Something stops making sense, won’t stay still, can’t be grasped, and then you come across the plain shape of it - a simple version that says ‘This is what I mean.’
Once when I was broken-hearted, I went to stay in a place where it rained every day. Each morning when I opened my door and set out along the path, I found a heart-shaped puddle. If anyone had been anywhere near, I would have said ‘Look, a heart-shaped puddle,’ and they would have said ‘Yeah right,’ and seen the heart because I had told them it was there.
The heart-shaped puddle meant nothing but I had to stop myself acting upon it and that meant something.

Every time I passed it, I admitted that it pleased me and then told myself it was just a puddle and not really all that heart-shaped. I stopped myself taking a picture of it or telling the person who was breaking my heart about it or, worse still, taking a picture and sending it to him.
I don’t like the heart shape. I don’t want a heart-shaped jewel or a heart-shaped cake. Like certain words (appropriate, community...) it has become a cartoon version of meaning. Yet it is a fixed and simple shape, which gives us hope of fixed and simple feelings.
On flickr there are over a million pictures tagged ‘heart’: swans’ necks, seeds in a kiwi fruit, pebbles, fireworks, flowers... There are 33,000 images tagged ‘heart-shaped’ including clouds, more pebbles, petals, leaves, a dog’s tongue, croutons, cupcakes and sunglasses. There are heart-shaped forests in Kansas and Brazil, and a well-documented heart-shaped moon (which looks like some horribly mixed metaphor). There are 127 heart-shaped puddles. The thing that looks least heart-shaped is an actual human heart.
Many of these clouds and pebbles and dented moons rely upon their 'heart-shaped' caption. Told what you are looking at, you see the heart. I saw it in the puddle because it was almost there, and because I was wanting to make sense of my own heart. No, I wanted something else to make that sense for me, and for my feelings to be recognisable and recognised.
The simple cartoon shape is the one that has most immediacy, the one we find easiest to grasp and remember. It is not, on the whole, the way we feel.
Noel Coward:
I am no good at love
My heart should be wise and free
I kill the unfortunate golden goose
Whoever it may be
With over-articulate tenderness
And too much intensity.

Originally Published: November 30th, 2008

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...

  1. November 30, 2008

    Theresa Muller of Philadelphia creates life-sized replicas of the human heart made out of chocolate.

  2. November 30, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I walked through a human heart as a child. It was in Philadelphia, at a science museum. There were stairs. There was a loud heartbeat sound. I was alone and a little nervous. That's all I remember.

  3. December 1, 2008
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    "I walked through a human heart as a child." Mary Meriam, thank you. You've given me an image of a different aspect of my problem. In the post I talked about my susceptibility to the simple shape but what your memory brings to mind is the effects of all this wonderfully mobile but virtual visual experience. When John Locke came to write in the late C17th about the view under the microscope, he invoked alienation, warning that being able to 'come nearer to the discovery of the texture and motion of the minute parts of corporeal things’ would place the viewer 'in quite a different world from other people: nothing would appear the same to him and others.' So what happens now that everyone is in that different world?
    And what is happening in poetry to our idea and experience of the image because of all this?
    Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer: 'If there is in fact an ongoing mutation in the nature of visuality, what forms or modes are being left behind? What kind of break is it? At the same time, what are the elements of continuity that link contemporary imagery with older organizations of the visual?’
    Or bringing it home, Williams: 'What are those fuzzy things out there?'

  4. December 3, 2008

    It was a sign- I am sure someone will read this and act on the imPULSE.

  5. December 4, 2008

    A jewelry-maker with a table in Union Square this summer had crafted a sterling silver pendant of the human heart. When I picked it up, she exclaimed, "Oh, that's my favorite! It's completely anatomically correct, you know. Love is UGLY." I still regret not buying it, thinking (stupidly) that I needed money to feed myself.