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book image Good Heart
Poems by Deborah Keenan
Milkweed Editions
$14.95, 88 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8.25 out of 10 stars

View two poems from Good Heart here


Deborah Keenan has been living the life of a poet and mentor most of her adult life. She is, as she would say, "a worker bee", constantly reading, teaching, and writing. She is the kind of teacher who comes to class laden with bags of books, notes and activities, ready to inspire and challenge. After discussing work, students are presented a series of questions that illustrate how an artist can use a text to engage with the world. She leads by example: do the work, be honest, and trust that art will follow.

In March of 2003, eight years after the release of her last major book, Milkweed Editions celebrated the release of Good Heart. Just two days after America went to war in Iraq, the atmosphere could have been somber, subdued; instead, the auditorium — filled with fellow poets, friends, colleagues, and current and former students — overflowed capacity. Many waited in the lobby to listen to the reading over the public address system. It was a celebration, attended by such literary luminaries as Charles Baxter, Jim Moore, and others.

Good Heart is a logical follow up to her last book, Happiness. In fact, a working title at one point was After Happiness, taken from the long poem that opens this collection. It explores our deeply human qualities, how we, through something more meaningful than mere resilience, maintain a sense of meaning in our lives.

What strikes me most about this book is the idea of claiming. In "After Happiness" the speaker says, "My skeleton wants something / From me, a gesture, a signal?" Both a statement and a question, this mode of inquiry continues. The poem seems to say that the associations with death, structure and support are obvious, but also asks if there is something more. Again, yes: "He makes pain / But its not personal ... He refuses language, his exhaustion calls me..." It is a litany that unfolds into the death of friendship, the problem of art (what is taboo to write about?), failures, father, self, memory, mother. At the end of this four-page poem, the skeleton itself addresses the speaker: "How many times can you go to the well / And not drown? How many times / Before the well is empty?" Complicated and mimetic, the skeleton both is and is not the artist in the same way that the body both is and is not the person. In this way we see that the statement and the question that opens this poem are joined to the idea of identity.

The theme of claiming is echoed again and again in Good Heart. It shows up as "/bracketed silence/" in the polemic "When Men Poets You Admire and Respect Can Only Answer Sappho When Asked in Public Are There Any Women Poets They Admire". It shows up as a list of flowers (and therefore memory) in the poem "For Twenty-Two Years." But to say that it is just "claiming" is to deny the deeper resonance of these poems. They are about violence and redemption, honesty, and honoring art's place in the world—in short, the virtues of goodness, of having a "good heart": the poet as guardian of human experience.

In the dream/poem "In Florida, As Smoke Billows Across the Highway/Inside the Black-and-White Dream," for example, the speaker rescues her beloved husband whom she imagines has been in a terrible accident:
In the black-and-white purity
of the dream I lift you safely
from your car. Smoke has
covered the highway, accidents

are bloody ornaments at each
curve of the road...
Our alert mechanism is deftly disengaged with two key words early on: "purity" and "safely". The poem becomes one of gestures. "I take your wrist / into the cup of my hand" and "I make your pulse strong with / my command". Speaker and beloved then drive around in the ambulance and "gather the wounded".

In looking at the complicated issue of human experience, it is almost too easy to miss the fact that Keenan is a very good lyric poet. She loves trees the way D. H. Lawrence did. She loves wind. She loves light. The poems in this book are testaments to life lived as an artist: hard-won, unpretentious, unflinching, and yes, moving. They are, as poet Elizabeth Alexander has said, "brave and beautiful."

View two poems from Good Heart here

Poet's Biography:
  Deborah Keenan is the author of five collections of poetry and is, with Roseann Lloyd, coeditor of Looking for Home: Women Writing about Exile, which won an American Book Award in 1991. Keenan has received two Bush Foundation Fellowships, an NEA Fellowship, and the Loft-McKnight poet of distinction award, among other awards and grants. In both 1994 and 2000, she was named professor of the year for teaching and service in the MFA program at Hamline University, where she is associate professor and faculty advisor in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. She has four children and lives with her husband, Stephen Seidel, in beautiful, mysterious St. Paul, Minnesota.

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.