April 17

From the desk of Susan Blackwell Ramsey


RamseySusan Blackwell Ramsey is the author of 
A Mind Like This, winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Below she describes how she came to write the first poem titled “Pickled Heads, Saint Petersburg.” (Read the full poem here.)

I’ve always had a brain like a
lint-roller, with the qualifier that only nonessential information sticks to
it.  I’m bad at theorems and birthdays,
but I can tell you the names of the six Irishmen who carried Emily Dickinson to
her grave and that frogs have to close their eyes to swallow because the
pressure of the eyeballs on the roofs of their mouths moves the food along.
You’re welcome.

My problem is that the sources
which supply me with these delights often have their own agendas, leaving me to
fill in the gaps on my own.  So when,
while reading Stephen T. Asma’s Stuffed
Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History
Museums
,
I came across stories of some of Peter the Great’s specimens – the
hermaphrodite he had stuffed and displayed and the heads of Peter’s wife’s
lover and his own mistress, which he had preserved in jars of that new
discovery “spirits of wine” (our ethyl alcohol) – I screeched to a
stop.  Who?  Asma’s cheery “Maybe he was thinking he
and Catherine could put their past infidelities behind them and start
afresh” really didn’t address my questions about what was going on,
especially when he mentioned in passing that Peter ordered his queen to display
the head on her mantlepiece.  While Asma
continued on to consider the linked and diverging histories of embalming and
taxidermy, I was remembering similar stories.

Heads in jars reminded me that the
one in Antonio Banderas’s The Mask of Zorro
was based on the actual head of Joaquín Murrieta, rumored still to be in a
private collection in California.  This
in turn reminded me of a picture I’d seen of Jeremy Bentham’s entire body, with
wax head, stored in some university cabinet.
A little research revealed that his actual head had once been found in a
luggage locker in Aberdeen, once on the front quadrangle being used as a
football by medical students, but was now safely lodged in the cabinet’s bottom
drawer.  Finally, entire preserved bodies
reminded me of reading Santa Evita by
Tomás Eloy Martínez, about the career of Evita Perón’s beautifully
embalmed, much-kidnapped corpse and the deaths that followed every time it
changed hands.

Of course, the real
pleasure comes in trying to discover by writing the poem what else, if
anything, these stories have in common, what they suggest about us, and why
they resonate for me.  So if they also
suggest the tangent of saints with incorruptible bodies, like Saint Teresa of
Ávila, who lost another couple of fingers every time her sweet-smelling tomb
was opened, or Saint Clare, whose reputation then went through two
incorruptibility downgrades – well, sometimes you have to save something for
the next poem, one where the circumstances may be similar but the subject is
different. Which is why I’m currently working on one about a double date
involving Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Evita, and Thoreau.

-Susan