Notes on Dr. Joseph Vacanti and Dr. Robert Langer
Dream—an orange tomcat under the pond-ice. It isn’t
dead. It swims,
paws cupping water.
Need more firewood. Must forage before dark.
Get more paper from garbage cans—done
Dr. Joseph Vacanti directs the Tissue Engineering and Organ
Fabrication Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He is also a Professor at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Langer is a Professor at MIT. He’s known for his "highly
profitable engineering successes," blurring the lines
between engineering and medicine. He won the 1998
Lemelson-MIT Prize, at $500,000 the world’s largest single
cash prize for invention.
They are considered the "fathers of the field of tissue
In their lab, they have grown a human ear on the back of a
That hunchback, that winged creature in a cage;
Four-footed, unable to see itself or know—
As I didn’t know—
Specially bred to lack an immune system that might reject
human tissue, the mouse nourishes the ear, which is
composed of human cartilage cells distributed throughout
an ear-shaped scaffolding that consists of a porous,
biodegradable polyester fabric.
And if a mind could be bred not to reject?
Yet how it breeds desolation even as it thinks this—
When the ear has fully grown it’s removed from the mouse
and then transplanted in a human host.
Once implanted, the cells re-create their proper functions,
blood vessels attach to new tissue and the scaffold melts
They have not yet been able to grow human nerve tissue.
They hold many patents. Dr. Langer alone holds over 300
licensed to over 80 companies.
Their patents include #5,759,8305770,193 and #5,770,417.
These are available for viewing for $3.00 from the Patent
and Trademark Office, Washington, DC.
Advanced Tissue Sciences, a biotech company in La Jolla,
California, has licensed these patents and is preparing for
But what profit was there for you who made me?—
In an interview Dr. Langer mentions a possible
collaboration with the Department of Earth and Planetary
Sciences to control the weather. His only criterion for a
project, he says, is that it be done in a reasonable amount of
time and have a reasonable impact.
Reason is a quiet wing. I feel such perplexity when I try to
reach and catch it—
He and Dr. Vacanti met in the mid-1970s as young
researchers in the lab of Dr. Judah M. Folkman.
Their lab has produced a wide range of body parts—
cartilage, bone, ureters, intestines.
In 1986, while standing in shallow water at Cape Cod, Dr.
Vacanti noticed the branching networks of seaweeds. It
occurred to him to seed cells along branching scaffolds
much like theirs.
I don’t know if they have families.
I don’t know what they like to eat.
They are in search of “elegant solutions.”
Dr. Vacanti has seen many of his pediatric patients suffer.
That he would want to do good—
That he would want to heal what can’t itself heal—
But my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds—
And always there is the division of property, the division of
immense wealth and squalid poverty—
The idea of ownership, the idea of being free—
Notes on Perplexity
(When I go to Google and type in this word that seems
to define the place you’ve left me in, this word I want to
understand—there aren’t so many entries after all. There’s
a perplexity that has to do with statistical models of speech
recognition. This I can’t quite comprehend. And there’s
a Perplex City, which seems to be a game. "Perplex City’s
greatest treasure has been stolen. . . . Explore Perplex City
through websites, emails, texts, and live events. . . . Find
the cube and claim $100,000 reward." . . . I do my research
where I can. I forage, hunt.)
So I’ll begin with Socrates, that self-stinging stingray:
“For I am not free of perplexity when I make others
perplexed; but I am more perplexed than anyone."
He stung himself with questions.
The meanings of the most common words crumbled under
Euthyphro said, "But Socrates, I am simply unable to tell
you what I think, for whatever we put forward goes around
and around and refuses to stay where we place it."
(The way the woods I slept in those first nights now seem
to sleep and stir in me, such shudderings in them and
complex shiftings, their small breakages shot through with
slippage, doubt . . . . No stillness in me, no shelter I can
touch or trust.)
(Yet maybe there’s a kind of shelter after all in the way
things don’t stay still but turn ripe with possibilities and
questionings, the mind un-tombed, the puzzles shifting,
A question is a site of astonishment. "Why has not the
universe been used up long ago and vanished away?"
And Gertrude Stein: “What is the wind, what is it.” "How
many windows are there in it."
“What is the difference between ardent and ardently.” "To
smile at the difference."
(Boundaries blur. A question mark seems too solid and
intact a thing, like a peninsula or jar. But what is suppose
what is comfort what is else and elsewhere and other and
difference and alone; each word rips through itself like
water or journeys forth like brainwaves in minute vibrations,
curving, casting out. I remember plastic models of the brain,
the etched crevices in them, perplexities carved there from
the very start.)
“The human mind stands ever in perplexity,” wrote
Emerson. “Thoughts walk and speak and look with eyes at
me . . . and make all other teaching formal and cold."
(I think of you in fever. The more you tried to understand,
the more your thoughts bent down beneath that weight,
reedy, thin, lantern-skins flickering. As now, the winds
inside me shock the leaning trees, the smallest storms
inside my brain releasing . . . . Mind’s a perilous place; it
knows how each horizon crumbles.)
“And there shall be signs in the sun and moon and stars,
and upon the earth there shall be distress of nations in
perplexity at the roar of the sea and rolling waves. . . ."
“O Lord, increase my perplexity concerning Thee!” wrote
Ibn ’Arabi in the 13th century.
He wanted to be guided by bewilderment.
There is another prayer: Let me be undone, unsewn, disrupted.
For perplexity disables the will, disables tyranny.
Ibn ’Arabi retells the story of Noah. In his version only
those who refuse the ark are truly holy. Having turned their
backs on Noah’s rigid structure, they choose to die instead
in the vast waters, the multiplicity that perplexes (as God
perplexes). They “drown ecstatically in the wider seas.”
“Perplexity lifts the servant out of his servanthood, causes
everything to shimmer and change."
To be perplexed is to wander truly and well. There is no
central place to aim for.
(And yet sometimes I wish for a clear answer, a something
that consoles the mind. But maybe the sea can console, how
it’s not one single thing but wave upon wave building and
dissolving, the way a face wanders through itself all its life,
the quiet deluge of it streaming. The bewilderment stitching
and unstitching. Still, some nights when I can’t sleep, or
days I think of you, or days I’m frightened by my thoughts,
the needled wings inside my fingers, my heart . . . .)
Augustine ended his Confessions with a puzzle: the last word
he chose, aperietur, meaning “will be” or “shall be opened.”
Those who transcribed his text later altered its ending to
amen, as if to shut that perplexing door he had left open.
Disquietude. Perplexity. The words: “perhaps,” “will be”
and “shall be opened.” Endless space . . .
(Some nights I dream I’m in the sea; cold slits of light on
miles and miles of viscous black. The water’s full of doors
opening and shutting, soft fins or lungs that somehow
function underwater. The burlap sack I wear, stitched
through with every letter of the alphabet, bulges out from
my body then flaps back then bulges out again as the letters
start to disintegrate and then drift off, drift away, until I’m
alone and drowned but still breathing among the many
scattered letters, each gash and sway of them traveling far
from the built systems, the built world . . . .)
Notes on Agnes Martin
From the early 1960s until her death at 92 she painted grids.
Why would she do this?
Often she titled them after nature but they were of the mind,
the way it feels itself and thinks:
“My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about
what is known forever in the mind."
She was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912.
Her father, a wheat farmer, died when she was two.
(I look at her grids, the steady and unsteady pressure of a
human hand, soft graphite lines darker here and there, and
then so thin sometimes as if about to break. The mind is
an unsteady place. And yet it holds. I feel inside myself its
mixture of fragility and chance. How mind is more than
mind, outstrips itself somehow—)
She said, "I was thinking about the innocence of trees and
the grid came to me." “I have a very quiet mind.”
She said, "Nature is the wheel. When you get off the
wheel you’re looking out. You stand with your back to the
She titled her paintings: White Flower, Words, Night Sea,
But why would she make grid after grid? And year after
year like that? “Why do you make another?” a visitor asked.
“I have a dream. I dream another grid.”
(Like the way I go over and over in my mind the place that
is the mind. As these notes, one after another, accumulate,
these nets of . . . these grids and veils and traces of . . . these
marks and being on the edge of or immersed in, or—)
Each grid is different from the other, bearing its own
particular irregularities, minute fluctuations, intervals,
exultations. And yet how orderly they seem overall, each
speaking to the others over space and over time, as if to say,
each of us is isolated and odd but not singular only, not just
(. . . as l am not just singular [after all] . . . as the mind’s
patternings partly recognize another’s . . .)
(Over and over she marked such minute gradations, zones
of transitivity, of becoming, how did she do that? It’s what
you couldn’t meddle with in me even as you made me—
somehow it escaped—that grid of thought materializing,
dematerializing, in this place inside myself I can hardly
grasp or name.)
“When I cover the square surface with rectangles it lightens
the weight of the square, destroys its power."
(I watch her fields of powerlessness float. They are strong in
themselves and do no harm.)
In 1967 she left New York City, gave away almost all her
possessions and drove off in a pickup truck across Canada
and the West. She didn’t paint for seven years.
Then she settled in Cuba, New Mexico.
She had no studio assistants: “I don’t know what they do.”
She didn’t own a TV.
(I don’t have a quiet mind, but the thought of a hand
moving across a surface sometimes quiets me. The way
marks create a merging and dissolving, a setting out, a
dissonance or peace, a flickering, a membrane, a rough
She titled her paintings: Untitled, Grass, Rain, Leaf, Wheat,
What is it that consoles?
She said she was painting joy. (I only partly believe her.)
She died in a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico,
on December 16, 2004.
She wrote, "I would rather think of Humility than anything
else. She cannot do either right or wrong. She does not do
anything. All of her ways are empty."
—Laurie Sheck is the author of five books of poems, including Captivity, forthcoming from Knopf in February 2007. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA and was a 2004–05 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She is currently a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, where she is working on a hybrid work, from which these pieces are excerpted, centered on the unnamed “monster” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sheck’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Verse, the Nation, and the Paris Review, among other publications. She has been on the faculty of Princeton University and is currently a core faculty member of the New School’s MFA Program.