Skip to main content

In Search of Genius

Dr Thomas Harvey conducts Albert Einstein’s autopsy

The body itself was perfectly ordinary
of course, just as I expected.
But here between my hands I raise
a gift, an offering which is held
before me, like a sacrifice.
I set it down with reverence,
noting familiar features – see
the cerebellum with its fissures
closely set, transverse and curved.
All appears normal, for now.

So to the cortex. Accompany me –
let us walk around the hemispheres
enjoy their glistening surfaces:
the superolateral and the medial
(the inferior is presently hidden)
following folds, traversing sulci –
across the longitudinal fissure
I skim, an arctic explorer on my sled
over hills and valleys, there is so much
awaiting discovery.

I pick up my knife, the round-ended one,
as I search for the genius that lived and died here.
The slices begin.  Each falls away softly
like cheese.  A key hole appears
gradually growing into a chamber
fit for a pharaoh perhaps, although
empty of course, it hasn’t been robbed.
Many a ventricle I have cut open –
they all look like this.  The brain of a genius
is so far no different.

Now I have come to the end of the loaf.
The slices lie stacked like slabs in a yard
awaiting attention. My searching continues.
I part them, laying one flat, in order
to study the surface.  Colour banded, indented
a coastline of estuaries, inlets and fjords
laid out on this map of departures, arrivals
transactions and contacts. Still there’s no sign
of anything different, let alone special
in this particular brain.

No, not a map, as this is uncharted.
I search for a simile.  More like a picture –
each sliver is topped by soft rolling hills
or this is the sapwood and here is the hardwood,
or see it as cline adjacent to anticline…
I’ll turn to the microscope later to find
if there’s evidence there of genius.
I doubt it. This promising brain seems just the same
as everyone else’s. Stop the search.
An ordinary brain is enough for a genius.

Autopsies can’t fail to be fascinating.

Well, that’s how I see it, but then I decided to study medicine because I found it fascinating.  Perhaps others feel differently.
Dr Thomas Harvey was certainly fascinated by Einstein’s brain – fascinated to the extent that he took it without permission.  The journey that brain took, along with Harvey’s own journey, is quite a story. You can look it up too.

In this poem I wanted to become Dr Harvey – to try to experience his thoughts and feelings, in the present tense.  Einstein’s brain, here in his hands – the opportunity to search for the source of genius in this unique brain!

Of course, as has happened so often, he was going to be disappointed – but that’s for later. Perhaps he should have realised, as the first two lines suggest, just as the body of a genius is ‘perfectly ordinary’, the brain may well be the same.

But then Harvey wasn’t very clever, managing later to fail his routine competency exams and having to find work in a factory on an assembly line.  Alongside Einstein, none of us is very clever.

For now though, privileged indeed, he stands holding the brain of a genius.

Let the exploration begin…

I love those latin words which have been used by medical people down the ages.  They roll descriptively round and from the mouth – cerebellum, the little brain at the back of the main brain; sulci, grooves, furrows, trenches; cortex, the outer layer like bark, rind or peel; and all those spatial descriptors – superior, inferior, medial and lateral… the list goes on and on.  As s/he speaks them, the doctor is reassured, comforted and guided, as if wrapped in the warmth and knowledge of Prospero’s cloak.

And the explorer can travel – take flight even, even as – or because – routine procedures are being followed.  I don’t know whether Harvey was at all poetic, but he is now me – or I him – so I don’t apologise for taking pleasure in imagining entering exotic landscapes or historic sites.

And so the traveller proceeds, with familiar tools, using accustomed techniques, searching for something – to tell the truth – s/he’ll never find.  Life has departed, the bird has flown – this is dead, abandoned country. The mistaken scientist becomes increasingly aware they were never going to discover that elusive spirit, however many slices this unique brain will eventually yield (12 sets of 200 slides), all the painstaking microscopy and all the scientific discussions and arguments.

Harvey is not to know that after seizing that brain, like one of Tutankhamun’s tomb interlopers, his life appears to be cursed – he will lose job, wife and career at prestigious Princeton.

I leave him for now in (dubious) possession of an ordinary brain – no more, no less.  It may have worked out the theory of relativity and made possible the development of nuclear fission, but it’s just normal – ultimately the same as his, as mine and as yours.


Popular posts from this blog

A plague on all these houses

It's a great poem, Lowell's For the Union Dead.
I only recently came across it - at least, that's what I thought - but it's been grunting (I choose the word advisedly) away in my head ever since, especially that fourth verse.

Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tone of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

It took a little while for me to realise why.
Before (I thought) I'd read it, I wrote a poem about the new housing estates springing up round our little town. I was thinking about the various creatures that had lived on the field that was to be covered with houses - sheep primarily - and then those that were to follow.

The first were, well, a sort of dinosaur.

Here's my second verse:

At first it was the one-armed monsters,
set free within their caged arena
to trundle round, and gently paw
the ground, then pile up mounds of earth
accompanied by Lego men.

I was pleased with my trope, so muc…

Do you remember an inn, Miranda? Do you remember...

Of course I knew that poetry can short circuit.
That’s the point of it really – to go straight from the centre of one’s being – the deep heart’s core – to another, perhaps not needing even to think.Like music, poetry can fly: cut directly through clutter – all those habits, pretence and assorted nonsense and trivia of everyday so-called grown-up life, to ancient memories, deep-seated experiences and relationships, and love itself.
I’ve been reminded of this vital ability of poetry by the recent happy experience of working with an amazing National Memory Day Project.Literature Works at Plymouth University, in partnership with the Poetry Archive, supported by the Alzheimer’s Society put out a call to train and commission poets to use poetry to help people living with memory loss.
The idea was that by reviving memories through the shared recollection of much-loved poems, confusion might be alleviated, conversation encouraged, speech difficulties eased and creativity stimulated.

Some art work is like poetry...

Some art work is like poetry.
Of course, much isn’t – at least obviously.Many a huge oil painting is closer to drama – perhaps even better, opera.Most portraits are more or less representational, especially in pre-photographic times.Landscapes are records, as are Still Lifes…
But realising that all these may have emotion imbued or expressed, indeed that the very reason for painting or drawing is to offer a unique individual’s point of view, I appreciate that I’m arguing against myself.
Still, when pictures strive to be succinct and every line has to count, when a whole story is told with deceptive simplicity, when so much is expressed in a compressed form and when there’s an acute awareness of a sense of balance, harmony, even rhythm (I can’t pretend rhyme has a place in visual art) – well then they share much with poetry.
And none more so than Hans Holbein’s sequence of The Dance of Death.
41 tiny images – each no bigger than a match box – depict Death in the form of a skeleton, ca…