Heart in a Jar by Kathleen McGookey
White Pine Press, 2017; 100 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Buried among the terrifically absurd prose poems in Kathleen McGookey’s Heart in a Jar lays an intensity that’s difficult to shake. As we laugh at the opening sentence of “Monkey Island”—“The monkeys inside me are sick of speaking the wrong language”—or are taken to the wonder of Oz as “Dorothy orders the tabletop model” machine in order to find a way to say hello to her not-from-Kansas friends in “Tornado Machine,” we expect this surrealist sort of wit popularized by writers like Russell Edson to continue to deepen, to become more twisted and fantastical. And while it does, McGookey also has the skill and soul to elevate the normal worries of people in general (like in her numerous addresses to Death) and parents in particular.
It’s this latter kind of poem that becomes all the more striking because of how it’s interspersed throughout the collection. In “Thank You for Your Question,” despite the antibiotics, carseats, and lost blankets, when asked if she enjoyed parenthood, our speaker isn’t as moved by the shocking examples her imagination conjures—“I liked rocking in 4 a.m. darkness, sleepy and afraid a face would appear at the window—as by the ordinary moments, the hard parts that test parents: “But days full of obvious work, nowhere to be, alone with the baby, I would not have believed.” In “Pain Lake” we’re encouraged to “Dive in, leave yours behind,” but even as we are invited to play with the kids and dogs, to escape our worries, we’re told, “Yes, they feel it. More than you’d think. It is unfortunate or not, depending.” These moments remind us we never have to look too far or imagine too hard in order to find the parts of our humanity that demand celebration or require exploration.
We see into the poet’s life because she allows us to as she blurs the prose poem into something much more like the nonfiction short. The “I” oscillates between acknowledging the truth-like experience of fantasy—like buying a dying start from a shop in “The Secondhand Star” or what it must be like “The Day After a Girl Sprouted in the Flowerbed”—and the truth of an actually-lived life. McGookey’s control in heightening both approaches speaks to her skill in the prose poem form and her interest in subverting its already fluid definition to hold within it even more: heart.
Heart in a Jar’s emotional core may be contained in these rectangular containers of prose, but lucky for us, we can see it on full display through the glass.