The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


John A. McDermott

The Jarred Heart




The heart is the well of our thoughts

             the Ancient Egyptians believed

and so it was returned to the body,

             the torso packed with clean linens

surrounding the wine-cleansed organ.


The kidneys, the intestines, the liver,

            and the stomach: those travelled

to the Other Life safely in canopic jars.

            undecorated in the earliest instances,

then later painted with gods’ heads

             and human faces.

Now not Hapi or Imseti, I imagine, but NFL

            logos, brand names: the red Target

and M & M’s. Mine would be all eyebrows,

            Muppet-like, gaping front teeth

and hard chin, no representation of deity,

            only me.


But my heart is not yet housed in stone

             or slipped from beneath my ribcage

and washed in wine,

             grapes not crushed by the feet

of Hebrew slaves

             but pressed in stainless steel vats

in California or Chile,

             the blended red sold for ten dollars

a bottle in the Kroger on University Drive.





My daughter, six and fair,

             lies in the kitchen on the red brick floor

with arms and legs still, smiling death,

             the library book Mummies cast a foot

from her warm, slender body,

             her running blood still housed

in her soft white flesh.


She confuses mummy with zombie

             and rises from the dead,

cherubic pretend cannibal,

            and this is the Day of Thanksgiving.


A million mummified birds buried

             in a single cemetery

their leathery hides crammed in our living room

             pressed against the tall windows

looking out onto Raguet Street

             feathered carcasses stacked on the mantel

where the candles used to stand

             stacked in row of black gray row

where the couch used to go,

             the couch I sit on with our girl

with the library book in her lap

             reading about one million mummified birds

in a single cemetery.

             And they were here, crowding us, airless room,

and they were gone, the room our own again,

             space between us on the cushions,

between the fabric and our flesh and the piano

             across the bare floor, uncrowded, unlittered

with the pressure of sacred corpses,

             a metroplex of holy birds.


“What does preserved mean?” she asks.





And if you took my lungs

             and washed them in that same wine

what air would rinse away and into what

             sink would the red wine run?


The oxygen of my chest pressed against

             my first lover, my naked boy

flesh warm against hers, warm in the bedroom

             of her October-aired apartment

and I enter her, the first time, our first time.

             That air in my teenage lungs has lingered

like love, like loss, for three times our age then

             and more, not out of remorse but remembrance,

that air, that air again, that air again,

             and what other molecules of other lovers,

of sex and laughter and sickness, of decades

             gulped while heaving

in hotel bathrooms, in Iowa and Indiana

             and Illinois,

the strain of vomiting salmon or Scotch—


but wait, there is a place for the stomach,

             we will get to that jar, that sacred organ

of grinding and regurgitation—


no: this is the place for air,

             first air of first days, and all the deep inhalations

of cigarette smoke in my mother’s house

             or my favorite dark winter bars

what streams of scent and exhalations

             snake about our conscious makings.





“Daddy, I will say what happens to you:

            You will be dead, but you will not burn.

            I will turn you into a mummy and put you

            In a coffin and slide you into a wall,

            Behind a door, here in this house, upstairs,

            And you will always be here.

             And I won’t tell Mama.”


And though this sounds like a horror movie

             she speaks of love

her blue eyes sparkling,

             and she raises one finger

a Hark, I hear gesture,

             and says,

“What did you want to happen?”

             as if I could see no better future

for my body than carved out and leathered

             and stored in some dark crevice

of our home in my exile in Texas

             with a girl I love

who loves me.


(She told me so today, clutching my face

in both soft hands, “I love you I love you

I love you I love you I love you I love you


when you don’t say I love you back

But I know you do and will forever.”

And I want her never to let go

and I think six-year-olds are so, so old,

and I think what better fate could you

have than whatever she foresees?)


There will be jars for her as well

             some day

but I will not see them or store them

             like my father-in-law’s ashes

confined and nomadic in our moves

             from Wisconsin to the Deep South.

The man should be buried in Chicago,

             or cast to the winds down Belle Plaine

Avenue, but he is here, still, twelve years after

             his surprising death, a heart attack

while bagging leaves in his front lawn

             one autumn day, and so he is vased

in my wife’s art studio.





The liver, oh, the timbre of my organs,

             the Hammond B-3 in Booker T’s MGs,

a soul song from Stash that is the organ

             of the soundtrack of my liver—taut,

no, most likely not,

             but deep brown or red, and slick,

pocked by, I imagine, a parking lot

             of empty bottles: the Bacardi of my first drunks,

not technically my very first, that mix of white wine

             and apple cider stolen by a childhood friend

from his parents’ party, tossed off their porch

             into an alley where I caught the plastic milk cartons

filled with the sweet concoction and drank it

             on the island median of our parents’ avenue

and let the concrete and grass spin and spin.

             This was Madison, in 1979,

and everyone I loved was still alive

             or yet to be born.

Cardboard cases of returnable Miller bottles,

            Point, Leinie’s, Mickey’s Big Mouth, and later

tequila, tequila, tequila, then gin and whiskey,

            my autobiography in alcohol,

but I am lucky: it never kills me,

            though it tries three times, but booze strikes out.


Thy bread is to thee.

            Thy beer is to thee.

Thou livest upon that on which Ra lives





Four jars, I dream, pots of plain design,

            Sam Cooke’s lungs, the intestines of Orson Welles,

Elvis Presley’s stomach, Dorothy Parker’s kidneys,

            lined up on the mantel of Thornton Wilder’s childhood

home, a house I painted when I dropped out of college, scraping,

            then blowing leaded paint dust out of my nose, so much dust,

so much (and the men preparing the Pharaoh’s corpse pulled the brains

            out of the skull with long needles and yanked it through the nostrils)

and now I’m in the Magic Treehouse with Jack and Annie

            listening to Billie Holiday sing from Book-of-the-Month club

vinyl, wondering what do kidneys do? And staring at a faded photo

            of a long dead aunt, the one who my father wouldn’t talk about

and she’s smiling in a wool plaid shirt with a passel of Labrador puppies

            crowded in her arms and she died with a dime in her pocket

on the streets of St. Paul (and that’s all your mother knew)


and this is what sorrow looks like, the smiling girl

and the long-dead dogs,

and my father’s silence over supper

and her organs lost to some Minnesota cemetery

lungs, kidneys, intestines, and stomach

baboon and jackal and falcon and man,

baboon and jackal and falcon and woman,

those are the gods who will tend us

those are the gods who will mend us.


We have two cats, not gods

            but worthy of preservation:

opened up and polished out and divvied up

and tended

once baboon and jackal and falcon,

now cat, and of course, cat.





There is a jar buried in a hillside in Tennessee

            and there are ships in bottles and pennies

in piggy-banks waiting the smash of the hammer

            and charity-raising car demolition

ten dollars for ten swings.

            Shatter the windshield, take out the tail light

bat the side mirror into the dead grass

            beside the churning carousel

behind the midway vendors


the sides of the Chevy spray-painted

            with a slogan: Stick it to Cancer!

as if cancer were this sad car,

            or maybe cancer is a car:

a journey,

            driven and driven and dead.


So: disembowel me, I guess:

            stash a piece of me in the glove compartment

of a red 1981 Nova

            and another in the open back of a Marshall amp,

sliced and slivered and dried, then slipped

            between the pages of my books, dozens

on dozens on dozens. I’ll let you choose

            the titles. Surprise me.


Or wait: consider the elementary school

            art project—sand in a jar, multi-hued,

grades of blue and red and green

            and yellow, layer on layer.

Burn me, after all. Color me.

            Powdered dye of my eyes, my ears,

my throat, I can think of so many parts

            cherished beyond the torso organs.

My lips, my tongue:

            talk and lick and kiss.





She wakes at one-fifteen

            and calls for me:

“Daddy, I had a night mirror.

            A shark bit me.  Stay with me.”

We lay on her narrow bed

            the sole red shadows

from the ladybug night-light,

            plastic and stamped Made in China.

The shadows of her dresser-top,

            souvenir tea pot and tchotchke box,

sequined chest of bobby pins and hair ties.


Maybe I will end there.

             But all the boxes are too small.

I look at her and the earth shakes.

             Whatever I feel has no small walls

but my skin, and what our skin

             contains is so much less than what we live.

The planet has spun

             for half a century with me on it

and I won’t see her reach my age.

             I age in stages more apparent,

true apparition in the night mirror.

             Shower and shave and survive

no, more than survive,

             for this more than love.


Hathor, goddess of love,

             I don’t need another life

unless I have this child in it,

             the tomb of my heart

incomplete without her.

             I am jigsawed already

eating stray gray hairs,

             living with my trembling blood

and my already jarred heart.




JOHN A. McDERMOTT's first book of poetry, The Idea of God in Tennessee, was published in 2015. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Seneca Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, he now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he teaches creative writing and American literature in the BFA program at Stephen F. Austin State University.



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