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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1

Poetry

 

Katharine Coles


Katharine Coles (Ph.D., U of Utah) is a poet and novelist, who teaches creative writing at Westminster College. Her poems have appeared or will appear in
The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Poetry, The New Republic, and others. 
Read other work by Katharine Coles published in Weber Studies: Vol. 8.1Vol. 9.3 (Interview with Mark Strand)Vol. 13.1 (Interview with David Lee);  and Vol. 14.1.

 

The Walk-through Heart
                                               Central Utah/Ohio/Franklin Museum of Science

"It is not in our stars, but in ourselves, dear Brutus."
                      Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
"I all but thought that the heart's movement had been understood by God alone."
                      William Harvey, 17th century physician

1) And so it had. We can't claim any
different, whatever science tells us
          in maps illuminating the body's
          blue highways. Intention and the road

lead us on to destination,
or to accident, the way
          a cell, restless
          in its inevitable codes, multiplies,

breaks free to travel on the blood,
then sets root in lymph nodes, marrow,
          brain. The seed blown
          from lung or breast or bone. Nothing

we could have done. Driving
a rural highway through Soldier's summit,
          where, at eight-thousand
          odd feet, the canyon explodes

into sky, we enter rough country, red
cliffs curving beyond the eye—
          but it won't suffice, this displacement
          of grief onto landscape, however variable.

The mountains lie between us
and the vast midwest, where insensible machines
          moor my husband's mother, translating
          her heart's motion, the temperature

of her skin. Warning or safety. From her skull
the doctor lifts a shard curved like eggshell,
          lays it by on a towel, hefts his scalpel and leans
          over, to look inside.

2) In the museum, we had more
than metaphor—a comic representation,
          mercy's human heart
          too literal, blown up

hundreds of times larger than life—even
less believable than the jarred hearts of pigs
          pickled to brazen it out
          on the shelves of the high school lab.

Modeled to scale, it circulated floods
of tourists: my husband and me
          and troops of girl scouts, reaching
          to touch composite walls. So we learned

what we're made of—sculptural
papillary muscles, cardae tendineae
          rising like trunk and branches, subterranean—
          as if such a vessel could transport us

from the visceral to the aesthetic. That heart
was standardized to averages,
          another commercial cavern, all too carefully lit,
          though each heart beats

measures as individual
as each human face, and refuses to own
          mortality. My husband kept naming parts,
          the sinoatrial node "self-exciting, kindling

the impulse, setting tempo."
When William Harvey held
          an eel heart in his hand, it paced, slow,
          cold-blooded, toward an end

Harvey believed, with the certainty of science,
his eyes, his touch, gave meaning.

3)      An act of concentration: we will
          the blips on his mother's screen

to steady, to carry her through,
while other machines perform
          her body's labors. I have considered
          the brain, when I thought of it,

as a tissue of ideas, the conscious self
at work to abstract the world, brutal
          in its carnality. A poppy gracing its stem.
          As if we were beyond such mass,

cells alive with blood, with signals
sparking our senses to move us.
          As if we could leave it behind. This morning,
          I peel off my gloves, drop them in the grass,

to trace, with bare right hand, bindweed
roots through the soil. My left frontal lobe
          crackles, receives sense; my fingers
          touch root fiber, plumped

rich with water. Whatever fragment I miss,
out of sight and mind, will grow
          its own flower. The garden's excited by rain
          into a tempting wilderness: lilies, foxglove opening

speckled, medical trumpets. Cure
or kill. The ancient Japanese
          called the heart the realm of fire, the titular
          and actual head of the body. We depend

on the brain, believe its workings
cool, deliberative—but it has little
          nerve. Her surgeon can turn it
          inside-out: she won't feel

a thing. It blossoms with impulse
it refuses to contain.

4)      Long-distance, the doctor tells us
          about the other brain,

though the immune system attacks
antigens, while the brain
          kills ideas. Composing memory, learning,
          we recognize our failures, minor

falterings, domesticated murmurs
we chart on our machines, as if such knowledge
          will help us. And my love is expert
          in such measuring, understanding what grows

behind his mother's brow and sternum
may pull loose from her cells, pull
          away in the doctor's hands, indifferent,
          and that will be that. Chemicals, waves

of radiation. Kill
to cure. And then , we count
          percentages, years. We send flowers
          she wakes to . The doctor tests with pins

what her right hand knows; still more machines
look for buried shadows. Our dreams,
          however rooted, bound by blood
          and mathematics, have never prepared us

for this: science illuminating
what it won't cure. Still, what but science,
          in its imaginings, could create a
          heart scaled so like hers? Open

for us to stroll into, holding hands, naming
chambers more capacious even than we
          desire—more so than our own—
          through which human voices sing.

For Chris Johnson, and for Sherlie Baker, 1946-1993

 

Hegira

After a certain age, men never become really intimate,
let their relations be ever so close.
          Anthony Trollope, The Bertrams

So we joined up late—in the millennium,
in our youths, falling from us the moment
he leaned down and performed the ritual kiss,

the seal for all to see. The music started,
the piano unnerving the air. And then we drove,
though it was late already, toward Millennium—

a car packed full with champagne, honeymoon baskets,
off-white roses, their petals singed to brown,
he, his eye on the road, leaning over to kiss me—

through a night made so fierce by blizzard
we had to trust the storm's own furious flight
to carry us into the lateness, the millennial dark,

and to safety. That space we occupied
together had never seemed so small, so cold,
though I leaned into him, ready for his kiss,

under the heater's inadequate wind. We rose
into the mountains' white-out, as if scaling,
late at night, at the crisis of the millennium,

the walls of our city, set breathlessly high
in a desert silenced by that snow
leaning toward us, each flake a diagonal kiss

folding under the drifts. The city streets
turned in memory to a white, impassable maze.
It was too late. We were too far from Millennium

and such a journey to start on, such a night
to fly from our lit house into abandon.
What had we to do with ritual's kiss?

what right had we to expect our blood to spark
and fire us on our way? I touched his knee,
nostalgic already for him, the millennium,

but under my fingers sounded a single note—
terror, joy, the same low, tremulous tone
echoing through the late hour, through Millennium,
where he stopped the car and leaned to the sealing kiss.

 

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