The Heart That Lies Outside the Body by Stephanie Lenox
(Slapering Hol Press / The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., 2007)
In reviewing The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, I thought I'd write it as I read through the collection, rather than reading the whole thing first and then beginning a review. With this technique (misguided or not), I thought I'd get more of an immediate sense of the work's narrative arc. One result is that within the first handful of poems, I started wondering whether a word from the first line of this chap’s first poem sums up the personas of these poems which (according to an accompanying press release) are in the voices of, or people addressing, record holders from the Guinness World Records. That word would be “bird-brained.”
I thought this through the second and third poems, “The Heart That Lies Outside the Body” and “Making Love to Leopard Man” which, respectively, are in the voices of Christopher Wall, the longest known survivor of ectopia cordis, and Tom Leppard whose record is bearing tattoos on about 99.9% of his skin. The issue is that, as the poems present them, these gentlemen didn’t find happiness through holding records (while understandable in Wall’s case since he didn’t choose his condition, one can’t say the same for Leppard). Holding a world’s record, like having money, doesn’t guarantee happiness for them or those around them attracted to their uniqueness:
so long the doctors say I’ll die
like everyone else. I have dreams
that it fills with air, floats away.
I don’t know what that means.
(--from “The Heart That Lies Outside the Body”)
And so I was a bit relieved to read the tone shift in the fourth poem, “No One Gets Hurt” in the voice of Dean Sheldon who “earned titles in 2000 for holding both the largest scorpion and the most scorpions in his mouth at one time.” Here, a robust sense of self -- thus more self-confidence -- comes through:
To those who say I do it for a name,
I say, So? Who isn’t prey to that hunger?
before the poem concludes: “Inside my mouth, I can hold anything.”
Still, we get back to this sense of dissatisfaction with life and what this reader suspects to be a doomed attempt to relieve depression in the fifth poem “Longest Sneezing Fit, Day 977” in the voice of Donna Griffiths who apparently sneezed through 978 days:
that I don’t want
the raucous riot
in my lungs,
but what would life be
But if I did stop,
who would count
each ordinary breath?
Who would bless me?
It’s no wonder I nodded emphatically over the concluding lines in “Shortest Woman Living”, in the voice of Madge Bester who stands at two feet and 1.5 inches:
Take these words
into your mouth
and carry them with you.
Every day I open the book, bend back the spine
And read, “Sadly, she suffers…”
It’s all true.
I won’t promise these words will grow easier to bear.
Fortunately for those in no mood to be depressed, after the first six poems, what comes through in the rest of the collection are other types of nuanced and complicated takes on whether holding a world’s record, or the fame associated with such a record, is worth the notoriety. For example, the first stanza of “The Aging Cannonball Couple”:
I should have been a schoolteacher, she says,
climbing into the cannon beside mine. Her helmet
glitters, and beneath it, she wags her flame-retardant wig
in mock regret. At 65 mph, shot out, astounding human
velocity, there’s no sense in looking back. It could kill.
When I read the above, I actually thought of suicide bombers and specifically, in some cases, contexts (e.g. poverty) that made them susceptible to becoming suicide bombers. Yes, the half of the "Cannonball Couple" has nothing to do with a suicide bomber; it's that phrase "there's no sense in looking back. It could kill." that elevates the narrative reference to encompass other mattters. These points, when a reader can personalize a poem, enlarge the power of the poem beyond the appeal of their charm.
Not that it’s easy either to be charming through poems so huzzah, too, for the charm in these poems. Indeed, such is the charm of the last poem, “Inheritance,” that it effectively swept away any initial reservation I had over the ordering of the poems as a collection (because the first six poems felt too depressing as a group). “Inheritance” is a strongly effective conclusion to the collection, cohering them all together. It begins
Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
the Guinness Book, dog-earing our favorites:
Mike, the headless chicken
that lived 18 months before dying
in an Arizona hotel room; the man whose arm
was severed and reconnected
three separate times,
Lazarus, Jesus, and the lame girl combined.
The poem moves on seamlessly to
Other times we huddled over the family tree,
its names branching out on butcher paper, me
captivated by the word genealogy
as if it contained
the power to grant my three greatest wishes,
while he plotted everything, traced us back
to Sing-Go-Wah, chief of a tribe
Finally, this poem, also appealing for its mischief, concludes
Once before leaving,
he said he had a present for me
and dropped something weightless, invisible
in my hand.
The world’s smallest guitar, he explained,
like the one we read about,
size of a human blood cell,
completely functional. Now, play me a song.
My pulse picked up as I tried to think
what I should do.
Leaning over, with the tip of his fingernail,
he strummed once the center of my palm,
told me to press my ear against it.
The effect of the way the poetry collection was ordered -- the matter with which I began this review -- is a separate issue from the effectiveness of the poems as individual poems. These are all strong poems (some may be stronger than others but there isn’t really a weak one in the bunch). And after “Inheritance” only the most boorish critic would fail to conclude that the author -- or the personas behind these poems -- lived up to her legacy. She made that “grandfather” proud for crafting poems that show many ways possible for the “weightless, invisible…world’s smallest guitar” to be heard. It’s like the many ways through which love manifests itself. Some ways are better (however that may be defined) than others, but the love is always present and clear. Similarly, in this collection, Knox shows the existence of a life force which, while sometimes dysfunctional, makes one feel that one need not just exist but, proactively, lives.
In turn, after reading through these poems -- the reader feels as if s/he is emerging from another world, e.g. a fairy tale….and the reader emerges feeling inexplicably, but happily, more Alive. Stephanie Lenox’s The Heart That Lies Outside the Body is a gift.
As remuneration for editing Galatea Resurrects, Eileen Tabios doesn't have her books reviewed here ... but she's pleased to point you elsewhere to Thomas Fink's review of her SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss.