I am fascinated by this 16/17th century world of anatomists that you write about in The Anatomy Theater. How did you come across all these books? Why did/do you find them so intriguing? How do you feel about these anatomists, are they scientists or just classy Jack the Rippers? Who was Andreas Vesalius? Could you give us a sense of the Renaissance anatomical scene?
During the Renaissance, centers of anatomical study crop up in cities all over Europe, anatomists perform dissections in amphitheaters open, not only to medical students, but to the general public, and anatomists circulate illustrations which have a remarkable resemblance, as Valerie Traub has pointed out, to the pornography of the period. Rendered with beards and full heads of hair, the people in these illustrations are splayed on dissecting tables; or they tear open their own abdomens with their bare hands; and, strangely alive, they take a knife to their own flesh and flay themselves to exhibit what had, until recently, laid hidden: the interior of the body. In each case the dramatic narrative of the picture shows that the body has been rendered permeable so that, with our sight, we can enter it.
These anatomical drawings -- unlike any illustrations from the previous era -- evidence an interest in transgressing the body's boundaries. Popular "flap anatomies" widely circulate. Reproducing for the lay audience the experience an anatomist has opening and entering the body, the spectator can lift paper flaps from the drawing's surface so that he may see into the body cavity. Anatomists and their hired artists produce series of anatomical drawing which simulated the progression of a dissection. In a strange strip-tease, the body in these drawings is progressively "undressed," layer after layer of tissue removed to reveal the muscles, arteries, abdominal cavity and finally the skeleton. As Andreas Vesalius' "musclemen" flex their excoriated bodies for our gaze and Charles Estienne's women sprawl in their boudoirs, thighs and abdomen splayed that we might see their generative organs, the body in Renaissance Europe has become penetrable and public. It has like the anatomy theater itself, become a space for public spectacle. The body -- highly theatrical, exhibitionist -- becomes a dramatic locus, a stage, on which contradictory ideologies are enacted.
These anatomical illustrations fascinate me for what they say about the culture which produced them, for what they say about science, about art, about modern medicine and about those of us who look at them. These illustrations are complex, contradictory and stirring, because the issues they touch on are so central to us: death, salvation, decomposition, transcience, gender, love, healing, sexuality, violence, knowledge, science, power and beauty, to name those that come to mind. I wrote the first section of The Anatomy Theater in response to these images, hoping to enter the images from multiple perspectives, aligning the poems' voices variously, with the anatomist, the artist, the viewer, or the dissected. As the book progressed, and I left the Renaissance anatomists, the subjects of poems in the subsequent three sections of the book varied widely, from issues of my own health, to meditations on paintings of different time periods, to poems imagining the death of Renaissance poet, John Donne. I found, nonetheless, that similar preoccupations rose through the poems, issues of how, through various practices, we glean information of the body. I think of the book's title, The Anatomy Theater, as pointing, not only, as it does in the first section, to the literal site of Renaissance anatomical learning, but also to the many anatomical theaters, the many theaters of the body, those structures of thought -- religious, artistic, medical -- through which we understand the body.