canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

When the Heart Parts: A Sound Opera
by Penn Kemp
Penn Kemp / Pendas Productions, 1999

Reviewed by T. Anders Carson

When The Heart Parts is a spoken word CD. It starts with almost multi-task voices flowing over each other to simulate a beating heart. Her father had a heart attack and subsequently died after a 12 day stay in hospital. The first part of the CD is a long track dealing with the grief and acceptance that Kemp went through during the death of her father.

I will say that having lost both parents myself, I found it a difficult CD to listen to. Difficult but vital in order to come to a better understanding of the different processes people go through in dealing with death. For some who have never been touched by this vicious scepter it will seem tedious and repetitive. For those of us who have held the hands of dying family members, who have seen the eyes of existence before they leave to the netherworld, then this is a vital recording.

I will admit that it brings back memories of those stale rooms. Nurses and shifts and clocks and flowers and shuffling of feet and hushed whispers and there is some improvement…

It is captured in this line when describing what her brother felt of his visit to see their father:

I’ll take those gifts back with me. Each little hand hold.

Intense words. Naked. Words that come when grief and utter wailing despair are present. Their father held on for 12 days. It was almost as if he was hanging on so that they could accept the death. That they could begin to rebuild their lives. So that a sense of closure would come to the family.

She comments on how strong he is, was, can be… The size of his hands. That strength is also measured by how many times he comes back from having his heart stop. At one point his heart is beating at 260 beats a minute and it takes 6 times for his heart to stop until it starts again. Each time the team works on him. Each time he gazes up with his ‘morphine eyes.’ Just think about that for minute. 260 beats. If you took your own pulse now it might run anywhere between 70 and 100 ( if you are anxious…) Imagine 260 beats.

The recording captures this frenetic energy by almost a sing-song with a throat-like movement to such a pitch that only a heartbeat out of control could come close. Jim Kemp only can use guttural sounds to express how he is feeling. Having had a great aunt who had suffered stroke when I was 17, I can say with extreme conviction that the sounds represented are so close to the actual that it feels as if you are struggling with him to be understood.

Her mother is brought into the picture. Her anxiety of thinking that she should have gotten to the hospital more quickly. As I said earlier, each person deals with death in their own way. Some grow wild gardens, others smoke vials of crack, some take bottles of liquor, others play solitaire into the night and some pray to the almighty wherever they may be… Her mother is encouraged to bring the children. She does. Death has a way of bringing people together. Even the possibility of death. After Mr. Kemp leaves us they are brought in to see him. She describes with a beautiful, almost envy, that his body is now resting. The blood has drained from him. The last part of the body it leaves is the heart.

When her mother returns home there is dog who greets her. She says she doesn’t have time for a new animal. It looks like their old dog Squire. Oddly the dog stayed all day on the front porch. Was it a coincidence?

When The Heart Parts is an interesting listen. It will give you something to think of on your next drive to somewhere. It will make you appreciate that jagged sunset, a brushing of your cat or your child saying your name. It collects these feelings and churns in compassion, the vital element in dealing with our sorrow. That first track should be played in our schools so we could really learn something about living.

T. Anders Carson is an Ottawa-area poet. His poetry was featured in an earlier  issue of The Danforth Review.







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