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Walt Whitman’s Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor

by Thomas Lux


At his request, after death, his brain removed
for science, phrenology, to study, and,
as the mortuary assistant carried it
(I suppose in a jar but I hope cupped
in his hands) across the lab’s stone floor he dropped it.

You could ask a forensic pathologist
what that might look like. He willed his brain,
as I said, for study—its bumps and grooves,
analysed, allowing a deeper grasp
of human nature, potential (so phrenology believed)
and this kind of intense look, as opposed to mere fingering

of the skull’s outer ridges, valleys, would afford
particular insight. So Walt believed.
He had already scored high (between 6 and 7) for Ego.
And as if we couldn’t guess from his verses, he scored
high again (a 6 and a 7—7 the highest possible!) in Amativeness

(sexual love) and Adhesiveness (friendship,
brotherly love) when before his death
his head was read. He earned only 5 for Poetic Faculties
but that 5, pulled and pushed by his other numbers,
allowed our father of poesie to lay down some words

in the proper order on the page. That our nation
does not care does not matter, much.
That his modest federal job was taken from him,
and thus his pension, does not matter at all.
And that his brain was dropped and shattered, a cosmos,
on the floor, matters even less.


Thomas Lux teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. His latest book is Half Promised Land. This fall Carnegie-Mellon will be reprinting Sunday. (1988)

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