An affair of the heart
Charles Siebert explores our mysterious inner terrain
I had forgotten what a rushing torrent of words spills from Charles Siebert's mouth when his passions are up. I had forgotten how casually he drops arresting metaphors into normal conversation. I had forgotten how humorously, obsessively he tracks a thought through the circuitous digressions of life's hum and drum to arrive at an unexpected observation. I had forgotten just how frighteningly articulate he can be.
It's been - what? - more than 20 years since Chuck and I last ran into each other on New York's Upper West Side, several years after we had graduated from college. Memories fade. In the long in-between, Siebert has produced a steady stream of poems, essays and articles that have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine. He had a role in John Sayles' movie Eight Men Out. In late 1984, he moved to Brooklyn, where every writer in the world now seems to reside, and has lived in the same building ever since. He shares his sixth-floor apartment's "glorious view of Manhattan" with his wife, novelist Bex Brian. He has published two well-regarded books, an "autobiography" of his Jack Russell Terrier, Angus, and a remarkable memoir/prose rhapsody called Wickerby. Despite writing frequently about medical research, especially on matters related to the heart, he still doesn't have health insurance.
Siebert relates most of this during the early, catch-me-up part of our conversation about his superb new book A Man After His Own Heart. It's gratifying how easily we settle into familiar conversation. But it's only when Siebert refers to youth as an unselfconscious time when "you're in the porch-swing of your own bones, you're settled into yourself and are just staring out at the world with a kind of awe," that I think, oh now this, this is the wordsmithing poet I palled around with on the Binghamton campus.
But of course that is not true. Siebert is a far different and far better writer than I knew or could even have imagined 25 years ago. In Wickerby and even more so in A Man After His Own Heart, Siebert has forged a unique sort of nonfiction work, something he doesn't quite know how to characterize: "It's so many different things at once - memoir, prose poem, rhapsody, I don't know," he says. But no matter what you ultimately call this particular type of literary work, it informs and it sings, and if the talent gods are just, A Man After His Own Heart will be Siebert's breakthrough book.
Viewed from a wide angle, A Man After His Own Heart is an account of the night in December 1998 when Siebert participated in a "heart harvest," traveling to New Jersey with a team of surgeons to remove the heart from the body of a recently deceased young woman, and then returning to New York to deliver the heart to a waiting transplant recipient. From this angle you read about: the technicalities of heart transplants; new scientific discoveries about the biology of the heart and the genetic disorders that influence heart disease; the emotional and biological interplay of the brain and the heart; the fascinating history of diminutive, feisty William Harvey's trip to Padua in the 16th century to view the dissection of human corpses (which would lead to the discovery of the body's "ever recurring circulation of the blood").
You read, too, about: the patients who wait desperately for donor hearts; the distressing experiences of people who have lived with mechanical hearts; and of the political-sociological hierarchy of a heart harvest and the drama that hierarchy engenders. All of which Siebert portrays magnificently.
To present the book's unbelievably varied subjects as this sort of laundry list, however, is to miss the beauty and drive of Siebert's narrative approach. "I go off on all these tangents," he says. "I have the most indulgent, digressive of first-person voices." Which is the closest Charles Siebert may ever come to understatement. In fact, Siebert's mind wanders like a relaxed fisherman, following the lure of his thoughts and meditations out among the currents, pools and eddies of fact and metaphor until the anxious reader may want to tap him gently on the shoulder and remind him that there is, after all, a heart harvest going on and he might want to attend to it. But such digressions brim with insight and provocation and are narrated in language that is simply marvelous.
One of Siebert's purposes in writing this book is to make visible what he calls in conversation "these vast invisible inscapes of ourselves." Hence his fascination with such recent science as the discovery that "humans borrow the same muscle fiber mechanism that allows a fly's wing to beat at 150 beats a second. It's as if Nature is this great artificer that finds it needs to make a heart and suddenly remembers the fly wing design and pulls it off the shelf to serve the heart design. That kind of thing blows my mind."
Another of Siebert's overriding purposes is to explore the heart as metaphor, as the traditional location of human feeling. Thus Siebert writes movingly and with surprising directness about his relationship with his father, who suffered from heart disease throughout Siebert's adolescence and early adulthood, and who may have passed on the faulty gene responsible for that disease to his son. "In the early drafts I found myself shying away from going far into my father, but then I found that once I'd opened that Pandora's Box the only way to go was to go as far into it as possible, make a whole character of him, otherwise I'd be cheating the readers. And to my joy, people have told me the book gets stronger as it gets more personal."
Siebert doesn't see the science of the heart and the poetics of the heart as being in conflict. Quite the contrary. "This is not a time for poets to be throwing up their hands and saying, Ahh, science has taken away all our wonder,' " he exclaims. "There's a tendency in human thought to dismiss ourselves from our own biology and live up in the ether that our very biology creates. What I'm saying is wait a minute, look what the new science is showing us. It is in a way bearing out all the intuitive myths of the past."
Alden Mudge, of Oakland, California, is a juror for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.