The heart is the most overused organ in poetry. Except it isn’t used as an organ at all, but as a hold-all for a range of human experiences. In fact, poets and readers have become so accustomed to the heart as a concept that encountering a heart which is actually a set of beating chambers with ventricles is newly disorienting. Jacqueline Haskell’s innovative poems first return the heart to its pre-metaphor state, and then extend that functionality to the heart as machine: ‘his heart, not on his sleeve but attached / to a backpack’.
The poems are from an upcoming collection titled ‘Takotsubo: the journey of a transplanted heart’ and ask us to find new emotional and linguistic realities for the new physical states of the organ. What, for instance, does it mean to be largehearted or brokenhearted when the central-ness of heart as self is suspect? As we make advances in medicine and technology, reaching a stage where ‘There are three hearts you can choose from’, where do we locate love or grief or joy? More fundamentally — and the question of figurative heart poetry as well — what does it really mean to be alive?
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The Berlin Heart1
This is how it happens: his heart, not on his sleeve but attached
to a backpack, strapped with two-and-a-half hours of batteries.
This heart that carries grief, waits
patiently for rain, the trickle-feed of the sun, plasma
shoals swimming for cover beneath his skin, blood, pumping,
the floor rushing to meet him. His weight, a fulcrum point
between sacral and solar plexus. The churr and chime
of the machine, batteries alarming the external workings
of his concubine, (His dominatrix! Sit near a power source at all times!),
its third leg dragging behind him,
dredging black water
in its cut.
When it is gone, finally, this contraption,
he feels unmoored;
those days and hours, now irredeemable, waver
with the frailty of a ceasefire –
God’s alarm clock,
set to some unknown glottal
of the heart.
1. The Berlin Heart is a mechanical, pulsatile ventricular assist device (VAD) that mechanically supports the hearts of patients with end-stage heart failure, usually while they await transplant. The control unit and the two batteries are carried in a shoulder-bag.
There are three hearts you can choose from:
- your own diseased heart – final outcome guaranteed
- beating transplant – the longest wait, outcome uncertain
- non-beating ‘heart in a box’2 – journey time (donor to recipient) up to 8 hours
(This last will increase your chances, notes his surgeon, in the margin.)
He casts aside this missive, future-paces to his funeral,
– Remember me,
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me
On thy bosom let me rest
More I would, but Death invades me –
jots down the order of the service, underlines the salient points.
– Death is now a welcome guest
He underscores this last, again and again;
multiple slashes of violet ink swim the pages of the aria,
(which he guarantees will be out of tune),
– When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast3
the organ drowning out their timid voices, pigeons swelling the chorus –
but oh! that descending chromatic fourth – what an opener! .
2. Surgeons can now use hearts in transplants that have actually stopped beating. The heart must be resuscitated by pumping warm oxygenated blood through the heart muscle. This Organ Care Retrieval System means a donor heart can be maintained for up to eight hours outside the body, so organs can be retrieved from further afield.
3. Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Æneas – Henry Purcell 1689.
His voice overwintering;
the tinkle of consonants on ice,
a lifetime of syllables, frozen in place.
That aria perched in his vocal folds,
notes scattering in his throat – his tongue,
a silver heron above his spittle-stream – mid
-sentence and he is done.
He returns to his violin, levitating above
the pressure points of his collarbone,
but that too is without refrain.
There is nothing of its notes in him,
just the stickleback trajectory of the heart:
that beat, his breath, the alchemy of his phrasing,
the steady fastness of strophic ghosts –
he could no more speak than pull a trigger.
The heart is its own idiom,
its own dark horse;
starvation in the anterior distribution,
my wooded body its one and only country.
4. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, usually as the result of severe emotional or physical stress. It creates a ballooning appearance of the heart which resembles the Japanese octopus trap giving it its moniker, Takotsubo.
Jacqueline Haskell’s first poetry collection, Stroking Cerberus, was published by Myriad Editions in 2020 as part of the Spotlight Books series. Her poems have appeared in Atrium, Brittle Star, Dream Catcher, The High Window, Anomaly Literary Journal, and This Line is Not for Turning: An Anthology of Contemporary British Prose Poetry (Cinnamon Press, 2011), and have won prizes in numerous literary competitions in the UK, and abroad.
The banner image is a color-inverted version of Figure 9 from Charles Steinmetz’s Elementary lectures on electric discharges, waves and impulses, and other transients (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1911).