Thursday, February 18, 2016

Kenneth Goldsmith, The Body of Abraham Lincoln

Body-Dead Abracoln, image by Daniel Y. Harris 

The Body of Abraham Lincoln
Kenneth Goldsmith

  The room contained but little furniture: a large, heavily curtained bed, a sofa or two, bureau, wardrobe, and chairs. Seated around the room were several general officers and some civilians, silent or conversing in whispers, and to one side, stretched upon a rough framework of boards and covered only with sheets and towels, lay—cold and immovable—what but a few hours before was the soul of a great nation. The Surgeon General was walking up and down the room when I arrived and detailed me the history of the case. He said that the President showed most wonderful tenacity of life, and, had not his wound been necessarily mortal, might have survived an injury to which most men would succumb.
  Dr. Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize.
  Silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named 'vital spark' as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.
  The weighing of the brain gave approximate results only, since there had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln's size.
  The eyelids and surrounding parts of the face were greatly ecchymosed and the eyes somewhat protuberant from effusion of blood into the orbits.
  There was a gunshot wound of the head around which the scalp was greatly thickened by hemorrhage into its tissue. The ball entered through the occipital bone about one inch to the left of the median line and just above the left lateral sinus, which it opened. It then penetrated the dura mater, passed through the left posterior lobe of the cerebrum, entered the left lateral ventricle and lodged in the white matter of the cerebrum just above the anterior portion of the left corpus striatum, where it was found.
  The wound in the occipital bone was quite smooth, circular in shape, with beveled edges. The opening through the internal table being larger than that through the external table. The track of the ball was full of clotted blood and contained several little fragments of bone with small pieces of the ball near its external orifice. The brain around the track was pultaceous and livid from capillary hemorrhage into its substance. The ventricles of the brain were full of clotted blood. A thick clot beneath the dura mater coated the right cerebral lobe.
  There was a smaller clot under the dura mater of the left side. But little blood was found at the base of the brain. Both the orbital plates of the frontal bone were fractured and the fragments pushed upwards toward the brain. The dura mater over these fractures was uninjured. The orbits were gorged with blood.
  Shot. One inch left median line traversing left lateral sinus upper edge, through occipital bone toward edge of lateral sinus. Thru occipital bone, touched ledge of lateral sinus, struck posterior lobe traversing it in a horizontal place (passing forwards inclining to the right). In orifice of wound a scale blood two-and-a-half inches in track, pieces of bone—two pieces of bone about four inches in advance in track of ball. Entered the left ventricle behind, followed the course of ventricle accurately, inching upwards and inwards, ploughing thru the upper part of thalamus nervorum opticorum, other two lodged in cerebral matter just above the corpus stratum of the left side.
  The brain track of ball was in a bubbly disintegrated state.
 Both ventricles filled with blood. Whole brain engorged and bloody prints. More matter than wounds. On reviewing, the dura mater was displaced with a large coagulation of blood—lying upon the right hemisphere of the brain. Reviewing the dura mater, no wound in which was found, we found the orbital plates of both sides, the seat of comminuted fracture, the fragments being forced from within, outward. The orbit oculum palpitated membrane and cavity was filled with blood. Origin of which we didn't seek. The right had been notably protruded, later sank back after death. Ecchymoses of the left eye first and right eye second.  
  Great oedema of sinus and a little blood extravasated about shot wound, clean cut as if by a punch. Two feet off orbital plates, very thin.

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (, and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, which is the basis for an opera, Trans-Warhol, premiering in Geneva in March of 2007. Goldsmith is also the host of a weekly radio show on New York City's WFMU. He teaches writing at The University of Pennsylvania, where he is a senior editor of PennSound, a online poetry archive. More about Goldsmith can be found on his author's page at the University of Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center: