“That Tree Loves You”: A Review of The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle
“I understand/ two categories one of objects the other of force” says the speaker in “Things We Might Try,” toward the end of Heather Christle’s substantial second full-length collection of poems The Trees The Trees (Octopus, 2011). Christle’s new volume has a grandness that expands away from her popular first book The Difficult Farm (also Octopus, 2009) and her recent chapbook, The Seaside! from Minutes Books (2010). A kind of linguistic physics investigates these “categories” throughout the collection with an unfussy broadness that ultimately tests the very idea of categories, both in poetic form and content. A flip through reveals that all the poems generally adhere to one rectangular, window-like shape, with spaces scattered within lines. With this frame of visual representation, Christle’s poems use techniques more akin to those of landscape painting than the typical, confessional quasi-portraiture of her generation—both presenting and representing the more playful world beyond the laborious myth of artist-as-externalizer of majestic inner states. Instead, these poems “launch sideways,” parallel to the world, not out of it or at it, with Christle’s signature bright devotion.
Reflected in the epigraph from Serbian poet Aleksandar Ristović (“I don’t care/ about the flowers, which I merely invented/ to give myself another reason to address you”) is the speaker’s attitude towards us, which is not going to be any of the fashionable poetic postures of our moment. And how refreshing it is to not meet speakers who want so desperately to be frightening, predictably odd, cutely ironic, plaintively sad-eyed, fraudulently intellectual, or some combination thereof. Where Christle’s previous collection called out its fixed light note with almost demented conviction and fearlessness, like the best kind of first book, this more complex collection skips right past the New Sincerity and back to what feels like the old sincerity of pre-Modernism, sans artifice. As the speaker in “This is Calamity Hello” hopes: “like a tree without wind thinking I’ll/ just keep moving myself.”
Secondly, and more importantly, the epigraph points to the transparency of Christle’s poems. Acknowledging the invention of images like flowers only as an excuse for address (“the vital/ thing’s to make a little noise”), Christle waves off illusionism by anticipating the trick of representation and exposing it plainly. She does so without vitriol, not as a “project” of tone but a natural extension of an intellect certain that objects do not clarify the world, particularly not as poetic images. Rather than demand significance from objects, she lets the paradox of their dual nature as signs and signifiers simply exist, as the double in the book’s title implies. Christle uses metaphor in this collection to create a parallelism between objects and their prototypes; as the speaker says in “Outnumbered”: “I will have created a little impossibility/ that’s all I need a way in and then to unfold/ like a bat.”
For example, the tree Christle regularly returns to throughout the book can be seen, as the epigram implies, as a body-turned-portal, a requirement for sensation/information but not necessarily as an object itself. While post-gender arguments might apply to this mode of address, they need not be rehearsed here in order to recognize the primary humanness that is Christle’s origin point, and a clue to what Dara Weir called the pure “generosity” of her aesthetic. She uses a tree as a prototype tree, not in some Deep Image archetypal ritual, but as a suggestion, in the same way any one particular piece of art is a stand-in for Art itself, the ineffable. The layerlessness of the speaker’s psyche as evidenced by these images is not simple nor childish as some claimed in reviews of Christle’s first book (and certainly not the vapid “sexy parrot” one reviewer had made her into), but perhaps an attempt to approach the singularity of personhood.
The body, then, is a conduit, but rightly fragmented into pathways to sensation (“here come/ my galloping arms”; “I know my eyeballs move if I press/them”; “you can keep/ my hand as long as you need it”). In the end, that singularity might reduce to the image of a baby, which Christle uses often. Surprisingly, and without force, her baby seems to see us and enjoy it, as in “Landscaping” where the speaker renders a baby toy-like, by not objectifying it, but our attention toward it:
Ultimately with awareness, the speaker admits, “my/ baby is a feeling I have about myself” (“About a Whale”). In “Plus One,” the speaker begins by stating “I lost my phone I am using the baby monitor/ instead” which is “in the flowers.” Again, the baby (or “baby monitor”) is spoken through; could there be any result but this capacious, lo-fi reverence for the universe? An attitude suggesting a trace of the Romantic sublime, particularly in the natural images.
This trace adjusts like a somewhat mystified tourist into the urban field of this collection without approaching the morass of actual surrealism. As applied to contemporary poetry, the claim that uses of the term surrealism (or easy proclamations of “soft-surrealism” or with some other modifier) are generally firm misunderstandings of Surrealism is a point well-elaborated elsewhere. It suffices to say that as an artistic goal, Surrealism sought direct outlets for the subconscious, the asocial, the private–essentially, the dream. Opposite of a dream, Freud notes, is the joke, clearly social, intelligible, and connective. Some of the credibility of Christle’s poems springs from this conviviality, which bears her unapologetic optimism about the meaninglessness of the physical world and releases her imagery from labor and into illumination.
The very first poem “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring” is one of the best, and quickly sketches the whole field the book covers, where the speaker is “having a little fun/ not much fun at all” and “everything is always/ happening and not just for show I want to/ show you something I don’t care what I want you to look where I say.”
And without threats or glamour the reader wants that too. How can ordinary joy be interesting? How can writing succeed without zoomed-in sex, violence, tragedy, death? Perhaps Christle simply sidesteps the anxiety of attempting to impress imagery into service of the mind’s despair. Which is not to say there are not disasters or negative emotions described here, particularly in how her modest images quickly sketch the full panoply of intimacy (“your face is a room I /am resting in it”). This method of Christle’s very act of noticing becomes a panegyric of a regular world reviewed and re-viewed.
The tradition of fixed-form poems has more to do with Christle’s second category, “force,” than with objects, despite the obvious physicality of poetic shape-structures. Expression is mostly inimical to order, but objects/words must be ordered, and so here again Christle “solves” the paradox just by allowing it to exist. Christle’s poems in this book might appear at first like justified prose poems in narrow margins, but look again: attention to the line is piqued and not text-wrap determined. Spaces within lines function as ex-punctuation (ex- here as beyond) that holds her clauses together/apart like the resistance of two same-ended magnets. Within the line, space feels as skillfully performed as text, and in a manner that is exceptional among contemporary poets who seem largely disinterested in fixed forms, nonce or traditional, other than as a novelty or subject of spuriously lazy deconstructionism. What do the spaces intend, though? The meaning of the spaces creates perhaps a superimposition of meaning-ness, an energy or force, and then it might not be reasonable to separate such elements of expression without total dissolution, like the man-figure in “These People are Getting Together” who “forgets to vibrate and promptly falls/ apart.”
To apply the term “natural” to this collection implies, more than anything, a range or field of poetic being rather than a term of classification, and in that way there is a spottiness to mood–sometimes the speakers lose their patience and statements rise too energetically, like proud one-liners who’d rather shake free of the poems, other times the speakers flop onto their metaphorical sofas in utter despair a bit melodramatically, but they recover quickly, and without such instances the collection might otherwise stiffen and dim. Christle’s poems don’t have the impulse to reduce or summarize existence, and in this way, they remind us of what poems are best at: tracing poets, as in “Trying to Return the Sun,” in which the speaker claims:
To listen to a poet read her own work directly to you is to hear for yourself the right tone, if nothing else. To demonstrate this, Christle has set up a telephone line at (413) 570-3077 which anyone can call, July 1st through the 14th from approximately 10am to 6pm daily (except Tuesdays and Thursdays, which will end at 1pm), and hear her read a poem from this collection. With her third collection What Is Amazing already picked up by Wesleyan University Press, you will not want to miss this chance to hear her now.
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