust motes scattered then closed again behind. / Outside the snow had begun: / the courtyard was a muffle of voices. / In the unlit center of the room, a wheeled / gurney: a cadaver, covered with clear plastic (Caston 2-11)
The description illustrates the loneliness and emptiness of the setting, as there is no one other than the speaker and cadaver present. It also demonstrates the distance between the speaker and the outside world. The window acts as a physical barrier, and the speaker only hears muffled voices drifting inside. The lines set up a gloomy and unsettling calmness as the speaker begins to share their story.
The poem’s form is free verse, which allows it to be read naturally and with fluidity. The form of “Anatomy” allows it to be read like a series of events unfolding in front of the reader’s eyes. It seems more personal, as if the speaker was aiming to intimately tell a personal experience. It could be assumed that the speaker went beyond sharing the experience with the reader, and instead wanted the reader to be the one experiencing the situation firsthand. The form and the constant use of the pronoun “I” allows us to read the poem as if we were reminiscing about a distinct memory. This elucidation suggests that we are all bounded by the same life of ephemerality, as the speaker stands in a place between birth and death.
The poet’s use of subtle symbols in the poem assists in demonstrating the presence of mortality. Once in the supply room, after inadvertently cutting herself on the scalpel —a gesture of curiosity—the speaker of the poem observes that “The closet lifted into long shelves / where fetuses, for as far as I could see, / swam in jars, yellowed, curled in on themselves” (37-39). The fetuses symbolize birth; however, the state that they are in as preserved fetuses embodies and transcends mortality, as they are unaffected by time. The cadaver of the man undeniably represents death, and the speaker is the only source of life in the lab. After being distracted by the fetuses, the door of the supply room closes and the speaker says
I stood there in the crypt-like dark and felt — what? / Felt the silence entering my ear? Felt a corridor opening in me? A corridor like knowing, or the edge of knowing? / Inside me, the seed of the tree of knowledge / took root and began a furious blooming. (41-45)
Traditionally, the tree of knowledge and the eating of its fruit represent a mixture of good and evil released by curiosity. However in the poem, the seed of the tree of knowledge represents a turning point. The speaker, similar to Adam and Eve in the Bible, is innocent and naive about the world she is present in. The blooming of the seed represents the discovery of knowledge, yet as Adam and Eve learn, knowledge comes at a cost. This part of the narrative is bittersweet as innocence is lost, but knowledge is gained. At this point, the speaker is not only exposed to, but is also well aware of her mortality, which is a crucial part of the human condition. Her prelapsarian state is long gone after viewing the cadaver and the fetuses, yet she has gained perspective on how fragile human life really is.
The speaker of the poem describes the deceased as completely “indistinguishable,” which follows a previous point that all humans are tethered to the same cycle of birth, life, and death. An indistinguishable man is the embodiment of the alikeness of humans; we all start and end in the same way, regardless of what occurs in between. While observing the cadaver, the speaker states:
I couldn’t tell clearly where the wound ended and the body began: I ran the seam of my thumb along the long opened seam on the man. / “Here is where we meet,” I told him, / “Here is where we are the same” (59-63).
This last segment of the poem emphasizes the point of humans being kindred. The speaker runs her bleeding, cut-open thumb along the incision of the man, signifying a type of unity under the similar circumstances that they are both cut, literally, and, in a more figurative sense, wounded. The mingling of the blood in some cultures represents the acceptance and the becoming of one family. By touching the cadaver and mixing each other’s blood, the speaker acknowledges that they are one and the same. This acknowledgment could have possibly come as a result of the previous realization of transience.
The poet could have also been practicing ars poetica. Perhaps the entire poem could be some sort of metaphor about discovering the different levels and structures of a poem. At first the speaker neglects to touch the cadaver, stating “I didn’t want to empty him out alone, / piece by piece, his entrails, his heart” (17-18). The speaker seems hesitant, and would rather stay away from the cadaver or have a guide, explaining that “What I wanted was for my friend to arrive, / to take up the instruments and begin the excisions, / the litany of organs. I would label and / bag” (19-21). This statement could be interpreted as the speaker being fearful of delving into poetry (or the state of mind required to gain wisdom) and getting to its roots. Nonetheless, the speaker either musters courage or, out of mere morbid curiosity, approaches and touches the body, facing her fear. She does not shy away from death, which is symbolic of getting to the essence of humanity: our mortality.
Humans tend to live life oblivious to death, seeming invincible to the delicate balance of both life and death until a jolt of near fatality is injected into their existence. A sudden collision with mortality illuminates awareness in the human intellect. Anne Caston’s poem “Anatomy” gifts the reader the wisdom of these internal functions within the human life cycle.
Caston, Anne. “Anatomy”. Course handout, Poetry 603-102-MQ, Prof. Susan Elmslie, Dawson College, Winter 2020. Also published in Flying Out With the Wounded. New York UP, 1997, pp. 3-5.