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Miracle Of The Black Leg
Back in the spring of 2011, the editors at Tin House were thrilled to publish Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Miracle of The Black Leg” in our “Mysterious” issue. The poem is a beautiful and scary lyric narrative about race, mystery, a kind of violence, and a telling about how story changes. And now we at Tin House are once again thrilled to celebrate the news of Trethewey’s Poet Laureateship. We look forward to her term as Poet Laureate and her advocacy for poetry being lifted to national attention. Help us raise a glass, perhaps a Tin House Martini, in celebration of this wonderful poet.
MIRACLE OF THE BLACK LEG
—Appearing much later than written versions, pictorial
representations of the myth of the miraculous/transplant
performed by the physicians Cosmas and Damian exist in
several countries and date back to the mid-fourteenth century.
1. Always, the dark body hewn asunder; always one man is healed, his sick limb replaced, placed in another man’s grave: the white leg buried beside the corpse, or attached as if it were always there. If not for the dark appendage, you might miss the story beneath this story— what remains each time the myth changes: how, in one version, the doctors harvest the leg from a man, four days dead, in his tomb at the church of a martyr, or—in another—desecrate a body fresh in the graveyard at St. Peter-in-Chains: there was buried just today an Ethiopian. Even now, it stays with us: when we mean to uncover the truth, we dig, say: unearth. 2. Emblematic in paint, signifier of the body’s lacuna, the black leg is at once a grafted narrative, a redacted line of text, and in this scene: a dark stocking pulled above the knee. Here the patient sleeping, his head at rest in his hand. Beatific, he looks as if he’ll wake from a dream. On the floor beside the bed, a dead Moor—hands crossed at the groin, the swapped limb pocked and rotting, fused in place. And in the corner, a question: poised as if to speak the syntax of sloughing, a snake’s curved form. It emerges from the mouth of a boy like a tongue—slippery and rooted in the body as knowledge. For centuries, this is how the myth repeats: the miracle—in words or wood or paint—is a record of thought. 3. See how the story changes: in one painting the Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face. In another, the patient— at the top of the frame—seems to writhe in pain, the black leg grafted to his thigh. Below him a mirror of suffering: the blackamoor— his body a fragment—arched across the doctor’s lap as if dying from his wound. If not immanence, the soul’s bright anchor, blood passed from one to the other, what knowledge haunts each body— what history, what phantom ache? One man always low, in a grave or on the ground, the other up high, closer to heaven; one man always diseased, the other a body in service, plundered? 4. Both men are alive in Villoldo’s carving. In twinned relief, they hold the same posture, the same pained face, each man reaching to touch his right leg. The black man, on the floor, holds his stump. Above him, the doctor restrains the patient’s arm as if to prevent him touching the dark amendment of flesh. How not to see it— the men bound one to the other—symbiotic, one man rendered expendable, the other worthy of this sacrifice? In version after version, even when the Ethiopian isn’t there, the leg is a stand in, a black modifier against the white body, or a piece cut off—as in: origin of the word comma— caesura in a story that’s still being written.
Natasha Trethewey is the author of two previously published collections, Bellocq’s Ophelia and Domestic Work. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she was the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Grolier Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at Emory University.