A Craft Talk by Katherine Smith


For an ultrasound exam, I ran on a treadmill and then was hooked up to a machine that showed my heart pumping blood. It was an incredible thing to see my heart keeping perfect time, beating with a precision, grace, and power I never knew I possessed. It’s almost embarrassing just to mention the word “heart” in a poem, and yet my heart, indifferent to its embarrassing lack of originality, keeps me alive. Heart Monitor was inspired by my echocardiogram. The heart monitor helped me see what’s always there.

At around the same time I was hooked up to the ECG, I’d been reading about Leonardo da Vinci and his mastery of painting water. His genius was his ability to capture the ordinary: water falling through the hair of Jesus as he was baptized. Da Vinci’s drawing ability was like the ultrasound machine, a feat of human ingenuity that allows humans to see the connection between the inner and outer world by showing in all its specificity what’s really there. He drew transparency and taught us to see it. This image ended the poem.

I pared it down. I focused on the poem’s image of a pin oak and my desire to see each leaf in its particulars, much as I’ve been taught to do in drawing classes, by close observation. Pin oaks are common fast-growing suburban trees, quite common in the south where I grew up. They are very much the trees of my childhood. On one hand they are nothing special, just ordinary trees. On the other hand, they fill me with a sense of connection to the world. The poem now describes a particular moment when the light hit one of the pin oaks just right, and it became an altar. Its presence was a prayer to my life, both incredible and nothing special. Such moments arise daily, the way the body arises from blood pumping through the heart. When one pays attention, they oxygenate, ordinary and dangerous to dismiss.

This poem in its original version was weighed down by my efforts to make it mean. The ending, with its image of Da Vinci, was contrived to make a point. I cut it. The late Stanley Plumly gave me a good piece of advice about ending a poem: Just get out. That’s what I did.

The other piece of advice he gave me was more of a reminder: “meaning is a scoundrel.” The poem begins and ends now with the tree.

Sun shining though hole in red leaf
Sun Through Maple by Daniel Kovach. CC license.
Heart Monitor

Red leaves on the pin oak tree flip
from their dull brown backs,
toss and turn in the breeze, catching light
and movement.

Nothing is easier than to walk straight past the trees
like the minor poem of a minor poet,
easy to ignore, then suddenly visible,
shimmering, miraculous,
before the attention like so much wind
wanders from the light struck

and goes back
to where it was, an emptiness ordinary as ink
or a row of trees in your neighborhood.
So too you have seen the ordinary oak
of your own heart. Its aorta branches
from the ventricle, beats
on the screen. No ordinary thing,

the way those thin branches jut
across the lawn of your childhood
home, bow towards the dead
grass, lift silver twigs
like an offering, and scatter
their spinning husks.

This essay originally appeared in the Chattahoochee Review.

Katherine Smith
Katherine Smith has poetry in The Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and many other journals. Her second book is Woman Alone on the Mountain (Iris Press, 2014). She works at Montgomery College in Maryland.

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