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Poetry and Medicine
July 23/30, 2003

The Heart

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(4):441. doi:10.1001/jama.290.4.441

(a primer for the layperson)

It is smaller than you think, and not truly red,
in spite of the blood, and lies not to one side
or the other, or deep. All of the vows you've made
were pledged more or less over upper left lung.
In fact, it sits in the middle, neither forward nor brave,
doing its small work.
It is just hollow muscle
that thickens when hurt, and writhes
like a seizing cat when all is well.
It lies in a pocket of yellow fat
and a membrane called the "pericardium"
or "around-the-heart," which should suggest
how little imagination means to it.
It beats downward, to the left, and not all at once:
the atria first, then the wary ventricles.
Bah- is the mitral, and BUMP the aortic valve
filling with blood like tacking sails,
Bah-BUMP, Bah-BUMP. Two sounds are normal,
children have three; four always means trouble.
There you have it. But try not to be bothered
by facts, and if some fool should tell you
you can't write poems about the heart
or protein, or heaven, or your dead great-aunt,
say: Nonsense. Stay ignorant enough
and you can write about anything. Proclaim
the heart shatters like jagged glass,
is red as lipstick on a lady's slipper
and trembles when we love. Tell them
what our heroes, ignorant of anatomy,
discovered in their chests. Tell them that to live
we need that heart, too.