Review: Heart in a Jar by Kathleen McGookey

Heart in a Jar by Kathleen McGookey
White Pine Press, April 2017

Review by Natalie Tomlin

In her seminal book on our personal and cultural relationship to immunization and in effect, fear, On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss explains her surprise after buying Alice in Wonderland for her son’s fourth birthday: “it did not take very long for me to realize that this was a gift for me, not for him [….] Alice’s bewilderment and disorientation, which I had anticipated might speak to my son’s experience of being a child in an adult’s world, spoke instead to my own experience navigating the world of information.”

In a similar way, Kathleen McGookey’s third book of prose poems, Heart in a Jar, finds an inevitable filter for adult emotions in the simultaneously wild, mundane and whimsical reality of young children and the work of child rearing. As she grieves the losses of her parents, the speaker finds her own deeper questions following her everywhere: at an elementary school Valentine party, where Death arrives in a red pick up truck; at a Reverence for Life Service for pets, where “my boy carried his cat's picture and small tin of ashes to church.”

One of the most shocking revelations of the new parent is that we are expected to be good parents while also navigating our 'stuff:' illness, anxiety, and in McGookey's work, grief. And this realization is palpable in McGookey's work: as parents, it is nearly impossible to compartmentalize, and even when we do escape our emotions, we might do so only by getting tangled further into our children's worlds. Luckily, her work reveals that getting lost is not always a bad thing.

Should a tooth be placed under a pillow or inside the dishwasher? In “Mended II,” a disoriented adult speaker seems to be approaching a time out: “I believe the dishwasher swallowed the/ lost tooth.” Oscillating between the responsibility of parenthood and the desire to be comforted herself, the act of cleaning becomes imbued in grace: “I was once a miracle to my parents. Now I sweep the floor. Is that a miracle too?” And when facing mortality, it seems only childlike questions make the most sense: “I am not sure where my mother and father's love for me/ has gone, now that they are dead.”

We take our children 'out' for something to do and to occupy time, yet in McGookey's work, the adult self is fleshed out in child-focused excursions. “At the Costume Parade,” the speaker is politely present in body, yet her mind is bracing and witty, whispering confessions that might make one wish mom blogs could take up prose poetry: “Now Death/ dangles a plane in the sky. A ladybug trips over a desk and wails./ Swollen tentacles sweep cupcakes onto the floor. I feel like crying.”

In one of many poems that addresses death directly, in “The Zoo in Winter,” a place designed for children becomes a place of reckoning: “what do you/ like best: eagles under netting-covered sky or steelhead with fraying/ fins in cloudy water?” Even after climbing to the top of a lighthouse with her two children in “Lighthouse Tour, South Manitou Island,” a speaker can't avoid getting confronted with harsh myth: “The guide offers a story: here, two older brothers watched the parents' boat go down in a storm. A little light, extinguished, while/ the lighthouse blinked I'm here.”

The poem concludes in lines that captures, so chillingly, the stark reality of parenthood--we rush to protect, yet ultimately must accept frailty: “I glimpse a thin railing/ and reach for my children. If you drop anything, the guide says, just let it/ fall.”

Paired with such realism are fantastical poems, in which McGookey showcases her chops as a surrealist. Prose poems allow her to immerse the reader in strange worlds inspired by folk and fairy tales, and at times they challenge, as the further she delves into the quirky, the less likely it seems she will be able to zoom out of intricacy in order to focus on simple truths. But these poems stretch like rubber bands in their peculiarity; somehow, they always retract back to concrete questions, such as those concerning memory and aging. “In My River” constructs a world in which children with teeth “white and sharp and long as the bones of fish” sleep in wet beds, and are at the whim of adults. “This won't hurt,” they are told, as “she pulled clocks and feathers from the incisions she'd made in our sides.”

The poem concludes with haunting imagery that captures our habit of stowing fertile keepsakes in attics, only to unearth them years later and discover they have become hollow: “Our mothers call and call for us. In one egg, we find a gar-/ land. In another, worn-out ballet shoes.” The last line walks a delicate balance between gothic and pristine, reveling in juxtaposition: “In the last, a doll whose/ head is the skull of a mouse.”

While on the surface Heart in a Jar is focused on grief, on a larger scale, the book is preoccupied with psychology--how we process and communicate our desires, our pains. And what better way to bring truth and levity to our human condition than through the lens of The Wizard of Oz? In “Tornado Machine,” Dorothy seems to inhabit in our Amazon world and “orders the tabletop model.” After experimenting with sending gifts in “a tiny funnel cloud,” such as fountain pen and a bullet proof vest, she attempts a written message:

          [...] Heart, brain and courage working well? Love from Kansas,
The words will surely arrive as confetti. It pains her to send
          her friends the possibility of rage and rain, but in the worst case, she
          reasons, they could still spell out They love my art.


Natalie Tomlin is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her recent poetry, nonfiction and journalism appears or is forthcoming in ​J Journal, Midwestern Gothic, River Teeth, Rapid Growth Media, New Pages, Literary Mama and elsewhere.​

Kathleen McGookey’s prose poems and translations have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Field, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and Quarterly. She is author of At the Zoo, (White Pine Press). She has received grants from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Arts Fund of Kalamazoo County, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has taught creative writing at Hope College, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Western Michigan University.