Poet-Journalist’s Assignment: Rhapsodizing the Heart Beat

A Man After His Own Heart , by Charles Siebert. Crown, 288 pages, $23.95.

There’s a rare breed of writer who, through heightened powers of observation and uncanny vocabulary, elevates the dross of current events into song. Not actual song-the sentences scan the same as anyone else’s on the pages of The New York Times Magazine or Harper’s -but song by dint of the writer’s leapfrogging, rhapsodic vision. I’m talking about that odd duck, the poet-journalist, with a pitch so high the reader is either held spellbound or runs screaming from the room.

Why would an editor assign someone like Charles Siebert-the Brooklyn-based author of an “urban pastoral” memoir and an “autobiography” of a Jack Russell terrier-to write a book like A Man After His Own Heart , which is about the art, science, history, mythology and metaphysics of heart-harvesting? The idea is to lease a sensibility, to hire a block of the writer’s time during which he will set his febrile consciousness loose on the topic at hand. In this case, Mr. Siebert was given four years: During that period, anything that falls under the writer’s elegiac gaze, no matter how distantly related, is grist for the proverbial mill.

Some grist it is. Did you know that the human heart is made of the same muscle fibers that make up fly wings, that the Chinese intuited the circulatory nature of our bloodstream 3,000 years before William Harvey, and that the hearts of the hummingbird and the shrew (“curious cardiac counterparts-one airborne, the other earthbound-and yet equally skittish habitués, it seems, of their respective realms”) beat as fast as 20 times per second? More startling still, people who receive new hearts often get the emotions and habits of the donors as well, thrown in free with the neurochemicals-“the donors’ deaths being so sudden that their hearts continue to act as if they’re still in their original owner’s body.”

With material this diverting, it’s no wonder that 100 pages pass before Mr. Siebert gets the phone call to whisk that heightened consciousness of his over to New Jersey, where a heart is ready to go. But to call those first 100 pages mere throat-clearing would be missing the point. Those ruminations and flights of fancy-like the lyrical digression on his great-grandfather’s chandelier-polishing at the Waldorf Astoria-are more than part and parcel of the story. When delivered by a writer minutely attuned to his own inner workings (and graced with so-called attention-surfeit disorder, a sister affliction to A.D.D. marked by both a “disposition to dote on the meaningless” and “a propensity for prolonged, mouth-agape, ape-like awe”), they are the story.

A parlous business, poet-journalism: One of the pitfalls, obviously, is this very discursiveness. It’s lovely when Mr. Siebert excurses successfully, as when he watches fish in a tank “smoothly ply their walled and lighted days … continually arriving, in warped carousel, to the edges of a wakeful, drifting repose,” or when he describes what it’s like to suffer the peculiar New York insomnia whereby the metropolis “softly whirs like a huge, idling office machine. Here and there through the drifting rain, passing cars sound the two-beat clanks of manhole covers and then splay the night air, which, like mercury, quickly melds again.” Yet other forays make you wonder why he doesn’t sufficiently trust the central story to carry us through.

Mr. Siebert’s earnest, self-conscious phraseology sometimes betrays too long an apprenticeship at the knee of Dylan Thomas or-perish the thought-Gerard Manley Hopkins. The reader wilts after four successive pages studded with such plummy constructions as “lawn-stranded saplings,” “the day’s too-wide air” or “the pinched, sky-pressed row houses of Flatlands, Brooklyn.” He can be both precious, referring to his father as his “heart’s author,” and purple-one imagines him gasping if he were to be suddenly deprived of his favorite word, “thrum.” Pushy, too-he sometimes strains to bend all imagery to fit the overarching metaphor, as when likening his car stuck in traffic to a “sentient bubble in an I.V. drip through the hardened, constricted arteries of authority”-one of several times he overplays the circulation trope. On an escalator, he feels “I was in a huge hypodermic needle, observing my own slow injection into … [a] whole other vein of existence.” Hey, they’re just moving stairs, bub.

On balance, however, Mr. Siebert-a self-confessed “heart hypochondriac” whose father died prematurely of genetic heart disease-holds his poesy in reserve, parceling it out for when he wants to take your breath away, as in this view from the Brooklyn Bridge “toward Manhattan’s multi-tiered tableau of lights, both fixed and moving: mist-mottled office and apartment towers; the snaking red and white of street traffic; the sprocketed flicker of subway cars through East River bridge trellises; the smooth, soundless slides of helicopters and jets.” And here are the “pole people,” heart-transplant candidates requiring a constant infusion of drugs: “You have to sleep sitting up. Your hands and feet are always cold. Your complexion is gray. Your speech is perforated with urgent, shallow breaths. Daylight looks paler to you, and yet in the general diminishment of all your body’s functions, oddly specific ones rally to compensate-your sense of smell, for one. Otherwise faint, apparitional days are suddenly cluttered by too-strong odors; perfumes and colognes seem more substantive to you than their wearers.”

Passages such as these make A Man After His Own Heart nothing less than a scholarly epiphany, the entire four years of labor a splendid and, dare we say, heartfelt gift. But here’s what makes Mr. Siebert a poet: After a bout of tachycardia, sometimes called “heart hurry” or, less nicely, “cardiac neurosis,” the author gets himself wired up to a monitor for an entire day. How does it leave him feeling? “Sad the entire time, and a little cheap, as though I’d hired a private detective to spy on my own house, waiting for its main occupant, with whom I’d lived without question for so many years, to betray me.” Dare some investigative journalist to come up with a leap like that one.

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer .