Open Heart Sonnetry

We tend to associate the sonnet form (if we are so lit-geeky as to think of the sonnet form at all!) with matters of the heart. And it’s true that since the sonnet first evolved in Italy in the late-medieval period and then was introduced into English in the Renaissance, sonnets have often been poems of love. But can a sonnet more literally explore the work of the heart?

While I was teaching Works of Heart, a course about the heart in literature, medicine, and bioethics, a physician friend arranged for me to spend a day in the cardiology clinic of a local hospital. A cardiac surgeon I met there invited me to observe the operation he was about to perform, in which a deteriorating aortic valve would be cut from the patient’s heart and replaced with an artificial valve that would be sewn permanently into the heart muscle. Standing beside an unconscious stranger while she underwent this procedure was simultaneously wondrous, clinical, intimate, and inspiring. So inspiring, I’ve been working on a chapbook of poems about the experience.

The first of these poems, a sonnet entitled “Perfusion,” has just been published in The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. What the poem describes is truly a work of heart: during open heart surgery, the patient’s blood is routed away from the heart and lungs, through plastic tubes to a cardiopulminary bypass machine several feet away. The machine, run by a perfusionist, oxygenates the blood and pumps it back through the patient’s circulatory system, keeping the tissues of body alive. In other words, the perfusionist operates a machine across the room from the patient to do the work of the heart until the patient’s own heart can take over again.

What better subject for the love and reverence of a sonnet?

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