They’ve Skinned the Dead ||| from Leveler

While touring Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Exhibit in Denver, CO

Walking the exhibit where they’ve skinned the dead
and positioned them like ice skaters, lovers, archers,
I should be contemplating mortality and matter,
the slowly failing connections
of bone, ligament, and muscle,
but I can’t stop staring at the penises.
I circle the glass enclosures for better angles,
and the curator claims everything is real,
but the dicks look plastic and white,
like the non-smoker’s lungs
at the entrance of this aesthetic meat locker.

Jillian refuses to walk with me
after “The Hurdler” brings me to laughter.
It’s the athlete’s scissored legs,
the closeness of hurdle and plastic member.
I cringe at possible collision,
my hands involuntarily cup my groin.
Then: I imagine the intern positioning the scene
with hanging body and obstacle,
the smoking artist demanding,
drag the hurdle closer.

At the heart display,
a boy and his parents
hover over the spot lit corner case.
They point, bow their heads in unison,
then quiet suddenly,
and the boy keeps his eyes
open during the prayer.
He’s studying the fist-sized organ,
stares it down like it’s the last
unknowable thing in the universe,
and it isn’t until they pass me that
I notice the protrusion,
the baseball-sized bulge
under the boy’s 49ers shirt,
directly over his heart.
If they have to go back in
will he waive off the drugs,
and beg to peek at the one muscle
throbbing him alive?

One cut cadaver displays his snaking entrails,
another grabs her knees,
arching open a neatly rowed spinal column,
and there’s an unwrapped, sinewy pair
fighting for a hockey puck with plastic helmets,
ice skates, and regulation sticks.
Did these men know what they
signed up for when they donated their bodies?
Did they ever play hockey,
or is this is their first time?
My body numbs to this fleshless art,
to brains and blood vessels and penises and disease.
I figure I won’t be able to eat meat for a week
when I spot Jillian, stone-faced hypnotized
in front of a series of lit glasses.
It’s a room of fetuses from five-weeks on,
preserved whiter than the non-smoker’s lungs.
One glass holds a nine-week fetus,
same age as the one Jillian warms inside her,
and she reaches out to touch the glass
but uniformed security warns, Can’t touch,
so she feels her own body, just below the belt,
and we watch the suspended replica of our child,
curled and quiet, float.



Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Recent work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Epoch, Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, and the Best American series. He is the recipient of the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction and a distinguished fellowship from The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida where he serves as the Nonfiction Editor at The Southeast Review.


They’ve Skinned the Dead” originally appeared in Leveler.