“Cardiac Concussion with Delay” by Stephen Kampa

Stephen Kampa



According to Witness Protection
Program copy, they’ve never lost one
participant (who followed the rules),

but they have to say that—who’d accept
protection from a proven failure?
It’s all in the parentheticals:

a sure shortcut to bad behavior
is telling someone how to behave.
I’ve heard a superb urban legend

about a crook who relocated
and was almost immediately
gunned down when he got to town because

he disdained his bland new alias
and picked another, which was also
the name of a famous local snitch—

first henchman he met followed him home,
plugged him in the chest, and blew apart
the new life he’d failed to learn by heart.


I sat at a bar once with a girl
who’d been unceremoniously
dumped after a long affiancement,

and she described it as being kicked
in the chest by a horse. A heartthrob’s
the forerunner to a heartbreaker,

she said, and I forgave her her self-
pity, even though I was drinking
a beer right there beside her. I knew

about survival: she was lucky
not to have died from that blunt trauma.
(So much for her young German dreamboat.)

I thought to comfort her with Carruth’s
lines about the million abuses
hearts survive; I chose a science fact.

The best candidate for replacing
the human heart is the pig heart. For
some of us, this will be an upgrade.


I’d like to double-click on a new
life but know it wouldn’t overwrite
the old one. Maybe you think I’m just

joking as you imagine scrolling
through the titillating checkbox lists
of personal attributes you could,

through the miracles of an extreme
makeover and cheap gene therapy,
select—at last, the hair you’ve always

envied, the hazel eyes, the dream-job
or -wife, the childhood you never had,
and better yet, the fine character:

the patience, the grace, the selflessness—
of course, you can admit how absurd
this is … absurd, yes, but am I wrong?

Memory’s the chief mechanism
of providing us with a lifelong
sense of humility: as soon as

you’ve congratulated yourself on
your tasteful solo, you remember
all the times you overplayed, and right

as you acknowledge the lucent depths
of your compassion, you bump open
that heavy psychic drawer of trifled

hearts, your collection of amorous
gaffes, miscellaneous erotic
misdeeds—an arsenal of shameful

quasi-romantic panty antics!—
and charitable failures. Tell me
you wouldn’t want to pick a new life,

as you’d pick a mail-order bride or
genetically engineered baby,
when faced with the person your child-self

never imagined becoming yet
somehow became. You’re your own double—
convincing, sure, in the externals,

but fundamentally flawed in more
important respects, the ones that would
distinguish you from doppelganger

impostors with good improv lessons
and thick files of sure-fire you-isms—
you’re disguised as your better self,

and worst of all, you know why, without
thinking twice about it, you are not
who you meant on your best days to be:

With practice, anyone can master
sin, and most of us practice. I find
inattentiveness the easiest

place to start: you don’t try to sink to
new depths of peccancy, you simply
drift off on a little paper boat.


She said, He may not have invented
carelessness, but he perfected it.
Me, too: Carruth said the word survives,

not heart, although broken hearts do take
their sweet time killing you. Except when
it comes to cardiac concussions—

a kid gets hit with a hard line drive
to the chest, walks ten feet, collapses;
an amateur boxer takes one punch

perfectly placed, drops dead in seconds.
How telling that when I remembered
these incidents, I thought death could be

delayed by days or months: I pictured
a guy walking around aimlessly,
buying a gallon of milk, lost in

the familiar rooms of his life, not
thinking his ticker would give out. Like
a judge or gun, the heart has chambers.


And like a paper boat, the heart sinks,
for reasons of which, they say, reason
knows nothing—except the construction

best loved of logicians is the best
one for explaining why, bottom line,
the Witness Protection Program does

lose people: it follows. Given hearts
and Polaroids, playlists and enough
time, participants finally break

the rules: they talk to goons from back home,
they reconnect with lost loves, they’re found
floating face-down in scummy fishponds.

New names, new vocations, new front doors—
none of it matters when confronted
with that urge to escape their escape.

Call their longing an exit wound: it
follows. The hired gun will shoot the same
old man by shooting through the new one.

from Rattle #44, Summer 2014


Stephen Kampa: “The seed for this poem was a strange phenomenon I once read about known as a cardiac concussion, which I somehow misremembered as involving a substantial lag between a sharp blow to the chest and the victim’s subsequent heart failure. My misremembered version led me into a meditation about the way our heartbreak (and indeed all of our experience) follows us into whatever lives we try to lead thereafter, and these ideas dovetailed nicely with another piece of trivia: that the Witness Protection Program has never lost a participant—according to them—but with that one major caveat of participants having followed all the rules. From there, the poem accreted its layers of strange fact and memory and misinformation. I think that if the poem comes to a conclusion (and it may not be a poem’s job to do so), it has to do with what really follows us throughout our lives: not heartbreak, but our way of responding to it—in a word, our character.” (website)

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