Provenance: A Vivisection

by Sally Wen Mao

“[The Bodies exhibition] is a redemocratization. The human body
is the last remaining nature in a man-made environment.”

                                                       —Gunther von Hagens


You, you are a factory
of muscle. You, you are an empire
of polymer. I recognize myself

in your face, your posture, your severed
epiglottis. Take it off. Take it all off
for us to see: first the clothes,

then the epidermis, then your mouth,
your country, your context. Provenance:
a chronology of ownership—

all tautology, for none of our emissaries
have uncovered the tampered body’s
histories. The prophet calculates

the profits. Exhibit A: Hottentot Venus.
Pregnant woman from village X,
reclining nude in lit interior. Excision—

watch the womb peeled back,
see what milkless plastic the baby
suckles, how he crows against the vernix

of his mother’s plastic gluetrap. Baby,
do you dream of trapezes? Baby, do
you choke on the inchoate cloud?


Gunther von Hagens was born in Poland,
              January 1945. That season, snow
shuddered everywhere and ashes too descended
from crematoriums onto frozen glades.
The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote
to his wife from prison:            even at the dump
                           our atoms will fall side by side.

Tired fires cleaved through cities, rivers
choked on human glands. Hemophilia wracked
von Hagens’ childhood: blood scissored out
at every gust. Decades later, he invented
plastination to tame the rogue artery.
He becomes Doctor, curator of skulls,
inventor of perfect preservation:
it takes three years to plastinate an elephant.
Two for a horse, just one for a man.


You, you are my clout, menagerie.
When I imagine your bedroom
positions, you will enact my fantasies.

In my dreams, I ask you to stop licking
your pelt, whip you like an elder god.
Your fats, sternums, orifices

will educate us, provide the jolt
for a Sunday afternoon. Soil
yourself and I’ll be the one to wipe you,

I’ll be the one to flense your skin.
Exhibit B: Chang and Eng.
Exhibit C: Kamala and Amala.

Exhibit D: Ota Benga, St. Louis
World Fair, 1904. It’s a simple
exchange. We will pay for you.

Your hanging organs—our garden.
Gelatins astound us, fill us with relief
for what we have: golden hearts

that rouge the very air around.
Lungs that breathe. Gills that sing.
We are an abattoir of gratitude.


This is a fatty market. It blooms a corpulent
flower. Body suppliers. Rafflesia. Rapeseed. Boom,

boom, drones the Dalian corpse plant. Production
line: technicians dehydrate faces, bones, cartilage,

soak the cadavers in pink effluvia.
Autopsy hour—watch the fatty tissues sap,

seep, curdle. Watch the sticky plastic pump
into their ribs, ravish them. Kiss the cadaver

with a scalpel. Knives pare their eyes. Bad pears:
cores swarm with gnats, millipedes, wormseeds.

Insects coil over their golden flesh. Their
mouths are blood diamonds. Rumor has it,

the world is gorging on Chinese secrets.
Cover this wound before the flies find it.


Sir, I look at you through your vitreous blue
eyes, and your shorn life passes through me
in one thrush. Boy who flunked his college

entrance exams. Man who ate abalone
from the can. How were you punished?
With bullwhips and jellyfish stings?

You died not long ago: I can tell by the way
your ligaments curl. Have you traveled
as far in your life as you’ve toured

posthumously, torqued in a prison
of cryogenic light? Amsterdam. Paris.
New York: what does it mean, anyway—

the provenance of a corpse? Who may possess
the body—spirit, demon, man, enter-
prise? You cannot exorcise the black

market from the body, though I want to smash
that slipshod glass, obliterate the price
on your head. I want to wreck the paraffin

that suspends your dancing spine in the air.
I scratch the cage, wipe your name
in pellucid bones. When they kick me

out, I search for you in my father’s face
and find you in my son’s. Pittsburgh’s
highways soliloquize your anonymity,

your face on the billboard a marvel.
You gaze at my city with your pupils
sealed. Wherever I go now, you follow.

Lately, my neck grows inward, a headless
stump. Lately, the cumulonimbus tears
open the aspens. The sun, too, has a blade.


Thief of my skin, you can arrange my bones so I fly,
a raptor—you can cure my meat, summon the flies
in summer. My body is my crypt, your masterpiece.
Turkey vultures scare the stratosphere
searching for carrion, follow the scent in my limbs,
its feral suet. My name does not end in fury.
I’d rather you blow my alien bits into a black hole
than keep me here, intact and jaundiced. So please,
I ask: incinerate me. Let the sky be my open grave.

Published on April 29, 2015