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Michigan Bookmark: “Heart in a Jar” subverts death’s ominous power through poetic imagination

The prose poems in Kathleen McGookey’s latest collection, Heart in a Jar, oscillate between the elegiac and surreal. “How can we use the poetic imagination to cope with loss?” McGookey asks her reader.  

Throughout the collection we get references to dead family members, dead dogs, as well as a series of epistolary poems addressed to death itself. This is not a dark book, however. The stock this writer places in the redemptive possibilities of the human imagination lend this project a surprising hopefulness.

In his blurb on the back of the book, American poet Gary Young writes that in these poems “Death is less a sinister, spectral force than an awkward, neighborly presence.” 

This evaluation is only partly right. 

While McGookey effectively utilizes the prose poem to deflate some of death’s ominousness, the sense of human finitude is internalized rather than neighbored. In the opening poem, “Dear Death,” McGookey suggests, “Let’s pretend you forgot all about us.”

Yet in “Mended II” she writes, “I wonder who might come to my funeral, although I know I should not wonder about a thing like that… I am not sure where my mother and father’s love for me has gone, now that they are dead.” It is a tacit admission that while death might be indifferent to us, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting about our own mortality. There are too many moments when “our dog was run over, when our friend was drowned the day his brother won the spelling bee."  

By addressing this personification of death, at times sardonically, and fusing the book’s tender elegiac mode with her own brand of surrealism, McGookey offers the reader a way to subvert death’s ominous power through the poetic imagination. As the book progresses, the poems and poem titles get stranger and more playful: “Monkey Island,” “Tornado Machine,” “The Day After a Girl Sprouted in the Flowerbed,” and we encounter surreal lines like, “All winter our mice laid eggs under the stairs near the furnace," and “The monkeys inside me are sick of speaking the wrong language." 

We can’t subvert death, but the imaginative works we leave behind can re-envision it as something other than an ending, as “an angel arrived hungry, wearing a crown of tiny pinecones," for instance, or “a single egg suspended like a jewel” from which a new world might hatch. Death, in other words, is not the limit of the human lifespan but the limiting of the human imagination.

In the prose poem McGookey has found the perfect formal vehicle to carry both her philosophical insights and her lyrical gems. And she puts them to work in her collection, Heart in a Jar, to transform death into an absurdity, echoing and contemporizing John Donne’s edict, “Death, be not proud.”

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He is the author of the book, Brother of Leaving, and the chapbook Heard Among the Windbreak

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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