Contempt of Mind VII, Louie Van Patten
Sometimes When I Leave the Lab What's Outside
seems some detail of anatomy still, as if alwaysthe metal gurney underlay the day. A man’s jeansforming two blue veins coursingbeside my bed. The lamp a sharp punctum wherelight spools under the fixture. Street noiseleaking as through a weak wall in the heart.The anatomist’s awe of layers, above all:the five skins between work shirt and rectus abdominishardly different from my skipping flat rocks mindingthe many ways they waft out then fall in,my skyping an old lover of two skins,two apartments back. Of course, the reverseis just as true, like all the brightestlies: in the lab I meet the rest of life, all the worldpacked in one corpse: the body a kind of government,a flame-red senate wrapped in fur. Its provincesall fens and rivers, two-bit hucksters stampingwet-booted outside the commissary store.Out along the farthest limbs, nerves open dovecotesfor the wheeling flocks, homing, homing, home.When I first met my hands, their small largesse,they and I – we three – were amazed.In the lab’s locker room they peeled offmy scrubs, glowed blue with a cold I couldn’tyet feel but knew as mine. Little match girls.Little lights. What is there to loveabout this world without proportion? Impossibleto tell if one body is two, or five; to tellwhether, when I lie under my roof, it’s aboutto slough right off, a wizened epithelium,the raw life lying beneath it tastingthe night as new syrup serum sky.
Tell us about the conception of this poem.
My poems are always fictions, but of course there are warped fun-house reflections of off-the-page life. My first year of medical school, I was spending inordinate amounts of time in the anatomy lab, working on the same cadaver for months. A friend once told me that when you start bird watching in earnest, you suddenly see millions of birds that were invisible to you the day before. Where before you just saw a parking space, a ticket kiosk, a dumpster. In my case, I was leaving the lab and still seeing body parts everywhere. Meanwhile I was in some romantic crisis, so when I peered into the cadaver every little whorl of tissue suddenly looked like a face, a duffel, a cell phone. Everything was simile. Truthfully, I'm glad that phase is over.What are homelands for you, real or imaginary?
Right now I have dual citizenship in the hospital and in sunlit life. I'm currently assisting in the operating room, which may as well be the moon. There are elaborate choreographed rituals to passing through every doorway, and during an operation no part of my skin can come in direct contact with anything in the room. It's very foreign to me. As a child I had an aversion to all things slippery or slimy -- soap, shampoo, ice cream, melted cheese -- so I was always a little dirty and a little hungry. And in my element. Now I spend much of the day far too clean for my taste. Home is where my dog Bonnie is tracking mud and possibly fleas all over the couch, where I'm splattering sauce across the stove top and tucking little scraps of napkins and sugar packets into books to mark my page.How has studying medicine influenced your poetry?
Medicine has many vocabularies, with varying degrees of arcana. Technical terminology is often used for greater precision of communication -- "ecchymoses" and "purpura" are both just plain old bruises, but ecchymoses are bigger -- but occasionally the jargon is deliberately obscurantist, hiding the fact that a doctor or nurse thinks someone is mentally ill, or fibbing, or likely to die. We're trained not to hide behind medical language in a craven or dishonest way, nor to use slang that may come across as callow or cavalier, but I still sometimes catch myself slipping into the wrong register out of laziness or haste. I'm trying to stay alert to the words I form, which can't help but eventually expand and improve my poetry. I hope.What are you currently working on?
At the moment I'm trying to write a little prose, but mainly as a form of espionage. My boyfriend is a fiction writer, and I have no idea what his mental workroom looks like. I see a man tugging at his beard stubble, and then eventually I see a story that he's emailed me. So this is my little Psyche-and-Cupid misadventure of the moment, trying to find out what that process actually looks like in its private brain-quarters.
Otherwise, bashing my head against poems. I'd like them to be funny sometimes, and I'd like more of a sense of momentum and overflow. Please ask your readers to email me with any hot tips.
//When not writing poetry, Laura Kolbe studies medicine at the University of Virginia. Her work has been heard on the public radio program "With Good Reason," featured in the Fralin Museum of Art, and appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Devil's Lake, Shenandoah, and SOFTBLOW.