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.



Comments

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

My blog this month isn't a poem – nor even several...

  My blog this month isn't a poem – nor even several. No, this time it's a set of little films of poems. After sharing them with several of you, I apologise straight away if you've already seen them, but you might be interested to hear some thoughts on the matter. And if you don't want to hear me thinking about making films of poems, just ignore what follows and go straight to the YouTube link.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbwJYkDeGIs&list=PLbC1BOoALpN-xyuGJCIAqJjImAi1aAfrY   I hope you enjoy the films. And please tell me what you think! You may remember a couple of the poems appearing in past blogs, with me writing about the possible presentation of poetry in this way. Time was when poetry existed solely as the spoken or sung word – it took some time for it to be written down.  Now, for the most part, it exists and flourishes in both these forms. Recently, and refreshingly, it seems to have been recovering more of its original orality. Now we liv

The Signpost

Here’s a signpost – originally distinctive, being unique and handmade, and now even more so, with the evidence of ageing.   … numbers, distances, which way? While all signposts are interesting in their duty to inform, their presentation of choices and their simple declarative presence, I find this one special. It’s not just that it has much to say in terms of where you actually are, in which direction you might choose to go, how far your destination is (down to quarter mile accuracy) and even if your chosen method of transport is suitable. It’s also special in the simple elegance of its design, with the arms’ supports and the bevelled edges of the main post rising to that unexpected point. But the specialness goes further.  My friend James Ravilious took me there just at this time of year, over twenty years ago.  It was then upright and brilliant white, with crisp black letters. He certainly thought it was special, photographing it lovingly, in May 1988 ( Chawleigh Week Cross –