The Gross Clinic

By Carol Frost

I have a sister who takes care of animals, whose artistry is flesh

and blood mixed in with a dream or more
she tries to give her son. He cuts school and drinks with his friends
in the scrub woods behind the school. He thinks he wants to be an
he thinks the poems he writes are portions of his unmixed spirit.
His habits of mind aren’t settled, ossifying so slowly for many of us,
we can’t know, and no one can tell him anything about cigarettes,
bad drugs, his fragile mortal spiral.
He can’t cry anymore—it’s the wrong style of feeling—,
and he only half knows that like his mother he will have to descend
before he can break into nakedness, as if from the warmed surface
of loam, from slug-soft matter that breathes or suppurates.
My nephew Samuel has the same name as the son of the famous
Dr. Gross, painted by the American realist Thomas Eakins.
Samuel chugs gin, takes his tokes, and helps his mother with preps—
a Betadine swabbing, “like a ritual,” out from the site of the incision.
He confuses his mother. In this poem I want to try to stand
at their shoulders in the clinic. I think I could come near to swooning
from the obscene odor in the air, but I can try to imagine
something beyond the surgery, the fur and the glistening
blood, and I wouldn’t leave them.
The flight of gray gulls over the bay
accompanied my early wrestling with flesh, “Blue Suede Shoes”
playing on the radio in my parents’ house.
The fluency, then, of hands and lips threw seeds of a sweeter
and more luxuriant fluency when I was thirty.
Then I believed in the beauty of Helen
and sometimes, as the fullest truth, in the colored clouds
above apple trees full of blossoms and the reddened fruit afterwards.
In the end, of course, the fruit turns to mash, and wasps
burrow drunkenly in the meat no longer crisp.
There is a terrible beauty in the speeches of Nestor
after Agamemnon has called out the spirit of his army
by inviting them to go home. Imagine the sober tones
of the generals and the old king, his face a lifelong gallery
of portraits, grizzled hair an aura, as he faces
them with his counsel. From his lips a kind of honey
mixing with the bitterness of those two quarreling.
He asks them for their mettle, earth born, and leans,
foreshortened, his robe exposing a scarred and whitened chest.
A vignette of what we cannot learn, or outlast.
One who loves earth and the sun and animals
stands over the necrotic thigh of a wolfhound
with scapel and rongeur, a patina of antiseptic
reddening the bare skin around the wound. The odors are a mixture
of rotted flowers and fruit and the beautiful blood oozing from an
above a honeycomb of maggots, swollen, moving.
If you can bear to stand close and look closely at the dissection,
you will feel your own stomach turn and your nerves
grow a little cleaner, and you may feel puzzled how a person
would want to know that much anatomy.
Wasn’t it like this for Michelangelo?
This lesson of body? And the artist’s revulsion, someone trying
to look beyond heroic contours of ruined flesh—
softness of hip and buttocks—into the serum of spirit?
This flesh and that muscle, and tinted spring forests, and mausoleums.

This Poem Features In: