by Rhiannon Conley
“Did You Know? You can swim through the aorta
of a blue whale.” I watched as two children
swam, their soft hands like fins pushing themselves
out of the open chamber of the imagined whale’s
red ventricle and back into the museum showcase.
The heavy plastic held on to the throb of their laughter.
I could fit, I thought. I could be held in this heart
like blood. I could be pumped through the veins
and organs of the whale, let it take me, flowing,
my arms at my sides gliding head first
through the enormous animal’s body.
Your heart, just the size of your soft infant fist
which fits twofold into my own, holds a small
whispering defect. The pediatrician presses air
between his teeth – tsst tsst – to mimic the sound
he hears on the stethoscope. “It’s nothing,”
he says, “Just relax.” Tsst tsst. Just a leak,
a little mist pressed through a tiny spout,
a space as tight as teeth.
You are supposed to outgrow the hole,
supposed to grow muscle around the flaw,
supposed to be as strong as hard plastic,
the murmur shrinking so that you never
have to think about the way your body
is whispering its defects. I am supposed to relax.
I could fit. Inside your body, remembering how you
once fit into me. I could repair you
with my own body, the way my body prepared you
in the first place, with all your flaws.
The pediatrician says it gets louder – tsst tsst –
as it shrinks. He says your heart is much louder.
I’ll take you someday to see the whale’s heart
and watch as you swim through its ventricles
and out of the oversized aorta like a fish, unaware
of your heart moving blood through your body
like waves, little echoes, like the plastic heart
holding onto your laughter.
Today’s poem previously appeared in Whale Road Review and appears here today with permission from the poet.
Rhiannon Conley is a poet and writing instructor living in North Dakota. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. Her first chapbook, Less Precious, was published by Semiperfect Press in 2017. She currently has work forthcoming in Literary Mama and Longleaf Review. She writes an irregular newsletter of short poetic essays called Smol Talks and more regularly Tweets @RhiannonAdmidas.
Guest Editor’s Note: The echoes throughout this poem are its heart beating, whispering the emotions of the speaker told to relax when listening to a diagnosis of a leak in her daughter’s heart. Like so many mothers, she wants to fix the problem and also shoulder some of the burden. The following lines repeat words and sounds and serve as a mantra that comes from the deepest and most profound feelings of helplessness: “I could fit. Inside your body, remembering how you / once fit into me. I could repair you / with my own body, the way my body prepared you / in the first place, with all your flaws.” The repetition of “body” and “you” is natural, seamless, barely above a whisper. The second appearance of “I could fit” is a rhythmic reminder of the speaker’s profound wish.
The model whale heart is the perfect opening for this poem, set in a familiar place to observe children perhaps on a field trip or visit to the museum. The imagery of swimming through “the imagined whale’s red ventricle” in the first stanza begins a narrative that circulates through thought and lands back on hope for future visits in spite of a mother’s fear. The well-crafted stanzas and lines serve the poem and its theme and create a circular effect that emanates from the narrative, its imagery and metaphors.
A NOTE FROM THE MANAGING EDITOR:
After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, it is an honor and a unique opportunity to share this space with a number of guest editors, including the editor featured here today. I am thrilled to usher in an era of new voices in poetry as the Managing Editor of this series.
Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB