Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs
by Ellen Kennedy
Muumuu House | March 2009
As the first book from the new publisher, Muumuu House, which was featured in the March issue of the magazine Nylon, Ellen Kennedy’s poetry collection Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs has both nothing to live up to as well as a precedent to set. The lack of page numbers and the sans-serif font used on the cover and throughout the text of the book gives the feel of a teenager’s blog, yet Kennedy’s subject-matter and constricted eloquence contradict that initial impression of something immature.
Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs has is book-ended by two short prose pieces starring Woody Allen, Ned Vizzini and Norm MacDonald with appearances by Bill Pullman and Dennis Diclaudio. These famous and semi-famous individuals are taken out of their celebrity contexts for the most part and inhabit New York.. Kennedy invokes elements of the surreal in the beginning of the first story, “Eoody Mobby,” but then abandons those for a different kind of surrealism that follows the celebrities in their “just-like-us” activities. (The non-celebrity-related surrealism comes back in the poems, for example, the repeated image of a floating coffee first appears in “Eoody Mobby” and then again in the excellent poem “Green Toothbrush.”) Kennedy chooses to sparsely use pronouns throughout the works, instead employing the names of the stars, which brands the pieces with the image of these characters; but at the same time, however, serves to simultaneously have the opposite affect, removing the celebrity from the name, and making it easier to insert yourself or others into the empty vessels of character.
If anything, the celebrity-infused prose pieces serve as an emotionally distancing front and back matter to what is an affecting collection of poetry. There is one other prose piece in the middle, which is about a girl visiting home during her college years, but the rest of the book is in verse. It sometimes seems, though the prose is written in the same direct and honest voice of the poetry, that the prose pieces provided the bulk of the book. Had the collection just contained the verse, it would have been more chapbook-sized than book-length.
The best poem in the book is “Green Toothbrush”. Its title represents that unspoken symbol of a relationship. The poem builds a very quick but complete, precise picture of a day-in-the-life of a couple. Much of the poetry in the collection wavers between emotions surrounding relationships and distancing surrealism, yet this poem resonates in a sophisticated way that the others, despite their attention to detail and direct, honest voices, do not. “Green Toothbrush” is easy to relate to yet vividly specific.
The poem “Brighter and Clearer” is memorable in a similar way as “Green Toothbrush”. Though its language is a bit more loquacious than many of the others in the collection, it fits well. However, it stands out, well, brighter and clearer than some of the others. There are moments in this poem that could have been similar but different to thoughts you’ve considered but never confirmed out loud, such as the line the title comes from: “After I take my vegan dietary supplement my piss is brighter and clearer.” The book is honest about the physical world, such as in this line, as well as an emotion world. For example, in the poem “Poem”, the narrator reflects after finding herself staring at her friends’ breasts: “I can’t tell if I’m a lesbian / Or just insecure.” Insecurities run throughout the collection but not in a self-deprecating, annoying way that bad teenage poetry tends to promote. They come, rather, in an open and eloquent way that good, sincere modern poetry must have. Kennedy’s poems remain honest even when their subject-matter approaches surrealism or the lonely moments in someone else’s life.
Some of the other more effective poems in the book are: “I Went to the Grocery Store Today”: wherein a girl riding a bike feels like an ant and an orange becomes the sun; “Ants Can Never Die by Falling”: wherein a slug and ants battle to the death; “Learning to Pee Standing Up”: wherein a girl hesitates but goes through with writing a poem about learning to pee standing up; and the title poem, “Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs”: wherein someone decides to send some mail.
Ellen Kennedy’s Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs is short, but begs for a reread soon after you’ve set it back on the shelf. No. It won’t make it back to the shelf. It will sit in that pile on top of your stereo, the pile you mean to return to your shelves, the pile of new books you bought because you read them in the past and wanted to own them, old books you considered rereading and failed to, everything you expect, soon, to reshelve soon. You will pull this book out from that pile and reread it before you file it back on your shelf, alphabetical by author between Hugh Kenner and Jack Kerouac. She’ll find a home there, soon, but not until you’ve left your fingerprints two or three times on each of these pages that feel more like a letter to you, at times, than something anyone else could be reading.