Review of Kathleen McGookey's Heart in a Jar (White Pine, 2017)

Heart in a Jar: Review & Ten-Specimen Cento

by Amelia Martens


Amidst seven poems directly addressed to Death, Kathleen McGookey’s prose poem collection, Heart in a Jar (White Pine, 2017) teems with life.

The zoological catalogue, a bright plumage or dark spill, ranges from poems actually set in zoos, to the use of animals as metaphor, to the speaker’s direct attempts to save or at least articulate the life forms which fly, prowl, give birth, weave homes, and suffer in the world around her.  The heart is in a jar for examination, like “The dead cat, stolen from Biology,” and McGookey never turns away from this other side of life.

There is a certainty to these poems, and a struggle to exist in a world where everything dies, a world where boys need bird suits after school, where paper fish have been taught to swim. Things are not as they should be in McGookey’s prose poems. Death must be addressed, animals caged, and Grief Jackets designed and tested. In this examination, McGookey gives us animals, but also so many hearts and other bits of the body—mouths, fingernails, earwax: the physical existence of human animals; “because being an animal is not so bad,” and we have no alternative. These prose poems struggle with parenthood from both sides: “Having a child is not what you think,” to the “universal plight of how to dispose of emotionally charged artifacts” of one’s parents. In small boxes, McGookey points out the unavoidable pain of all stages of life, these miraculous nests made of loss.  Here seemingly opposite emotional states (“In absence, anyone is perfect”) come up against their mirror twins (“Eventually, someone may notice my absence”).

The heart in McGookey’s jar is sometimes human, sometimes another animal, sometimes complete, sometimes torn apart in a recognizable story. Even the landscape is both reliable and painful: “Lake Michigan heaves its slow heartbeat on the sand,” and the speaker is told to “just let it fall” if she drops anything over the side of the lighthouse. How difficult it is to hold on and how difficult to let go in a world crowded by life and loss; Heart in a Jar reflects our fractures back to us. Here we recognize—in animal fables, in trips to the zoo, in our own dreamscapes—how little control we have. Even if we try to rescue some creature, or ourselves, we may “damage it beyond any repair.”

In awe of the animals—the significant life—that McGookey includes in Heart in a Jar, I have gathered her words together in a ten-specimen cento. All lines come from McGookey’s book, which holds even more hearts within.


Dear Life: A Ten-Specimen Cento


I’d rather learn facts about penguins: what they eat, how much they weigh, how they stay warm in the Antarctic. Today, it feels like the last, brief bit of birdsong, just before the sparrow in the pine flies away. At twilight, no matter the weather, that single bullfrog called to me. But in the morning, I found the raccoons’ greedy dirty footprints on our cooler. We still had, at least something they wanted.

As for theories, I like luck. But each morning, when I hear the white-throated sparrow making its threats at down, I know you’re not far behind. Whale bones litter the only sky. Fireflies are strung up and dangle by the glass walls. Eventually, someone may notice my absence.


The pregnant skunk moves into the dollhouse—it is available—then nibbles hard-boiled eggs at the table set for three.  All winter mice laid eggs under the stairs near the furnace. Wasn’t it yesterday the tethered owl nuzzled her keeper’s finger and the keeper told us, Put your hands in your pockets. A sleek bee sting and gauzy kisses won’t help. Octopus, vampire, cowgirl, bat. The monkeys inside me are sick of speaking the wrong language. The last monkey wants to swim for it. She believes the vast ocean is only a trick of the eye.


Our angel promised to scrub floors, but we got down on our knees anyway, our hearts like rabbits. Our teeth are white and sharp and long as the bones of fish. When the moon shines in my river, when a butterfly tries to lay eggs on it, we must not touch. It is raining, just barely, and the rain feels like the sleek fur of otters against our cheeks.


Let the barn owl coast above me; let the worms come. If the wind kicks up, you can chase beach balls with the kids and dogs who splash by the reeds. I know truth is precarious. And here you’ve sent a curtain of rain for the cat to hide behind.  Dr. don’t-grieve-for-me tips me back and kittens stare down from the ceiling. They are all trust. So when our dog was run over, when our friend drowned the day his brother won the spelling bee—this was another kind of pain.


When a pair of barn swallows swooped by our conference room’s windows, the committee rejoiced. Some sat for hours and petted the sleeves. I will write any address with immaculate clockwork, immaculate desire, because being an animal is not so bad, there are whole hours, whole afternoons, to drowse by the pond in the cornfield.


The rooster sleeps all the time. I like to drift by the brown horse that grazes in a field lit by dandelions. And please look down into the water. I’ve spent days teaching the paper fish to swim. We make faces and let the wind fill our cheeks like a couple of fat goldfish. The dead cat, stolen from Biology, showed up in my locker. After school, my boy searches through his collection of bird suits: pine siskin, least bittern, brown thrasher, wood thrush. From his closet’s messy nest he pulls chimney swift, shakes twigs from its pockets, slips it on.  Behind him, a lion lies on the concrete, an indifferent royal pet. But the lion does not belong to the angel. Each carefully pretends he is alone.


I’d like to talk about something else for a change, like that small blue frog, which, if licked, kills whatever licked it. The frog might be another color. You might have to eat it to die. The outdoor tank where jellyfish drifted luminous, to piped-in Vivaldi, is in storage now.


The tree frogs’ silver chorus rose in waves as I ran back to my house. I could still hear the girl’s faint sparrow song. Store the box until I want it, then tell me a story, the one where I’m happy as a trout because no one catches me. A fat and silent baby trembled among the glistening trout when my husband hauled in the day’s catch.


Once I read in a children’s book that rain never changes, that the rain on our roof and windows also fell on the dinosaurs. Cat banished, then sought. One bright fish circled in its bowl on the altar. This time of year, swallows dive for feathers to line their nests. And here is the monarch’s chrysalis, dangling under our threshold. Rain and wind worry us, but if we rescue it, we will damage it beyond repair. When I pick up a dead swallowtail, it’s already swarming with ants. I lifted a painted lady, then a black swallowtail, from the dirt. Each was still a little alive.


Nothing sings or swings or swims in me. No flashing trout, no penguin, no saucy chimpanzee. No bright otter, too smart to be caged. The otter is better. Silver bubbles cling to its back behind the aquarium window. Spiders spun silver hammocks where the children swayed, petting pearl-colored kittens that had dropped from the trees. I want four fat mourning doves to strut the roof’s peak, then scatter when a hawk dives.

Amelia Martens is the author of The Spoons in the Grass are There To Dig a Moat (April 2016), a book of prose poems, selected by Sarabande Books for the 2014 Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature. She received both an MFA in Creative Writing and an MS in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from Indiana University and currently teaches for West Kentucky Community & Technical College.