Thomas Ovans discovers warm, positive and life-affirming poems in Heart Archives.


Heart Archivesheart archives
Sue Rose
Hercules Editions 2014
ISBN 978-0-9572738-1-8
pp 40   £10

Heart Archives is a small work of art.  Outwardly it has been crafted as a miniature imitation of an old-fashioned box-file while the inside – in keeping with the Hercules Editions policy of combining text and images – pairs each poem with a colour photograph.  These photographs have been individually stuck in place (on backgrounds of cleverly faded wallpaper), which surely makes this book a contender for the most labour-intensive poetry production since Anne Carson’s boxed volume Nox.

Heart Archives contains fourteen sonnets dealing with themes of family and memory.  Rose states that the sequence was inspired by Christian Boltanski’s collection of recorded heartbeats with their suggestion of a persistent thread of life and identity running from generation to generation – from our parents to ourselves to our children, born and unborn.  This interesting connection is more fully explored both in the author’s foreword and in an afterword by Ben Luke; but it should be stated clearly that the poems are strong and self-sufficient enough not to require the reader to have any prior familiarity with Boltanski’s work.

I did have to deal with one small obstacle before getting to grips with the book’s characters and narratives.  Rose has chosen to title the poems rather enigmatically with alphanumeric sequences like ‘B25071959’.  At first I took these to be pseudo versions of anonymized record labels in a real or imagined medical filing system.  But I now suspect that the numerical parts represent dates of significant family events – although this theory leaves rather a question mark over the year 2049 in the title of the final poem and also fails to explain what the initial letter means.

Once past the foregoing very minor quibble, however, I found the poems warm, positive and life-affirming.  This applies even to the poems about childlessness, which are particularly poignant: unborn children walk beside us, / relentless as the breaths they never drew. There are also sensitive and perceptive observations of aging parents. One of the best of these is ‘D12062006’ which begins

She has her work cut out. The haul
from sleep to waking, the trawl
through the labyrinth in her head
searching for a way out. There’s none.
It’s hell to feel like this. When she’s dead
she won’t.

This splendidly direct opening also shows off Rose’s skilful use of a strong rhyming scheme.  Elsewhere she employs half-rhyme or none at all.  Particularly interesting examples of half-rhyme are found in the recurring ‘k’ sounds in ‘S31082011’ and the heavy treading ‘d’ in the line endings of ‘B02031929’.  Rose artfully employs poetic techniques such as these to convey mood and emotion and to give us a little sense of inclusion in the tight family bonds she draws upon.

Another of Rose’s particular poetic gifts is a talent for choosing sharp, concise images and similes.  A regular heartbeat is a tap dripping / in a steel sink; a sick one is a cowed thing / seeking a chamber of stopped clocks.  Rose speaks of blood flowing through the plush signature / of my veins and hears her own heart beat in colour against my eyelids.  She tells us something, too, of the biophysics of circulation: blood becomes turbulent at closed valves; it comes to the right atrium … its hue cinereal and to the left atrium …its pennant red as flame.  This is just enough technical information to lend conviction to her more emotional observations about the heart’s mysteries.

Vivid descriptions are not confined to the working of the heart.  An old shellac record is scratched into song by a stylus.  A widow awakens to find a vacant man beside her.  Mediaeval stone is pitted by the aggressions / of heat and cold.  In a busy city square the heat spikes with sirens.  This is a book which can easily be read at a sitting but its brevity should not mislead the reader into thinking that all the verbal treats can be detected at once.  There are subtleties that await a second and a third tasting.