Review by Janet McCann
Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For is a luminous book that combines Marjorie Maddox’s poems with Karen Elias’s photography to create a reflective, silvery, sad and yet hopeful artistic experience. Since the photos and poems are symbiotic, quotation does not do the work justice. there is such a significant interplay between poems and photos. Elias’s photos are of a cracked stone heart in various natural and artistic settings. The heart is certainly not the cold stone heart of country music. Rather, the central symbol takes over the work in image and word, suggesting all kinds of dualism not evoked by any description—it is the joining place of temporal and eternal, body and spirit, holding and letting go, darkness and light. It is the combination of grief and love that is our experience.
Marjorie Maddox is Professor of English at Lock Haven University and has won many awards, including America Magazine’s Foley Poetry Award and the Yellowglen Prize. She has published twelve collections of poetry. Karen Elias, who taught college English for forty years, is an artist and activist who uses her photography to document hazards to the natural world.
Many of the poems, like those in Maddox’s most recent collection, center on the loss of the poet’s father from heart disease despite his having received a transplant. The poems describe the elements of the heart transplant and the implications, what it means to transfer an organ from one person to another, what it does to the notion of self. The loss of her father evoked here connects her loss with all loss, her story with history and mythology. The killing of George Floyd is mentioned here, and the Covid losses, and the elements of the earth that are failing through exhaustion or abuse.
But the losses experienced are within the context of a purposeful universe. The spiritual is present in both image and verse. It is hard to find a book of truly spiritual poems that has no desire to proselytize or preach, and that allows the reader total freedom of interpretation, The shared love and grief in this book speak to the reader’s own losses, and, I think, help the heart to accommodate them. “Transplanted” begins:
Though they never met,
the man with a dead man’s heart
inside him dreamed his donor’s
face, limbs, lungs; sung in his sleep
the dead man’s favorite song
in the deep baritone voice
that wasn’t his own but
his, the one not known or seen or heard,
except in night’s deep cradle of sleep…
The transplant itself becomes a magical, mystical union:
…this stranger’s metronome of a heart
humming behind ribs that no longer
felt like his—beautiful fence
for an organ lifted from someone else’s
It is usually but not always the same heart that is presented in the photos, as the image follows the different contexts of each poem. The pictures are largely gray with traces of color here and there, blue, red, violet, green. They remind me of the unexpected pink tint of the girl’s coat in the grayness of Schindler’s List. For me the hints of color suggest another perspective than the earthly one.
The photo with “Quarantine” shows the heart in two windows, the gray image touched with red and green. The poem seems to share the artist’s technique:
together they stare
not at each other
but at the worn world
beyond arm’s reach.
There: the child, alone,
hopscotching away her worries.
And there: the single blue jay dotting
the drab day with color… (p.44)
Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For is a collection one tends to read it once rather than browse through because of its unity. It’s much more a single work than most collections. Each poem/ photo unit is complete, and so is the entire work. the reader needs the whole picture, poet and image together, to immerse himself in this project and feel the heart speak. This is a collection to share and to return to.
Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For, by Marjorie Maddox and Karen Elias
Shanti Arts Publishing, 2022, $22.95 [cloth] ISBN 9781956056068
Journals publishing Janet McCann’s work include Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou’wester, America, Christian Century, Christianity And Literature, New York Quarterly, Tendril, and others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969-2016, is now Professor Emerita. Most recent poetry collection: Life List (Wipf & Stock, 2021).