A Field Guide to a Leaky Heart

INTRODUCTION: A mitral valve prolapse: description involves language botanical, mechanical, architectural and anatomical. It is a story of rhythm and blood. The poet has a small prolapse. When her heart contracts (so many contractions, so much loss) leaflets of the mitral valve bulge into her heart’s upper chamber. Blood may leak backwards into the left atrium. An atrium is also an open airy room, or a central court.

SUBTEXT: The poet, in her chamber, has a collection of owls. Some are white porcelain; some are photographs of the heart-faced barn owl. Her heart is drawn to elf owls no bigger than a sparrow. A white owl has visited her dreams.

IDENTIFICATION: A woman’s heart weighs on average 9 ounces. It beats 78 beats per minute, averages 108,000 beats a day. Unless you have a murmur. Unless you skip a beat or two.

FEEDING: wild pansy, elderflower liquor, myths, dictionaries, honeyed rhizomes

NESTING: builds a loose structure of twiggy language apt to fall apart 

OTHER BEHAVIOR: Over the course of a life, the heart generates enough power to drive to the moon. The poet’s heart is vulnerable to the moon, certain flora, love.

HABITAT: Its preservation depends upon cultivation, consistent nurturing, enjoys a copse. Grows best with organic materials. 

VOICE: Similar to the owl, varies from a coo cooo, to a trill, to the familiar who whooo, to a scream.

OTHER BEHAVIOR: Certain flora captivates the poet’s imagination: the humble viola, aka heart’s ease, also known as love-in-idleness. Puck made a love potion of wild pansy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hearts pounded and skipped. Identities shifted. Love spread through the nocturnal forest. Owls, some no larger than a sparrow, who whoo’d under the moon. 

FIELD NOTES: Bleeding heart is also known as lyre flower, or lady-in-the-bath. Dicentra spectabilis grew in her grandmother’s backyard. Its arching sprays, its aching sprays, are bluish-green. The poet’s father dug it up after his mother’s death. His heart was weeping. He planted it in a suburban garden against a red brick wall. His granddaughter dug up the white tongued heart and planted it more firmly in the moist shade of an oak. 

Bleeding heart’s droplets look like little white tongues.

It is as hard to train an owl as it is to train a heart.

The leaky valve regurgitates blood.

IDENTIFICATION: Owl pellets are regurgitated remains of undigested meals. A pellet may consist of bone, feather, fur. The poet’s heart contains what didn’t break down, secrets in four chambers.

Athena’s “little owl,” Athene noctura, accompanied her everywhere. They are associated with the feminine, fertility and the moon, wisdom. Ancient Athens’s silver coins were engraved with owls, the city’s mascot.

OTHER BEHAVIOR: A white owl visited the poet as she dreamed of separation. It fit in the palm of her hand. An oracle owl, it murmured it murmured it murmured warnings of love-in-idleness and aching sprays of loose language.

IDENTIFICATION: Plato said “every heart sings a song incomplete until another heart whispers back…at the touch of a lover everyone becomes a poet.” O, Plato…

Those lyre bards and their courtly songs echo, echo down the ages. Romance is a fat grey mouse. The poet eats it.

Micrathene whitneyi, aka Whitney’s owl, aka Elf owl. 

IDENTIFICATION: sparrow sized, weighs less than the poet’s heart

FEEDING:  moths, spiders, shadows, star-dust tinctures of Heart’s Ease

NESTING: builds a nest of pansies in the palpitating memories of the poet

OTHER BEHAVIOR: guides the murmuring heart to the spirit world where it is weighed and released

HABITAT: left atrium and the Sonoran Desert

VOICE: barks, chirps, Satie’s Gymnopedies


CONSERVATION: The poet, in a dim chamber, her chest bare, studded with electrodes, feels cracks in her porcelain body, listens to the sounds of her heart. Its swooshing image a little white fist the size of an Elf owl. The poet listens to her blood, its stories, its cries, imagines a shaded courtyard. Her heart skips and continues.

Whitney Vale

3 Questions for Whitney

What was your process for creating this work?

This work began in a lyric essay class. While I have always thought of myself as a poet, I began to have the urge to write longer lines, needing more space on the page. I also didn’t really know what was meant by lyric essay. And I really didn’t know what was meant by hybrid forms! For this particular piece, I took two images that have personal significance, owls and my own small mitral valve prolapse, and just started jotting down thoughts as they came up. I tend to take pages of notes for poetry and prose, allowing words and associations to bubble up. I knew I wanted to compare a wild creature with a wild woman heart in some way. I worked on this piece on and off for several years! 

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

It wasn’t until I learned about the hermit crab form that my notes began to take on more shape and more focus. The hermit crab essay uses the form of another document, like a recipe, or dating profile, and the essay plays within that particular form. For “Leaky Heart” I used, loosely, a bird field guide. My imagination really opened up when I chose this form. The categories of a field guide, habitation, behavior, etc., were the perfect way to explore the poetic heart and the poetic owl. 

What is the significance of this work to you?

What is the significance of this work for me? I loved how the process of constraints—using the lexicon of a field guide—actually gave me more freedom to explore, to be playful and whimsical. 

Whitney Vale is a MFA candidate in CNF through Ashland University's low-residency program. Her chapbook, Journey with the Ferry Man (Finishing Line Press) was released in 2016. Essays have been published in Entropy, The Rumpus, and Essay Daily.  Poems have been published in Zocalo, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Prospectus: A Literary Offering.

Next (3 Haiga) >

< Back (Games We Play)