Luca's Fabrica

Sarah Campbell

















      Andreas Vesalius, great anatomist of the sixteenth century, author of the seven-volume textbook De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body), gives these instructions for preparing to dissect a corpse:


When I undertake the dissection of a human cadaver I pass a stout rope tied like a noose beneath the lower jaw and through the zygomas up to the top of the head . . . .  The lower end of the noose I run through a pulley fixed to a beam in the room so that I may raise or lower the cadaver as it hangs there or turn around in any direction to suit my purpose; . . . You must take care not to put the noose around the neck, unless some of the muscles connected to the occipital bone have already been cut away.


The warning at first seems bizarre: take care not to hang the body you’re hanging.  Don’t noose the neck—even a dead one.

      Sometimes, the book’s title is poorly, but perhaps appropriately, translated as: On the Fabric of the Human Body.  One copy of the book in the library at Brown University is covered in human skin.  This skin-cover is said to look more like leather than fabric, shined to a golden brown.  It may have come from the body of a convict or someone else whose corpse no one claimed.


      Investigators and artists often begin with the white cloth.  One lifts it and looks beneath; the other covers it with brushstrokes, marks, or stains.  The model or object is placed upon it and so the work is laid out.  The first poem inRochelle Owens’s Luca is titled “White Cloth” and starts something rolling like a bolt of cotton dropped from the top of hill.  Luca puts us in the atelier of a master artist in the midst of his making what would be viewed—at least within the last hundred years—as the most famous painting in the world.

      In January of this year, academics at the University of Heidelberg announced, based on the discovery of marginalia, that the woman in this famous portrait is, beyond doubt, Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant.  They believe the portrait was commissioned for the couple’s new home on the occasion of the birth of a son.  Other interpreters propose that the woman, because she hovers before an imaginary landscape, represents an ideal, rather than real, woman, and question whether the painting should even be considered a portrait in the traditional sense.  Owens’s interest in the Mona Lisa is not to weigh in art-historically, but to speculate in broader strokes about its scene of creation, to hold her own white cloth-page up to the light and show us how it resembles a shroud.  She writes, “maneuvering the text / onto the shroud     one can sit wondering // in the same position thinks Mona // nailed into space” and with lines like these, continuously moves us into indeterminate subject positions: the “one” who sits might be the author assuming the posture or perhaps identity of “Mona,” or “one” might be the thing Mona thinks.  The poem maintains such multiplied perspective all the way through.  Every perception, each behavior is unassigned: the artist thinking might be the model thinking; the object may be subject.  So too, the hundreds of images made of the Mona Lisa every day in Room 5 of the Louvre contain the reflected forms of the photographing crowd spilling over a wooden barrier, craning for a view of the woman under bulletproof glass.

      Luca’s shrouded page “bears faint / hidden forms bears the faint blood-stained image of a whipped and crucified woman,” thus presenting itself as a re-imaging of another iconic “canvas,” the Shroud of Turin.  The Shroud bears the visage of a beaten, bearded man—not woman.  “I wanted to bring the twofold image / one woman portrayed related deemed,” writes Owens, and in doing so, two icons smash up against each other, the Shroud (“upon which,” writes Bishop D’Arcis, “by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and the front” ) and the Mona Lisa.  The Turin Shroud, like the painting, has been a magnet for obsessive speculation as to its provenance and significance, often through attempts to nail down the identity of person in the image.  One of the wilder theories names Da Vinci himself as the author—and face—of the Shroud of Turin.  With wonderful convolution, this theory posits that the Shroud is both the first instance of photography as well as a hoax in which Da Vinci replaced an earlier shroud with the current one, thereby substituting his face for the one some believe to be the face of Christ.  “[B]ehind the opaque sketch the molecular / wrath expertise deepening the explanation // smacking into the theory for / rival theories.”   Luca, of course, is not interested in presenting a codified, carbon-dated rival theory; instead, it offers poetry’s means for “deepening the explanation.” Luca’s processes include generating motion and breath within a maelstrom of images, and in this way tooling, if not a theory, then a response to an inherited, troubling mythology in which iconicity, gender, and art smack into each other.  Violence occurs with acts of creation; the poem explodes in order to tell it.

      The monolith of male artistic genius shadows messy human occasions such as the scene of artistic production sketched in Luca.  The poem is a scrim raised and lowered, lit from behind and from the front, giving only opaque or obscured images of its characters, who are listed at the opening of the poem as “The Persons” in the manner of a play.  In the Da Vinci atelier of Owens’s construction, a little boy runs around underfoot and is ogled by Lenny, “the artist,” and the sitter is “Mona,” just “another model” who substitutes for her friend Flora, “the model.”  That she is “Mona,” the Italian abbreviation of Madonna as in “Madam” or “my lady,” and not “Lisa,” situates her as a representative woman, whose interest for Owens is her gender, not her biographical identity.  With the leveling of the master Leonardo Da Vinci into the familiar “Lenny” (and eventually into the disjointed “Leo  na  r  do”), already the iconic is reconfigured, the story is a new one, or rather only just barely a story.  Syntax is broken up, singeing the narrative threads; reading the pieces is like sifting through the charred remnants of a fire.  We are inhaling the dust of this burnt scene of creation, rather than its greatness. 

      Repetitions, woven into Luca’s form, sometimes make us catch our breath accordingly, as in lines that work like this one: “mistrust hidden when there was neither / neither sky nor earth.”   The other type of repetition—less close—cycles the poem forward; strings of words occur, then repeat at sporadic intervals and with new subject attribution, eventually fading out, to be replaced by other node-phrases that recur and then also fade.  In some cases, the repeating phrases seem to perform primarily a rhythmic function, rather than being picked up again for their content.  But, given repetition’s chemistry, it can be impossible to hold that impression: when things repeat, they seem inevitably to gain in significance.  Other recurring phrases, meanwhile, strike me as enacting the poet’s process.  Two of these, repeated most often in the middle section of the book, are: “a lira here a lira there” and “I’m a hungry bum searching the seams / of a discarded wallet.”  The speaker is counting change while the phrase’s repetition introduces a nonstandard count, a uniquely conceived meter, across the poem.  With the latter phrase, the speaker, perhaps like the poet, is looking for sustenance in refuse, in a fold of presumed or former “gold.”  Such foraging also resembles mining Da Vinci’s notebooks for a portrait of the artist since his papers are known for being pocked with lists of expenditures, tallies of monies he spent—on the funeral of a woman for instance (presumed to be his mother because he has paid the bill), or on clothes for an apprentice.  The speaker, the reader, the poem’s “persons,” Da Vinci, his biographers, Owens—everyone is potentially counting money, combing for change/s.

      Reissuing the master story, Owens indicates, requires something other than a normative syntax. Owens is not just eschewing familiar grammars, but with these patterns at the level of the phrase, she introduces her own rhythmic course.  It’s as if she’s asking, by trying: what kind of story adheres to a rhythm divorced of traditional couplings?  What kind of narrative motion flickers before our eyes when all the connectives and directives are excised, and in which the first person identity could be any one of “the persons” or is simply, like the poem’s chancy patterning, “the first person one came across.”   Whatever historical fiction is rendered here, it is too blurry to make out and is dotted with some contemporary wording which alerts us to Owens’s aim: elongate the scope or warp the pinhole view into this reconstructed artist’s studio.

      Like the Shroud, the poem’s vision is often twofold: looking at male and/from/at female, for instance.  “[H]e always trembled when she began / to paint.”   In this, Owens seems to deliberately flout the advice of the master, who instructs, “In a composition, it is wrong to repeat the same motions of figures, or the same folds in their draperies; or to make faces look alike.” Repetition, folding, and superimposing images to the point of our not being able to tell them apart are the essence of Luca’s composition. “I worked for years bent forward,” someone says (the poet? the “sitter”? the painter? the anatomist?), “ . . . doubling versions slowly before her / revenge on reading glances backward / viewed.”   The enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile, many have said, is twofold: it is innocent and inviting, tender and menacing. 

          The book’s full title, like the smile, is mysterious, ambivalent: Luca: Discourse on Life and Death.  The eponymous Luca is Leonardo’s teacher and doesn’t surface—by name at least—until towards the end of the book and then only as a whisper into the ear (and elsewhere, mouth) of Leonardo’s student, Salia: “murmured into Salia’s ear Luca Luca.”   Someone is bypassing the master in intoning the name of his teacher to his student.  It may be the artist’s model, Flora, who twice appears in the vicinity of this phrase, “flinging kernels.”   To bypass the lessons of the master artist in favor of his antecedents and his legacy may be one of the poem’s objectives; the title indicates that the idea of the teacher, if not the specific person Luca, presides over the book’s concerns.  Such relocated emphasis is yet another way Owens jostles the contemporary mythologizing of Da Vinci as the consummate teacher—an attitude alive and well as books like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Advice to Artists attest (this particular book gathers instructive selections from Da Vinci’s notebooks, “lovingly edited,” we are told, by Emery Kelen).

      If Luca is a “Discourse on Life and Death,” what are its precepts?  “[D]eath may be gist essence,” Owens proposes, and I take her to mean of art.   Behind every masterpiece is that human mess (Lenny leering at the toddler’s “heart-shaped heinie,” the bickering and foul moods, and more serious suggestions of violence, “[rising] like a column of blood ’neath your / shimmery hair” ).  Bodies lie in the wake of genius, even if they are already dead—like the cadavers from Santa Maria Nuovo Hospital in Florence that Da Vinci was permitted to dissect once he was an established artist.   Cadavers and “death patterns” undergird the weave of Luca; its form is one of fabric, where lines cross and recross each other.  This cloth-page begins with the assumption that every canvas has doubled as a shroud.  “the first skull showing lines crossed / recrossed yellow skin raw you stare . . . used nails every inch death patterns.”   To get that close to the body, to see how it works, to go deep—there’s bound to be blood on your hands.  In the Renaissance, the artist might also be an anatomist and the anatomist collaborated with artists—the line between slicing open the human thorax or the foot of a bear, and rendering it on the page was blade-thin. 

      Da Vinci’s practice was animative; he wanted to overcome simulation by excelling at it.  He cut up dead bodies, in part, the better to draw more lifelike figures; understanding the muscles, tendons, and skeleton that shape and propel the human figure.  He writes, “A figure that does not make lifelike gestures can be said to be twice dead: the first time because the painting itself is not alive, only simulating living things but having no life in itself, so that if you do not add liveliness of action, it is dead for the second time.” Luca, differently, comes up against art’s “problem” of the twice dead, as well.  What kind of revivification of the people of Da Vinci’s atelier (and later in the poem, the Aztecs) will take place in a poem that is looking backward over so much intervening time, and whose structures thwart the referential resorts of realist verse?  If curious art is dissection, then is the aim of the painter or poet who puts their hands on the shrouded past inevitably the folly of trying not to kill a corpse?  Take care not to put the noose around the neck, Vesalius instructs—the anatomist as worried as the artist about twice killing.  To be fair, Vesalius’s methodical hanging of the corpse is a sign of the technician’s expertise, not of absurdity.  Even a cadaver bound for dismantling must be handled the right way.  Owens’s relation to the twice dead is not Da Vinci’s—may be closer to Vesalius’s.  Da Vinci worries that his dead-living figures won’t look alive in a sketch; Vasalius takes the dead as they are, organs out and skin removed, and has his illustrators render them as living dead.  The Vesalius cadavers stride around with their scalps piled atop their heads like gorey toupees, while their muscles and tendons hang off of them in streamers.  They are jaunty, they are busy, and finally, at the end of a long day of dissection, they are exhausted.  One especially emptied fellow leans against the wall of a ruin.  He can hardly stand, so much of his supporting musculature has been removed.  Even so, he’s gesturing at something near him.  We look closer and see that he’s pointing at his own inner intercostal muscles and costal cartilage set on the ground beside him. 

      The Fabrica images are one way of understanding the animating potential of the dead.  Perhaps Owens’s sense of how the poem conducts dissection has some affinities.  The poem looks the dead in their faces this way, often incorporating body parts irrespective of the blood: “manic her fingers expose disgorge / bones tendons & muscles waves rose // rose like a column of blood    splashes.”   The effect of Luca’s dissections is not ultimately that of the Vesalius figures—not a macabre playfulness or casualness.  But anatomist, artist, and poet all grasp that dissection is a way to see further within the living.


a trachea whence the voice passes

b oesophagus when the food passes

c apoplectic vessels whence pass the vital spirits

d dorsal spine where the ribs arise

e vertebrae where the muscles arise

which end in the neck and raise up

the face to the sky


This particular dissection in the poem produces an alphabet.  “And I made an anatomy to see / the cause of a death so sweet,” the speaker says, but Luca is doing more than looking for the  cause of death, it is looking at what builds up the iconic body and seeing if that construction is something you can write with.