Solo Trope

Reviewed by Barbara Duffey

              Claudia Keelan’s O, Heart is a play formed by the accretion of lyric poem upon lyric poem. I am not being metaphorical—the poem “Cast” identifies O, Heart as “A DRAMA, BOTH ‘CLOSET’ AND VERSE” (line 1). Closet dramas are plays meant not to be staged, but to be read alone—this solitary encounter with literature is a motif in O, Heart, and one of the poets most famous for her solitary linguistic practice, Emily Dickinson, is a player here (from “Cast” again: “EMILY DICKINSON: SOLO TROPE” (23)). The characters in O, Heart serve not only to people the drama and propel the action, but also as representatives of certain “tropes”—Dickinson that of being “solo,” Jane Bowles as “sister trope” (15), Hester Prynne as “angel trope”(16), and Kate Chopin as “trope of rescue” (22). If this system seems to verge on allegory, “Cast” confirms that allegorical elements inform this drama; Pity is a character, too: “A CHRISTIAN IMPULSE, A SORROW, A MANNEQUIN” (27-28).

              What, then, does this closet, verse drama achieve? What is it set up to do? As in a play, the cast of characters guides my reading—“THE HEART” is a character in “Cast,” and it’s identified as “THE ORGAN AND THE ENTITY, ‘THE KING’ AS PERCEIVED VIA STRUCTURES HISTORICAL, SCIENTIFIC, MUSICAL, LITERARY, AND OTHERS” (4-6). The historical and scientific “perceptions” of the heart begin with “WILLIAM HARVEY: FATHER HEART” (16), who was the first to systematically, completely, correctly describe how the human heart works. Here, in O, Heart, he wears a stethoscope, and in the poem “Scene 5,” “uses [it] like a microphone and reads from his treatise on the circulation of the blood” (italics in original).

              The musical perceptions of the heart equate the heart to a violin, as in the poem “Scene 4, Act 2”: “Her heart is a violin / Loving her stranger” (3-4). From “Cast,” we learn that “her stranger” is the unnamed “he” in these poems (3). In “Scene 4, Act 2,” the heart-violin begins to sound not just like a song to a lover, but also like the woman’s child:

                  She is alone,
                  Holding a violin,
                  Cradling a violin
                  In the bend of her elbow

                  It is crying,
                  She is crying,
                  And feeding it
                  from her mouth (18-25)

Almost as if she’s a mother bird and the violin, her heart, a baby bird in her nest. What is the nature of this music? “She is bending and bowing / Bending and bowing” (30-31). On her violin, that also stands for her heart and perhaps also her child, she makes a sound: “the woman / And the sound she is making // They are so happy” (35-37). This happiness of sound and woman is so pleasurable that the poem asks,

                  Please never let it stop—
                  Please never let it stop—
                  Please never let it—
                  This sound this movement moving (41-44)

To look at the heart from a musical vantage point is to see “the woman,” the protagonist of this drama, make a sound so beautiful that it encourages a desire for perpetual motion, which is, since it comes from the heart, the movement required for life itself. If the heart is also her chick, the movement does not just propel one body, but initiates a lineage of hearts moving the woman’s family into the future.

              The literary perception of the heart seems to begin in the poem “First Acts,” when the speaker of the poem asks,

                  What was in Poe’s heart
                  That all his tales express the outward
                  Murder or death of something—

                  Old men, eyes, Ligeia, hearts, etc—
                  While the narrator goes quickly crazy himself,
                  Embodied and disembodied, in the act? (3-8)

The poem’s literary perception of the heart is as a victim of violence in the text, or as a locus of ambiguity in the story:

                  “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased...”

                   And no one can tell if it’s his
                   Or the old man’s, though it becomes clear—
                   Nothing becomes clear. (9-12)

Keelan’s poem enacts this ambiguity, too, because the Dickinsonian dash allows her to mean both that nothing becomes clear, and that it becomes clear nothing becomes clear.    

              However, this poem is not actually the first literary perception of the heart in this book. The first line of the first section of the first poem reads, “It was, the vision men kept telling her, only an organ” (“1. Empire,” 1). Read in that context, Poe becomes another of the “men” who “tell” the woman, or the poetic speaker (who is perhaps the woman), what the heart is—a mansplaining of the heart, if you will. Keelan achieves not only a thorough, comprehensive study of the heart from every angle, but does so with a distinctly feminist agenda, an agenda that’s necessary if this study is to be truly comprehensive. O, Heart demonstrates how one-sided, one-gendered, the “historical” discussions of the heart have been. They have been not unlike a physician speaking to himself through his own stethoscope—more about the men listening to themselves than listening to the heart. The poem “Scene 4, Act 2” quotes Meg Bogin’s critical work on twelfth century female poets, The Women Troubadours: “‘Occitania alone produced women troubadours’” so it can say, “‘the women’s language is in every sense, new...’” (1-2). The musical sound the woman’s heart is making is an example of this “new” language, and it looks much like birds mothering, and it depends on “movement moving.” Of course, poetry also can come from the mouth, so the mother bird becomes a metaphor for the poetic act, too. I do not mean that one must be a mother to be a poet, but that being a poet is like feeding the music from the poet’s own mouth, as if music were the poet’s baby—the poet gives birth to music and must continue to feed it. 

              The book ends with a refutation of a male’s understanding of the heart. The antepenultimate poem, “Leonardo, Leonardo,” quotes da Vinci’s “description of the heart”:

                  At one and the same time, in one and the same
                  subject, two opposite motions cannot take place,
                  that is, repentance and desire. (1-3)

The penultimate poem, “Agape, The Woman Is Agape,” begins, “But da Vinci is wrong.” She argues, “There are always at least two motions, / Desire and repentance, love and hate” (4-5). Other “motions” the poem identifies include “The music in silence, / The silence in music” (9-10), and “The women inside the woman” (13), so to try to decide which of these characters is the poetic speaker, or which might align with Keelan herself, is beside the point. The ultimate poem, “Retrograde Heart,” begins, “Yes, da Vinci was wrong.” It ends with a desire of our hearts, a desire that reminds us of the discussion of Kate Chopin in the earlier poem “First Acts”:

                  Edna swimming out to sea
                  At the end of The Awakening
                  Swimming away from possession,
                  Swimming into the possession
                  Of her own heart,
                  Which drowns her” (25-30)

The last poem of the book, and therefore the book itself, ends:

                  And though we are not, love, celestial bodies

                  Our hearts there do aspire:

                  swim swim
                  swim swim

Thus, over the course of O, Heart, the speaker sloughs off the men’s perceptions of
the heart and replaces it with a more feminist, comprehensive perspective, one that requires female literary forebears, maternal imagery for music, and the desire for more movement, always more movement. Will it “drown her,” or let her “aspire” to be “celestial”? The refutation of da Vinci requires that it be both/and, not either/or. 
This exhortation to movement is particularly interesting from the formal perspective of O, Heart as a closet drama, one that is not meant to be acted upon a stage, and thus mandating particular movements. Rather, O, Heart elevates the movement of the solitary heart within a particular woman’s breast, the movement that is, ultimately, swimming for the heavens as it plays music, plays silence, mothers music, makes poetry.

Barbara Duffey

Barbara Duffey is the author of I Might Be Mistaken (Word Poetry, forthcoming 2015). Her poetry has been published in Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets 2009, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction at The Collagist and in CutBank. An assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University, she lives in Mitchell, SD, with her husband and son. You can read more at and follow her on Twitter @BarbaraNDuffey