The Normal Heart and How It Works by Rachael Lyon

The Normal Heart and How it Works by Rachael Lyon,
The Normal Heart and How it Works by Rachael Lyon (2011), Winner of the Fall 2010 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Contest

Lyon, Rachael. The Normal Heart and How it Works. White Eagle Coffee Store Press: Fox River Grove, 2011. 24 pages.

Reviewed by Julie Brooks Barbour


The Normal Heart and How It Works, a chapbook by Rachael Lyon–a contributor to our 2014 issue–investigates the shapes our bodies take and the names we give those shapes. As in any thorough investigation, the poems question these shapes and names, and how we use them to form identities. Lyon calls on Carl Linneaus early in the collection to assist her in this work:

But you are not your name alone.
No more than flowers are defined when one man
sees within their shape the ear of an animal.  (“To Carl Linnaeus”)

And what shape concerns Lyon? In a sequence of poems titled “Transplant,” placed in intervals throughout the collection, the speaker of each poem ruminates on the problems of the heart. In one poem, the speaker receives a heart ordered from a catalog, but realizes it is “not like the pictures.” The speaker’s own heart is “a mess of veins and wires / and rhythm,” and the speaker decides to keep it, because “when I saw that cramping thing, I couldn’t take it out.” In other “Transplant” poems, the heart has a “bad valve” and in another, the speaker dreams of putting a new heart in: “valves, slow-functioning, / and neat as a new pin.” By the final poem in the sequence, the speaker understands that the heart, whether a new one or one with a bad valve, may never fully attach. The heart bleeds, says the speaker, because

it recognizes the connection with this body
is false attachment. Parts not grown, parts
sewn into each other.

Lyon uses the poems in this collection to come to an understanding of the body. The speaker gains knowledge of how the “bad” heart works, and how to live with the heart through this understanding. In one of the most powerful poems in the collection, “Binary Things,” Lyon takes us through life with an imperfect heart. In the first section, “To Look,” the speaker concludes that we are all guardians of our lives: “We open and close four hundred times while we live, / take in, let go.” As the valves of the heart open and close, so do we. In the second section, “To Speak,” the speaker states, “When I was born, I was a heart problem.” This section alludes to earlier poems in the book, such as “bad blood” referring to the “bad valve” in one of the earlier “Transplant” poems. Carl Linneaus also returns in this section, the speaker’s body “not winter hardy // like the plants Linnaeus grew,” and at the end of the poem the botanist is spoken to directly: “What name would you give me?” In the third section, “To Write,” the number two is repeated throughout the poem, continued from the second section’s allusion to Noah’s ark and Adam’s naming of the animals (“Carl, you were Princeps botanicorum, made / into a second Adam, naming two by two / by two.”) In this third section, the animals in Noah’s ark are echoed, as is the pulse of the heart:

Two feet
two feet, two feet
two pulses, too:
a weak, a strong.

In the final section of the poem, ”To Cry,” the speaker gains knowledge of how her heart works when a doctor draws a picture of it. “It helps for me to see it,” the speaker states, no matter how poorly drawn the doctor thinks his illustration might be. It is this understanding of the inner workings of her heart that educates the speaker. By the end of the poem, the speaker is filled up with knowledge and pulls her life, and the poem’s sections, together:

But I have just
begun to look,
have just begun
to speak, to write,
to cry. I am
not finished yet.

The heart acquires a name through the speaker’s knowledge of how it works. It is not “bad,” but neither is it “normal.” It is a heart that works, and though it may not do so perfectly, it has its own particular shape and belongs to the speaker. In the poem “To Carl Linneaus,” the speaker states, “It’s just that mothers sometimes think / of things the way they could be.” The heart could be perfect, as could our bodies, but we are guardians of what we own. When we choose to accept and know our bodies, that is wisdom.   

6904577Julie Brooks Barbour is co-editor and poetry editor at Border Crossing. A recipient of an Artist Enrichment Grant from Kentucky Foundation for Women and a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts, she received an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro.  Her books include a full-length collection, Small Chimes (Aldrich Press, 2014), and three chapbooks, the most recent of which are Beautifully Whole (forthcoming from Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2015) and Earth Lust (Finishing Line Press, 2014).  She is Associate Poetry Editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and teaches composition and creative writing at Lake Superior State University.

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