Poetry

“Know, Heart” by Elisabeth Murawski

 

Know, Heart

The head knows
the child who grew inside her

is no more. Between
head and heart

a tundra lies,
windswept and cold,

to be crossed on foot
without boots

or overcoat. The heart
winds itself

round and round
with silk thread,

tight enough
to hold everything

breaking. The head
consoles: in time

the miles to go
will grow shorter.

Muffled in silk, cocooned,
the heart cannot see

the houses have lights on,
can only reach back

like a blind person
to the way things were.

 

First published in Cumberland River Review and reprinted here with permission of the author. 

Listen to the author reading her poem here

 

Elisabeth Murawski is the author of Heiress, which received the Poetry Society of Virginia Award; Zorba’s Daughter, which won the May Swenson Poetry Award; Moon and Mercury, which won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House competition; and two chapbooks: Troubled by an Angel and Out-patients. Nearly three hundred of her poems have been published in journals or online. Murawski has won The Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition (2019), the Gabriela Mistral Poetry Prize (2016), the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Prize (2015), the Mudfish 11 Prize (2011), the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize (2011), Shenandoah’s Graybeal-Gowen Prize (2011), and the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize (2006). Born and raised in Chicago, Murawski is a DePaul University alumna who earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. She has received grants from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, a residency from the Achill Heinrich Böll Association, and a Hawthornden Fellowship. Employed for twenty-eight years as a training specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau before retiring in 2005, she has conducted poetry workshops as an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University. Murawski currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia. Author photo credit: Janette Ogle.

 

Heiress is available here, and Zorba’s Daughter is available here

You can listen to Murawski reading other poems here (“The Day Pablo Neruda Met my Mother”) and here (“Blows” and “For Alun Lewis”). 

 

Poet’s Note

This is one of many poems I have written in the seven years since the death of my son Alex. Writing about him and the loss, the seemingly bottomless grief, has been my way to cope. 

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The format of “Know, Heart” is simple and deceptively spare: 24 very short lines arranged into couplets with no end rhyme or regular meter. Most lines have two stresses, as in the first (“The head knows”) and last (“to the way things were”), but what keeps me from calling it dimeter is the presence of other lines (for example, “the child who grew inside her,” line 2) that lay stress on three syllables. Mostly, the meter feels iambic, following a pattern of unstress/stress as in the lines quoted above. Other lines, such as 13 (“tight enough”), 15 (“breaking. The head”), and 19 (“Muffled in silk, cocooned”) invert the stress pattern in the first foot, creating the feel of a trochaic line. Meter may not be regular, but it is present enough to create the sense of a two-beat pulse running through the poem, something that mimics a human heartbeat in its normal (iambic) rhythm as well as in its abnormal, disturbed (trochaic) arrhythmia. 

“Know, Heart” eschews end rhyme, but that does not mean it lacks music. Musicality is usually a consequence of patterned sound repetitions, but these can take other forms besides the end rhyme we associate with songs and nursery rhymes. In “Know, Heart,” sound repetitions occur as very subtle internal rhyme across (as opposed to within) lines and also as consonance or repetition of initial consonant sounds. Internal rhyme primarily occurs as variants on words that rhyme or near rhyme with “heart”—“foot,” “boots,” “overcoat,” “shorter,” and “lights” are examples. Rare consonance is seen in “head and heart” (line 4), “round and round” (line 11), and “house have” (line 21). Another kind of repetition, one that may register more at the level of the body than through actual hearing, is the rhythm created by the poem’s two-line (couplet) stanza structure and use of parallel construction in its syntax. We may not consciously hear these patterns, and they may be fleeting, but we nevertheless register them at some level in our bodies.

The main figurative device at work in today’s poem is imagery—imagery of a particular kind called “synecdoche.” Synecdoche is defined as “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man. (Source here) In my go-to examples, the phrase “deck hand” uses one part of the body (the hand) to stand in for the whole “person” of a sailor, and Game of Thrones fans will recall how the man closest to the ruling monarch was dubbed “the King’s Hand.” A related device, metonymy, uses related to a term related to something else (as opposed to a part of it) to stand in for a concept, as in when we use “the White House” to mean our government’s executive branch or “the Crown” to designate a monarchy. 

The imagery here all relates to the speaker’s body, specifically to her “head” and “heart,” which another set of imagery transforms into elements of a landscape the speaker is trudging across. Besides being examples of synecdoche that use “head” and “heart” to stand for more abstract concepts like reason and emotion, these terms also belong to another special category of image called “symbols”—terms that have acquired a secondary meaning, and in a very widespread way, through force of usage over time. Thus, anytime we see the word “heart,” we automatically associate it with love and human emotion just as we tend to link “head” with thought, reason, and other things that can sometimes seem like the heart’s antithesis. Symbols are like apps—they give us a shortcut to deeper, more complex concepts and are a quick and effective way for a poet to evoke a response.

Until they don’t, which is what happens when a symbol gets overused and loses its power by becoming a cliché. Remember, though, that clichés only become clichés when a particular construction of language is in the first instance so good, so very apt, that it attains widespread usage. In today’s parlance, it becomes a meme. Think of the phrase “right as rain.” We hear it all the time without really hearing it or thinking, literally, about rain. But there was something about it as first uttered—some combination of sounds, the feeling it evokes—that gave it extraordinary potency, so much so that everyone started saying it. To categorically avoid all clichés in writing is to deny yourself a source of great power: words and phrases striking enough to make themselves felt in language as a whole. The best writers harness that power by using clichés consciously in ways that refresh them and recover some of the force that characterized the original utterance. 

There are many ways to do this. One is to out-and-out acknowledge that you know you are using a cliché, perhaps with irony. Another is to turn the cliché somehow in a way that makes it new while still recalling the power of the original utterance. The phrase “social distancing” has become pretty rote in today’s discourse, but when I recently saw its terms reversed somewhere as “distant socializing,” that caught my eye and made me go back to recall the original term and think about its meaning and derivation instead of just skating past it. 

Students of poetry are familiar with the admonition to avoid large, abstract, and often overused words like “heart,” so often seen in poems that it has become a trope and dreaded cliché (think Hallmark cards). So, it especially delights me when I see a poem like today’s that gets away with using it. Why does “heart” work here?

It works primarily because of the writer’s tremendous restraint. It is difficult to imagine a poetic subject more evocative of pathos than a loved child who has died, and yet Murawski manages to communicate the depth of that loss without sentimentality or complaint. The main technique is distance—the speaker stands at a remove, as point of view is objective third person with nary an “I” in the poem. Melodramatic diction is scrupulously avoided. Instead, the speaker looks at her head and heart almost literally, not just as body parts but also as places in a landscape the speaker must cross. 

Besides being a great strategy for keeping readers in the poem, this device enacts what the poem is talking about when it describes a heart unable to feel things as it used to feel them. The poem is sad because its subject is sad, but the speaker is markedly dispassionate in her recounting of it, in her tone. This kind of remove is necessary for writers to be able to make art from painful personal events. Besides just enabling the poem to be written, it also enhances the experience of reading it—readers can enter the poem by degrees without feeling manipulated or overwhelmed, and then can be led to an experience that will remind or teach them something about human grief. 

Another reason Murawski gets away with using those heart and head images is that she does something unusual with them. Instead of what we might expect to read in a poem of bereavement—my aching heart or my heart-and-head-at-war, for example—she presents the heart and head as literal body parts and then goes further with what feels almost like an inversion of personification. Personification ascribes human attributes to nonhuman creatures and things. Here, something human—a head and a heart—becomes something not-human—a physical destination in a landscape made bleak by loss. That landscape, moreover, is the map of the speaker’s spiritual state and suffering. The result gives us a new way to access the speaker’s pain, which feels fresh in the way grief always feels fresh.

So, the head “knows” that the speaker’s child has died, and the heart, located at a physical remove (from across a frozen tundra), knows something else entirely. In an image I cannot stop thinking about, the speaker’s heart is constricted, wound too tightly with silk thread to feel or properly function; it is “muffled” and bound. Anyone familiar with deep grief will understand this image and feeling, perhaps what Emily Dickinson was talking about in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”

I take it that silk represents the accrued experience of suffering, and what it holds in its tightly cinched loops is another equally devastating image. In a way that brilliantly employs its line break, the silk holds “everything / breaking.” Those layers of silk thread bind the pieces of a life shattered by the loss of a beloved child. The image’s visceral quality, what I sometimes call the “gut quotient” or “feel quotient,” is so striking here. Just thinking about winding a fine thread around anything so many times as to choke it out gives me a feeling of anxiety, a tightening in my chest that mimics actual grief. The idea of a heart laboring under its slow, inexorable accretion of grief-thread feels right and matches what I feel when I recall my own deepest losses. 

I find the silk-shrouded heart image resonant for personal reasons as well. When I was in the fourth grade, my class visited the Juniata Silk Mill in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a field trip that ended with each student being given a finger-sized wooden bobbin wound with bright silk floss. You see what’s coming here, right? In more than one instance, that floss ended up wound around an actual child’s finger, which in my case turned blue. That experience taught me the cutting tensile strength of silk thread, a fiber also used to make parachutes and sutures. “Silk” in the poem also reminds me of the spider silk now used to make sutures, violin strings and Airbus jets. So for me, the image of a heart wound round and round with silk communicates a disturbing sense of suffocation and claustrophobia.

The other reason that image compels me is suggested by the poem itself, which begins by positing the heart as an organ “inside” the speaker’s body the way the child once was. That makes me think of anatomy, of how a heart is essentially one long band of muscle folded and refolded to fit in a chest cavity; in dissection, apparently, a human heart can be unrolled like a thick ribbon or cord. So, we have the idea of the heart—itself a cord—being wrapped unto mummification by another cord (the silk thread). That kind of doubling in poetry pleases me more than I can say.

“Know, Heart” ends in a place of utter desolation and loss, with the heart so baffled by suffering that it cannot feel anything or even conceive of a future. All it can do is look blindly back into memory. I see some small hope in the fact that the speaker’s head is able to contemplate any kind of future without the child and has found a way to comfort itself (in the knowledge that suffering will be ended by a death drawing ever near). If like me, you tend to return to a poem’s title after you’ve finished reading the last line, you may apprehend another glimmer of hope. That is, the title can be read as an injunction by the speaker telling the heart to “know” what the head has discovered: Suffering has its inevitable end when the body dies, and in the meantime, some houses in life do still have their “lights on.” If the heart was “de-personified” in the first few stanzas, that process is reversed in the way I read the title after I have read the whole poem.

These images work on multiple levels and evoke deeply felt connections and symbols leading to other, sometimes doubled images and meanings. For me, they result in an image complex that evokes several feelings and associations at once, triggering memory and resonating in some primitive part of my subconscious. I want to call it “deep image,” except that is a very specific term of art meaning something else, as used by Lorca and others [source here], that I hope will be the subject of a future column. In any event, “Know, Heart” does what I want poetry to do: It makes me feel something deeply and think about something familiar in a new way, and does all that with artful compression and simple, plainspoken diction that communications complex ideas and emotions. 

 

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