Living By Heart Poems

Four years ago, while I was on a writer’s retreat in the wilds of rural Minnesota, I set myself the daily task of writing a poem each morning to my body. “Go ahead—choose any part,” I urged my writerly self. But there was really no doubt what part I would address. And so began the heart poems that would become “Letters to My Heart.”

Why, of all the wonderful and praise-worthy parts of my body, the Heart? Walt Whitman could not decide among his own corporeal glories—and so celebrated them all in his “I Sing the Body Electric.” But not me. Unlike Whitman, I believe the small ‘contains multitudes’ as much as the large, and what holds more than the little fist of the Heart?

Dear Heart,
At last you are too full,
a belly at the wedding feast
whose hollowness is wholed
before the groaning table goes quiet.

But August sun warms my breast,
and last night in a land-locked state,
Walt Whitman sang in my ear,
“The sea whispered me . . .”

The loons make stupid jokes,
dragonflies conjugate shamelessly,
and a grown man smiled
his boy’s smile at me this morning.

What am I to do,
strict mistress, ready friend?
There is so much prayer pressing
these small walls,
urgent to get in and to get out.

The Heart’s capaciousness is one of her virtues—hence her role as the repository of memory. In the course of our lives, we learn “by heart” facts of great import (name, address, phone number, nothing less than who we are) bundled together, randomly, with chunks of language that have little or no significance at all:

Doublemint adds to your fun.
Double pleasure all in one.
So delicious! Great to chew!
Treat yourself, and your friends, too!

This advertising jingle I learned (quite involuntarily) from television when I was a child is inscribed on my heart, as indelibly as the Hail Mary, and there is nothing I can do about it. She is a wayward creature, this Heart, easily seduced, especially by language that sings.

When I was in the second grade, a series of events—both great and small—led to my taking the Heart seriously. First, my father died at the age of 42. He had been ill for months, but none of us—not my mother, nor any of us 5 children—expected him to die. Then, one day in science class, our teacher showed a filmstrip, in grainy black-and-white, whose central focus (it seems, in my imperfect memory) was the open chest of a human being and the repeated beating of a live heart. The image haunted my dreams, both then and for years afterwards. Somehow the raw vulnerability of that most necessary of organs became linked with the sudden cessation of my father’s heart, and harbinger of the eventual cessation of my own. I was terrified of mortality, though I had no such language to describe the dread I felt—the dread I feel, even now, as I recall that memory.

Science had taught me that the heart was meat and machine, that it could quit on me at any moment, that it was my enemy. And so began the life-long process of trying to make my enemy my friend.

Dear Heart,
Please be my memory
When my mind is shot.

Please show some courage
When I would rather not.

Please keep beating
Even when I sleep.

Please keep repeating,
As I swim out deep

How much you love me,
How you hold me dear.

Keep on whispering
What I want to hear.

Say “Yes”, Dear Heart,
My Liar. My Art.

If the Heart was going to be my memory, my diary, my treasury, my breviary, I knew I needed to begin to inscribe on its pages language that would serve as a repository against extremity. I began a course of memorization, which included the sublime—as in Poe’s obsessive octosyllabic tour-de-force, “The Raven”—and the ridiculous—including a little poem in my school reader beginning thus, “Dolly is an old horse / with a white star. / She’s a great deal nicer / than other horses are.” These poems equally delighted me, for reasons I did not know—particularly since I had never seen a horse in real life, nor, now that I think about it, had I seen a raven.

This early courtship of my Heart, in turn, led to my writing poetry. Internalizing all of this rhythmic language produced in me the desire to answer it with my own. I had not yet heard or read Sir Philip Sidney’s injunction, “’Fool,’ said my Muse, ‘look in thy heart and write,’” but I somehow intuited its wisdom and obeyed. And so I began to carry around a portfolio (a manila folder, really) and to fill it with sheets of notebook paper that I, in turn, would fill with words. Though those early poems (and I use that term loosely) are long lost, I know some of them by heart—nimble little rhymes that were, mostly, nonsense, but constituted my first steps towards joining the dance of language. One such rhyme went like this:

The bells are ringing,
the birds are singing,
the people are dancing around.

The grownups are laughing,
the children are crying,
O what a mystery town!

This I have by heart—right next to Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”—sandwiched between “Fly Me to the Moon” (Sinatra) and “Thunder Road” (Springsteen)—and in close proximity to The Apostle’s Creed and the Act of Contrition. The Heart is nothing if not catholic (and, in my case, Catholic, as well).

Despite the second grade film, despite my father’s early passing, despite the lessons in mortality I have learned, I have a theory that I live by: that my Heart is more reliable than my mind; that because of my attention to shaping her contents, she will serve me well as I approach the end of my life; that in the meantime, I have much to learn from her.

Dear Heart,
You are wise and winsome,
nimble as a bride.
You skip a beat
when my Beloved sleeps beside me,
his face my constant sun.

You race, a wild filly
stamping at the gate,
ever ready to run
at the crack of the start gun.

Thus, I choose to live By Heart. Yet I also know this glad version of her to be a fiction, a trope, a necessary distraction from a truth once taught me in grainy black-and-white. It seems inevitable that a poem lead me in the direction of that truth, also inscribed in black-and-white, imaged by words on a page.

Dear Heart,
You are an idiot—
You do not know your bounds.

You are a dying animal.
Our destiny is sleep.

Yet you say No, No, No,
with each declining beat.

This is the heart of the matter, the last of the “Letters” towards which all the others tend. I was surprised to discover, at the end of my writer’s retreat, that there is greater accord between my Heart and me than I had known, bound together as we are in our ignorance, in our insistence upon life in the face of death, and in our daily dance of irrational joy. Eased by the music of meter, my Heart assents, even as she seems to rebel, stays steady and true, keeping good time with the rhythm and the rhyme, singing the refrain she knows by heart.

Photo by alainalele, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, author of Saint Sinatra and Other Poems


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  1. says

    Dear Laura,
    Any organ will do!

    I should confess–at the time I wrote those poems, I was reading Polish poet Anna Swir’s beautiful book, TALKING TO MY BODY.

    As the title would suggest, she talks to everything–head, shoulders, knees, toes–and everything in between. The poem should have an epigraph acknowledging her, along with Whitman.

    Given that, perhaps we should issue a challenge:
    Who’s up for a series of Paeans to the Pancreas?
    Litanies for the Liver?
    Sonnets to the Spleen?

    I’m game if you are.


  2. L. L. Barkat says

    Angela, that’s a fun idea. My body is so tired this time of year, I might have to cajole it into cooperating :)

  3. says

    Angela, This is so moving I had to keep stopping for mental composure.

    This line:
    so much prayer pressing
    these small walls

    When you put it like that it makes me wonder how deep the untapped prayers go. Probably all the way to the liver, or the spleen.

    And what of that dare, LL? Perhaps an entire body would be born out of such a dare.

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