Natasha Trethewey


After a chalk drawing by 
J.H. Hasselhorst, 1864

Whoever she was, she comes to us like this:
    lips parted, long hair spilling from  the table

like water from a pitcher, nipples drawn out
    for inspection. Perhaps to foreshadow

the object she’ll become: a skeleton on a pedestal,
    a row of skulls on a shelf. To make a study

of the ideal female body, four men gather around her.
    She is young and beautiful and drowned—

a Venus de' Medici, risen from the sea, sleeping.
    As if we could mistake this work for sacrilege,

the artist entombs her body in a pyramid
    of light, a temple of science over which

the anatomist presides. In the service of beauty—
    to know it—he lifts a flap of skin

beneath her breast as one might draw back a sheet.
    We will not see his step-by-step parsing,

a translation: Mary or Katherine or Elizabeth
    to corpus, areola, vulva. In his hands

instruments of the empirical—scalpel, pincers—
    cold as the room must be cold: all the men

in coats, trimmed in velvet or fur—soft as the down
    of her pubis. Now one man is smoking, another

tilts his head to get a better look. Yet another,
    at the head of the table, peers down as if

enthralled, his fist on a stack of books.
    In the drawing this is only the first cut,

a delicate wounding and yet how easily
    the anatomist’s blade opens a place in me,

like a curtain drawn upon a room in which
    each learned man is my father

and I hear, again, his words—I study 
     my crossbreed child—misnomer

and taxonomy, the language of zoology. Here,
    he is all of them: the preoccupied man—

an artist, collector of experience, the skeptic angling
    his head, his thoughts tilting toward

what I cannot know; the marshaller of knowledge,
    knuckling down a stack of books; even

the dissector—his scalpel in hand like a pen
    poised above me, aimed straight for my heart.