The north face of the Rotunda
Lifetime Learning

Being With a Skin of Brain

April is National Poetry Month, and Lifetime Learning celebrates with another piece of creative writing from the University of Virginia‘s esteemed faculty. Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan Professor of English in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, shares his 1980s poem, “Being With a Skin of Brain.”


Being With a Skin of Brain

The eyes go first, desperate for the gods they knew,
to flicker in a modest
way away. They are aversive to the Obsolete,
“I will not serve”
they say. Their faces fall, the watching faces ripple
like wax. Even the dullest
fear the eyes seeking the solution of this fire.
Colors striate, move

to grey, then greenish, yellow, the eyes turned and
finished gold. Messenger, now it is
the body’s turn, the body
turns dust and water to a crystal suit of nerves.
No hand will touch

what once was flesh, the mind sets hard
acrylic. Nightmare by memory
the skull dissolves, the crust shrinks and runs,
wave after panicked
wave. Out of nowhere a dry metallic wind is shouting
commands, the bones
of the world pour out. Rabble and lucid black
thoughts grow
their final skin of brain, the steel electric
field of forms. What sense
remains of mind has fled to its extremities,
the fingers end and stiffen

into nails, driving teeth
hearing chewing stones
milling a way through dirt to air and
breath, spreading
discs of gold over legions at their brightening
silver edge,
zinc tongues, leather helmets, crying
fields, beating ancient banners.

by Jerome McGann

El Greco’s imaginary portrait of St. Jerome as scholar

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Thoughts on “Being With a Skin of Brain

    This poem sounds like it come from a very troubled person, one who does not know God. I am soon to be 75 and have not experienced any of that of which he speaks. In spite of being 19 years post stroke and partially paralyzed on my right side I feel fine mentally and spiritually. My eyes, after surgery are better, so much better. I have no complaints, just gratitude for what God my Creator has given me.


    Science and knowledge and appearances have little to do with the unseen world . That door is unlocked only by faith in the Creator whose power exceeds nature and man, His creation. I hope someday this author will find the faith to open that door and find peace.


    Thanks a ton for this particular piece of writing. I will talk about it with people I know.


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