A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works

Lyon_The Normal Heart_Poetry

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 ReviewBrevityNarrative 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

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old


A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

By Kirsten Clodfelter

John Rybicki opens each section of When All the World is Old, his third poetry collection, with excerpts from journal entries written by his late wife, the poet Julia Moulds. Her voice echoes in brief flickers so that as we move forward into Rybicki’s own language, we hear her still: “I worry again and again about him losing me.” The weight of that loss—of knowing what trauma is coming before it’s yet arrived, and then, when it finally has, of learning how to navigate a way through it—is explored with candor and power in his stunning writing. Rybicki honors Moulds by building this book not just to her or for her or about her but also, in using her voice in the pages, literally of her—ensuring that his devastation becomes ours as well, a burden that weighs us down as we read, but maybe, in the tiniest way, is also one that we can help shoulder.

My mother was 41 when she died, just a handful of years younger than Rybicki’s wife, but they prepared differently. For my sisters and I, there was no tender last love note, no post-bath, steam-written secret message, no treasure to decode across the mirror or window or anywhere, later, no matter how willing we would have been to “place our mouths close to the glass” and “fog it with our breath / after she is gone.”

Rybicki writes about the kind of day-to-day living shaped by the long-shadowed awareness that the minutes we have left are diminishing; he admits, “It has been too much for too long and we know it / is time to take hold of the lightening and let it kill her…” and it’s cruel, the way we are tasked with somehow being our best, or happiest, or most loving selves in that final interim before the goodbye—if we are lucky or unlucky enough to have that kind of warning—while at the same time facing down the very worst things we can imagine. Rybicki asks, “Why can’t I say yes to the laughter in my chest?” But of course we already know why. It’s because we understand, as Rybicki understands, that his “wife is the center of it all. Everything grows / from her.”

So Rybicki does not laugh, but he does put on his bravest face. At her request: “Keep me safe,” he “is on his watch,” is “trying to smuggle her / out of a burning city,” careful to offer his reminder gently, “…Whatever you do, / love, don’t look back,” the way we might pull a blanket over the folded body of a person in our care when we find that they’ve fallen asleep on the couch. But Rybicki cannot shelter us from the truth—even the most impressive love we are capable of giving is not always enough to keep someone from leaving, and in the pages of this book we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rybicki and look back with him as the city smolders, to bear witness to the depth of his adoration and anguish, watching for the moment when he finally feels ready to “stand in defiance / of our parting and go to war to make you live again.”

In the months after her diagnosis, I used to catch my mother sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoke would leak through the door when, after wandering through the entire house, I’d finally think to crack it open and look for her there, interrupting—in the sudden and unceremonious way that children are always doing—her meager attempt at disappearance. She would fan her hand in front of her face frantically—the worst fucking magician you’ve seen in your life—and after the pinched, “Shit, shit,” and the tell-tale flush, she’d study me slyly and say, “Don’t tell your father.” Maybe in those moments she was thinking of our history, of the innocuous secrets we already shared and also of all the ones we wouldn’t, the things that at some point she must have realized she’d now never get to know—the first time I kissed a boy, had my heart broken, screwed up a friendship, found my footing and felt sure of the way forward, fell in love. Her voice was always very serious when she’d say this, or maybe it only appeared that way because of how easy it was by then to see the bones of her face—but those words weren’t a warning, they were a plea.

At ten, I was too young to understand why I should have been outraged to find my mother layering this extra poison into her body—cigarettes on top of radiation on top of chemo on top of cancer on top of cigarettes, but then, by the time I was old enough to reason that this action was selfish or ignorant, I was too young to understand that sometimes these little rebellions are a small pleasure, an anchor. When you’re dying, there are still things that need doing. There’s milk that needs to be bought, litter in the cat box that needs changed, lunches to pack before school, math homework that needs checking. So from time to time she snuck a cigarette—one of only a few choices she could still control, a type of ownership of her body’s betrayal. Who cares?

It’s the smallest things that we gather into our pockets and carry with us as daily reminders. In “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn,” Rybicki recounts his desperate missing in glimpses and asks us not to look away: “You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs, / weeping and kissing a face so tiny / you could cover it with a penny.” He’s seeking an answer, “How do you hold the dead,” and we don’t know either, so we keep reading to figure it out with him.

My daughter, 20 months old, loves to stand beneath a certain picture collage in our living room and hold her hands above her head, calling, “Up, up,” so that she can be lifted to honk the nose of each subject in the photographs, proudly naming us as she points, “Momma, Dada, Bebe.” When I am the one doing the holding, she is the most interested in pictures of her father, and I offer tiny, sing-song consolations, “Daddy’s at work,” “… at the store,” “…will be home right after nap.” But I am capable of imagining, in a different circumstance, the exact way it would break me right open to hear the squeal of this question each morning as we looked at those photographs and not have a single way to explain that Dad won’t be home at 4:30 or with hugs or groceries or ever again, and to think of it always leaves me in tears, the pain of that loss—just the idea of it—fresh and immediate and real even when my partner is in the next room watching television or asleep beside me in our bed.

In a collection that easily calls to mind other aching and beautiful homages to the way we survive after loss, like Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Donald Hall’s Without, John Rybicki’s poems in When the World is Old force us toward these moments of consideration with urgency—a reminder, perhaps, to keep our perspective or practice gratitude for the collection of small, warm moments we are gifted to share with others, because eventually the people we love are going to leave us—and no matter when that is, no matter how long we’ve had to prepare—it’s going to be too soon.

John Rybicki, When All the World is Old, Lookout Books, 2012: $13.50 (direct)/$16.95.


Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, 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 teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo

“How To” by Aaron Burch

How To

by Aaron Burch

Remember the myth of looking directly into the sun. The milk cartons cut into a makeshift periscope. Remember your brothers and sisters having to turn away, their eyes too weak. Forget their fall, the push, the fact that that was the last time you saw them. Look up to the sun and ask if your strength is a gift or a curse. Push up, out of your nest, and fly toward it, past the caladrius, feeling for a brief moment a kinship you’ve missed, you’ve thought was gone, you’ve thought wasn’t possible. Feel the heat burn away your outer layer, as if a film had built up over time and you hadn’t even noticed, then tuck and fall. Plummet. Past the caladrius again, past others trying to follow its ascent, and crash into the water. Feel new, cleansed, reborn.


Aaron Burch‘s chapbook of short shorts and prose poems, HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW (from which the above work is taken), is due out in January from PANK. A novella, How to Predict the Weather, is due later in 2010 from Keyhole Books, and he edits HOBART. The work above was originally published in Sleeping Fish and is reprinted by permission of the author.