Townsend500x622It’s the middle of winter, but tonight I am in summer’s warm arms, Boston lettuce torn in half before me for a salad. You’re at the stove, stirring Indonesian sweet potato peanut soup. I’m at the sink, staring down into pale green whorls. “The heart’s the best part,” my mother says, a thousand Junes ago. Then a breath and I’m back, the moment sliding past, a window raised inside me, the hearts of the world lined up like school children waiting for the bus.

Hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, the heart of the country, hearts of darkness, heart songs, heart throbs, pour your heart out, wear your heart on your sleeve, set your heart free like the old Judy Collins song said, lose heart, take heart, the Have-a-heart traps we used to catch rats, the death of the heart, the heart is a lonely hunter, Joan of Arc’s heart that was too pure to burn, the deer hoof prints pressed like hearts in snow, the heart-shaped rock my friend found on top of a mountain one month after her husband died.

In fifth grade I wrote a fifty-page, hand-written report called “A Short History of the Human Heart,” as if, with my colored pencils and tracing paper, I knew everything there was to say on the subject. And aren’t we all experts? Aren’t we all beginners when it comes to the heart, its four chambers never big enough to contain us, though we haven’t room for more? It takes so much work to get to the heart of the matter, a red fruit at the core of each conversation, little bonfires leaping between us when we kiss or hug or even just shake hands.

When I was little I had to recite poems by heart at school, memorizing them with my body while the fist in my chest punched at my ribs. It’s still the same today, my heart in my throat whenever I speak; the feeling is always red. I know my husband’s face by heart too, and that of the daughter I never had, though I have nearly forgotten my mother’s, dead when I was a child. My engagement ring has two gold hands holding a gold heart, as did my mother’s, though my husband did not know that when he chose it. I wear the tip pointed toward my own heart, according to tradition; it is a sign I am taken.

My father once helped me make a clay heart for a Science Fair project. Larger than life-size, it hung on a metal stand, wired with lights that mimicked a pulse. I didn’t win a prize, not even honorable mention. I don’t know what happened to that heart I’d spent a whole weekend molding and painting. When my father died, there was no autopsy, so we never knew for certain if it was his head or his heart. But when I stood in the room where he’d fallen, when I lay my body down over the place where they’d found him, to touch what he’d touched last, I knew. It was his heart, the only muscle we say can be “broken.”

In the 60s, there was a salad called “hearts of lettuce,” iceberg wedges topped with Thousand Island dressing. No one eats it now. No one even buys iceberg lettuce. I still don’t know why the heart is the best part, though my mother never lied about anything. Or why we say lub-dub, lub-dub to describe the sound the heart makes, the small ocean of the body ebbing and flowing, rocking us each on the water, the way it did when I memorized poems: as if to say I rise, I fall, I rise again. I rise, I fall, I’m gone.

Alison Townsend is the author of two books of poetry, The Blue Dress: Poems and Prose Poems, and Persephone in America.  Her poetry and essays appear widely and she has received many awards, including a Pushcart Prize, publication in Best American Poetry, a Wisconsin Arts Board literary fellowship, and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 2013 Chancellor’s Regional Literary Award, among others.  She is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and lives on four acres of prairie and oak savanna in the farm country outside Madison.  A collection of essays, The Name for Woman is River: A Personal Ecology, nears completion.

Photography by Liz Wuerffel