“Heart’s Limbo” is written in six free-verse stanzas of varying length. As is typical of a dramatic monologue, the poem’s speaker (“I”) addresses a silent listener, presumably a potential lover, and through her words reveals her innermost self. From her choice of language (“rolls ready to brown n’ serve,/ the concentrated juice”), the speaker appears to be a woman, although she may not necessarily be Carolyn Kizer. She may be a persona, a voice created by the poet.
In Christian tradition, the word “limbo” refers to a place in the afterlife, somewhere between heaven and hell, which is set aside for the innocent souls of the unbaptized. Here the “limbo” of the title carries the more general meaning of a place or state of confinement or neglect, a place where nothing happens. In the poem’s central metaphor, the speaker’s “maimed” heart has been placed in limbo (literally, in a freezer) for safekeeping and is now being thawed for use.
The poem begins as the speaker tells her listener that she had placed her heart, like a piece of meat, in the frozen food section of her refrigerator to prevent it from spoiling. She has had to remind herself not to snack on it (“It wasn’t raspberry yoghurt”) and not to give it to the cat by mistake—in other words, to take special care with it. It is not like the other food in her refrigerator. Although she continues to refer to the heart as an object, the rest of the poem makes evident that the heart symbolizes her ability to love.
Someone has come into her life, even though she is not ready: “Suddenly I needed my heart in a hurry.” She offers her heart, her frozen love in its “crystal sheath,” in its half-thawed, incomplete state, and the prospective lover is not put off by it: “You didn’t even wash its blood from your fingertips.” He (or possibly she, as the person’s gender is not specified) is “not even visibly frightened/ when it began to throb with love.” The fifth stanza reveals the speaker’s fear. In a series of vivid similes, she compares her heart to an injured animal, a smooth-skinned but treacherous snake, and a defenseless baby bird. The heart is savage, dangerous, yet helpless, even as it lies imprisoned and protected in the warmth of the lover’s hands.
The final stanza shifts to a positive note, as the speaker urges her new lover to heal her damaged heart with gentleness and asks in turn for the lover’s own heart. It is clear that previous relationships have hurt this woman and that she is now willing to take a great risk in order to encounter love again.
Forms and Devices
When it was initially published in Poetry magazine, “Heart’s Limbo” consisted of forty-one lines in eight stanzas. Kizer extensively revised the end of the poem before its inclusion in The Nearness of You, where she replaced the final three stanzas with a new, succinct quatrain and reduced the number of lines to thirty. Each version ends with a satisfying couplet, one of only two examples of perfect end rhyme in the poem.
Kizer originally began her career as a formalist poet, basing her early poems on strict classical and older Chinese models. In later poems such as this one, she seems to prefer irregular breath lines to the more uniform line created by regular meter and patterned syllables. Yet even though this poem is written in free verse, the iambic foot predominates, which is appropriate for a poem about a heart. The two-syllable iamb, with its accent on the second syllable, has often been identified as a rhythmic echo of a beating heart. In one instance Kizer begins a line with a trochee (“Quicken”), thus shifting the accent to the first syllable and reversing the pattern of the iambs that surround it: “Quicken its beat with your caresses.” This shift emphasizes the change in heart rhythm that is being described. When rhyme appears, it is largely incidental, occurring primarily within the lines and emphasized by repeated phrases: “I had to remember not to diet on it./ . . ./ I had to remember not to thaw and fry it.”
The image of the frozen heart, that icy organ in stasis, is underscored by words that emphasize its chill: “crystal,” “cold and dripping,” “numbed.” Personified, it appears as a lifeless creature, “not breathing” until the lover’s touch restores it. As the heart revives, it begins to “throb” until its final transformation, lying in “your warm fingers’ cage.” Poet and editor A. Poulin, Jr., has called attention to the “emotional impact” of Kizer’s work, “enhanced by her unique intellectual wit and hearty, often stinging, sense of humor,” or what Kizer herself has called “the shield of bitter laughter.” The image of a wounded heart lying numb among the unbaked rolls and cans of frozen juice is in a sense comic, but her sly humor also serves a serious purpose, to mask and lessen pain.
Kizer employs a related device, her characteristic irony, to highlight the incongruity of everyday household phrases such as “brown n’ serve” or “ran out of tuna,” as they are placed side by side with more elegant metaphors such as “smooth as a young stone-bathing serpent.” One moment the heart is plunged “deep/ among the ice-cubes,” and in the next it rests “in its crystal sheath, not breathing,” as the language ricochets from the mundane to the (almost) sublime. Through it all, the reader is aware of the speaker’s pain.