From Detailing Trauma by Arianne Zwartjes – The Feminist Wire

From Detailing Trauma by Arianne Zwartjes




The pulse shudders the body at such infinitesimal levels that many of us ignore its existence. Walk around carrying fists in the center of our chests, the bottom tipped somewhat rightward, sitting more-or-less directly below the sternum, squeezing each moment a red viscous liquid from atria to ventricles: from right ventricle into pulmonary artery, the only artery carrying de-oxygenated blood away from the heart, moving to the cavernous surface of the lungs that if unfolded and ironed flat would cover the entire surface of a tennis court. Then there are bronchioles treeing and twigging into alveoli, inevitably described as little grape-like clusters, whose surfaces are bedecked with capillary twine.

Entering our bloodstream at those capillaries, our gaseous savior oxygen streams back toward the heart in our only oxygenated vein, the pulmonary vein, now from left atrium to ventricle, and finally with a steady shudder, a squeeze of left ventricular muscle pushes it in a gush through the aorta and out into the body. And every moment we walk around unaware and indifferent that a tide is pulling in our limbs.

Over the course of our lives our heartrate will change. Infants are human hummingbirds, little chest-fists squeezing one-hundred-twenty or one-hundred-sixty times in a single minute, tiny vessels filling and perfusing these small warm bundles of skin. As they grow, their hearts eventually slow, but not until adolescence does the heart calm to its normal adult rate of sixty or one-hundred pulses each minute. And as we continue to age, we climb back toward our infancy; in aged bodies our hearts have sped again, quick birds fluttering eighty or one-hundred times with each rotation of the second-hand.

Why (alight) is this the organ we’ve chosen as repository of our feelings? Whatever I harbor, I harbor here, thump-thump.


What is heart to us: this one small organ, glistening and crowned with arteries.  Thorny tangle. (This little clump of muscle, chest-lodged and unrelenting.)  When we speak of heart. At the heart of things. You’ve won my heart. My heart goes out to you. Such a tiny, four chambered thing.  Ventricle mouths opening and closing like hungry carp.

If what we are speaking of is grit.  Take heart. She’s got heart. What we mean is stubborn doggedness, spunk, fight, clinging will. Pulsing red fist, desire: ferociously determined.


I think it’s the persistence that captivates us.  The way a heart will actually restart itself if stopped.  Sinoatrial node flashing bright little codes, sparks of imperturbable hope, electrical impulses to beat and live and keep on.

The ability to keep generating fresh hope amidst the din. Amidst a landscape that overwhelms.  Hospitals & ambulances. Car window shatter & crumpled metal. Breakups, divorces.  Thinning skin and the gradual erosion of memory.

To keep on inexplicably & despite the pressing weight, the dread. Stubborn, refusing defeat: if I only had half the determination my heart has. Half the grit, little round bundle of feist and fearless.

(It is at our happiest we have the most to fear)

Lately rockclimbing, that passion, has me spooked. Halfway up a craggy, crystalled face, I find my hands gripping too tight to some edge, some crimp of granite, at a standstill: unwilling to move upward, above my clip, to trust what comes next. To trust that my feet will hold. That my rope will hold, my draws, my heart. Unwilling to pull up. To stand. Unwilling to risk it.

But if we start closing off.  First climbing. Then driving? Next biking. Oh heart.  The motorcycles, certainly. And travel. And loving? As risky as the others. Even now I feel its edge.

Closing can’t be the answer.  As persistent (and limitless) as hope. Closing folds in. Builds on itself. More pressing and heavy than what it’s designed to avoid. It has no stop.

But what impulse, what hope to (hold fast) this fear in check?

Living as an act of faith? Ventricles squeeze and open without regard.


Arianne Zwartjes lives in the mountains of northern New Mexico in a community of international young people, where she directs the wilderness programming. She is also an EMT and teaches wilderness medicine courses. “Heart” comes from her book Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, which came out with U of Iowa Press in 2012. You can find more of her writing and other links at

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