about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Heart in a Jar
A Review of Heart in a Jar
by Kathleen McGookey

Spencer Dew



The presence of an absence—a particular, significant, emotionally charged loss, bleeding out as such specifics do to a general theme, the presence of death everywhere, always—is a central concern for these poems, attentive to the way we enshrine such presence of absence in artifacts left in the wake of a loved one—be they objects (a tin full of ashes from a dead pet cat, a lost mother’s prom dress) or images, ideas, stories, even words (everything from a species of bird to paper cut into the symbol for a heart, the certainty of how a story read to a child each night will end). As McGookey presents it, the artifact is an essential part of death, a kind of Valentine delivered to all of us. One of her poems imagines this literally: death personified, awkwardly aware of how out of place it is at an elementary Valentine’s Day party. Other poems present the traces of life, left to make its passing, as part of a natural cycle in which the poet, too, takes part, recycling images and words the way a doll-maker might substitute a mouse skull for a doll’s head (to use, of course, another of McGookey’s startlingly unforgettable images). “When I pick up a dead swallowtail, it’s already swarming with ants. So my girl stomps on a cursive ribbon of tar the road crew just laid down. She wants to leave a mark.”

McGookey knows, too, that our veneration of artifacts, of memories, coexists—thanks to some kind of cognitive dissonance, some evolutionary adaption through which intellect attempts to sidestep that primal fear that is, itself, the direct result of consciousness—with denial. When we speak of death, we tell ourselves fairy tales. We color eggs and crack into the gooey center of egg-shaped sweets, using teeth that we obsess over and have professionally maintained. McGookey has a particular interest in teeth: how we lose them, how they sprout up new like resurrection and then do not. A toddler’s gap-toothed smile is already a reminder of the bare skull that will one day remain. Teeth offer both a cruel tease (a one-off, partial rebirth) and serve as a memento mori we can work over, like penitents, with our tongues when we are silent.

Nature, as a concept, we locate out in the woods, which we imagine, in turn, as drawn by Walt Disney. We insist upon this vision, this lullaby world, even as we step over possum corpses and are awakened in the night by the scratches of the skunk in the kitchen. McGookey’s eye for nature sees bird’s nests as another artifact, another trace, skeletal structures left behind by the passing on of life. She studies the cat corpses in biology class, the titular jarred heart, imagines lake water as a metaphor for pain—salving to the extent that it is shared, collective. Her sky bleeds, spills “tangerines all over the dirty dishes in my sink.”

Even the images of poetry, McGookey laments, have been used, stand now as traces of someone else, some writer long gone, lost. But, like that daughter stomping on the asphalt—defiant or gleeful or are these not the same sense?—we have no choice but to leave our own marks, to ponder the teeth and bones and cut braids and paper hearts left by those who have gone before us.

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