It is a world in which Death is part of the equation, children disappear or appear in unique ways, and animals move into doll houses. In Kathleen McGookey’s “Heart In A Jar,” her latest collection of prose poems, it is not a fantasy world, but a way of looking at our own experience in new ways. McGookey excels, both in her earlier work and this outstanding new collection, at peeling back the surface layer of existence and giving us a glimpse of what lies behind it. Although it is not often pretty, she proceeds without fear.
“Dear Death” is the opening letter (or poem) where she asks Death to “pretend you forget all about us.” She is out riding bikes with children, visiting the first graders with “gap-toothed smiles,” and learning about penguins. It is the essence of innocence with Death standing right in the moment. McGookey is not a pessimist, but a realist who understands how fragile life is. Death is not a scary presence in her poetry unless you find the mere concept of Death scary. McGookey’s Death drives to a school Valentine party in his red pick up. “…you’re welcome to braid a friendship bracelet and balance an Oreo on your forehead. Cupcakes go next to the juice boxes.” And she reassures Death, who may feel uncomfortable in the midst of such life. “It’s ok if you don’t exactly fit in. No one wants to believe you are here.”
But Death is here and McGookey explores the impact as she writes about grief. In “The Grief Jacket Project” we find a committee combining different materials to create “a wearable jacket that physically protects and comforts mourners” — sea turtle eggs, small river rocks. In the end, barn swallows provide inspiration and they create a jacket that volunteers would like to pass on to their loved ones. The issue not addressed is why they would need not need such a jacket themselves? In another poem (“At the John Ball Zoo”) she wonders when she’ll be done with grief. And, then, “When will I say, Grief, do you miss me, too?” Like Death, Grief is a presence.
McGookey has explored these ideas before, very clearly in Stay, but she avoids repetition. They are concepts ripe and deep that she may delve into for a long time. In Stay, much of her thinking revolved around her parents, but here Death and childhood are intertwined. Childhood is a magical place of everyday joys and distant fears, where children grow in the flower bed, and where a son escapes the day in a bird suit. And she ends the collection with a “P.S. Death” where her daughter hands her a crumpled page from her first-grade unit on space, not knowing that the elderly neighbor who watched her swim, died that day. She knows her daughter would engage death, but she wants to protect her. Her final line to Death says “I don’t want you to feel at home here.”
If you have not entered McGookey’s world, you are missing a place both familiar and strange. It is a world where we can wander through the possible, the unsaid, and the unacknowledged, and emerge back into our lives with a new perspective.