The plain shape of things
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.
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.
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...