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Heart Attack as Still Life

 , August 18, 2015

I return again and again to the brilliant poem of Mara Feingold-Link, “Heart Attack,” just as I return to the ocean again and again with the expectation that something new will have arrived on the shore to discover. In four stanzas, Feingold-Link limns through the human heart’s four chambers with a careful, coiled meter that calls the reader to auscultate, rather than to sight-read, her text. Hers is a sad cadence, plotted out with sparse diction and end-line rhyme connecting the stanzas into a weighted shape, ventricles and atria perhaps, or rather systole and diastole, with symmetry and balanced opposition. 

The heart she describes is entirely disembodied; it is itself a tombstone, a shell grave, a clenched fist, coiled chamber, an empty siphonal canal, face down, drying into fossil on some sand shore by an ocean which continues along crashing and swelling and beating. 

“Heart Attack,” as I read the poem again in a rare moment of quiet in a room just off the hall traffic of a large, busy, crashing, swelling, beating hospital ward floor, is a still life in words. As the poet Mark Doty has said, “Still life points to the human by leaving the human out.” Feingold-Link’s disembodied conch shell heart is an arresting image because of the way it points to the human for whom it once beat, who is now face down, I imagine, dead and shell stone still in some quiet hospital room, from which the Code Team has just left. This room, like the quiet place on the beach where the shell rests, and like the room I am now paused within, gets a faint murmur from the hallway, where the ocean echoes of hospital tides never cease. The spiral shell suggests that life and death is a cycle, a switching back and forth between states, systole and diastole, ocean and shore, both present at once and yet impossibly so. The heart itself is positioned like a valve between these two states.

The proximity of stillness to life, and the tension between these two opposites is a dynamic force Feingold-Link harnesses to challenge the permanence of either. This poem is so marvelously well done that I’m ever aware that I have further to go as it reveals itself to me. With each read, I travel further along the spiral, into and out of all the ways I have read it before.

The sound in Feingold-Link’s diction reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon, dirt-churning, clack and rattle word choice of Seamus Heaney. Her consonants ground the poem into the sand where she has set her subject. While there is no human here, there are the contents of humanity heaped into a mound of salty soil through which, if one so chooses to dig, to return to this poem again and again, surely there is treasure awaiting. In the same way, there is a painted plate of ever-rotting food and a vase of still flowers and perhaps a key far from its lock on some forgotten table on a canvas in a museum waiting to point back at you. Take the time to gaze at this poem as you would at a still life painting—or as you would take in an ocean vista.

Rachel Hammer