SAMSUNG CSCIn poetry class a student writes: “The heart is symmetrical.”

“No it isn’t,” I say, too harshly.  I know what she means, a few days past Valentine’s, but I’m trying to demonstrate how to be more careful with one’s words, or perhaps how to be more careful with one’s heart.  I vow to set her straight.  We’ll take a class field trip to the cadaver lab.

It’s actually called the prosectorium, I find out later, when I email the biologist.  She’s a new professor, like me, eager to please. Yes, she says.  Please come.

I make a sign-up sheet.  “Come see the heart!” But in the end, only five students show up, all girls with long flowing hair.  My hair is also long and flowing.  I lead the five girls to the prosectorium where we meet the biologist, whose hair is shorter, tightly pulled back.

We form a wide circle around a dead man’s body.   The biologist talks about organ systems.  My students nod politely, biting their nails, twirling their hair.  They are all so young, so beautiful.  They like to write poems about boys and two-sided love: joy and pain.  Do they know the dangers of thinking their hearts are so simple? The perils of going through life like a sheets of construction paper, letting the world cut them into predetermined shapes?

The biologist looks at the body on the table as if it is both familiar and surprising, the same way I look at a blank page.  But when I force myself to see what’s before me, no words come save one: Meat. Why haven’t I thought of this word before? When our skins are pulled back we look so much like kitchen-counter chickens, our torsos broken apart like ravished crab shells.  I have an impulse to grab the man’s withered leg and gnaw on it like a bone.  Like a bone? It is a bone, I remind myself.  But somehow this doesn’t compute.

We circle closer.

She takes out his heart and we see that it is not, in fact, symmetrical.  Thank goodness, I think.  It’s lumpish.  Full of intricate zigzags.  See, I say to my students. See? But it’s a half-hearted question.  We see the heart, but we don’t know, can’t express exactly, what we’re looking at.

But after the heart and the liver and the intestines have been taken out and inspected, after we’ve touched the lungs (“they still have air in them,” the biologist says), after we have all shyly ignored the bisected penis, a dead bird in a live nest of black hair, after we’ve observed the length of the fingernails and the callouses on the feet, after we’ve murmured “amazing” and “wow” more times than we’d care to admit, there remains the grand finale: The Brain.

“This is the part where some people freak out,” the biologist says as she unwraps the head and we suddenly see his face.  A young man still, despite being late-fifties at death.  His eyes are waxed shut, eyelashes intact, glistening.  She flips open the top half of his head, lays it aside like an empty fruit bowl.  The brain is encased in a thin stocking of chickenish skin, which is not something your brain would know from looking at pictures of itself on the internet.  She slips the skin off and folds the brain open, so that its two halves, left and right, rest equally in her palms.

We circle closer, shoulder to shoulder bone, handing each other the brain, each girl cradling it, as if it’s a dead duckling: small, cold, magnificent.  One student sighs breathily, “His entire life…in my hands.”  Yes, I say, yes.  Those are some good words, write them down.  But what I’m really thinking is entire life, entire life.  My own flimsy paper heart of folded joy and pain.

But then I take the brain in my own hands and see more sides, seven, at least:  Surprise. Familiarity. The blank page.  Revision.  Learning.  Adaptation.  Change.  This man’s brain must have known women with very different lives than ours. Women in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and so on.  This brain ultimately decided to give itself to a future that it once could have never imagined, a future wherein a small circle of women—scientists and poets—could finally be allowed to hold a man’s brain in their hands and, in that moment, search for the right word to describe how it feels: Symmetrical.


Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. She  has recently completed a memoir about touring the world as a professional fake violinist, a job wherein she played her violin in front of a dead microphone while a CD recording of a far more talented violinist was blasted toward unwitting audiences in our nation’s finest concert halls.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore