Skip to main content

A Thoughtful Body


I’m a thoughtful body, you can see

dear skull – you were once joined up like me,

recognised and speaking.  Now not a trace

of all that made your well-known face –

no flesh, no skin, no lips or tongue,

no lungs or breath to sing a song –

no eyes to see, no ears to hear –

although you cannot shed a tear

can you tell me what’s to come?


Dear alter ego, I am dumb

as you remarked.  What can I know,

a disconnected skull?  So,

live in the present, which is where

you find yourself, and do not care

about the future.  What I heard said

came from inside my empty head –

but I think I can’t think that I heard

since I can’t hear or say a single word.



Halloween – the time of year for skeletons.

Strictly speaking, Hallowe’en – Hallows’ Even or Hallows’ Evening – is October 31st, the eve of the All Hallows’ Day, and we’re now into November.  But the festival, if that’s the right word, of Allhallowtide runs for three days.  Here then, with no apology, is my talking skeleton.  Well, Vesalius’ construction.

As with Halloween itself, there’s a paradoxical mixture of reactions to skeletons.  On the one (bony) hand, we find fascination – many finding themselves attracted to this curiosity, with perhaps a touch of underlying horror; on the other hand, irreverence and humour tends to bubble up, not an unusual response to such a direct reminder of our own mortality.

Vesalius must have been conscious of all these facets.

His skeleton stands elegantly, weight on one foot, head thoughtfully supported, with his right hand gently rolling a skull across what looks like the table top of a memorial grave.  The skull’s jaw has fallen away (which they have a habit of doing, unless they’re wired on), suggesting that speaking for the separated skull has become impossible.

At which point in the discussion, one realises how preposterous the whole performance, with all its underlying assumptions – starting with a standing skeleton with no muscles, ligaments or tendons to hold it together – has become.  There’s certainly a sense of humour displayed by the sixteenth century physician and his artist, alongside a seriousness of purpose – not just to display authentic anatomical details, but also to reflect on aspects of mortality, and raise a wry smile (if you’ve got a face).

All of which stimulated me to put some words into these two heads – to imagine a conversation between this cogitating full-life (so to speak) skeleton and a separated skull, which tells the other to live in the present. Particularly absurd is the former’s sense of superiority: being a totally intact skeleton, this assemblage looks down, albeit slighty sympathetically – ‘dear skull’ – upon the addressed skull, under its caring hand.

I wanted to rhyme this poem, conscious of the classical image with its traditional associations, and tried to emphasise the link between the two ‘speakers’ – neither of whom can speak, nor even have an identity – across the stanzas, using rhyme.

And similarly, with all the latin, I wanted to include some latin words as well.

I also felt there was a need for symmetry; that despite the full skeleton’s integrity and stature versus the isolation of the solitary skull – each participant should have equality, so the stanzas are the same length.

As for the thinking – let alone any meaning or conclusion – here is only non-communication and confusion, not to say nonsense.  Well, what else can be expected from a skeleton and a skull, which properly are no more than a pile of old bones?


Anatomical P.S.

Vesalius succeeded in producing an almost complete skeleton (though missing both hands and one foot) from a convicted felon, one Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler, but nearly every other exhibited complete skeleton (apart from freak giants and dwarves) used in teaching are mixtures – you could call them miscellaneous.  In Our Mutual Friend Dickens describes Mr. Venus:

‘When I prepare a miscellaneous one, I know beforehand I can’t keep to nature, and be miscellaneous with ribs, because every man has his own ribs, and no other man’s will go with them; but elseways I can be miscellaneous.  I have just sent home a beauty – a perfect beauty – to a School of Art. One leg Belgian*, one leg English and the pickings of eight other people in it.’


*Is it just coincidence that Vesalius was Belgian?







Popular posts from this blog

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 –

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.   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


  One day I shall sleep in the shade of an orchard where wisdom has grown unnoticed. An apple falls releasing a thought. Surprised, I recall how old laws are discovered.   There are rich pickings for hens round rough trunks of old sagging apple trees acquainted with gravity. So here I will sleep like a satisfied scientist with new knowledge.   Orchards are peaceful places, especially on a sunny early autumn day. Perhaps the awareness that the year is drawing to a close, finding fulfilment in all this fruition suggests that work’s been done. Or maybe it’s even something to do with that unnoticed sense of gravity pulling one down which Sir Isaac Newton claimed he encountered in his orchard. One way and another, this is a time and place of rest. For us, as well as apples... For me, to sit against an apple trunk, or even lie, and think of nothing very much is indeed restful. On the other hand for Newton, it was more likely the beginning of a mass