Heart In A Jar by Kathleen McGookey

415JSKnCH9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_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.
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“Stay” by Kathleen McGookey

Stay_cover_smDeath and life have long been tied together in literature, a reflection of our shared experience. One of the strongest connections between the two is grief when life transfers into death and love takes on the lens of loss. All these elements emerge strongly in Kathleen McGookey’s stunning book of poems, Stay. From the loss of children not yet born, to the loss of parents long lived, McGookey struggles to retain what is lost and to accept what is left.
McGookey writes prose poems, allowing her the freedom to develop her thoughts while using the fragmentation of poetry to create lines of depth. In “Shallow” she describes a living moon. “She is pinned to the sky, unapproachable: to be aloof, to be cold and disinterested and not afraid if anyone knows is a decent strategy.” McGookey clearly does not emulate these traits, and so her poems reach out to the reader.
We listen as McGookey interprets life through the decision of becoming a mother, and then the mother who does not conceive.  In “Again” she opens with: “Never conceived, never arrived into the light and the clatter and the chill. Never rapt, like a statue. Never arrived for the slap…” She is grieving the loss of the life never created with the same intensity we grieve the loss of those who die. In both situations, we are left with an absence. One carries memories and the other possibilities, but neither are tangible no matter how much they are experienced.

She is continually struck by the grief and horror an individual can experience that does

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Kathleen McGookey

not impact the world. How life seems to go on all around you as your own life falls apart. In “Like Stars” she describes an awe-inspiring evening setting full of the life of insects and birds, and ends with the line: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.”  In “Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” we see her facing her parent’s declining health, “But each day the purple morning glories bloomed after the sun rose, and each day promised to be just like the one before.” At times, the poet seems to be torn between the thankfulness for ongoing life and being stunned that all the world does not understand your grief. But grief, while universally experienced, is a private affair.

The title poem expresses a theme found throughout these poems. The longing to hang on to what we had while having what is changing. She wants to stay with her ailing mom, who sends her up to her husband. But they only trade places so the husband cares for her mother while she nurses her child. We have a desire to keep what we have, yet we want what we do not have. You cannot care for your dying mother and your young son at the same time. We desire change and we desire to stay in our place.
Clearly, this collection is full of much pain. But she does not lose herself in the pain. She acknowledges it, struggles with it, but still recognizes the beauty around her. She seems in awe of life, wanting to experience it from a distance but finding herself an active part of it. When no hope seems left, she finds it in a note from her mother, the unconditional love of her child, or in the vision of a teenage boy with one leg water skiing and looking for girls in bikinis.