“Heart’s Core” by Joann Gardner

Prize-winning poet Joann Gardner, PhD, dives deep into Florida’s underground rivers and gathers gems and experiences too complex for simple surface tellings in Heart’s Core (Finishing Line Press 2023). This new poetry book is structured as a journey. Gardner’s book explores concepts of belonging and identity in her far-flung European and U.S. North-South immersions as a former Florida State professor (now retired) from Maine.

On her quest to discover forebears, we meet Cosam Emir, a New Hampshire newspaperman who traveled south to Georgia and Florida in order to combat symptoms of consumption. He marries a Jewish woman, Sarah Evelina, from Charleston, both of them misunderstood and ostracized for their choices.

“Literature advances the cause of civilization,” says Cosam, and we trust it does, especially in Gardner’s fully imagined, lovingly named and re-created world. In the lead poem,“Cosam’s Journey,” her ancestor plies rivers of pain clogged with dead branches. Hearts are wooden or rock-like, and life is ambiguous, desire suspended in wet muck:

River of pain, carrying the dead branches of spring, snagged on a rock on a heart, on a moment of maybe. He leaned over the gunwale, moving south into a tropical wilderness looking for relief—for a reason to continue—life assuage me.

Gardner’s free-verse narrative style dispenses with meter and rhyme in favor of resonance, humor and perfect pitch. We notice the switch from third to first person—”life assuage me”—how it hints at the poet herself seeking relief, enlightenment, and healing.

Setting Out

While canoeing with a friend, Gardner captures the sight, sound, texture of a capsizing incident on the flooded Chipola River, the scene carefully watched by a “fat alligator…knees cocked.”

                                    We stand there shivering on an island of weeds:

deep in the Florida wilderness, with only one paddle, and no clear sense

of where to go.

She refuses to tie these poems up neatly, but leaves them unresolved—the reader breathless, suspended, wanting more. Every page is drenched in detail, imagery, emotion, search and discovery.

Further revelation on Cosam comes from his wife in the poem, “Sarah Evelina”: “He thinks too much  writes with expectation of being heard.” Sarah also has a need to be heard, though “a woman’s word has no currency here.”

Gardner visits a family cemetery outside of New Orleans, notes the headstone of a man with complete vitals, another listing only “Our Mother … A silence reaching back.” And what of those “whose story is not told? Mending stocking, taking stock.” They are left with no fortunes, no vitals—only holey stockings.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the poems, I called Gardner at her summer home in Maine. “I think I have a history of finding people whatever my circumstances,” she said. “I gravitate to the alienated, the silent mothers, those whose stories are not told, and I try to give them voice.” Runaway with Words, a poetry program for at-risk youth co-founded with Janet Heller (MA), did just that. Working with Florida’s abused and abandoned teenagers was viewed by some as “inappropriate for senior level faculty” at FSU, but for Gardner and the kids she served, it was important work.

“There’s a reason you go to these places. These dismissed young people need a place in the world; they deserve to be heard.” From Gardner’s first workshop in Panama City, she was hooked—for fifteen years. She and Heller partnered with Anhinga Press to publish a workbook and an anthology. After several years, Heller left to take a position with the San Francisco Arts Commission, and Gardner continued on her own. She and Rick Campbell, Anhinga’s then-director, wrote national grants to take the program to shelters and detention centers in Utah, Oregon, and California, as well as here at home, often ending in a performance or publication. “I think it changed the participants from being victims to being authorities. They taught me a lot about honesty in writing, about the explosive power of emotion simply put.”    


 Gardner’s journey continues, minutely observed, after loss. In “A Rocket,” she writes this:

            As for stars

they are mementos

crushed tinsel from a Christmas

at the beach when everyone

was happy and alive.

Enroute, she finds blazing ironies: Christmas carols on the radio, “the season of birth, the darkest time of the year.” Traffic pulses, pelican wings ache, cockroaches seduce, James Brown belts, “It’s a man’s world,” then stumbles, weeps, rises and screams, “but it wouldn’t mean nothing without a woman or a girl.”

“Mt. Pisgah” evokes one night on the road, sleeping in her car, and the poet finds it would take only one night to turn her into a derelict.

 “Driving North with the Angel of Death” references a trip down the east coast after her mother’s funeral. A van full of rabid football fans cut her off on the interstate and would have hit her had she not cranked her wheel hard right. Her car went into a tailspin, spun across two lanes of traffic and ended up facing backwards on a small patch of grass. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. “The way they toyed with me and kept on driving, the total meanness of it.” She captures this meanness with the image of a derelict hitchhiker “the Angel of Death” sitting next to her in the car. For fun, he grabs the wheel and spins her out of control.

“Where does the pain go, the weight that sits on the brow and heart?” Gardner asks in “Music.” “Has it left with…the sudden sense that I cannot change the world?” This follows Gardner’s years of travel, isolation, distance and struggle; losses of place, family and friends; thirty-nine years as a literature and creative writing prof, two artist residencies and countless poetry workshops. She continues:

…I am on my knees

in my sister’s sub-basement, murmuring, Lift me up,

O Lord… to my actual feet, to an actual belief that

we are wise in our laughter, not grim with the knitted

brow; but patiently confident that it all works out…

She clarifies in “Refuge”: “Transitional means preparing to move from one life to another…”

She discovers that she knows answers as to why women don’t leave their abusers and is told she might be a safe person for someone. She sees in the poem, “Gargoyle,” the yearning to “become someone,” launch “free like a bird.”

“I insisted on getting out of Maine,” Gardner said on the phone from Maine. “It involved hunger, loneliness, and alienation. I lived in Paris, London, and York (England) and took on a bohemian lifestyle. With all that travel, you get used to being exposed and unprotected—or at least learn how to accept it.”

She was a model citizen throughout high school, she said. “Afterwards, I just needed to get out. My first college was a Presbyterian school in the Midwest, where dress codes and curfews attempted to keep young women decorous. I got in a lot of trouble because of it and was scheduled to go before the review board. They decided instead that I should go on their junior year abroad program. That started it all. There were no monitors, just utter freedom in Paris. I got to live a bigger life.

“I returned home, got a B.A. at [the notoriously liberal] Bard College, then returned to Paris where I taught ESL to French businessmen and studied at the Sorbonne.” She was then accepted to a Master’s program at the University of York, where she studied Eliot and Pound. “I wanted to be a poet,” she said. “This was the closest I could get.”

“Eliot needed to create distance from his New England roots, and he found that distance in Europe. I suppose I did the same. You need to reach beyond the familiar and safe in order to grow. And, as you grow, writing helps you make sense of what you’ve done. There’s a lot we don’t understand about ourselves when we’re just starting out. Writing lets you explore your impulses and work them out in words.”

Coming Home

 In the homecoming section of the book, Gardner writes with confidence—like a native who’s returning from a long time “away.” She defends her turf against strays in “Cats” and re-experiences cold island winters: “Darkness comes early here  slams the world shut.” In “Norway,” we glimpse origin families who “Risk everything and flee their homes in the hours before war.” “Sturm und Drang” recalls the extremes of nature and stress celebrated by the German literary movement of that name: “Thunder ripples like dominoes, collapsing in a line…blinding, aching, punishing thunder.”

In “Triptych,” Gardner explores the philosophical problem of falling trees, reports on an incident of domestic abuse and murder, and remembers work at the fish factory cleaning fish. In “Nikko Shrine,” a Shinto priest picture-framed against dream mountains and rippling streams, seems confident of nature seeking completion. So, despite “violent ice storms,” the poet assumes an “air of detachment.” “The Buddhist bells on my bedpost ring softly…warding off evil…things left undone, loves lost.”

“We will learn to speak again, the truth,” she writes in “Awake at Midnight,” quoting Yeats and Whitman:

“Man does not know truth,

but embodies it.” Woman also (that’s me).

Whitman: “I contain multitudes.”

Gravitas           The sea.

 Words, people, places, have weight and meaning.


 Gardner writes in closing of “The presence of Chi in your hand; sensation of warmth…Do not attempt to contain but guide it.” Also, of the life beyond: “If the grave is a chance to contemplate one’s actions,” then Cosam’s ghostly presence, rocking barefoot on the porch, “suggests a yearning for something left undone. He will find a way to say it.”

Concerning her travels, Gardner said, “As you move from place to place, your sense of belonging shifts and your consciousness shifts with you. You’re not the same person anymore. When I came to teach at Florida State, there was nothing more foreign to me in terms of culture and geography. But I discovered a connection in a genealogy my mother had. Not only did I have forebears who had lived in the South, but one of them, Cosam Emir Bartlett, had served as Intendant (Mayor) of Apalachicola after John Gorrie’s departure and subsequently as the founding editor of the Tallahassee Star.  Suddenly, the past and the present converged. He was an outsider in the fractious years leading up to the Civil War and drew fire for his political beliefs.

“Anyone as they grow older becomes more complex,” she added. This Gardner does convincingly, embracing a global view, unbounded by one culture, one family, one place in time. Gardner is working on two new books of poetry, one already shortlisted and in revision.

Joann Gardner

Gardner’s poems have appeared in such journals as Tampa Review, South Carolina Review, Barrow Street, Cimarron Review and Louisiana Literature. Her chapbook La Florida won the Weldon Kees Prize and The Deaf Island won the 2018 chapbook prize from the Poetry Society of America.




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