2020 Best Literary Arts – Kelsea Chen

flight of the red bird

what you feel in your chest is not a heart,
but a bird on thunderous wings.

their feathers drip a crimson hue,
scraping the inside of an ivory cage,
a mighty, rhythmic song,
echoes off chamber walls,
their energy palpable,
rippling under vermillion plumes,
they ride the systolic gales,
through vena cavas,
coasting past right atriums,
downdrafts of diastole take them past tricuspids,
to alight on right ventricles,
but in a moment they’re gone again,
taking to the air,
riding the curve of the pulmonary artery,
as they chase the lungs,
the sky opening up,
as they wheel and circle,
oxygen coating the vanes,
of their scarlet plumage,
wings regain strength,
warm gusts push them up,
but they’re diving down again,
dipping into the left atrium,
reverberating calls,

off mitral valves,
ricochet off left ventricle walls,
a powerful swing of ruby wings,
and they’re climbing,
up the aorta,
rising until they,
they barrel through our,
arteries and arterioles,
charging along our capillaries,
soaring amongst the viens,
oxygen slides from their feathertips,
running off like rivulets of water,
raining down like spring storms,
breathing life into every cell,
their path instinctual,
as they flow and flock as one,
guided only by stars,
chasing only the feeling of life,
pulsing just below the surface.

what you feel in your chest is not a heart,
but a bird on thunderous wings,
a beat of a heart,
a beat of a wing.

flight of the red bird

This year, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work in the Extracorporeal Life Support Lab (ECLS) as an undergraduate research student. The lab’s central focus is on developing and improving ECLS devices, which are, in essence, devices that reside outside the body and are capable of providing pulmonary and cardiac support to patients with cardiovascular conditions. The work they do is amazing, and one of the best aspects of being a member of this lab is having the chance to sit in and also participate in actual surgical procedures.

One of my first times in the OR, the team had just finished a sternotomy on a pig and the chest was fully opened up. They allowed me to get a closer look and it was the first time I’d seen a real, pumping heart, but it wasn’t what I expected. All the other organs surrounding it were practically frozen, but at the center of it all was the heart, beating almost violently; as if it wanted to escape the chest cavity. I thought it such an interesting juxtaposition, the aggressive nature of the heart versus how delicately and efficiently it functions. The heart itself is barely bigger than a fist, yet it has the strength to send gallons of blood throughout your body every day. It’s atriums and ventricles and valves are small tissues, but they function with such power and precision. It’s careful balance of brute energy and elegant efficiency are what keeps every living creature alive I found that notion inspiring.

This poem was inspired by the anatomy and physiology of the heart and the path our blood takes to oxygenate our bodies. It all began with the heart’s movement, almost aggressive and animalistic, yet, at the same time, the blood that flows through it is representative of freedom and flowing elegance. I thought this juxtaposition would be best symbolized by a bird, a creature that is strong and dynamic, but flies with beauty and grace.

As I thought more on the relationship between the heart and birds, I was able to create a really strong visual to guide my writing. I saw the path of vascularization, through the chambers and arteries and through the body, as the migratory path. I envisioned brilliantly colored birds and fast paced dynamic movements, all akin to how our hearts beat and blood flows. I played with the where the lines end to emphasize certain words and emotions throughout the piece to give the readers the most visceral experience possible. I wanted them to not only feel the bird’s flight, but also the rush of blood and the functional power of the heart.