Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heather Christle, _What Is Amazing_

LLL's HIGH REGARD for the work of Heather Christle is already established (see July 9, 2010 and March 22, 2012) and her new collection What Is Amazing bumps it up a couple of notches.

The book is divided into three sections, which seem to me formally and thematically distinct.  The poems of the first section tend to longer lines and do almost entirely without punctuation (there are a few ampersands). In the second section, the lines are shorter, two or three beats, still largely punctuation-less, but the shorter lines quicken the rhythm a bit.  The last poem of the second part--the title poem, as it happens--switches to couplets, and periods and question marks start cropping up. Couplet poems dominate in part three, with one or the other line occasionally stair-stepped.

This was lovely.  The formal unity of The Trees, the Trees was enjoyable, but it's good to have some variety, too.

I do not think the poems were grouped strictly according to formal characteristics, though.  The first section's poems most frequently find themselves regarding the natural world (not exclusively, mind you), the second section's most frequently address other people (ditto), and in the third section the poems seem to be about...phenomena, we might say: people, plants, skies, air, celestial events, all at once.

This is a bit loony, but I almost think there's a Blakean tri-partedness going on as well.  The first group of poems have a songs-of-innocence quality, partly from a somewhat childlike use of repetition ("when X is small X is very very very / very small") and the breathless, unpunctuated momentum of the rhythm.  The speaker's attitude towards daffodils, dahlias, trees, moss, et al. is not all that na├»ve but is  quizzical ("but nature why don't you say something / it scares people when there's dead air") and at some points even like Maurice Sendak's Max: "As captain of the flowers I tell the flowers Look alive / and they listen [...]".

Part two--songs of experience.

and I come to you
with bark in my throat
and crime on my sleeve
and I come to you
full of my bones

I come to you, that is, liable to have rough, abrasive stuff come out of my mouth?  Capable of wishing and inflicting harm? Carrying the baggage we all carry by virtue of being born animals?

"And what if I love the wrong thing / You can't take it back / It can't be recycled / Not like paper / Not like this dark glass".

Or-- "But I still want to tell you a story / This one time I lived in the forest / It was magic I cried on my feet".  Things have happened to this speaker.  "Ten years later I was a woman."  Yep.

Northrop Frye writes of a "second innocence" in the visionary Blake, an experienced innocence, and something like that state we glimpse from the corner of our eye in the third section.  As with all visionary poetry, "What I can say represents what I cannot" (46).  We veer into the ecstatic ("what caterwauls, what loops the world // gives us, gives us eagles!"), into the obscure ("A person is layers of instants / covered in dirty blue feathers"), into sentences we want to write on the sky--

You are the ruined thing
and the world is what loves to repair you

--the second innocence of the repaired.

This is going on too long, but I would also like to praise Christle's ability to come up with tradition-invoking syntactical inversions in wholly surprising places and in wholly effective ways.

For instance, the last line of "An Activity": "and quiet like a prison yard when breaks the afternoon".

And the last two lines of "And Then We Clap Ourselves Together":

Oh sweet is the rain not arriving
and green is my overdrawn heart

And the "hum"--why all the humming (3, 31, 49)?

And oh, how I hope and pray that the Henri of "For Henri" is Bergson: "we live in the middle and so little in fact / seems to end."


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