Two views of a cadaver room

 Harriet Walter

  Two views of a cadaver room by Sylvia Plath

  performed by Harriet Walter

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The day she visited the dissecting room
They had four men laid out, black as burnt turkey,
Already half unstrung. A vinegary fume
Of the death vats clung to them;
The white-smocked boys started working.
The head of his cadaver had caved in,
And she could scarcely make out anything
In that rubble of skull plates and old leather.
A sallow piece of string held it together.

In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow.
He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.

In Brueghel's panorama of smoke and slaughter
Two people only are blind to the carrion army:
He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
Skirts, sings in the direction
Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,
Finger a leaflet of music, over him,
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death's-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.

Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.

Interpretation by Daljit Nagra

I like the poet dissecting the content into numbered sections. Amidst the scenes of death is life. The scientist gives the poet a gothic valentine, then a lover serenades the partner with a song.

Can life triumph over death? Art seems to be the answer. The poet as artist skilfully moves from the description of a gruesome lab to a painting. The poet resurrects death into art whilst playing with romantic images of life. The dark comedy of the poem perhaps signals the triumph of art.

The haphazard end rhymes, the persistent adjectives, the similes and metaphors show the poet’s extravagance which mirrors that of the scientist and the oblivious lovers.

Does the poem die for the poet once it’s finished, or does it live on after the poet is dead? Dark material!

Daljit Nagra’s first collection Look We Have Coming to Dover won the 2007 Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. His poems often relate to the experiences of British-born Indians like himself and employ language spoken by Indian Punjabi immigrants.