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The Beautiful Bowel Movement

January 19, 2016

By John Updike

In 1974, my first medical student “firm” at the General Infirmary at Leeds was led by two consultant general surgeons, Smiddy & Benson; Eddie Benson the taciturn straight man, and Geoff Smiddy the flamboyant Eric Morecambe character. One day, trailing round the old Nightingale wards, prodding abdomens and trying to differentiate inguinal from femoral hernia’s, we came to a poor fellow with ulcerative colitis. The teaching turned to defaecation.

“Young man,” boomed Smiddy. “Define a perfect stool.”

No adequate answer came.

“Twice round the pan and pointed at both ends. And don’t you forget it.”

I haven’t. It’s only when things go wrong that we fully appreciate the pleasure of a good shit. Updike knew it was worth a poem. Smiddy would have agreed.

Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,
was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.

John Updike

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