Mary Jo Thompson

Mary Jo Thompson’s work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2011 and Another and Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals including, FieldBeloit Poetry JournalRHINOIndiana Review, Carolina QuarterlyGreat River ReviewSows Ear Poetry Review, and Minnesota Monthly, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Stunt Heart is the winner of the 2016 Backwaters Prize.

Books by Mary Jo Thompson for the Backwaters Press

Author: Mary Jo Thompson 
Format: Paperback, 90 pages
ISBN: 978-1935218463
Published: August 2017

Buy This Book: Amazon

In Stunt Heart, Mary Jo Thompson’s debut collection, a female gaze locates the ironies inside the subjects of marriage and death, loneliness and love, speaking and silence. The title plays on both sick hearts and circus tricks, and appropriately, these poems are direct, personal, and disarmingly emotive. Look at the end of the first poem, “Says Penelope,” where the speaker suddenly veers to “Newsflash: I sleep- / walk.” These stark moments of admission are used to perfection in the centerpiece sonnet series, “Thirteen Months,” the collection’s highlight. Distilled emotion over the illness and death of an estranged husband ranges in tone from the dark humor that compares the marriage to a used car to the elegiac imagery of protecting the family garden from frost. The shock of seeing the deceased in his casket looking like a cross between Clark Gable and Dracula seasons the collection, recurring in ruminations on the various ways a body is prepared at death and the story of a mother who dies while sneezing. Although no one brings back the dead by writing poetry, in Stunt Heart, Thompson revisits them with credible humor and tough dispatches from bedrooms, graveyards, and hospital hallways. Thompson’s Stunt Heart jukes, dodges, and prays while muscling through all manners of demise and in the process reveals how one can turn grief into speech, art into grieving.

Praise for Stunt Heart

I admire the hard precision of these sad and humorous poems, whose central concern is the confusion of death with marital love. For me, this theme culminates in the powerful sonnet sequence “Thirteen Months” (published in Best American Poetry). Here form imitates feeling as Mary Jo Thompson’s sonnets expand and contract like a stunt heart beating. I also admire the patient work of language throughout this collection–language that is always striving toward truth and the controlled magic of poem-making.

––Henri Cole

Maybe what we conceive of as the heart is really the attentiveness we bring to our own lives.  In poems that are as intense in their candor as in their craft, Mary Jo Thompson’s attention is fearless, vulnerable, and gorgeous.  Stunt Heart surveys the heart’s desires and its failings, and finds a world where the past is “helixed inside us” and “crows are loud, incessant.”  Here, there is no escaping grief, but there’s no escaping joy, either.  Unabashed even in the face of pain, Thompson keeps reminding us of the heart’s, and poetry’s, great stunt: “We will talk to the end / in that way love // has taught us.”

––Rick Barot

Selected Poems from Stunt Heart

Memorial Day

A in alone is a sound known as schwa—
a slight uh we make with our tongue low and level,
a common hum. In old Hebrew schwa stood
for letters not noted. Schwa, written e,
but upside down—remember? You probably
learned it on a first grade chart. But that’s not
important. It’s how schwa is spoken: just pretend
that I’m listening for your admiration,
for an unstressed us. I hold my breath, wet lips
barely open, then out your mouth it runs:
uh, uh—affair—your schwa, so ancient and
correctly pronounced, far back in the throat.
Say it again: affair, affair—now more
smoothly. Watch the syllabification.

In the Unlikely Event

At the airport on the way to your funeral
we hurry past dark gift shops. I notice

one carries our favorite labels – Hot to Trot
and Ice Queen. I’m wearing a purple life

vest with lapel pin. My Ex, I practice
in the bathroom mirror. Too young.

On board every sore-throat is coughing out
danger like ice-hearted drizzle. Our children

squabble. I pop an aspirin gum, glad to have
checked the baggage all the way through.

Start-up engines jitter my window. I want
to know our chances for tree-top clearance,

and what is hauling us skyward, restless,
with you all sheepish out there on the wing.