what is amazing

Heather Christle

Wesleyan University Press


Thursday, October 25th, 2012

In her third book in four years, Heather Christle asks the right question and has the sense to leave it rhetorical. What is amazing is indeed what packs the crowds into the stadium, as opposed to what is sincere, or labored, or beautiful. There’s a risk to the boastful edge to the title, though—better come through with some astonishment, or the reader will be left thinking “what indeed.” Fans of her strong collections from Octopus will not be disappointed. New and skeptical readers, though, may be put off by a vagueness to this new work (or what’s just as likely, the remaining work on hand). For instance, the go-for-the-kill endings of her best poems are gone here, replaced by deflating trombone-slide non-sequiturs. Even her longest-standing supporters may be bothered by Christle’s mix-and-match indifference to memorable lines and experiences, or for that matter, how difficult it can be to tell her poems apart from each other.

The problems with her new book grow out of the strengths of her previous one. In poem after poem in The Trees The Trees, Christle grabs for attention and gets it. Somebody wants something, makes you dizzy, and leaves you wanting more. Will is half of the best time-honored lyric strategy and her tactics are up-to-date (self-consciousness is the trickier other half). One gambit is to declare who the speaker is —a “real bear,” a monster (half-hedgehog), a cat, a handbag, a system. Each speaker sounds much like the others, true, but each has her own wishes and limits, and there usually turns out to be something specific and recognizably important to most humans that motivates the speaker to identify with, say, a handbag:

I am a handbagI am the kind of handbag
nobody weeps intoexcept for when I went to the
ten-year reunionthen everyone wanted to weep
into mebecause we have no jobsand we have
no health insuranceso also we can’t have any

(“The Actual Future”)

It’s not all biology-and-economics-are-destiny, either:

I have a new enemyhe is so good-lookinghere
is a photographof him in the snowhe is in the
snowand so is the photoI put it there because
I hate himand because it is always snowing

There are a few poems in the second or third person, at least one in the first person plural, but it’s will will will driving these poems, leading Christle to relate these short, brutal, often cathartic situations (wouldn’t call them stories). She’s absorbed the main lesson of Dean Young’s work, which is that you can put just about anything in a poem if you talk fast enough and throw a few life and death sucker punches along the way. For example, “Happy Birthday to Me” begins, “I know where I’m going to die.” Not the more familiar concern *when,* but *where.* It works. You don’t find elevated language or the development of character over time, but you do get the satisfaction of listening to someone iterate their loves and hates, the eternal delay of recognizing the one in the other bringing with it the promise of more and more of these satisfactions.

As long as will holds out, that is. The problem with Christle’s new work is that it sounds like extended dance remixes of punk songs; it can probably be done but the virtues of intensity and brevity have to be replaced by other virtues. One possible replacement is the music of repetition. Where the pieces in The Trees usually get to the point in between eight and fifteen lines, the poems in what is amazing generally run longer and get to the point seldom. More parodic description, less knowing where one is going to die. Christle eschews traditional punctuation for the first half of the book, though she leaves capital letters to indicate where sentences begin. The poems feel fatigued and distracted:

As captain of the flowers I tell the flowers Look alive
and they listen They have evolved like an ear I have evolved   
like a piano

(“Such a Lovely Garden”)

Why an ear and a piano? No obvious reason. But then this poem comes at the end of the book’s first section, which opens with a poem that uses the word “captain” four times:

This is a wall of great intensity and furious
it kind of hums yellow and hums
green and never shall it hum purple Captain
when will you relieve me The wall
I love at night is huge and warms me
like a caterpillar or bag but do I also
have a family Captain or is the wall
the only shelter I have known

(“The Seaside!”)

There’s more humming in the poem, and in the book: “The Angry Faun,” which comes halfway through, ends with the deer of the title complaining that “All around me angels / hum their wretched hum.” That poem starts with the deer declaring “I am so angry / I am a faun / I don’t know why I am angry.” Turn back to “The Seaside!” and you get a similar question:

and furious
why and humming brightly why Why
is all the beauty in the wall and not
in me Captain

Turn forward a few pages and find that “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef” begins with the assertion that “People love to clean their ears and I love people.” A few pages later, “No Light and No Hands” ends:

In the daytime I was a hole
but at night I could be nothing if I wanted
A wakeful part of nothing with an ear

By the time we come to the captain of the flowers in “Such a Lovely Garden,” we’ve been hearing about captains and ears for a while (flowers too). This subliminal return of key phrases should be as satisfying as symphonic music, but instead it feels unplaceably samey, like a broken pantoum. This goes on throughout the book; animals and colors come up the most; light, love, nature, houses and feeling repeat as well. About halfway through the book the hypnotic repetition starts to sound like a comment on itself:

The spider he is confused
b/c I am not killing him
only moving him outdoors
When I die I do not want
to feel confused
No I would rather feel clarity
like I am a pool
and death a chlorine tablet
I want it to feel
not like I am dying
but am being transferred
to the outside

(“The Spider”)

The amazing urgency of Christle’s early work—and we’re talking about a book published in 2011, by the way (“fuck itlet’s become / caterpillarsor uncontrollable blazeslet’s go set / ourselves alight”)—has slipped into a passive wish to be carried. This too could feel urgent, but it doesn’t. I admire the line about the chlorine tablet but can’t forgive the “I am a pool” setup, even as Christle commits to it and carries it through to the end of the poem. It just feels like a wacky distraction, something you’d write to get a good grade on an assignment to write an imitation of our period style.

This is a shame—Christle has a few bons mots at the ready: “It is the nature of things / to be used in some other way” is smart, as is a description of aging as “A long life / lived slowly / in the company / of all our mistakes.” That Christle shows up intermittently, though. She closes the book with an update of Yeats’s Cuchulain, speaking of the ocean, that:

when the idea
of people is over we will
walk right back in there
and make some jokes
toward commanding the waves
like we are long-dead kings
with a knack for rhetorical gesture
and that is how the ocean
will remember us I think

(“All Things Bright and Beautiful”)

The poem owes about as much to Yeats, though, as it does to the Anglican hymn that shares its title. The lines about rhetorical gesture, like the wish quoted above for death to be a chlorine tablet, are good enough to suggest that what this book needed was more time. Only something like a rush to market could have led Christle to invite comparison to work universally acknowledged to have changed the art for the better.

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3 Responses to “what is amazing”

  1. Querelle Says:

    One of the most overrated poets in recent memory.

  2. Katherine Liddy Says:

    I enjoyed this review but am not convinced by the evaluation. I gather that the poems are vague and samey, disappointingly underworked and lacking the aggressive urgency of the poet’s earlier works. I don’t know about the earlier books but, to me, the excerpts you quote all seem quite charming, distinct from one another and very clear. Maybe you should have quoted more bad bits!

    Three things:

    1) The allusions to Yeats and to Whitman rather seem like playful mockery and rejection of the poet’s perceived societal duty to declaim for the ages. This fits with the intimate, casual, ambivalent tone throughout.

    2) Why not a piano and why not an ear? It seems like a good simile to me; a piano demands an ear’s attention and the captain demands the flowers’ attention. “Evolved” seems like a more whimsical metaphor in this context but whimsical

    3) A faun is not a deer. It is a rustic forest god.

  3. R.B. Glaser Says:

    Great Book!

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