The Volta: Friday Feature

What Is Amazing by Heather Christle. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

cover of What Is Amazing

Reviewed July 13, 2012 by Daniel Moysaenko.

Close on the heels of her previous full-length book, The Trees The Trees, Heather Christle’s most recent collection seems to invite comparison. But the only relevant comparison I could fashion is that, expectedly, What Is Amazing acknowledges and surpasses Christle’s older work. This fact renders the book a self-aware study in maturation, or movement at least, more satisfyingly careful and epiphanic than her earlier publications.

The first section of What Is Amazing will feel comfortable for those familiar with Christle’s poetry. Once again, the poems here are short blocks without punctuation, where clauses bleed into each other to create double-backed chimeras: “How like an island we are in love encouraging / moss & like an island we are barely moving Just / to exist takes much concentration & like an island / in love we have a house in our two imaginations…” But more salient than form in part one is Christle’s tone, pacing, and diction. Largely similar to her previous work, the speaker is excitable, whimsical, and employs a sense of child-like wonder, declaring, “People love to clean their ears and I love people / very much They are everywhere! Every single / thing I love I love for windows only…” While one might dismiss such lines as naïve sentimentality, Christle complicates them through a kind of doubleness. What does the exclamation mark add to “They are everywhere!”? Is the speaker’s awe simple delight, or is she confounded? Much of What Is Amazing led me to question what kind of amazement the speaker lives in. Among such lighthearted, comical lines as “People think when something doesn’t talk it is interesting / I am always talking and never interesting,” which almost replicates a child’s reasoning through tautology toward logic, the reader also stumbles into the more starched and profound—a passage in response to two lovers in public:

…It’s hard not to be them

to be like a fallen off piece of the mountain

to have traveled so far and still without darkness

to see the whole solar system The houses

pulling up from the soil and to want

the stars out now To want the stars out now

like a linen bag over the head.

What Is Amazing, like many organisms, develops gradually. With the second section, Christle gravitates toward the lyrical and epiphanic, leaning away from her typical palate of the surreal, conversational, heavily juxtaposed, and flippant. Here, significantly shorter lines lengthen each poem, and typographical caesuras mid-line indicate sentence divisions. Although formal appearances distinguish these poems from those in part one, they are largely similar in content, shifting, often in the same stanza, from jocular or surreal (“I am so angry / I am a faun”) to grave and more immediately humanistic. “I hope I do not drown / as I have seen happen / to hundreds of spiders,” Christle writes, “b/c I love to swim / and to drown would / wreck swimming / for a long time.” These lines are amusing in their ability to stand up to sobering terror and chuckle illogically. Already handling the subject with humor, the speaker attempts to exclude herself from death in a more serious manner:

I know that death is a tower

standing in the middle of the town

And the tower receives

many visits

And there’s no one

but spiders inside.

I sway between Christle’s spheres of sweet and dark in part two, finally arriving at the title poem, which ushers one into the next stage of development. Though poems leading up to “What Is Amazing” contain elements of grimness, the title poem hunkers below a cloud that one struggles to regard lightly. “That man thinks he is a man / but he is a candle. // Who will tell him?,” the first section of the poem begins, “He will be destroyed // and his wife will be on fire. / Life is tough for that man especially.” One may point to the casual “life is tough” as evidence of the speaker’s inclination to acknowledge then sweetly disregard gravity, but it seems the colloquial phrase only emphasizes the horror, offering an artifact of ease to measure and solidify the inescapable, inexplicable defeat. And most astonishing to me is that in reading Christle’s darker poems I do not feel overwhelmed or buried; instead, the speaker (along with the reader) transcends the situation, leaving only the subjects behind. “What Is Amazing” roundly knocks me down, shocking me with how good it feels to be properly hit:

What is amazing is how

the animals won’t stop sleeping.

It’s like sleeping where

they hide their goals.

One’s goal in life sounds like

a match put out in water.

You might not know you’ve done it

but for the sudden lack of light.

For me, the title poem is the most resounding reason to buy and read this book. But it does not end there; part three carries the reader further into Christle’s maturation.

Here, her recognizable blocks of text fall away into sparse couplets and lines indented across the page. More shocking, however, are the poems’ severity and palpable revelation, which in previous poems was avoided as if to leave the connections and significance up to the reader. Christle writes, “another miracle is / to forget // in the garden to find / nothing with a name,” letting one drift through an uncharacteristic and self-aware abyss of abstraction, where nothing has a name, where one is beckoned “to pass on through the green / as if it were an hour.” As What Is Amazing closes down, the lines slow, losing some of the immediacy of previous poems and instead favoring meditation spurred by the concrete or the concrete conjured to clarify meditation. For instance, the speaker intones as if commanding, “to wake to find the day quite flattened / to pull it over yourself like a lead apron // from under which you will not rise again.” I find myself drifting through the speaker’s thought, bumping against islands of worldly detail. And in a way, Christle’s shift in the third part of the book seems a logical progression from earlier surreal monologues raised atop spirited reflection. Here, those considerations of human relation, death, sex, loneliness, awe, ruination, and persistence rise to the surface.

Even the diction and pacing lead me to concentrate on pure thought rather than narrative or even image: “The declaration of light as read by shadows / and the leaf the wind lifts in an elegant betrayal.” The quick, conversational ease of earlier poems for the most part surrenders to a more thoroughly packed speech, to that tender, contemplative utterance of old age. The frenzy of earlier work has succumbed to a kind of trance. But despite the growing maturity or movement in part three, moments of whimsy remain alongside this new, overt reach toward epiphany. The speaker still lingers on the ineffable with fresh awe, “That morning when weather erased the mountain / and I kept talking into the white like an American.”

No matter the formal or tonal development, nor the general gravity or deceleration toward the end of What Is Amazing, Christle’s poems never lose their daring investigatory impulse. Whether more direct and outwardly engaging, indirect and quietly meditative, childish, critical, or dumbfounded, the speaker shows herself to be living in this world. Along with her, I feel active and acted upon, watching images and situations whirl around me as if by their own volition. But Christle affords her world a strange sense of agency, as our perception of and baffling place within it becomes primary:

I gave my head a terrible shake

After that I do not know

what became of me

but of the world

became a wet and tasseled place.

Reading What Is Amazing, I sense that while glancing away from what’s in front of me or not surveying widely enough, something critical will already have changed into ruin or wonder or both.

* * *

Daniel Moysaenko hails from Cleveland, lives in Chicago, and is a reviews editor for The Volta.