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'The Ice House,' a Med School Poem

Michael Salcman
Michael Salcman

A recent story on people who've decided to give their bodies to science inspired Michael Salcman, a neurosurgeon from Baltimore, to send us a poem he wrote about his first day of medical school in 1965:

The Ice House

Later, in our yearbook, they caption a photo of George,

his mouth gaping open as if to say

'we're going to carry what up from where?',

that first day of class two or three of us at a time lift

bodies onto a fireman's stretcher, and carry the corpses

out of a late nineteenth century red brick Victorian

across a small courtyard and up a short flight of stairs

into the anatomy lab next door. The dead weigh more

than we do, fresh from the ice house they're heavier still,

hands at their sides, standing attention in repose,

their clay-colored faces flat as cardboard, eyes closed

lips pursed, holding in the separate secrets

of their final moments, the fleeing of their souls.

Because of a shortage in donations, it's four to a body.

Over the next weeks and months, nerves and tendons

come up to greet the ministrations of our knives.

We give them names before we flay (in order)

their extremities, belly, heart and head, and leave nothing

much behind except attachments to bone, the black

tongue and the brain in its casement. Not all of us

are equally deft -- you can already tell who the future

surgeons are and who the psychoanalysts. We make

the usual jokes about girls who study late and fall asleep

over the bodies, but in general these dead get a modicum

of respect not accorded them in life.

They're the first people we learn to read like books,

exemplars of the future and texts off the street.


"The Ice House" was first published in Raritan the literary magazine of Rutgers University, and will appear in the forthcoming collection, The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises Press).

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