Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the author of A Mind Like This, winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Below she describes how she came to write the first poem titled "Pickled Heads, Saint Petersburg." (Read the full poem here.)
I've always had a brain like a lint-roller, with the qualifier that only nonessential information sticks to it. I'm bad at theorems and birthdays, but I can tell you the names of the six Irishmen who carried Emily Dickinson to her grave and that frogs have to close their eyes to swallow because the pressure of the eyeballs on the roofs of their mouths moves the food along. You're welcome.
My problem is that the sources which supply me with these delights often have their own agendas, leaving me to fill in the gaps on my own. So when, while reading Stephen T. Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, I came across stories of some of Peter the Great's specimens – the hermaphrodite he had stuffed and displayed and the heads of Peter's wife's lover and his own mistress, which he had preserved in jars of that new discovery "spirits of wine" (our ethyl alcohol) – I screeched to a stop. Who? Asma's cheery "Maybe he was thinking he and Catherine could put their past infidelities behind them and start afresh" really didn't address my questions about what was going on, especially when he mentioned in passing that Peter ordered his queen to display the head on her mantlepiece. While Asma continued on to consider the linked and diverging histories of embalming and taxidermy, I was remembering similar stories.
Heads in jars reminded me that the one in Antonio Banderas's The Mask of Zorro was based on the actual head of Joaquín Murrieta, rumored still to be in a private collection in California. This in turn reminded me of a picture I'd seen of Jeremy Bentham's entire body, with wax head, stored in some university cabinet. A little research revealed that his actual head had once been found in a luggage locker in Aberdeen, once on the front quadrangle being used as a football by medical students, but was now safely lodged in the cabinet's bottom drawer. Finally, entire preserved bodies reminded me of reading Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez, about the career of Evita Perón's beautifully embalmed, much-kidnapped corpse and the deaths that followed every time it changed hands.
Of course, the real pleasure comes in trying to discover by writing the poem what else, if anything, these stories have in common, what they suggest about us, and why they resonate for me. So if they also suggest the tangent of saints with incorruptible bodies, like Saint Teresa of Ávila, who lost another couple of fingers every time her sweet-smelling tomb was opened, or Saint Clare, whose reputation then went through two incorruptibility downgrades – well, sometimes you have to save something for the next poem, one where the circumstances may be similar but the subject is different. Which is why I'm currently working on one about a double date involving Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Evita, and Thoreau.