A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works
By Kirsten Clodfelter
Beyond the page in human form, Rachael Lyon is petite and funny and kind. She speaks patiently and with near-constant laughter. She is bright, warm-spirited, the pet mother of a small, adorable pup named Thomas. She writes thoughtful letters—a better penpal than most of us. She is the sort of person who asks meaningful questions of both close friends and strangers, the sort of person who asks these questions and then really listens as she’s given the answers so that these answers can form the next questions.
Her generosity is so marked that she is the kind of person about whom we might apply the cliché but well-fitting platitude: A beautiful heart. And it is beautiful in the way Lyon’s warmth overflows from it, in the way being around her will put a person almost instantly at ease, but the truth is, since birth, Lyon’s beautiful heart was imperfect. “It’s not that it’s a bad heart,” she explains in “Transplant No. 2,” her tone edged with apology, her voice rushed to explain the defect as something that doesn’t have to define her, “The heart has a bad valve, not a bad valve but a small one. Too small.”
The same pragmatic earnestness that fills her letters and that make her a great conversationalist can be found in the poems of The Normal Heart and How It Works, her first chapbook. Her language, these fragmented moments she offers to the reader, are a type of gentle carrying: “It’s just that mothers sometimes think / of things the way they should be.” But there is a deep, unmistakable power in her writing too, an honesty that does not falter or even blink, and this we can credit to Lyon’s earnestness as well.
In “Moving,” Lyon recounts as she (or an imagined version of her) and her sister, as children, climb through the frame of an unfinished house that will soon be their new home, finally giving into temptation and breaking their “no-touch rule” to mark the territory as their own. And later, after the house in finished and the move is complete, Lyon admits as if in a conspiratorial whisper:
In the summer when I put my face
against the wall, next to the light
switch, I can smell bubbleyum
and sour jealously and something else:
a kind of craving for this place,
or for being pushed beyond it.
That is a craving nearly all of us know. Relating to Lyon comes quickly, easily, and this is true whether she’s discussing something as universal as moving or the complicated relationships between siblings or the specific, unique fears that belong to someone with a congenital heart defect. In deceptively light, conversational language, Lyon brings us right into her body to experience with her the physical and psychological effects of the too-small valve in her heart, the danger that has been hers to dismantle since birth, the “process of becoming a more perfect self,” as she writes in the collection’s introduction.
Five beautiful and haunting poems interspersed throughout this slim book, each titled “Transplant,” thread together her work as skillfully and carefully as the surgeon’s stitch. Just over a year ago, a cardiovascular team at Mayo Clinic fixed Lyon’s leaking tricuspid valve and nursed her back to health after open-heart surgery. Nine months later, she successfully ran her first 5K, with a heart that no longer “beats faster, beats faster longer than other hearts.” But even in light of this transformation, the writing in Lyon’s 2010 collection is no less urgent, no less terrifying. As we read, we are right there with her, nodding in agreement when she tells us in “The Trouble with Glass”:
My fears are numerous.
Rotund and pushing
from my chest:
ribs are cagey
sometimes they let the bad stuff through[.]
Because no matter how perfect or imperfect our hearts, we too have fears, and, like Lyon’s, they are numerous.
Rachael Lyon, The Normal Heart and How It Works, White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 2010: $5
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo