Photo Credit: Matt Bialostocki
Full size model of a Blue Whale heart, Te Papa Museum
The boy enters the whale heart. He finds his way.
His hands slide down the peachy aorta, his body
swallowed into the central chamber. My face pushes
after him because it’s just fibre and glass, and he’s
my first child, on his knees, his back to me. His hands
perform their work of play along a smooth ridge of cartilage
like a cardiac surgeon. Interpretations of the ‘whale’ fall
into three categories: The whale is real and my son
lives in her heart. Or the whale is the dream
I have for my son. Or the whale is an allegory
that should not be taken to heart. Some things take time
to understand. Last time we visited my grandmother
I knew she would die before I saw her again.
She’d been having regular blood transfusions—
pulsing circles of bright red tubing—which helped
for a few weeks before another fall, after which she’d rest
one cheek on the carpet. My son sat on her lap and she played
at biting his fingers, her grey dentures clacking together,
and he squealed and pointed, and then pointed to the fireplace,
and then pointed to the window where a dried floral arrangement had sat
for twenty years. Everything was there for him.
She took his pointing finger between the soft pads of her lips.
How do you enter the biggest heart? Do you say
that it weighs up to fifteen hundred pounds? The largest heart
is like a compacted Volvo! Maybe you must imagine it beating
inside you? Maybe you find it one quiet morning,
your son asleep, his cheeks flaring the colour of summer plums.
Author’s bio: Sarah Jane Barnett is a writer, tutor, and book reviewer who lives in Wellington. Her first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2012, and was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Her work has appeared in various publications including Sport, Landfall, Best New Zealand Poems, and Southerly. Sarah has a PhD in creative writing from Massey University in the field of ecopoetics. She blogs at: theredroom.org.
Author’s note: ‘I wrote this poem as part of my PhD thesis which, in part, looked at the different ways poets write about the nonhuman world. While writing my thesis I had my son and my grandmother died. Both of these events felt huge and brittle and surreal. Both were difficult to write about. One afternoon I took my son, Sam, to Te Papa and he played for ages in their scale model of a blue whale heart. It made me think about the way poets often resort to using the natural world as a metaphor when trying to describe love, grief, or the sublime. That’s when I wrote this poem.’
Paula’s note: The opening line of Sarah’s poem, so exquisitely simple stalled me with myriad, potential directions: fable, fairytale, the slippery slopes of surrealism, metaphor and real-life anecdote (as the epigraph in fact signals). This heavenly poem celebrates the child — the mother-son relationship is clasped in its tender embrace. Poignantly, the life of the son is countered by the death of the grandmother, not as a set of scales but as a largeness of love and loss that finds its potency in the smallest of detail. The poem enacts the mystery of writing a poem — the way stream-of-consciousness or random thoughts that accumulate like stepping stones can drive the poet’s pen and make magic out of metonymy and juxtaposition. The son points out the luminous detail so that place becomes vibrant and beloved. The life blood of this poem is heart: the whale’s heart, the son’s heart, the grandmother’s heart. But more than than anything, it is the internal love heart that renders the grace, economy, attentiveness, poetic craft, the words that shine out, the story that unfolds and the images that startle (‘cheeks flaring the colour of summer plums’) in maternal ink. This is why I love poetry.
Sweet Mammalian is a new literary journal edited by 3 Wellington poets. The journal was created out of a wish to see more good, new writing out in the world. The editors of Sweet Mammalian aim to provide a fresh space for poetry that comes out of the complex, the absurd, the warm-blooded. They aim to provide a space for all kinds of writing. The inaugural issue of Sweet Mammalian is launched today, Friday 10 October, with a launch party and reading in Wellington.
The link to Sarah’s poem in the inaugural issue is here.