The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)