The Practice of Physiognomy

Alison Eastley


“On the ground lies a skull and at a distance in the background,
a bleached skeleton of a horse, lying near a hut where lives a man
who skins horses.”
Letter 126, Vincent Van Gogh

Even Paracelsus got into the act to “involve all plants,
all wood, all quartz and gravel, the soil and all flowing
water and everything that has lines, veins, wrinkles...”
which leaves me wondering who can really understand
the face of a man, that secret correspondence
revealed through analogy and maybe we’d conclude
he’s had a hard life or his hands are too soft. Metamorphosis
is as quaint as watching a frog’s head change into Apollo
or viewing Blake’s “Spirit of a Fly.” Perhaps primal language
will never die, the chaos of ancients with their centrifugal
force believe the body is the “chariot, intuitive, distinction
and recognition is the charioteer; the function of thought
are the reins; the power of the senses are the horses.”
And so it comes to this. No matter how many nights
I watch your face contort in ecstasy, your pupils dilating
to dark lilac blackness that I suspect the earth is blacker.
Like soot, something is swept to the ground and no one
will guess the skull of the horse was once a whisper of sheets,
a tangle of limbs, two faces asleep, dreaming incoherently of love.

Quote taken from Katha Upanishads 8, 6th century