After the Autopsy


In my mind, I am laying out a man’s body for burial.

Two strips of surgical tape hold shut his eyelids, and a small pillow arranged beneath his freshly-trimmed beard props up his jaw. I dip my fingertip in vaseline and dab it across his lips to slow their shrinkage.

I hold up his right leg with one gloved hand and, with the other, run a damp sponge in gentle strokes along the inside of his thigh and down his calf. I clean away the quiet stench of formaldehyde, fecal ooze from his loosened bowels, any remaining traces of the medical indignities that were not enough, at the end, to prolong his life beyond the endurance of an old man’s organs.

As I lay his leg back down and straighten it against the crisp white sheet covering the mortuary table, I notice how delicate all of his limbs seem: fat and muscle alike eaten down by age, bones hollow as a bird’s. His penis, shriveled as if hiding from the cool air, lays against his scrotum amid thinning tufts of gray pubic hair.

This body, in life, belonged to a white man. He could have been any of a number of men I have lived with or loved: family, partner, friend. Shave the beard to a goatee, and this is the body of my ex-husband in thirty years. Take away six inches of height, and this is my father today.

I have been preparing this body in my mind for the past two weeks.

It is the body of conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith.

~ ~ ~

Are you familiar with Kenneth Goldsmith? He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, a thirty-minute walk from where I live. I first heard of him when he appeared on The Colbert Report wearing a pepto bismol-pink suit and discussing his new book, composed entirely from transcribed news reports about Jack Kennedy’s assassination; about the astronauts who exploded along with the Space Shuttle Challenger; about other violent deaths.

Oh. And then there was this:

“On March 13, poet Kenneth Goldsmith took the stage at a conference titled Interrupt 3 at Brown University and read a poem titled ‘The Body of Michael Brown.’ The piece was a slightly altered version of Brown’s official autopsy report, rehashing the medical details surrounding the teenager’s death after he was killed by police last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The remixed version ended with: ‘The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable.'”

I’ll let you sit with that grotesquerie for a moment, if you haven’t already.

~ ~ ~

If you’d like help processing, I can point you in a few directions. The artist Rin Johnson was one of very few people of color present in the audience, and I highly recommend her eye-witness account of the helpless rage and anxiety she experienced listening to this reading — which felt to her both “mind-numbing” and “sexual” — as well as of the next-day responses she and other conference attendees shared with one another.

In addition to the racial implications of Goldsmith’s verbal plundering, Caolan Madden’s link-heavy article discusses questions of literary craft: where does “an individual poet’s bad taste or careless sense of entitlement” end — and “the inherently white supremacist values of avant-garde poetry” begin?

P.E. Garcia has also written a powerful essay about the limits of any poetic ‘good metaphor’ in the face of literal suffering and death. Garcia reminds any who may need reminding about the implications of a white male poet “performing” a black boy’s autopsy:

“If, as [Goldsmith] says, we are to look at this as conceptual art — if we are to believe the audience is in charge of this interpretation — then Goldsmith should accept the context of his performance. He should accept the pain his audience felt. He should accept that we might look at him and only see another white man holding the corpse of a black child saying, ‘Look at what I’ve made.'”

The mic drop of that final line resonates deeply with me. I have put off writing anything substantive myself, as others have raised the points that are my own central complaints — and I am loathe to provide tacit ammunition for any “see! but it provoked conversation!” ex post facto justification for future such racist fucktarding poetry.

And yet.

There is still the minor issue of those dead limbs I can’t stop bathing.

~ ~ ~

Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” two weeks ago was an act of violence, and I am angry it happened. My mortuary scene began as the germ of a poetic idea.

Poetic justice, poet’s revenge.

After reading the autopsy, he wrote about how he had altered the text for poetic effect and ‘massaged’ it into literature — alterations which included ending with the image of a young black man’s genitalia. If Goldsmith would call this “literature,” let us be clear about the racist trope he is invoking: America’s long-standing myth of the rapacious black man — and the virtuous white man who has no choice but violence, as he protects the (his) white woman.

I know this trope. I too am implicated in it: my (white female) body its pivot point.

I refuse to meet such obscenity with silence.

~ ~ ~

My first thought was to write an obituary for the conceptual poet, in language as dry and horrific as he imagines the autopsy itself to be. (He fails, perhaps, to realize that for the physician tasked with wrapping each outraged body in its final shroud of words, the medical vernacular of an autopsy report — which he could only imperfectly appropriate — radiates awe and respect: “evoking the immensity of the absent being only in so far as it utterly fails to do so.”)

I wanted to write a cold, clinical, detached account evoking Goldsmith’s own eventual autopsy. White, male, educated, his body privileged in every way: whatever death calls to him, it is unlikely to arrive in a policeman’s muzzle flash. Whatever end awaits his flesh, it is unlikely to pose as a victim on asphalt, with four hours of lividity pooling across the front of its thighs and chest.

I wanted to write impersonal.

I wanted to write angry.

I wanted to write without any I.

I failed.

~ ~ ~

First my hands appeared. Reaching out in compassion to this body I had imagined, unwilling to leave even my fictitious dead alone in its darkness.

Next, my pronouns insinuated themselves, swaddling the language of muscle and organ and bone with the tenderness of an embodied perspective.

My words refused to meet violence with more of the same.

~ ~ ~

The idea of text without context is a lie.

The presumption of ‘all text is always only text’ is itself a privileged assumption.

A belief that if all is possible, then all is permissible leads to acts of barbarity. A belief that if one can appropriate certain words, then one may do so contributed, two weeks ago, to extending the white supremacist tradition of appropriating all value from black bodies, even unto death.

I can offer no response but a vision that returns deepest humanity to us all.

In my mind, I lovingly lay out a stranger’s body for burial. . .


[Image via]

7 thoughts on “After the Autopsy

  1. You’ve used words beautifully in this. As for Brown’s genitalia, it seems very odd to refer to it, black or white. He’s a murdered kid, so – what’s his genitalia got to do with it?


    1. Thank you! And yes, if one remembers the actual person of Michael Brown, then *all* of the choices become exceedingly odd — starting with “hey, why don’t I read this autopsy aloud like a poem!”


  2. I have been interested in Goldsmith more as a teacher than a poet because I first heard about him due to his ‘uncreative writing’ class, where his students aren’t allowed to write anything fresh, and I bring that up in *my* class discussions of the lines separating plagiarism from allusion and remixing and ‘art’. I had heard about this performance at Brown, but had not read farther into it, suspecting (rightly, apparently) that it would just be too weird and icky.

    I don’t really know what I mean to say. I guess just: thanks for synthesizing this for me, and expressing it so well. I think the first person pronouns were perfect.


    1. Thank you. I also started out trying to avoid knowing too much about what exactly happened, for the same reasons as you. This piece came out of my own need to synthesize — not just what I learned about Goldsmith’s performance — but also ideas I’ve been stewing on for years, about the function of literary theory and its relationship to art.

      While I was unfamiliar with the term “conceptual poetry” before this, this approach of “uncreative writing” feels like a direct descendant of late 20th c. postmodernism. I’ve thought for a long time about the parallel eruptions in the early ’90s (at least at Yale, certainly earlier elsewhere!): on one side, identity politics and the often-fruitful/sometimes-balkanizing emergence of women’s lit, African-Am lit, etc.; and on the other, postmodernism, cyborg theory, pastiche and mash-up, “all is text–and all text is always available to be used,” etc. So. . .just when embodiment emerges as a source of knowledge — when those who live in culturally-despised bodies begin to succeed in asserting their despised knowledge as actually a source of academic value and importance — a postmodern backlash denies *all* distinctions. (“Sure, your work is as valuable as Shakespeare’s. Of course, his oeuvre is itself no more valuable than newsprint, or advertising.”)

      I’m not a huge fan of high-art/low-art distinctions, generally speaking. But if “all is equal,” and “all is available,” then we always risk ending up with Racist Autopsy Art.

      Liked by 1 person

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