The Heart is a Poet
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When We Meet Heart to Face is a memoir focused on my journey of heart failure, heart transplant, recovery and acceptance. It is a bricolage or suturing of poetry and prose that examines the physical and psychic dimensions of undergoing a medical heart transplant, while also considering wider cultural and symbolic associations with, and the iconic status of, the heart. In crafting this memoir, I have written 68 poems. Most are narrative and episodic, although some are purely lyrical. They are interwoven with passages of prose to reveal an overarching narrative with a climax and resolution. The thesis is divided into five parts. The first section, Things Without Faces, covers diagnosis, initial treatment and eventual deterioration. Section two, The List, introduces my need for a heart transplant, the process of being listed for an operation and the wait for a heart. It includes poems that flash back to my childhood as my health declined, I found my thoughts often returning to certain moments during this time. Section three, Change of Heart, covers the heart transplant operation and immediate recovery. Section four, Heart to Heart, encompasses my struggle to feel well again, and my efforts to make sense of what happened. In the fifth and final section, Heart to Face, I come face to face with my old heart—literally—and figuratively in the sense that I come to terms with my emotions, not only regarding falling sick but also, past heartaches. This section considers the impact of emotional suffering on the physical body and introduces the theory of epigenetics, a scientific field of investigation into the impact of trauma on the expression of genes. A major inspiration for this section was a cardiologist’s question on whether my family had a history of heart trouble. My search for the answer led me to write a series of poems about whānau and tīpuna who for various reasons—including disease and war—were subjected to severe emotional distress or “heart trouble”. In the Epilogue, having come through and resolved my thoughts and feelings about my heart failure and transplant, I read the news about a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China. The story ends at the start of 2020, two-and-a-half months before New Zealand is placed in lockdown following the global spread of coronavirus. As a memoir, I am the main character, with my heart (old and new) occasionally treated as a separate entity. Supporting characters include family, friends, doctors, nurses, and other patients encountered along my journey. My donor is an off-stage character who never appears directly, especially as New Zealand practice around organ donation is to preserve the anonymity of donors and recipients, but whose presence is strongly acknowledged. The nemesis of the piece is initially the disease, however, by the denouement I have taken control of how I react to upheaval in my life through story-making, making me at once me my own antagonist and hero. Themes include disease and death, emotional avoidance, understanding and acceptance of external and internal chaos, the life-saving capacity of science and modern medicine, and the psychic healing power of creativity with an emphasis on poetry. Because the entire experience was so beyond normal experience, much of the poetry is imbued with a tone of magical realism. As such there are liberal references to mythology, religion, traditional folklore, spirituality and symbolism. While the main motivation behind WWMHtF was to make meaning of what happened, other objectives are: • To demystify the physical experience of undergoing a heart transplant while retaining its existential mystery. • To honour advances in medical science. • To caution against complacency and taking for granted such advances. • To advocate for a holistic approach to the patient as an individual, rather than a cookie-cutter approach to medical treatment. • To help raise awareness of organ donation.