Whether for convenience or propriety he hands me the sheet of paper neatly folded in half, precise in everything he does. The hands, I notice, are spotlessly clean. The page opens smoothly to reveal his handiwork, which I will not yet bring myself to admire. And there you are, neatly, painstakingly eviscerated in front of me, your body carefully separated out into discrete packages of pathology, weighed, graded and wrapped in poetic descriptions of post-mortem lividity and non-specific venous congestion. He offers me the dual comforts of quick and painless. The evidence, he says, points to unconsciousness and he begins to explain the phenomenon of fine froth in the larynx. Meanwhile, I feel the need to reassemble you - heart (386g), lungs (left 772g & right 761g), liver (2104g), brain (1532g) - a desperate, hopeless puzzle that brings no relief. Still I have nothing. So I fold you back together and bury you inside my pocket with this one phrase haunting me: The body is that of a tall, lean, muscular young man...
This week I present you with a particularly moving and personal poem and I have a lot to say about it, so I suspect this edition of PotW might run on a bit. I hope it will be worth it.
The background to the poem is as follows. On the 7th of August, 1998, my brother, Mark, died in a mountaineering accident. He was hiking through the snow, high up on the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand, when a snow bridge across a hidden crevasse collapsed and he fell through. By the time the other members of his party were able to reach him, he was already dead, suffocated beneath the snow and ice that had landed on top of him.
He was cremated exactly one week later, after a lovely funeral service in which various people, including my father, made speeches. Several people who knew I wrote poetry asked if I would consider writing something for the service, and although I would have loved to, I knew I was in no state, physically or emotionally, to be able to produce anything at such short notice that would have done justice to Mark, or the way I felt about him, so I reluctantly refused.
Once I was back home however, (I was living in Finland at the time) I did write a couple of poems quite quickly, and these are now beautifully printed and framed on a wall in my parents’ house. Even if I hadn’t been able to produce them in time for the funeral, I was still pleased – and a little relieved – to have been able to add my own small contribution to Mark’s memory.
But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to write something better, something more powerful, something I would be able to look at in years to come and be proud of, knowing that it did justice to that wonderful, funny, exciting person who had been my big brother. Yes, there had been a fair amount of hero worship while he was alive, and I saw no reason why this should stop just because he had.
The catalyst for this epic unwritten poem was provided a little while later, when my father shared with me a copy of the autopsy report from the coroner in New Zealand. For those of you who haven’t ever read an autopsy report, they make for difficult reading. In part this is because they’re necessarily full of technical jargon and presented in this matter-of-fact, no-nonsense way that means very little to the uninitiated, but also because an autopsy report is an intensely personal and intimate glimpse into someone else’s life…or death. And it was for this reason that I thought long and hard before deciding to write something based on the information in the report.
Mark was a doctor, and had spent a significant portion of his life studying, and practicing, medicine. Studying and practicing and practicing and studying. And so many exams. Mark, it turns out, was not great at exams, but he was so determined he wanted to be a doctor that he revised like a maniac for about ten solid years and managed to pass every test the medical establishment threw at him.
So the idea that first came to me was to see the autopsy report as just another in the long line of exams Mark had been required to take in his career. And based on the results, and the examiner’s report, he seemed to have passed with flying colours. This was summed up by the opening line of the report, which is both unbelievably sad, but also – in its own way – somewhat flattering… “The body is that of a tall, lean, muscular young man.” As epitaphs go, that one was not bad.
I still have all my early notes and drafts for this poem, and it’s interesting to see how often these words appear – mostly at the start, rather than at the end where they finished up.
This is not a poem, it is the body of a tall, lean, muscular young man.
I also tried several ideas where I wrote from Mark’s point of view.
In some ways you could say I have spent my whole life preparing for this moment. After this, there will be no more exams.
And this one was an idea I stuck with for quite a while. The next page of my notes is quite neatly written out, which usually means I think the poem is nearly done. And it even has a title.
End of Term In many ways, it's just another test like all those others along the way only shorter, over well before the panic has had time to set in. And then that's it - I'm done. Nothing now but to sit back and wait for the results to come in. And the results come in as follows... Heart: 386g Lungs: left 772g & right 761g Liver: 2104g Spleen: 183g Kidneys: left 160g & right 157g Brain: 1532g And the examiner's report begins: "The body is that of a tall, lean, muscular young man..." I'd say that was a good pass.
I liked the basic idea, but it didn’t have the tone I was looking for. It was almost comical, and while humour was not necessarily out of the question, it just didn’t seem to be working here. An autopsy report is many things, but a-laugh-a-minute really isn’t one of them.
I also realised I didn’t feel comfortable writing it from Mark’s point of view – not because I felt it was wrong, or not sufficiently respectful or anything, but because writing a poem from the point of view of a dead person begs so many questions I felt it was detracting from the basic message I wanted to convey. So I went back to writing it from an external point of view, and I also tried to row back on the humour a little, going for more sad and less funny.
Finals Another exam. But rumour has it this will be the last. A little bit different from all the others, some simple weights and measures, collected, analysed, appraised, but it all comes down to pass or fail - there's no resitting this one.
But now there was no mention of the autopsy report itself, and that was the whole point of writing it in the first place. I didn’t just want to write a poem about how this was a final exam, I wanted to show – if possible – how a document that was was so cold and technical could also be a thing of beauty. It was a big ask, and I honestly wasn’t sure I was up to the task, but this, I realised, was the poem I wanted to write. So back I went to the drawing board…
My next big idea was to directly tie in the different paragraphs of the report with the different parts of the body, and I have several pages-worth of bits and pieces to show I was working through this for quite some time.
They have taken your body and cut it up into neat little paragraphs, carefully laid out down the page. They have taken your body apart and presented it to me in neat little paragraphs, carefully laid out down the page like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This is not a poem, it is your body, broken down into neat little paragraphs and carefully laid out down the page.
I was happy with general idea, and happy with the move away from writing it from the dead person’s point of view. But I didn’t want to make it too impersonal, and the obvious compromise was to write the poem from my own point of view, but to address it to Mark directly. Talking to a dead person is so much easier than talking as one.
From this point on my scribbles begin to bear more and more resemblance to the finished product and there are certain words and phrases which appear at this point and make it all the way through. I also settled on a title, Curriculum Mortem, which I thought suited my purposes quite well until I checked to see if it had been used before and discovered a crime novel with the same title. Obviously there’s no rule that says I can’t use the same title, but the fact it was already out there did put me off.
Curriculum Mortem I open up the sheet of paper to find you, carefully, painstakingly eviscerated in front of me. Line by line they have dismantled you, weighed and measured you, then gathered you up into neat paragraphs and sewn you back together with barely a mark on you.
At this point, the big issue for me was to make it longer. I felt like this was going to be an important poem for me, and so it needed to be one I could submit to competitions or journals. Although there is generally no lower limit to length in most competitions, most have an upper cut-off of about 40 lines, and I rarely see a winning poem that isn’t fairly close to this so I decided that’s what I would aim for. But how to find the length without stretching the central idea beyond reasonable?
My first idea was to return to the list of organs and their weights. This was the ‘results’ section of the report and though they mean nothing to me personally, I’m sure someone who knows about these sorts of things might find them interesting. But more importantly, they are so intensely personal that sharing them was the best way I could think of to give the poem the emotional punch I was looking for.
I also wanted to include some of the medical phrases which occur in the original report. Sometimes medical language can seem almost poetic by itself, and I remembered having read a wonderful collection of poetry several years before in which the author had included various medical phrases throughout. It had impressed me at the time, and I wondered whether I could possibly do something similar. The book in question, by the way, was Vanishing Lung Syndrome, by Miroslav Holub. I reread it recently, and it’s just as excellent as I remembered it being.
My first attempts to include the medical phrases seemed a bit contrived, however, and after a bit of thought I decided to introduce the character of the pathologist, who would be a more plausible source for the technical explanations that me. He could be the one to hand me the report, to explain the findings and perhaps also to be a calm and rational counterbalance to my more emotional narrator.
And at that point the poem was basically finished. I rewrote a little bit at the end to take out a hint of humour that was still lingering in the section about reassembling the body, and I went through a series of different titles over the following few weeks – or even months. Curriculum Mortem was abandoned in favour of 98/5123 Asphyxia (the number being the reference on the top of the original document) and that was quickly replaced by the more straightforward, The Report. I stuck with this for quite a while, but in the end I felt it was too weak, and it was as if I was trying to hide what the poem was really about until the readers could work it out for themselves. But it wasn’t that sort of poem. I wanted it to be uncomfortable reading right from the start, so I called it what it was, The Autopsy Report.
I have never spent so much time writing a single poem. Or writing anything for that matter, including my novels. From tentative start to eventual finish was somewhere in the region of ten years. Obviously I didn’t spend the entire time rewriting, but nor was I writing anything else in the meantime. Whenever I did decide to sit down and write, there was always this thing hanging over me and I felt as though any spare creative energy I had should be spent finishing off this particular poem before it went into creating anything new.
And it wasn’t as if I didn’t have other things to be doing with my time. Those ten years also included a fair amount of renovating houses and raising children, but there were definitely moments along the way when I wondered whether or not I was ever going to finish the poem or, indeed, ever write anything else. Fortunately, the answer was yes on both counts.
The Autopsy Report was one of the first pieces of work I submitted to the Angles Writing Group after joining in 2014. Although I had begun to write new stuff by then, I still considered it one of my best poems and I wanted to see if anyone else agreed with me. Rather shockingly, they explained that they generally got poets to read their work aloud, and this was not something I had expected – or planned for. It was an interesting experience, because it had honestly never occurred to me that the poem might be listened to rather than read on the page. And it was only then that I realised how awkward and unpoetic that ‘results’ stanza sounds when you have to read it aloud.
It finally made it to print in 2016, in that year’s anthology of winning and commended poems for the Hippocratic Prize for Poetry and Medicine, which actually seems like a perfectly appropriate place for it to end up.
And once it was out of the way, the floodgates opened, not just for my writing in general, but also for poems specifically about Mark. At this point I have nine or ten of them, and maybe one day they’ll all appear together in a collection. Now that really would be a fitting memorial to him.