Death by Aesthetics

Van Duyn, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Feb-04-1997
  • Last revised: Aug-16-2006


A witty and wildly imaginative evocation of a female patient’s encounter with a male physician. The poem is full of the counterplay of eroticism and sterile technology, of the body as love object and object of diagnosis, of the doctor’s cool clinicality and the patient’s desperate neediness. To her, the doctor is an "abstracted lover" for whom she willingly lies down "while he unfolds / her disease . . . ." Orgasmically, "he warms / to his consummation" which is for him "a most enjoyable diagnosis." He is finished with her but she feels cheated--he hasn’t grasped her essence. "Don’t leave me! Learn me!" " . . . taste my living texture. / Sweat to hunt me with love, and burn with me."


In this poem the patient-physician encounter is taken to an absurd and humorous extreme. Van Duyn captures superbly the disparity between what a patient may (unrealisitically) expect and what the physician can or is willing to deliver--for the patient this experience may be an important and unsettling life event while for the physician it may be one more appointment in the professional day. "Death by Aesthetics" acknowledges the potentially charged nature of the physical examination--it celebrates the body as a vessel for the most secret, essential self.


This poem was first published in book form in 1959 (Valentines to the World).

Primary Source

If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959-1982



Place Published

New York


1994 (paperback)