Skip to main content


The Poetics of Medical Imaging

Jessica Lewis Luck

A black and white photograph of a woman’s head with an MRI scan of the skull and brain covering her face.

Fig. 1: Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Memory Picture No. 12, 1992.

In 1950, the poet Charles Olson published his famous essay “Projective Verse,” a text which arguably marks a shift in twentieth century poetics from the poem as an “act of the mind,” as Wallace Stevens described modern poetry, to an act of the body – engendered by the breath, the ear, and bodily movement. In his 1962 piece, “Proprioception,” Olson further elucidated the poetics of projective verse, arguing that it emerges from “the ‘body’ itself as, by movement of its own tis-/sues, giving the data of depth.”1 Around the same time Olson was writing these words, medical scanning devices such as the ultrasound were being developed and deployed that allowed doctors and technicians to see not just bones, but organs and tissues – “the data of depth” on the screen.2 Just ten years later in 1972, the CT scan was invented, and in 1977 the first full-body MRI scanner, nicknamed “the Indomitable,” took nearly five hours to produce the first ever complete scan of a human body.3 What for Olson was “proprious-ception / ‘one’s own’-ception,”4 felt from the inside and projected outward in one’s verse, has now become subject to the medical gaze and its seemingly “indomitable” discourse, power, and control. What happens when these dynamic depths of the body become spectacle? And how might an embodied poetics function when Olson’s proprio-ception, one’s own feeling and experience of the body’s interior, transforms into proprio-spection, the ability to see into and map that territory? Poets with disabilities, I have found, are often among the first to pose these essential questions. Their poems persistently and insistently investigate our transformative relationship to the interior of the body, and, through their poetic acts of proprio-spection, they work to probe and expose the ways that medical imaging shapes the body and its treatment. At the same time, they appropriate and reinterpret the spectacle of the body’s interior through their own visual aesthetics and activism.5

Donna Haraway’s essential book on feminism and technoscience, Modest_Witness@ Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse, begins with a painting by Lynn Randolph that offers a helpful visual metaphor for the poetics of medical imaging we will examine here. A draped woman enters an MRI machine. Appearing on the screen above her, in addition to the image of her brain, are various cartoonish figures of an alligator, a pocket watch with crab claws, a demon, and a skeleton threatening the skull with a hammer and a spear, a mermaid, and a pink penis and testes.

A drawing of a woman covered in a sheet entering an MRI machine. Above her is a picture of a brain scan alongside cartoonish figures.

Fig. 2: Lynn Randolph – “Immeasurable Results” (1994).

Haraway glosses the implications of the image and its blending of art and technology, the conscious and the unconscious, the private and the public:

Technoscientific subjects and objects are gestating in the matrices of the MRI scan. The moment of reading and scanning of being read and being scanned, is the moment of vulnerability through which new articulations are made. . . .We read these signs by the syntactical rules of technoscience. We are inside its material grammar; we both embody and contest its rules. But we are also in a world of immeasurable results, a world that exceeds its representations and blasts syntax.6

The poets and artists that follow – Hillary Gravendyk, Alex Lemon, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Danielle Pafunda, David Wolach, and Joyce Cutler-Shaw – have gestated in the matrices of these scanning devices and given birth to new representations, new ways of seeing and speaking about the body that engage and transform the gaze and discourse of technoscience.

Their poetic examinations of the politics of medical imaging complement and complicate a growing body of work by cultural theorists in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) who situate these devices as in dialogue with their cultural and historical context and consider the political and social implications of these new tools of the medical gaze. José van Dijck, Lisa Cartwright, and Kirsten Ostherr consider the intersections between imaging technology and mass media, both of which converge on the idea of visual spectacle.7 Other writers focus on the unique implications of individual scanning technologies: Joseph Dumit on the PET scan, Barry F. Saunders on CT scans, and Kelly A. Joyce on the MRI.8 An edited collection, The Visible Woman, exposes medical imaging as a staging ground for struggles over power and control of women’s bodies in particular.9 The poets I discuss here similarly take on the culture and politics of imaging in the content of their poems, but unlike these external sociological and ethnographic studies, these writers analyze and theorize the internal phenomenological experience of being the object of the scanner’s gaze. To be sure, these poems reflect – and reflect upon – the technology, but they also engage with the poetics and aesthetics of the imaging devices themselves. Both poem and machine are “imaging devices” of a sort. Thus, through the “proprious-ception” of their embodied poetics, these artists in various ways reveal and explore a politics of medical imaging in the poem’s content, as well as enact that politics within the devices, the techne, of the poem itself.10

Other critics have connected the earlier scanning technology of the X-ray (invented by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895) to modernist art and aesthetics. Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles spends the first half of her historical survey of medical imaging in the twentieth century on the X-ray and argues convincingly for the influence of the technology on the cubism of Picasso and Braque, as well as on the avant-garde aesthetics of Marcel Duchamp (whose brother was a doctor enamored of X-rays) and Frida Kahlo.11 Back in the U.S., Muriel Rukeyser incorporates X-rays of miners with silicosis as powerful testimonials in The Book of the Dead (1938).12 While the X-ray creates a flat, static image of the body’s skeleton, turning the patient into a living corpse, new scanning technologies display the body’s living tissues and organs in three dimensions, sometimes even in motion, capturing the DEPTH and MOVEMENT of the physical body that is so key to Olson’s postmodern projective verse. What contemporary disability poetry reveals, I argue, is that, unlike the X-ray haunted by the corpse and its modernist meaninglessness, new scanning devices are haunted by the postmodern challenge of too much meaning and information – the problem of interpretation itself.13


Scanning the Body Poetic

In The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault famously uncovers the new epistemology of the medical gaze as it emerged in the 18th century. He finds that the earliest examinations of the depths of the body were also haunted by the corpse, quite literally, as medical students began to dissect cadavers in the anatomy lab and mentally project those images onto the living bodies of their patients.14 Though the clinic is “constantly praised for its empiricism, the modesty of its attention and the care with which it silently lets things surface to the observing gaze without disturbing them with discourse,”15 Foucault, always the buzzkill for modern institutions and their innovations, reveals the ways that this gaze into the body’s depths is shot through with discourse that fundamentally transformed medicine’s understanding of the body, diagnosis, and disease. Donna Haraway extends Foucault’s genealogy of the medical gaze into the twentieth century, introducing us to the “modest witness” of technoscience:

He bears witness: he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects. His subjectivity is his objectivity. His narratives have a magical power – they lose all trace of their history as stories, as products of partisan projects, as contestable representations, or as constructed documents in their potent capacity to define the facts. The narratives become clear mirrors, fully magical mirrors, without once appealing to the transcendental or the magical.16

Haraway goes on to call for and conjure a “mutated modest witness” who resists and intervenes in the totalizing patriarchal power of various technoscience discourses, including its use of “figuration.” “Figurations,” she explains, “are performative images that can be inhabited. Verbal or visual, figurations can be condensed maps of contestable worlds.”17 The poets that follow embody and enact the “mutated modest witness” that Haraway calls for, reclaiming, inhabiting, and contesting the figurations of the medical scan and its representations in powerful ways.18

In a poem with the aptly dry title “Assessment,” Hillary Gravendyk considers the objectivity of the clinic as it discovers and responds to her lung disease and its imaging. “Goes the day, bleached / of its figures,” the poem begins, and Gravendyk’s language in the poem seems similarly “bleached of its figures,” taking on the emotionless, empirical tone of the doctors who attend her.

They found an error,
black with a white line,

and decided to have it
removed. A blank warren

folded behind every one
of their chests.

Goes the day and
the day’s administration:

organs flat as mirrors,
the hour, a deflated body.19

Note that the scan’s revelation is described not as something concrete such as a lesion or a cyst, but as an “error,” something abstract, an anomaly in the numerical measurements that they must (passively and modestly) “have removed.” Gravendyk offers her own imagined “scan” of their chests in return and finds only a “blank warren” there, which might describe their healthy lungs that are devoid of “errors,” but also and more importantly their lack of proverbial “heart.” “Goes the day” with no evocative adverb or adjective and the day’s “administration,” arguably the driest possible term for the “action of taking care, [or] looking after” someone.20 Gravendyk looks into the “clear mirrors” of the images and narratives produced by the modest witness of her doctors and finds them “flat,” “deflated.” In response, she takes the scanner-produced images of her lungs and inflates/inspires them with the richness of poetic imagery and metaphor. Her medical condition (IPF) presents a pattern known as “honeycombing” in medical scans, and she embraces the image of the hive as a trope for her poems. If her doctors’ chests are a “blank warren,” Gravendyk’s is humming with honey and light: “Hived lung, yellow and tangled with blue air”; “little hive buried in the chest, little swarm”; “honeycomb lung you / were whiter then, your light-box heart, lit / for every occasion.”21

Though the medical scan might seem to be a “clear mirror” into the depths of the living body, the figurations they produce are anything but. Take Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as an example. The term “imaging” in its title notwithstanding, the MRI machine is not a camera and does not use x-ray techniques. As Kelly A. Joyce explains in her insightful cultural analysis of the technology, Magnetic Appeal, “Instead, MRI is used to numerically measure how hydrogen nuclei absorb and release energy in response to particular frequencies.”22 Each MRI scan, then, consists of a series of complex translations. The machine produces not images but a statistical map, and those numerical translations are further coded into a visual image, and finally, those images are then interpreted by a radiologist in a written report.23 Due to the complexity of this reading process, physicians commonly come up with divergent interpretations of the images.24 To add one more level of intricacy, MRI scans can also expose UBOs or “unidentified bright objects,” variations from the anatomical norm that are probably unimportant but difficult for physicians to interpret.25 The MRI scan, then, like all representations, is a construct, a messy and mediated act of interpretation.26

Alex Lemon’s poem “MRI” from his collection Mosquito foregrounds the act of viewing a scan as an act of creative interpretation and seizes that act for himself. The poem begins with a paradigmatic “doc-at-the-box” moment,27 with his physician posing a rather artless figuration of the image of a lesion on Lemon’s brain:

An old man is playing fiddle in my head.
At least that’s what the doctor says,
pointing, as he holds my MRI to the light.

He must be eating the same hot dogs
my nephew microwaves. My nephew sees
Bob the Builder everywhere—smiling

in sauerkraut, sawing in the drifting sky.28

Lemon unseats the authority of the physician’s act of interpretation here by amusingly comparing it to a child’s figuration of a popular cartoon character. “But I don’t laugh,” writes Lemon, in the face of the gaze of this “machine worse / than any death – powerlessness / of a shaved & strapped-down body.”29 Resisting this feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability, he performs his own aesthetic reinterpretation of the image, “I think the veined cobweb // looks like Abe Lincoln’s profile on the penny.”30 If it’s all just about glib interpretation, Lemon suggests, “let’s pretend I’m not sick at all. / I’m filled with golden tumors.”31 And yet Lemon’s choice to re-image and imagine his brain scan as Lincoln is significant. Perhaps in keeping with his droll sense of humor throughout the book, he chooses a powerful national figure who also had a hole in his head. But he specifically references Lincoln’s portrait on the penny, which, significantly, is itself a copy of a copy of a copy. The portrait is a replica of artist Victor David Brenner’s 1909 plaque portrait, which is a copy of a famous 1864 photograph of the President by Anthony Berger.32 In Lemon’s re-visioning of his MRI scan, he reveals the layers of representation and interpretation that are always already at work in any image, exposing them as performative and contestable worlds.

The poet Laurie Clements Lambeth performs a similar act of resistance by mutating the doctor’s “modest witness” of the live action “Large Loop Excision” of a cyst on her cervix into a feminist work of art. The poem begins ekphrastically, carefully describing Georgia O’Keefe’s 1934 painting, “Red Amaryllis”: “Pale red and smooth, a little mouth inside. A flower… each fold / deep crimson at center.” Then she addresses the painter herself:

Georgia, the clinic shows me

my insides on a video monitor,
aided by microscopic vision,
studio lighting. How could you know
so long ago, without your own speculum
or microscope, what lay deepest inside

a woman: tissue, mouth, amaryllis?
You saw something unexplored about women
that only a woman can explore
, [O’Keefe’s words in italics]
painted it a lush metaphor. Today
I witness the tenor to your vehicle.33


A closeup painting of a single red flower on a yellow background.

Fig. 3: Georgia O’Keefe – “Red Amaryllis” (1934).

O’Keefe’s painting emerged from a remarkable act of proprio-ception by the artist herself who imag(in)es the interiors and depths of her body through the painting of a flower. For O’Keefe, this imagery was personal and private, “something unexplored about women / that only a woman can explore.” But what was once private has now been made public through the mediation of medical technology – self-knowledge becomes self-fragmentation.34 In resistance to the violent empiricism of the medical gaze, Lambeth reclaims the imagery of her body that she sees on the screen, painting her own “lush metaphors” as O’Keefe did:

…The cervix transforms, turns blue
as sky through bones in the desert…

A wash of iodine strokes corrections
on this sky, makes flesh more akin to flora—
corolla and pistil, a heavy pigment.35

Then with “one round sweep” the lesion is gone, leaving a “wide hole inside a hole.”36 The “burnt sienna” of a coagulant comes in to stop the bleeding, and she sees “a flower once more,” this time O’Keefe’s “giant Poppy on screen and within me, / a bloom of color overcome by something / deeper, the wide, black center, a cavern.”37

A closeup painting of a red poppy with a dark center on a gray background.

Fig. 4: Georgia O’Keefe – “Red Poppy” (1927).

Though the medical gaze is focused on the “tenor,” the underlying subject of this procedure, the poet’s gaze is absolutely absorbed in the “vehicle” of the figure, its instability and multiplicity and undecidability. Its center is wide and black and empty, a “hole inside a hole.” It is Derrida’s aporia, perhaps – there is no real, no there there, only more and more proliferating interpretations. Though decidedly ambivalent about the penetration of the medical gaze and its probing and cutting instruments, Lemon and Lambeth reclaim the alarming “holes” created and exposed by medical intervention as an “absence,” an “opening,” into which they can project their own acts of proprio-spection and interpretation.38


Through a Scanner Darkly

While Gravendyk, Lemon, and Lambeth write poems reclaiming the interpretation of their medical scans, poets such as Danielle Pafunda and David Wolach take on the epistemology of the scan itself as a poetics and a politics of resistance in their work. Pafunda’s series of scanning poems appears in the essential anthology of U.S. disability poetry, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011). Her introductory essay titled “Meat Life” tells the story of how the medical gaze and its evolving scanning technology has shaped her diagnosis and treatment over the years. Diagnosed with a plummeting blood cell count in 1980, she was “split, spread, flayed, spun, [and] separated” with “blood samples, marrow samples, [and] gothic-looking x-ray machines,” which ultimately could find nothing wrong with her.39 And Pafunda makes an important point about the medical gaze: “if it cannot see your illness, your symptoms don’t exist.”40 In an odd twist, Pafunda finally receives the correct diagnosis of idiopathic neutropenia from her family’s veterinarian. Today her autoimmune disorder manifests itself as fibromyalgia, a disease whose symptoms have been around for centuries, but it wasn’t classified until it could be “seen” by an MRI neurological scan.41 Unlike the poets in the previous section who work to wrest the imagery of their scans away from the medical gaze, which is ultimately ignored or left behind in their poems, Pafunda wants “to attract the gaze, to pin it or fix it in place, and then show it those sights which will brutalize, horrify, repulse or shame it,”42 to expose the “modest witness” of the doctor as not-so-modest at all.43

Pafunda follows the essay with a series of poems titled “In this Plate” that reference the spectacle of the MRI plates that reveal her disease, but more importantly, they stage the problem of interpretation within the techne of their slippery language and imagery itself. The first poem acknowledges,

My illness is visible. For the first time
in centuries. A technician
can wheel me into the sick meat tube
and my meat will register.44

Yet Pafunda is also deeply aware that, though the MRI “plate” is something that finally validates her experience of pain, it also serves her “meat” up as a spectacle for the medical gaze to penetrate and consume. So her body bites back.

What will you ask me to do, [she addresses the doctors]
my tunica intima thick with teeth
and my neck herky-jerky
with an ethanol samba?45

Her tunica intima, the innermost lining of an artery or vein, is only visible via the MRI machine, but Pafunda transforms the image into a castrating vagina dentata. Her “meat” will “register,” that is, it will be detected by the device, make an impression, have an effect; but to “register” is also “to sight a gun on a target.”46

Pafunda’s “target” in these poems is clearly the medical gaze itself, which she conflates with the male gaze. The undecidability of her illness and the “herky-jerky” uncontrollability of her body become her weapons for resistance. This problem of interpretation and control is highlighted in the second poem in the series, again at the level of the language itself. “Lately, my illness agitates / just beneath the skin layer,” it begins, seemingly describing her own experience of bodily agitation and pain.47 But the following lines suggest her illness might also agitate the doctor, whom the speaker uncomfortably begins to describe as a lover: “In the dark, it will dumb you. It will twitch / over the border and take your hand.” Her body and illness are no longer ­passive, the object of the gaze, but active, agitating, resisting,

My muscles flare, bullish . . .

I lapse

just a ml. of fluid. I lap you.48

The “lap” here is sexual, implying licking or an embrace, but also getting ahead of a competitor in a race. The interpretive slipperiness grows even more complex in the poem’s defiant climax:

I string you, a fucked instrument,
a wire riddled perma-slaughter.

I shard and glisten. What sludge
for a bridegroom.49

What do the appositive phrases modify here? The speaker, penetrated by the wires and needles of the medical gaze, certainly could be described as “riddled” with holes, “slaughtered” and “fucked.” But it is the speaker who is the active subject of the sentence here, rather than its object: “I string you,” so that the doctor and his “instruments” become that which is riddled with wires and permanently slaughtering its patients. The poet strings the lyre of medicine’s “fucked instruments” to make them sing for herself.

If Pafunda aims for a Foucauldian discourse politics in her poetics, contesting the normalizing and controlling medical gaze in order to liberate the free play of differences, then David Wolach adopts a bio-politics, attempting to break the grip of medicine’s disciplinary power by reinventing the body itself with new behaviors.50 A series of his poems from Occultations (2010) begin as “site-specific corporeal procedures” he calls “distraction zones,” in which he subjects his own body to a complex set of stressors and distractors while simultaneously attempting to articulate the experience. As he explains, “these poems struggle to (un)map and (de)articulate the body’s position within a zone of pre-established discomfort, distraction, ‘noise,’ indicative of the surveillance-industrial complex.”51 The result is not so much a finished poem as “a degraded poem-attempt,” a “non-enclosed investigatory aesthetic ecosystem,” in which readers might be able to see or hear the lapsed logic of the discourses of power that shape their lives.52 Wolach hopes that merely staging and framing these bizarre constraints and self-imposed miniature acts of violence/control will “shake us up,” producing new feelings and behaviors, most importantly a somatic and cognitive awareness of these oppressive discourses that we live with every day without paying much affective attention.53

So how do these “distraction zones” work? One example is to write “in [the] rain 34f, just after running for one hour on treadmill at midnight with neuromuscular disease” while exploring “appendix m of cia interrogations manual [on] stress holds.54 But the one that interests me here is the poem “(muted domestic pornography)” which he wrote “while watching 1) online homemade pornography (no audio), and 2) surgical imaging stills of the inside of my urinary tract. oscillating between viewing (1) and (2), 30 second intervals.55 Like Pafunda’s refiguring of the doctor as a lover, the pairing of the medical scan and the pornographic film in this distraction zone shakes things up for us in interesting ways. As Donna Haraway implies, the “modest witness” of the doctor’s hand clutching the genitalia or the technician’s eyes gazing into the urinary tract are disinterested and “self-invisible,” never themselves witnessed or the object of a critical gaze.56 Wolach’s pairing suddenly associates the supposedly “modest” witness of the medical scan with the decidedly immodest gaze of the observer of online pornography and its related affects of voyeurism, titillation, and taboo.

If “porno-graphy” literally means “writing about prostitutes,”57 then Wolach’s poem itself becomes a prime example of the genre: “Never so held in held / Suspense: the long // Disease is pornographic,” the poem begins.58 He is the writer/“prostitute” whose body parts are “held” in “suspense” for the camera, his “holes . . . a constant testing / Ground” as he “roam[s] corporate clinics” later in the poem.59 Unlike Lambeth who reconstitutes the image of her body’s interior as an O’Keefe painting, Wolach finds the body to be an “occultation,” something hidden or cut off from view by the imposition of the medical scan. He writes,

… there is some I

Tensing with a perverting here
Here the sheen of a slowly open

Curve a depth I’ve seen this before[.]60

The body image is strangely familiar, but the “perpetual breaks of strata / In continuity becomes continuity”; that is, the only continuity here, paradoxically, is the experience of fragmentation itself. “I / I here cannot see is a here with yet no // Name.”61 Wolach stutters the I across a line break and highlights its undecidability under the gaze of the medical scanner – it cannot see, it has no name. The medical images of his urinary tract only see the self as the body part they portray, which Wolach highlights by his own act of imaging the letter “I” as a penis. The interpretive “delivery system” of the scanner “holds I up / Up by its penis a story halos above // It : degraded lyric as convergence of aporias.”62 While the modest witness of the medical scan wants to hold up the body under a saintly halo of divine disinterested data, Wolach’s poem-event de-sanctifies and dis-graces that gaze with its own “degraded lyric,” exposing the “convergence of aporias” at the heart of any act of imaging a body or imagining a self. As Wolach writes in the second part of the poem, it is this aporia, this “lack” “that allows ‘I’ to appear” in the first place.63 Though the “body’s impression [is] made” by the medical scan, that image is seen “only after,” only in retrospect, and “in its dissipative, changing telling” across time.64

To conclude, I’d like to turn to the artist Joyce Cutler-Shaw, who describes her work as occurring at the “borderland between the province of visual and poetic language.” Cutler-Shaw held the unique position of artist-in-residence at UC San Diego’s medical school beginning in 1992 until her death in 2018 from corticobasal degeneration, a rare progressive neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s.65 Her rich multi-genre, multi-media series The Anatomy Lesson, like the poems we have examined here, works to expose and critique the totalizing and dehumanizing gaze of the clinic’s discourse of anatomy.66 In a poem from the series she writes:

reading us on screens
reading us as scans
reading us as printouts
    graphs        and patterns
reading us as echoes    numbers
    and abstractions
we split our body from our self

In a surprise twist in the final line of this stanza, where we expect the “us” to be coded as the object of the medical gaze’s “they,” Cutler-Shaw suggests that in the act of proprio-spection these new technologies enable, we too “split our body from our self,” an effect dramatized by her photograph of an MRI scan overlaid across her face that serves as an epigraph to this essay. As José van Dijck reminds in her cultural analysis of medical imaging, “spectacle is now a feature of the technology that draws the public eye into the body, enabling the public to see what the surgeon sees.”68

The previous poems we have considered emerged from a poet’s individual encounter with images of their own body scans that we as readers observe by proxy. In “The Brain Project,” Cutler-Shaw confronts the reader/viewer directly with the spectacle of her brain scans, placing us in the role of interpreters, modest witnesses to images of her brain disorder. She places these videos inside three “tunnel books” she created, artist books that are made up of a set of pages bound with concertina strips on the side that create a 3D effect as the viewer looks from front to back through the tunnel of paper.

A photograph of three tunnel books on a shelf. A brain scan image is visible in all three

Fig. 5: Joyce Cutler-Shaw, The Brain Project (2013).

The choice of staging her scans inside a tunnel book is provocative as it recontextualizes the MRI image as something that is both a work of art, something to be looked at with a humanist as well as a scientific gaze, and a book, something for “reading” (a word repeated anaphoristically in her scanning poem cited above). Interestingly, tunnel books have also traditionally been used to commemorate special events or as souvenirs for tourist attractions, and so this choice of medium highlights how the personal scan too has become an exciting spectacle for public consumption. The two tunnel books on the outside have openings shaped like a human cranium viewed from above, offering the impression that the viewer is peering directly into the brain. But rather than immediate access to flesh or image, the viewer is confronted with negative space and another smaller oval frame further down the “tunnel,” before finally reaching the oscillating images of the brain. As concertinaed black boxes, the tunnel books also recall the shape of an early camera. Cutler-Shaw’s installation thus physically embodies David Wolach’s “convergence of aporias,” foregrounding the fact that imaging of any kind involves frames all the way down.

Though it has a similarly-shaped opening, the center tunnel book is crafted to look like it is made of bone, and as Cutler-Shaw reminds in one of her poems, “bone is alive.”69 The various layers of the tunnel book create the impression that we are peering through the strata of the skull, some of which obscure our view of the brain it protects. At first glance, it appears the artist is here acknowledging some direct access to the real, to the living material body, in the gaze of the scan. However, a closer look at the moving image playing in the video at the back of the tunnel book reveals that this image is not a brain scan at all but an original animated drawing by Cutler-Shaw inspired by the kinetic images of her MRI scans that appear in the companion boxes.


The perspective zooms in and out on the shifting images, which appear in subtle purples, blues, and pinks, in contrast to the gray scale images of the MRI.71 The video creates a Rorschach effect, as the kaleidoscoping images reveal decorative patterns, organic strata, and floral shapes, but also sinister figures and death’s heads.72 Cutler-Shaw’s public self-imaging of her own brain reveals a rich landscape of beauty and darkness within it, and by projecting this figure in a box of living bone, she suggests that it is an artist’s own act of proprio-spection that gets closer than the medical scan to the reality of embodied experience. And her public display of those body scans made by machine and by artist enlists and empowers us as viewers to participate in the interpretation of the body through our own visual activism.

The work of these poets and artists who have gestated in the matrices of the medical scanner and its gaze highlights and embodies the postmodern problem of multiplicity, instability, and undecidability at the heart of this new technology. You can “scan” a poem too (from the Latin scandere, to climb), looking for its underlying metrical structures. In fact, the medical use of the word “scan” is ultimately derived etymologically from the scanning of verse, as scanning came to mean to criticize or interpret something by examining it minutely.73 These poems remind us that the origins of scanning involve uncovering a form and a structure that interpreters are meant to actively “climb” and play within, rather than dominate and control. Through the politics in the poem’s content and of their aesthetic devices, they seize this problem of interpretation as an opportunity for active proprio-spection, “one’s-own” observation, projection, and transformation of the spectacles of medical scansion.

  1. Charles Olson, Collected Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 182. 

  2. The first ultrasound used for clinical purposes took place in Glasgow in 1956, but it wasn’t used more widely until later in that decade. Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997), 243. 

  3. Kevles, Naked to the Bone, 314. The number of medical scans that American patients receive is rapidly increasing every year, and the U.S. has one of the highest imaging exam rates in the world, second only to Japan. Irene Papanicolas, Liana R. Woskie, and Ashish K. Jha, “Health Care Spending in the United States and Other High-Income Countries,” JAMA, March 13, 2018.

  4. Olson, Collected Prose, 182. Emphasis in original. 

  5. My approach to a disability poetics here is informed and inspired by the work of scholars such as Michael Davidson and Rebecca Sanchez. Michael Davidson, Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). Rebecca Sanchez,Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature (New York: NYU Press, 2015). 

  6. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), xiv. 

  7. José van Dijck, The Transparent Body: A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imaging (University of Washington Press, 2005), 9. Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1995). Kirsten Ostherr, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2013). 

  8. Joseph Dumit, Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (Princeton University Press, 2004); Barry F. Saunders, CT Suite: The Work of Diagnosis in the Age of Noninvasive Cutting (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Kelly A. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency. (Cornell UP, 2008). 

  9. Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley, eds. The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender, and Science (New York: NYU Press, 1998). 

  10. Jed Rasula and other critics have made a useful distinction between the politics in the poem and the politics of the poem, which informs my thinking here. Craig Dworkin defines the politics of the poem as “what is signified by its form, enacted by its structures, implicit in its philosophy of language, how it positions its reader, and a range of questions relating to the poem as a material object.” Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 4. 

  11. Kevles, 124-35. See also, James Elkins, “Art History as the History of Crystallography,” in idem, The Domain of Images (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999). 

  12. See David Kadlec, “X-Ray Testimonials in Muriel Rukeyser,” Modernism/Modernity 5, no. 1 (January 1998): 23–47. 

  13. T.H. Crawford finds that even an advertisement for a contemporary imaging device ends up “foreground[ing] the problem of interpretation.” He argues that ultimately these machines “demonstrate that evidence in medical imaging always already constitutes a composite of [what Bruno Latour names] quasi objects and quasi texts, none of which alone grants privileged access to the truth of the body but which produce an effect of reality when superimposed.” T.H. Crawford, “Imaging the Human Body: Quasi Objects, Quasi Texts, and the Theater of Proof,” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 111, no. 1 (1996): 74, 77. 

  14. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (Place?: Routledge, 1973), 162. 

  15. Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, xix. 

  16. Haraway, Modest_Witness, 24. 

  17. Haraway, Modest_Witness, 11. 

  18. In the title poem of Bodymap, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha speculates, “If a map is an artifact made by explorers and colonizers / if a map names where bodies begin and end & who will own / their treasures,” then “these maps can be rewritten / Rewrite my body” (Toronto: Mawenzi House, 2015), 6. 

  19. Hillary Gravendyk, Harm (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2011), 23. 

  20. Oxford English Dictionary, “administration,” accessed August 28, 2019,

  21. Gravendyk, Harm, 68, 78, 70. The poet Cynthia Hogue makes some similar moves to Gravendyk in a section of the title poem from The Incognito Body called “Body Scans.”

    Light cast from above
    the machine marks
    you with a cross,
    a slanted star, a stained
    glass window of a church.

    Cynthia Hogue, The Incognito Body (Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2006), 49. 

  22. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal, 25. Or, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the experience in her poem “love you like a 7 am healthy San Francisco free MRI”: “that loud that terrifying / that held-on to hustled // that deep bell peeping and sounding your earth’s shake / a magnet four times stronger than the earth’s core,” 23. 

  23. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal, 14. 

  24. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal, 65. Joyce includes a particularly alarming example of a patient diagnosed with a pineal tumor about to go into brain surgery, but when the neurosurgeon double-checked the film just before cutting, he determined that the image was actually of a benign “flow void,” which didn’t require surgery. 

  25. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal, 66. 

  26. Interestingly, research scientists (as opposed to clinicians) attempt to avoid this messiness by insisting that their interest in MRI scans is not the images (what they disparagingly call “pretty pictures”) but the numerical data, the statistical maps. Anne Beaulieu writes that “This insistence on the quantitative is one of the strategies that prevents the ‘proliferation of meaning’ prized by artists and not by scientists . . . narrowing the possibility of interpretations that can be made of the results.” Anne Beaulieu, “Images Are Not the (Only) Truth: Brain Mapping, Visual Knowledge and Iconoclasm,” Science, Technology & Human Values 27, no. 1 (2002): 61. 

  27. Barry F. Saunders describes the “doc-at-the-box” scene occurring “throughout popular and professional media” as a new cliché/image that replaces the doc-with-stethoscope or doc-with-head-mirror as a pictorial stand-in for medicine in general. He also notes the conspicuous absence of the patient in this iconic scene. CT Suite, 3. 

  28. Alex Lemon, Mosquito, (Portland: Tin House Books, 2006), 4. 

  29. Lemon, Mosquito, 4-5. 

  30. Lemon, Mosquito, 4. 

  31. Lemon, Mosquito, 4. 

  32. The Wikipedia entry on the “Lincoln cent” is remarkably rich in relating this history. 

  33. Laurie Clements Lambeth, Veil and Burn. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 16. 

  34. In an interesting dissertation, Sara Jo Cohen argues that the fragmentation we experience in viewing medical imaging of our bodies, actually trains us for navigating the contemporary mediascape, offering us a model for the postmodern fragmented, partial self. Sara Jo Cohen, “Medical Screening: Medical Imag[in]ing, the Body, and the Self,” PhD diss, University of Minnesota, 2011, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (3465101). 

  35. Lambeth, Veil and Burn, 17. 

  36. Lambeth, Veil and Burn, 18. 

  37. Lambeth, Veil and Burn, 18. 

  38. Elizabeth Grosz reminds us that Derrida frames “the worlding of the world,” the movement of différance, as a mode of cutting or tearing, and that this movement “is also a bringing together, a folding or reorganizing, and the very possibility of time and becoming.” Elizabeth Grosz, “The Time of Violence: Deconstruction and Value,” in Violence and the Body: Race, Gender, and the State, Arturo J. Aldama and Alfred Artega, eds. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), 136. 

  39. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen, eds., Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), 313. 

  40. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 313. 

  41. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 313. 

  42. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 314. 

  43. Pafunda cites Sylvia Plath’s self-debasing female speakers as an inspiration. Her poetic activism of the gaze here reminds me of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s argument about how the act of staring might be transformative for the starer and potentially mobilize them into identification and action. Pafunda seems to want to jolt the “modest witness” of the doctor (and the reader) into that more transformative visual mindset. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009). 

  44. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 315. 

  45. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 315. 

  46. Oxford English Dictionary, “register,” accessed August 27, 2019, 

  47. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 316. 

  48. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 316. 

  49. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 316. 

  50. I borrow this helpful précis of Foucault’s two proposed avenues for micropolitical struggle from Stephen Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory (New York: Guilford Press, 1991), 57–58. 

  51. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 336. 

  52. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 337. 

  53. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 337. 

  54. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 337. 

  55. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. Emphasis in original. 

  56. Haraway, Modest_Witness, 23. Hilary Malatino writes a fascinating analysis of medical images taken of intersex bodies from the 19th and 20th centuries, uncovering the shift to understanding these bodies as pathological or “abnormal.” Hillary Malatino, “Medical Histories, Queer Futures: Imaging and Imagining ‘Abnormal’ Corporealities,” ESharp: Electronic Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Review for Postgraduates 16 (2010), 1–27, 

  57. American Heritage Dictionary, “pornography,” accessed September 28, 2020, 

  58. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. 

  59. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. 

  60. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. 

  61. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. 

  62. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 340. 

  63. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 341. 

  64. Bartlett et al., Beauty is a Verb, 341. 

  65. Martina Schimitschek, “Obituary: Joyce Cutler-Shaw  – pioneering San Diego artist and humanitarian  – dies at 85,” San Diego Tribune, March 29, 2018, 

  66. In her position as artist-in-residence, Cutler-Shaw had access to the anatomy lab and the classroom. She records the words of a professor’s opening lecture in the first-year anatomy class: “In medicine… terminology is power. Accuracy is power.” Clearly, not much has changed in the epistemology of the medical gaze since the transformation Foucault discloses in the Birth of the Clinic. Joyce Cutler-Shaw, “‘The Anatomy Lesson’: The Body, Technology and Empathy,” Leonardo 27, no. 1 (1994): 29. 

  67. Cutler-Shaw, “‘The Anatomy Lesson,’” 37. 

  68. van Dijck, The Transparent Body, 11. 

  69. Cutler-Shaw, “‘The Anatomy Lesson,’” 37. 

  70. Joyce Cutler-Shaw, The Brain Project, Movie 2, 2015. 

  71. In her cultural history of the MRI, Kelly A. Joyce explains that early MRI images were multicolored, converting different numerical measurements into bands of color, but they were ultimately changed so that the numbers were coded in shades of gray. Radiologists interpreting the images were used to looking at black and white images of X-rays and preferred a gray scale. Joyce, Magnetic Appeal, 40. 

  72. As Cutler-Shaw’s website explains, these “Drawing Movies enhance the possibility for new visual associations and the immediacy of unexpected juxtapositions.” 

  73. Oxford English Dictionary, “scan,” accessed August 27, 2019, /view/Entry/171869. 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Image: "spring in mattawa," by bill bissett (2020).