On Heart in a Jar by Kathleen McGookey

Laura Donnelly

Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2017. 100 pages. $16.00.

In Heart in a Jar, Kathleen McGookey further distinguishes herself as a master of the prose poem, using the form to conjure strange vignettes of domestic life and inviting us to peer into interiors where mice are laying eggs under the stairs, a secondhand star haunts the young speaker’s bedroom, and Death attends the elementary school party (he’s quickly instructed he may not pass out valentines unless he’s brought enough for everyone). Building upon McGookey’s increasing importance as a practitioner of the prose poem—this is her fifth collection, in addition to a translation of prose poems by Georges Godeau—Heart in a Jar explores what it means to inhabit the sometimes remarkable, sometimes boring, often slightly surreal landscapes of motherhood and loss.

“Offer my sadness a small box,” writes McGookey in “Fairy Tale,” and she returns frequently to images of such containers—from the titular heart in a jar to a hippopotamus hide box to the interiors of doll houses. And containers are a fitting image for a poet who works in prose poems. With such metaphors one might imagine McGookey’s poetry to be one of restriction, and certainly, there is trouble here, with a capital “D” Death often riding shotgun. Yet the poems continually reveal new worlds. “Open my box, and you’ll find my brand new child,” the speaker commands at the end of “Fairy Tale,” and then, with the uncanny hospitality that threads the book’s interiors, “I’ve been wanting the two of you to meet.”

I often found myself thinking of the intimacies of Joseph Cornell’s boxes while reading Heart in a Jar. McGookey’s poetry has a similar innocence and strangeness, sharpening the viewer’s perspective, but ultimately, I come back to the child’s dollhouse, or playhouse, as a truer emblem for these poems. Not a playhouse comfortably tucked inside, but one that lives at the edge of the yard, at the seam between domestic and wild where “Our mothers call and call for us” (“In My River”). In “Into the Dollhouse,” the speaker’s daughter is “delighted” when “The pregnant skunk moves into the dollhouse.” The skunk is a good skunk, we learn: “It does not rearrange the furniture or dig up the painted wooden yard.” Still the space grows increasingly messy, starting with the “muddy stars” of its footprints on the stairs. “It lines the bedroom closet with mud and tufts of black and white fur. Don’t look under the bed,” we are warned. Yet the speaker keeps looking, and her daughter “shines a tiny flashlight through the windows to watch it sleep.”

What we’re given a window into, through many of the poems, is a life set between the tug of the children’s needs (and wonders) on one hand and the sharp loss of the speaker’s parents on the other, a loss that takes her back to her own childhood. McGookey braids these themes together with disarming ease, the speaker’s loss infusing death into even the most mundane scenes. In the collection’s opening poem, “Dear Death,” McGookey protests “can’t you see we’re busy riding bikes in the sun? Later we’ll cut out paper hearts and sprinkle them with glitter. I have had enough of you.” The poem ends with an invitation to Death to “pretend you forget all about us.” Many of the book’s letters to Death share this desire, even while the acknowledgment of Death’s presence seems to neutralize it. The speaker invites Death to “find a rock that looks like an egg so some other mouth can tell me about possibility,” and in “It’s March, Death,” she wonders “why . . . my frostbitten daffodils want to see this world again?” before acknowledging that “Talking to you [Death] feeds my illusion of control.”

The trick of the book is that Death stands as both a surreal sidekick/antagonist and a very real loss, felt most keenly in the absence of the speaker’s own mother. “Under the Red Umbrella” begins with the assertion that all rain is recycled, the same rain that “also fell on the dinosaurs,” and thus the same rain that once fell on the speaker and her mother: “We must have walked in it many times under the red umbrella with the broken handle, maybe waiting for my school bus, holding hands or not, laughing or not, standing close, then closer, because we wanted to stay dry.” Here, the parent-child intimacy flips on its hinge, with the speaker now the lonely child. It would be easy to fall into preciousness with such scenes, but McGookey’s poems have a quiet edge to them. The book’s title, for instance, comes from the image of a dead cat (a specimen from a high school science classroom) hung in the speaker’s locker by a boy who had a crush on her. It’s been offered there, we’re told, like “his heart in a jar.” McGookey’s deceptive quiet is something like Laura Jensen or Jane Kenyon, laced with a bit of Charles Simic.

Perhaps it’s that echo of Simic, a natural inclination of the prose poem, or simply an extenuation of the fairy tales one tells to one’s children that leads to the surreal tendency of the book. In “Tornado Machine” Dorothy attempts to send messages back to Oz (“the turbo setting is a huge improvement, but it sucks up an apple pie and a tea towel”), and in “Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Emotions,” the speaker receives an “encouraging rejection” from a museum’s “Day of the Dead Exhibition,” to which she’d submitted some of her dead mother’s belongings. They wish her the best of luck “placing them elsewhere.” There’s a dark humor here, too, another antidote to preciousness.

The speaker’s thorough commitment to the worlds the poems create makes it easy to be convinced of their intersection with our own. Of course a committee is gathering to work on “The Grief Jacket Project,” we say. After trying out several options, the committee settles on a garment of swallow feathers, milkweed floss, and spandex. The jacket’s testers assert they “would be delighted to own such a beautiful and useful garment, to be passed down to loved ones when the time came.” In some ways, Heart in a Jar offers us a similar garment. Certainly, the time will come. Death is far too chummy to avoid it. But in the midst of death how lovely and strange our small intimacies, our moments of daydream, these beautiful and useful poems in which they are held.

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