What Is Amazing
A poet might have a deep and truthful scientific knowledge of how nature operates: how redwoods bloom and the like. But even a nature poem is not a biology textbook, and it details not facts, but opinions that as readers we absorb as facts, if only for a moment. A poem is the place to guess at the nature of nature. What does nature desire? What do spiders think about during down time, and what do humans actually think about fire? A poem is a forum for the poet to ask nature questions; sometimes a poem, or perhaps the poet, is confident enough to answer them.
But if the poem comes off sure of itself, arbitrarily so, then the readers won’t like it. That’s what a poet fears. Whose place is it to say she understands the workings of all nature? The people in our lives we view as stupid— perhaps they’re humble, they’re often great to party with—they are more likable than the arrogant brainiac, whose confidence in her intelligence makes it irrelevant whether she actually is. A poet certainly wants a happy medium. Publishing poems is a kind of social interaction, and the poet’s awareness of this is often tangible in the poems. By simply expressing how she is experiencing nature, and not claiming some great wisdom, she’s less likely to offend. How do you become a master, anyway?
What Is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press), the book of poems by Heather Christle, is overwhelmed by the world. The world occurs so phenomenally, that the only narcissism the poet commits is to speak of it at all. Christle’s poems in Part I of her book are captivated by nature, by mountains and swans and flowers—and though the speaker holds on to her autonomy, she can hardly focus on anything but the beauty around. The speaker begins the first poem, The Seaside!: “This is a wall of great intensity and furious / it kind of hums yellow and hums / green and never shall it hum purple Captain”. But despite her awe of this wall, she informs the captain of the ship: “I can tell you things I’m not a piece of foam”. It’s the minimum arrogance. Though she’s reacting to that nature which is so “humming brightly,” she certainly has the capacity to speak of it.
What Is Amazing, published on Valentine’s Day 2012, is Heather Christle’s third book, following The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011) and her debut, The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009). I had read The Difficult Farm earlier last year—though it was in parts too casual and not particularly vivid, it was hilarious, and I was watching something being invented. Christle often loaded her speech with humor and nuance that sounded like enjoyable real-life conversation. Of course, human conversation is often ineloquent, and the book had to suffer that. The poems were grand and deadpan, contemporary fables in which a human wanted very much to be animal, despite this world of nurses’ offices and news anchors. When I began reading What is Amazing, I was at first startled—something proclamatory was absent from Christle’s voice.
Human beings in this book are realizing themselves to be within nature, and it becomes clear that Christle is separating the two. In Amazing’s third poem, Teamwork Should Come From The Soul, she begins:
They were projecting a hologram onto my snowsuit
A hologram of nature A snowsuit of white
Nature was not moving but I was moving and that
was most of the plot We got good ratings
Nature is not moving— the speaker is. There is also a distinction between “They” and the speaker—whom throughout this review I will call Heather, and the poet I will refer to as Christle. Heather and They have a relationship like that of Producer and Reality Star, or Scientist and Test Subject. Heather is an experiment, dictated simultaneously by the other humans and by nature’s careless tundra. But these humans are collectively unified by their humanness; they are trying gradually to manipulate nature, that which is not human. “They” want to study nature for its benefits. Heather is simply enraptured.
Part I of Amazing is almost entirely void of standard punctuation. Except for the occasional exclamation point, the sentences escape from the speaker’s mouth uncontrollably, running into each other, and would be indistinguishable if not for capital letters. She begins Way out in the Country: “But how does it work I said Are there women / No women said the star I think it was talking”. This speedy rhythm has a short learning curve, and it explains Heather’s enthrallment with the world. If she were to speak too loudly, or slowly, or occupy too much space, the world might forgo her. Periods imply a confidence, and this unpunctuated style, in any book, will always risk a lack of confidence— lines or the whole poem might speed by too fast to end resonantly, or with an overwhelming realization. And while this does happen very much in Christle’s lines, they end instead with another kind of resonance: possibility. Some examples from the ends of lines in No Light and No Hands:
Line 6: “It was in the field”
Line 8: “In the daytime I was a hole”
Line 9: “I could be nothing if I wanted”
This field disembodied by night is a magical, natural phenomenon, and she doesn’t claim to know what’s going on. Heather is aspirational. She is confident in her wants and in what she’s saying, but she’s only at the beginning of her tasks, her understanding of her worldly potential.
It’s enjoyable to read. The speaker is youthful, and coming into herself. In reading the earnestness of her expressions, I felt both a nostalgia and an excitement for a more appreciative future.
But Heather Christle is aware of that the language is simple. It’s part of a tradition, to revere the sky and the flowers, and to pull it off now takes a contemporary wit. She must prove the poetry isn’t a cliché, that it is not the garden-loving poetry ubiquitous throughout the past 500 years. The poetry in What Is Amazing is certainly complex. The feeling found in the words is that a human is seeing the world as it is, but only as much as a human can see. That complex self-awareness is there, only softly, in the tone. But while the poetry is complex, words like morning, star, garden, and crab, are of the most basic and automatic vocabulary. While Christle’s language can appear to be made of simplicity and perfection, as in poetry like “I lie down again on these yellow flowers they / will teach me that my goldenness is dim”, we’re not intended to absorb it as simple. Instead, Christle wants us to believe in the rebirth of something pure and simple, in the context of our modern time. In that sense, our love of Heather’s earnestness is as willfully ignorant as her earnestness.
Despite her grateful amazement with nature and its details, nature is relevant to Heather because of her own place in it. She is not absent from nature— her body is on fire, she wants it to be winter—and she’s not just passive— she is lying down on daffodils and crushing them. She expresses that in the self-conscious and wicked funny To Kew by Tram. It’s the epitome of how Heather’s looking at the world: she’s fascinated by what holes she’s making (and even has the option to make!), where they are, and that “When I return as a giraffe the holes / will have to change”.
Christle has established that the speaker is in awe, and so now she gradually infuses a confidence into the poetry, experimenting, and asserting things, which is bold. There exists a certain poetic formula… it connects, metaphorically or not, two concepts usually not associated. It goes something like “X is Y,” “X is like Y.” “How like an island we are in love”, she says in How Like an Island, and then, “An island never sleeps”. And in More Swans and More Women: “A swan makes a bad pet It is a murderer / but very beautiful just like a woman”. This is gorgeous and deconstructively aware of swan clichés. But these assertions of “how things are” are purely statements, based more in thought conjecture than a realistic speaker’s story—created more in the brain than the real world. Thus the poems can feel “too poetic.” A reader does want those realizations, to read something new and brilliant: to learn the world through the unity of two separated concepts. An island as a lover— it is good poetry! But this structurally simple formula is used often in the book (and in poetry everywhere), so much so that the poems’ wisdom can feel basic. It is too linearly constructed.
Christle weaves in the story to balance the thought conjecture. The speaker continues in Swans, “I was very safe but I forgot / how to talk and when I came home / people could not see I was a woman”. Many lines in Amazing, like these, I read and could only feel: so what? The words are so frankly simple— and the ideas within them are refreshing, airy and even confident— but equally as simple. At least I was kept in anticipation, but even at a poem’s ending, often the words contained only mystery, open-endedness, a simplicity that promised something else was coming. Surely the author does this intentionally— using simplicity as a very modern subversion of that popular poetry, the dense and talkative stuff. A poem can be anticipatory, an exaltation of the possible; certainly a reader can sympathize that state of mind. But there are distinct gaps, where Christle is about to explain the world, nature, herself, and then she doesn’t. The words speed by and into the next poem.
Part II begins its poems in the setting of an apartment. And even after these, the poems here are united by their immersion in the man-made, the human. The first poem is We Are Not Getting Anywhere, beginning:
On the telephone there was a new message
It could have been anyone It was the shark
Heather wishes she could help the shark outside, who says he is dying. But the comfort and security of the home makes the outside, and the effort it’d take to join it, seem difficult and distant, and only vaguely regrettable. No longer does Heather feel “Oh no love and all alive in the garden” as she exclaimed at the close of Part I. Now her poems study the home as a shelter, away from the intimidatingly passionate nature. Heather’s fine with this separation— she says in Saturday, “We could see our domain Our domain glowing / a lavender glow I did not mind”. Inside is a place where the speaker has her own space and time, so she can feel safer about philosophizing. She couldn’t do this in the garden, where nature distracted her and rushed her, growing much more confidently than she.
The poems become determined now; they mark the speaker’s rising will, and her desire to do the right thing—to love the right thing. It Feels Like It Is on Purpose is a wonderful poem, in which the speaker is spiritedly aware of her mission, despite her clearly domestic melancholy. “When today I leave the house / I hope someone will see me / and use me as an example / of a person not thinking”. The voice here is quivering, hopeful, like Piglet’s, and this sort of brave resolution is made only more truthful by the self-awareness that punctuates that same voice. Heather is realizing her capabilities in hypothesis, that she can mentally experiment. The lines no longer run into each other, but are usually enjambed at the clause or end of a sentence. Heather is comfortable enough with assertion to enjamb her lines where they naturally punctuate themselves: (in And Then We Clap Ourselves Together), “My shadow is of a staircase / but I am just a moat / I am looking at a man / and I am looking at his shadow”.
The last poem of Part II is the title poem, What Is Amazing. It begins,
The man thinks he is a man
but he is a candle.
Who will tell him?
Going into the poem, I expected the same shaken wonder of nature that defined Part I (and, somewhat sarcastically, Part II)— a discovery of the talented and beautiful gardens and oceans. But Christle knows the reader expects that, and What Is Amazing is a poetic Fuck That. She explains it deadpan, with the book’s first periods, how we humans and animals are crowded in a dark and unsafe room. We should expect little from the future, or even from the completion of our goals. This poem is not in first-person, but rather second, so it feels less like a continuation of the character’s voice than a new narrator—a poet, treating this hypothesis on animal nature as her thesis. “Some animals // are friendlier than others / like roosters”, she says, one of many instances of a poetic “fact,” certain and explanatory as would be a line found in the Wikipedia page for roosters. Perhaps, some poems just have to be certain, and suffer the didacticism. Many of the lines are gorgeous, elementary revelations: “What is amazing is how / the animals won’t stop sleeping. / It’s like sleeping is where / they hide their goals.” But the poetry feels not founded in a real place, but only in itself, the poet’s brain. It is a conceptual explanation of how to survive, but with no credentials actually earned in the physical world. Thus this poem feels like the assertion poem that Part I feared in its youth.
Finally, Part III is the reemergence. After bedrest comes the garden again, and Heather is tasting the outside world with the caution of having lived intellectually. She begins with the poem What Will Grow Here, “another miracle / is to forget”— the inside world, that is, and its thought provoking but suffocating biome. The poems have a calm elation of humans and nature, but from a speaker who understands now why the outside world is amazing. Without it, humans lock into their own minds; within it, human beings can use their consciousness to not just think, but experience. Parking Lot uses the archaic “O” with the intention again of reclaiming a Pure Love of things: “O face wound bleeding profusely! / O pressure applied by the quick-thinking cloud!” The whole poem is in Shakespearean vernacular, which is fun, but Christle delivers a more important, contemporary ending: “You are the ruined thing / and the world is what loves to repair you”.
Throughout this book, the ends of poems often lack enigma, and resonance—the feeling of a miracle having just happened. It’s the result of Christle’s simple and unpunctuated words, and certainly reading the poems was enjoyable. In their most confident murmurs, they were uplifting.
But there was not a moment that disturbed me, transferred into me with such an inevitability, that I had to put the book down. It’s not that the poetry was light, or even small; it only felt easy. Part III’s poems felt the most confident and trustworthy of all. Towards the end, Christle focuses intensely on the sky, the clouds, moon and sun, moving beyond the earthly gardens and into her realization of how far nature goes. Heather, our speaker, closes some of the ends she left open. She begins A Long Life with a resonance a long time coming: “It was like this.” Christle is vitally aware of our thoughts, what a rich sadness we have in them, but her exploration of them goes not far beyond the realization that they exist. She closes Under the Moon the Knocking with “Oh soldiers your children are glowing / at such a great distance / they seem more like thoughts”. This is a devastating connection, that distant children are both as small and mind-based as thoughts. However the word “thoughts” rings out like only a reference, almost delved into, if it weren’t for the speaker’s separation from them.
The poem Route 109 amazed me. It’s immensely spirited, and has revelations, one after another, on what we don’t notice when driving. In Heather’s voice, or Christle’s, perhaps we hear a human that has driven, just as we have; separated from all of nature by only glass.
I travel all day with a window before me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
glass is the part I don’t see
while all day apparent the sky
What Is Amazing was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2012. My sincere thanks to Heather Christle, whose website should be explored for things about her.
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