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Review of ‘How the Heart Can Falter’ by Giovanna MacKenna

One of the pleasures of writing reviews is that you read closely a lot of contemporary poetry and just occasionally a debut collection stops you in your tracks because you know it is the beginning of something significant. How the Heart Can Falter (The Museum of Loss and Renewal Publications, 2022) by Giovanna MacKenna is one of those collections.  It is a chronologically arranged series of poems in which the poet strives to make sense of her experiences: those of family life, the loss of her parents, her sense of identity and her struggle with mental health.

The opening eponymous poem is a highly appropriate introduction to the collection. In it, MacKenna uses the symbol of a malformed heart (from which she and her father suffered) to explore the imperfections of relationships and their fragility. She writes: ‘The heart can form badly, leave gaps/ where bloods that never mix can mingle/sucking colour from the skin/ life from certainty.’ Whilst she is clearly referencing the physical effects of a hole in the heart here, there is also a sense of the complexities of close family relationships. Like her physical heart, those emotional ties can be imperfect too. She concludes the poem with the lines: ‘The heart is an organ flawed and failing:/ it beats, but rarely for itself.’ She is acknowledging failures and mistakes in relationships and the profound effect that this has had upon her: she feels she has let down the objects of her love as they have let her down too. Yet this sense of individual failure is mediated to some degree by the statement ‘the heart is an organ flawed’. Perhaps this is the nature of love and of being human, to believe otherwise is to idealise.

Many of the early poems in the collection explore MacKenna’s relationships with her father and mother. There is an honesty and authenticity about the way she describes her feelings. One of the most powerful poems of the collection is about her father, Words spoken in anger towards the dead. One can feel acutely an anger towards him: she describes herself as ‘burning on the stone step’ as she waits to steer him home from the pub. He is drunk and the young child staggers with his weight as she ‘heft(s)’ him home. The tone of the description of him is critical: his words were ‘dressed in the stench of a wasted man feigning/ afternoon sobriety to his youngest child’. The word ‘wasted’ is key here, I think, not only does it refer to his inebriation, it is also a statement about his life as whole, for as the poem, A box called home, shows, his life was one of frustrated ambitions and unrealised potential, because he did not have the drive to make his dreams happen: ‘My father was made of a mind/ that failed to take his body with it.’ There’s a sense in both poems that he has failed himself and his family, and yet there an acknowledgement on the poet’s part that she doesn’t understand him and would like to do so, even now when he is dead: ‘I would ask you again where your/ sadness bled from’ because despite his failings and her anger, she feels an overwhelming love for him, expressed so movingly in the concluding lines of the poem: ‘I’d like/ one more clumsy, shame-faced walk/ with my drunken dad. I’d take you home the long way round.’ This is the flawed heart in operation: they love each other but have, in some respects, failed each other.  

We find a similar treatment of the poet’s relationship with her mother. In How to reach a mother we find the poet reflecting upon her mother’s restraint or lack of demonstrativeness that keeps her daughter at a distance: ‘There is such a want writhing in your eyes./ You are held tight by a personality/ that cannot quite disguise your need:/ the absence of a life lived at arm’s length.’  It’s not that the mother doesn’t love her daughter: she clearly does. However, she doesn’t easily express it. Again, as in the poems about her father, we can feel acutely the poet’s love for her mother; this time in the succession of questions with which the poem ends. However, there is also a hesitance on the poet’s part in taking any action to resolve the issue, lest it end in failure: ‘would a kindly touch/ destroy the well-kept walls/ and leave me holding ashes.’  There are failings on both sides but there is deep love too. Such is the depth of the poet’s love the mother’s death is devastating to her.

Loss is a common theme in poetry throughout history, but I can think of few poets who express grief and loss so powerfully as MacKenna when she describes the impact of her parents’ deaths upon her. Take for example the closing lines of the poem hidden/object in which she describes the discovery of an unnamed object when clearing her mother’s house. She writes: ‘It is the thing you hold to your breast as you/ sink onto the pins of your grief.’ The image ‘pins of your grief’ is a perfect evocation of pain caused by the passing of someone close, pins evoking domesticity and the capacity of the ordinary to provoke such  extraordinary feelings. The verb ‘sink’ suggests the helplessness of the grieving daughter as the feelings totally overwhelm her. Wearing my mother develops the sense of loss further and takes us in an entirely different direction, exploring the impact upon the poet’s mental health. The memories of her mother described in this poem are neither cosy nor comforting, but destructive. The poet describes herself as walking ‘with the weight of you/ filling each step…pulling me, off course, away/ from the straight line of sanity.’ She is burdened by memories of her mother’s harsh words to her, her unreasonable expectations (‘always demanding more’), her bitterness, her anger, and as a result she is stricken by a sense of inadequacy and failure: ‘You ended and I continue. You/ left me with none of your strength/ only the memories of my failures.’

Wearing my mother is characteristic of another strand that runs through the collection: the impact of environment (geographical, physical, family and historical) upon the poet’s sense of self and well-being. The places where she lived (Little white house, Beach tree by the sea wall), her family’s Italian roots (Heritage), her mother and father (Telephone, Sewing lessons) are presented as factors in shaping who she feels she is and how she feels about herself. In Marked she reflects upon the influence of her father. She describes that influence as ‘marks’: ‘Your marks are upon me, indelible/ undeniable, the rings in our family tree’. The use of the word ‘indelible’ suggests that her father’s effect upon her is inescapable, not only in terms of ‘the flaws of my heart’, an inherited physical characteristic, but in terms of her personality and emotional well-being: ‘I have never known myself/ without your mark.’ As she grows older that influence becomes more acute and exacerbates her sense of inadequacy: ‘You are gone but all present, there is no escape/ from a voice, a look, a failing that belongs to us both.’

Whilst in many ways this a deeply personal collection, MacKenna explores the experiences that build us all. Many readers will be able to identify with them, though they may not have the talent of MacKenna to describe them. This is a work of considerable courage and profound insight that at times proves a difficult, intensely moving read, but that, after all, is often the characteristic of great writing.  There’s no doubt in my mind that MacKenna is star in the literary firmament who will shine every more brightly as she writes more.

Giovanna MacKenna can be found looking at the black bits of life and finding ways to make them shine. She grew up on Scotland’s west coast and has built her life around words. Her first poetry collection – How the Heart can Falter – is now available from The Museum of Loss and Renewal Publishing. Giovanna has been recently published by Stanza Cannon, Visual Verse – she was June’s lead writer, Lapidus Scotland, Black Bough and Nine Pens. For more information visit and follow her on Twitter @giovmacpoet


Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

For details of how to purchase a copy, click here.

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