The Normal Heart and How It Works by Rachael Lyon
(White Eagle Coffee Store Press, Fox River Grove, IL, 2011)
In middle school, I thought I looked so different from day to day that I was surprised when people recognized me as the same person. Of course, to people who weren’t me, and thus didn’t look at me in the mirror constantly, distinguishing me each day was easy. All this to say that Rachael Lyon’s outstanding chapbook The Normal Heart and How It Works White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 2011) brings to my mind Czeslaw Milosz’s dictate, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.” It is hard to be one person, because—in our mirrors, but exponentially more inside ourselves—we are so many people.
Among this chapbook’s strengths is the breath of tones it accomplishes. The speaker of these poems does not stand back and describe herself to us; we come to know her much more intimately than that, through the many, many attitudes, thought-experiments, and memories she shapes and re-shapes throughout the book.
The speaker of the poems in Normal Heart has a heart defect, and the poems travel a loosely narrative arc as the speaker recounts time spent abroad, hospital visits both routine and emergency, and her Southern childhood. Lyon’s skilled, inventive prosody—especially meter—works alongside the book’s narrative arc to tell a more tonally driven, impressionistic story. I like how Lyon supplies us with the information we need to understand everything in this book; there is no notes section, and though Lyon at times uses bits of German and medical terminology, she also supplies enough explication within the poems themselves to allow them to work autonomously, without the aid of Google. There are complexities here, but they are of the emotional, tonal, and syntactical variety.
In “Moving,” Lyon writes of herself and her sister as children: “We walked through walls, / hid visible in closets and under / windows, / traced out the hall, / the doorways.” Without either child speaking and with no physical description at all, Lyon describes their ways beautifully, suggesting through knock-kneed slant rhymes and off-kilter meter their collusion with each other, their secret language, their ease in play. The internal rhyme here, particularly on “hid visible,” also conveys a sense of nostalgia for that world of childhood play that is all but inaccessible to the speaker now. Lyon shows all of this through her brilliant use of rhyme and meter, which tell more, and tell it more fully, than words alone could.
In “To Carl Linneaus,” Lyon again uses meter to convey subtle shades of tone and meaning that add depth to the poem. The poem begins, “I’m sorry your mother never forgave you / for not becoming the priest you were meant / to be.” This poem, though it shares a speaker with the rest of the book’s poems, has a unique way of echoing a mother’s cadences. For example, “It’s just that mothers sometimes think / of things the way they could be. She loved / to watch you out there in your garden…” Lyon’s loose iambic pentameter allows for a reading of that middle line as “THINGS the WAY they COULD be”—stressing could, rather than they, as another speaker might. In these subtle, unexpected metrics, we read a mother’s pleading, and, in one deft metrical move, a character’s entire voice, and a relationship between mother and son, are expressed. The poem’s gorgeous final lines are some of the book’s most lovely: “We grow / from infanthood, we leave our mothers, run away / and don’t look back and, like your flowers, lean into the sun. Our names are won.”
There are other lyric moments throughout the book that I was moved to read out loud, the kinds of lines I come to poetry for. In “Binary Things,” letting a butterfly out of her windshield wiper, Lyon writes, “This is the reproof the sunbeam throws back as I / release him: to spread ourselves wide, take in morning - / the guardians we are – our dust-covered paper souls / caught up and soon released, flung into the air.”
From here Lyon takes us to the second of five poems called “Transplant,” this one a talk-y prose poem: “It’s not that it’s a bad heart. The heart has a bad valve, not bad valve but a small one, too small.” The tonal shift between these two poems, and between and among poems throughout the book, gives a rich sense of the human-ness of this speaker, of how much—how much looking, speaking, writing, and crying, as the poem “Binary Things” has it—is inside this speaker, this human being.
The way Lyon affects such subtlety and variety of tone throughout these poems might also have something to do with her control of syntax. In “Nostalgia,” she writes,
What did we get from watching owner after
owner paint the shutters, tear down birth-
day trees, dismantle deathtrap playgrounds dad
built out of wood – sheet metal for a slide
that burned our legs so bad in summer, even water
from the hose we rigged on top couldn’t
save us from the scorch?”
Across this this knot of clauses, Lyon introduces us to elements of her childhood home in the very process of describing its dismantling by a series of new owners. The shining moment of sensory detail that ends the sentence is so vivid that it almost feels like an answer to the question that the sentence poses. And the new dependent clause that this memory prompts (“even water … couldn’t save us”) gives the whole long sentence another burst of energy just as we thought it was over. This powerhouse sentence anchors the poem, in much the way that syntax is an anchoring element in Lyon’s poetics. In her steady operation of syntax amid a swirl of tones and forms, Lyon earns and keeps our trust as a speaker.
In the title poem, Lyon writes, “It’s all filled up: the sky, / the rocky beach, the tanned skin of girls / stretched out on towels.” The same could be said of this book: it is filled up, fuller than its 24 pages would seem to allow. The first and last poems of are both called “Transplant”; between the long, narrative lines of the first and the clipped, brief lines of the last, is a longer, tougher and more lovely trip than many books twice or three times its size.
Lucy Biederman is the author of a chapbook, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press), and many poems, some of which are forthcoming or have appeared recently in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, Many Mountains Moving, and Shampoo.