Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dear Heart
Karen Solie

Rustbucket, little four-popper.
I've seen more of the surface on Mars

than of you, ultrasound shadow.
How you lay me low! Size a fist

and the rest of me a fat glass jaw.

I get reports through the wire of veins.
Your rabbit pinches, feints and jabs. I log

each personal best and sleep
like a swan with an ear to my chest.

You are the first thing I ever built,

drafty and cold despite blood's small suns.
Your joinery came out wrong.

Sweetmeat, my ugly hero, the fault
is mine. I recline and recline.

Now there is no time but yours.
What leisure you afford, what luxury.

(from Short Haul Engine, Brick Books 2001)

Oh, when a poem can be such a compact muscle, when it can pack such a punch! From these 16 lines, some 135 syllables (oh, plus two for the title), spring a complete, complex invitation to understanding..

This is a popular kind of poem: description disguised as direct address. The “you” in the poem, the narrator's heart, is addressed as “rustbucket, little four-popper”, “ultrasound shadow” and “sweetmeat, my ugly hero." Qualifiers make up the rest of the poem, leaving the action unstated. Or seemingly unstated.

Isn't there a whiff of a doctor's visit here? Our first hint is “ultrasound.” Ultrasounds aren't jut for babies; they're often used used to diagnose cases of heart valve abnormalities and heart infection. Then in line six we read “I get reports through the wire of veins,” a simple sentence whose meaning is deceptively ambiguous. At the literal level, it's got a diagnostic air, but it depends how you parse the sentence. Rewriting the sentence to destroy the ambiguity, you get either:

Through the wire of veins, I get reports.


I get reports of veins through the wire.

It depends on where “of veins” belongs. The former's “wire of veins” pertains to how our bodies alert us to problems. The latter's “reports of veins” is literal, the results of a medical device. Then, Solie's most brutal, beautiful allusion to medical equipment seals the deal: the nozzle of the ultrasound equipment is “a swan with an ear to my chest.” By the time we get to the narrator's mea culpa in line 10-14, (“your joinery came out wrong...// the fault / is mine”), we've already confirmed the worst. This isn't a poem about heartbreak, it's about heart disease.

Or is it? Obviously, heartbreak is sewn right into the text. It's a European thing; you can't talk about the heart without it's emotional-symbolic baggage floating to the surface. In fact, the association between heart and emotion is so strong, it floats up past all the signs Solie leaves us that the subject is an actual, physical heart problem.

I love the way this poem sounds in my ear. Listen to the vowels in the first two lines:

Rustbucket, little four-popper.
I've seen more of the surface on Mars

There's a little internal rhyme (four/more), supported by the repeating uh-uh-uh-uh sound. Meanwhile, the hard consonants are going off around it like fireworks. The squished-together neologism “rustbucket,” for instance, rattles with the force of four plosives in three syllables: T-B-K-T. Dense, thrilling. Her assonance is pitch-perfect for my ear—the ah-ah-ah in “fat glass jaw,” for instance, adds extra verve to an interesting metaphor. Or in the denouement: “join... mine... recline...recline... time.”

How vital, how necessary this poem is.