Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Oscar Upperton’s ‘The surgeon’s brain’

Intro from the author

Doctor James Barry was a nineteenth-century surgeon. He performed great medical feats, argued with almost everyone he met and duelled some of them too, survived a gay sex scandal in South Africa and travelled across the Atlantic with a goat and his white dog Psyche. He was also a nerd, obsessed with hygiene and hospital administration. He is one of a handful of transmasculine people whose stories have been passed on to us.

This poem is from my upcoming book The surgeon’s brain, an attempt to tell Doctor Barry’s story from the inside out.

The surgeon’s brain

It’s not a trifling thing. A man’s brain is, to some, the man himself. Forget this soul nonsense. He has cut into a thousand bodies and never seen a soul.

He has seen brains frozen, brains shucked from the skulls of criminals, brains in jars. There must be brains in the bogs, he finds himself thinking, Irish brains in Irish mud. There is something in the bogs that preserves. Frightful bodies have been pulled from the mire, twisted and browned like tree roots. Only the skin survives, the innards drained and pulped by the bog, but he imagines the brain laid in rushes, like an egg, like Jesus in the manger. 

In an English church on an African Cape, his thinking stumbles and he is a child again, watching from an upstairs window a beggar walking door to door. She has a bad leg, that’s what people say, like a bad dog, just incorrigible. Young Barry wonders about that leg. 

Later that night, he thinks about how his mind moved from church to street, from Cape to Ireland. He considers a way to observe the brain: a clean room and scalpel, a bone saw, an array of mirrors. He would need assistance for the sawing but could do the rest himself. He would not like another staring at his brain; it would be akin to being naked. The limitation, of course, is that he could only observe his brain thinking about his brain; he could not see what it looked like thinking of roses, for instance, or of prison cells. Perhaps at the point his attention shifted—he could catch that—the second between thoughts. What would that look like? 

It feels to him like there is more than just his brain inside his skull. There is something that he thinks of as the mind, which he pictures as a shiny black spider moving through a web. The brain is static but the mind, his mind, feels as though it is always moving. This is why feelings must be disregarded in the study of anatomy. 

Living outside the brain of Dr Barry, as we all do, it is possible to make only a few observations. For example, we can assume his brain weighed between 1.3 and 1.4 kilograms. 

He wonders whether anyone has ever been as unhappy as he. Sometimes he wonders if anyone has ever been as happy as he. Sometimes he dances around his room in delight. His dog dances with him. If you were to ask them why they were dancing they would no doubt say, Because the other fellow was. 

He imagines a lecture. He holds a thin rod, with which he taps a blackboard. On the blackboard is the word HYGIENE. Under the word HYGIENE are twenty-seven numbered points. He takes his students through each point. The lecture is four hours long. When he finishes, the students don’t want to leave. Sir, is there more you could teach us? Please sir, we want to hear everything. He chuckles, thinking about it, and decides to indulge them. His assistant rolls in a new blackboard. This blackboard is headed DISPOSAL OF EFFLUXIONS.

From where do these dreams come? Sometimes he is standing on a hillside, quite alone. An army mills beneath. His army – men he has trained from birth. He turns and runs and his army follows him, chases him, out of loyalty and bloodlust. I taught you this! he screams. He is lost to their spears. 

Other times he is putting a child to bed. She is tired but strong, and hangs her arms around his neck. Patients call from behind the door. They need me, he says. Please let go. 

I need you, she whispers. She opens her mouth and cholera climbs out.

He bounces baby Augusta on his knee. Her brain is growing fast. When she was born, it would have been smaller than a clenched fist.  Since then it must have tripled in size. He doesn’t tell her parents this. They would ask how he knew. 

Imagine a body without a brain. Monster. Demon. Ghost. Imagine a brain without a body, not in a jar but alive somehow, perhaps submerged in a pool of blood. How to feed it? How to communicate? Would it be an it, or still the person it was? Is? 

Dr Barry, he imagines saying to his brain. Dr Barry, listen to me. Today we have done something truly remarkable.

Oscar Upperton lives in Wellington. His first collection New Transgender Blockbusters was published by VUP in March 2020. His second collection, on the life of nineteenth century surgeon Dr James Barry, is upcoming.

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