Take Heart by Molly Peacock ff “Dear Heart,” a poem toward the end of this collection begins “Heart, unlock yourself. Fibrillating wings/Undo your ungolding.” This heart, sealed away, cut off from life, is an emblem for the entire book and for the poet’s struggle to recover from a childhood of abuse and trauma. We learn that the lock is frozen by worry. “A knife/Please,” says the poet. Throughout the collection we see the poet scraping away the encapsulating rust, the “oxidized hysteria,” to release the heart, to let it experience the gamut of human emotion. The very first poem presents this quest for feeling even more dramatically: “I smashed myself/and found my heart/a cave ready to be lived in.”
Take Heart uses autobiography as its raw material, from the horrific childhood, to the death of the abusive father, to young adult sexual encounters and meditations on anger and self-esteem, to a coming to terms with hate as a subset within the more encompassing category of love. After the shattering scenes of the young girl and the mad drunk father comes his death. A sonnet called “Unexpected Freedom” gently applauds finally getting “enough sun.” Usually it is the dead who rest in peace, but the poet turns this on its head. The final couplet (addressed to herself) announces “nourished just by the fact that you’re alive/in the aftermath and now you rest in peace.” Going on, though, is fraught with perils. In “That Leaf,” an extended metaphor where the self is compared to a leaf seemingly struggling to turn over and view the sky, success comes unexpectedly fast. The new perspective is emphasized by internal rhymes: change, rearranged, estranged. The leaf should be happy; it turned over. But the adjectives we find are “depleted, terrified.” Freedom (I’ve heard somewhere else) comes with fear and trembling.
What I most admire in this work is the poet’s skill in making every word count. Anger and anxiety are common; how will a poet make them leap off the page? “Anger Sweetened” portrays angry words as grasshoppers. Once out of the mouth they seem too harsh and hurtful. So we coat them with cloying chocolate and then we eat them. The result comes in the couplet at the end where the word gag has a double meaning. We gag on the nauseating sweetness and we are gagged into silence, stifling our anger.
No matter what the subject matter, it is art that pulls us into a work. In “A Simple Purchase” the poet buys flowers. The peony buds make her think of Baudelaire’s flowers of evil and then pull her into free-range musings on why God must be ugly. Here is the thought as I see it: God created man in His image. Peonies are not like man. Therefore they are not like God. He created flowers to make something beautiful and of course different from Himself. Ergo as those made in His image, we also have an impulse to create the beautiful. Only the poem is not a syllogism. It makes its case under the control of rhyme. Just to show you, here’s an excerpt, but in this case only the whole poem will do. “He must make beauty,/just as we hope/to change – and grope/toward form in our lives,/ even if only the rhymes /of our mistakes survive.” Here is an ars poetica that leaves you smiling.