I surfaced gently from sleep and, for a befuddled moment, stretched and relaxed. Then I noticed that I was lying on the floor of an empty classroom, my head cradled in a colleague’s lap. The school nurse was there ensuring that my legs were elevated and, as I came to and reacquainted myself with the last memory on record – a lesson on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of all things – the headmistress, rattled but reassuring, arrived on the scene. Snow had quarantined the campus but, determined to get to me the doctor’s, she reversed her car up the drive for improved control. Within a few minutes, I found myself staring into the monitor of an ECG machine in a surgery emptied by snowfall and reflecting upon the speed with which our fragility changes everything.
Sue Rose’s Heart Archives is a sequence of sonnets written in response to Christian Boltanski‘s Les Archives du Cœur, a vast collection of recorded heartbeats that is now a permenent archive on the Japanese island of Teshima. However, Rose creates something unique by fusing the sonnet, the form of the heart, with photographs from her ‘personal archeology.’ Formerly, the first chapbook published by Hercules Editions, skulked around London’s brutalized street corners, Vici MacDonald‘s lens trained on the inscrutable windows of a forgotten city. By contrast, this chapbook deals with interiors: atria, ventricles and the anaglypta wallpapers of yesteryear.
L27011945 maps the sonnet onto the human heart as a sequence of four tercets dramatizing the cardiac cycle: ‘Blood comes to the right atrium, / a survivor depleted, its hue cinereal, / needing the renewal of home.’ Rose’s language is at once both medical and literary, as the first line of each tercet describes the process. Even ‘atrium,’ a word that resonates with secondary school biology also conveys something warm and homely – the light and space of a Grand Design – despite the tercet’s grey, nervous ‘hue cinereal.’ Suddenly, in the second tercet’s muscular sequence of statements, the blood comes in from the cold, ‘freighted with life, a prodigal / returning, its pennant red as flame.’ The sonnet signs off with a playful couplet in which ‘The healthy heart is impulsive.’ ‘Impulsive’ sounds like a romantic cliché. However, nothing could be further from the truth and Rose’s use of language is both meticulous and playful, as the word impulse also means ‘the shock felt on the chest-wall when the heart beats’ (OED). This is exciting stuff. We often talk about the poetry of science, the poetry of the body, but Rose’s sonnet thrills with rushes of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.
B02031929 offers a different take on the thrilling of blood in the ear: ‘It had been so long since she heard / the reassuring pace of another’s heart / at her ear – she pressed her head / here, below my shoulder’s hard / girdle and the soft upper of my breast, / and slipped into the worn rest / of the old, soothed by the serenade of my heart, its secrets husbanded.’ This image of aged mother and her daughter, whose hearts once beat as one, estranged by space and silence, makes for one of the chapbook’s most powerful poems.
Heart Archives works hard to convey the metronome of our existence, as well as what this means to us in human terms. From our core biological process, Rose taps rich veins of nostalgia and regret, love and loss.