Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Spoken and the Unspoken: Troubled Articulation and Evolving Selfhood in Heather Christle's What Is Amazing

by Anthony Fife

Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing (2012), published by Wesleyan University Press, reads like a treatise on what it means to be alone in the world.  Divided both physically and rhetorically into three equal but distinct, untitled sections, each one highlights a perspective on interpersonal relationships and selfhood.  Buoyed by rich imagery and highly concerned with form (or lack thereof), the collection is full of characters who, A) attempt to connect with those around them and, B) come to terms with their own identity.  The former, it turns out, is a far more daunting task than the latter.
The first section is equal parts whimsy and longing, like little fairy tales that crop up in the course of daily life.  Despite the inventive spatial setting, the characters themselves are unmoored, much like the book itself is unmoored by an overall lack of punctuation.  Despite these ever-present themes, however, it’s not a depressing read.  Not necessarily.  The collection is saved from the darkest of darks by the duality of fanciful but mundane settings and the tiny glint of hope that so often peeks, small but alive, from between the lines.
In “If You Go into the Woods You Will Find It Has a Technology,” the poem seems to say, “We are not coming together.  I cannot find you from here.”  Whereas the speaker, at first blush, is more or less competent and comfortable with their place in the world, the personified tree is not.  Flashing upon its LED sign messages that read, “grow stronger” and “fireworks effect,” the tree attempts but fails to connect, to convey anything profound or even articulate.  Christle writes, “The tree is the saddest prophet in history / but you don’t tell it that.”  How could you possibly bring yourself to tell it that?  It wants so desperately to connect.
Saying what we want to say is sometimes so difficult.  Even if we can say it, our message often gets lost.  Somewhere in the ether our words and feelings hang, balancing forever, and we know that they might not ever find a home.  The poem ends: the tree “can’t see you and it starts to cry.”
Of course, if the poem’s speaker can read sadness into words like “grown strong” and “fireworks display,” maybe they aren’t as secure as they’d have us believe.
The speaker in another poem in the first section, “Self-portrait with Fire,” is far less able, despite their best efforts, to don the mask of stoicism.  They are quite pitiful, in fact, in their need to explain themselves.  The pleading tone of the poem, of course, isn’t completely due to subject matter.  The rhetorical structure of the poem—it’s almost a confession—is also responsible for the urgency.  The speaker is coming clean after having feebly sought to deceive.  This feature, when coupled with word repetition, shows the emotional lengths to which they will go to be understood.  The speaker pleads.  The “[n]o no no no / no no no” of the first and second lines and the incessant “I” permeating the entire poem evidence profound desperation. 
Whereas these are common themes, not every poem in the first section is so haplessly vulnerable, though usually vulnerable nonetheless.  Toward the end of section one, when “I’ll Be Me and You Be Goethe” rolls around, the speaker is much more assertive, though no more in control.  Christle writes, “[E]verything I do / I do to get more beautiful so you will want / to love me.”  From redecorating a room to redecorating themselves, the speaker is an active agent curating their own existence.  Not a bad way to be, unless you are doing so at the expense of the very things that make you such a potentially strong, unique person in the first place.  This almost-selfhood is mirrored, maybe even created, by the poems’ forms.
A few of the poems in this book are dyed-in-the-wool sonnets.  The bulk of the poems in the first section, however, are sonnet adjacent while never fully taking the plunge.  They fall in the general vicinity of fourteen lines, have a discernible rhetorical shift or “turn,” and attempt to plumb the depths of the human experience, but something holds them back. Maybe it’s the sensibility.  Perhaps the otherworldly nature of the some of the poems pushes back a little too hard against such old-school formality.  Regardless of the reason, many of the poems are able to dwell in that sphere without being stifled by it.  The ever-presence of sonnet-like poems, however, dissipates when we begin What Is Amazing’s second section.
Section two provides a paradigm shift.  Though not as startling as the change we see in the third, section two is a bit older and wiser, though some of the same issues from the first section persist.  Whereas in the first section some of the speakers are quiet and scared, in the second they tend to be much more contemplative in their articulation, attempting something like control, though not necessarily any more successful at interpersonal communication.  In short, both sections display a vulnerability, but the maturity of the vulnerability has somewhat changed.
In “Bash,” the thoughts are there; the feelings are there.  They’ve got it inside them waiting to escape.  The words, however, or maybe just the will to speak them, evade.  Whether feeling love or the mundane, the speaker cannot express themselves.  Christle writes, “I open my ordinary mouth as if to speak / but find there is no voice there.”  Later, the speaker says, “[T]hough I do not speak it / that I love her in the ordinary way.”  The speaker is able to tell us, but unable to tell her.  Misdirected as it might be, it is, after all, a mature inarticulation, which is perhaps the greatest tonal shift differentiating sections one and two.  And is not unique to this one poem.
Though “Up Again with the Night” begins with inarticulation, this time it’s on purpose.  “It’s no good trying to talk to a roof,” writes Christle, “It will only turn away / Better to stand on it / and yell facts at the stars.”   “Up Again with the Night” is a bold, assertive poem.  In other words, the speaker is much more mature and autonomous than a majority of those in section one.  With its “I will be a leaf myself / resolved against sunlight,” and “I’m not sorry / I’m not sorry,” the poem is far more a declaration of selfhood than a whimper of solitude. 
As void of punctuation as the first section, and as singular in its narrative focus, the second section shows the other side of sentience: the standing up, for better or worse, and owning our identity.  And in some cases, even trying to change it.  This new, mature speaker, however, does little to prepare us for the third section, with its deep imagery and overall defiance of being approachable in the mundane way. 
Section three is challenging, requiring a more patient attention and a willingness to leap a bit further to reconcile certain juxtaposition.  But Christle, exercising her poet’s craft, helps us along the way—the most obvious bit of guidance, aside from the punctuation, being the use of multiple stanzas.
Just like the new presence of punctuation, the fact that the poems are now broken up into more than one piece plays a significant factor in how we are able and allowed to read them.  The poems are different because of punctuation and their physical form, yes, but for the same reasons we, too, are different as we navigate them.  Being given the clearer, more concise roadmap renders us a bit more competent to make our way through poems that, frankly, are far more opaque.  Opaque, that is, if our overall goal is to discern something like concrete or literal meaning.  Fortunately for us, Christle’s multiple stanzas, or maybe I ought to say the empty space between the stanzas, provide us the direction we require to reach a destination.
Couplets are the most common reoccurring form in section three, so much so that, despite the outliers, the two-line form comes to define the third and final section of the book.  One such grouping of couplets, “Last Time I Wore This Sweater,” shows just how beneficial the space between the stanzas can be.
The unpunctuated couplets slow us so that each syntactical unit garners our full, thoughtful attention. Christle writes:                                  
                        That morning when weather erased the mountain
            and I kept talking into the white like an American

            and could see nothing I then rubbed the feeling
            that all the data I had collected (the white) (the

            mountain) (the talking) was draining away through
            this vast and new hole with which I coincided
How unsatisfying would the word “America” be with no blank space trailing behind?  The fact that the stanza ends (we could fall off it like from a cliff) lets the reader linger on the word; it resonates.  The richer for it.  By taking our time, new, deeper meanings are gleaned.  I won’t trouble you with my own interpretation of the line; suffice it to say, I’m allowed to run with my own interpretation because of the void between the first two stanzas.  To quite a different end, we could similarly discuss the space between the second and third stanzas.
            The enjambed, parenthetical line and stanza break between lines four & five is just plain weird.  Whereas the first few lines read much more smoothly and prose-like, once the parentheses descend upon us, we must rethink matters drastically.  We don’t know quite what to do with it, and perhaps the poem doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.  The poem gets strange and so the reading is supposed to get strange.  Or at least different.  Our way of thinking must change if we are to accommodate the poem’s own change.  But to assume it’s all about guiding us would be foolish.  Sometimes the stanza breaks, especially when coupled with a lack of punctuation, allow us to make our own decisions.
            Choices abound in “What Will Grow Here,” a poem for which couplets serve to provide us multiple avenues for exploration.  Christle writes:
                        another miracle is
                        to forget

                        in the garden to find
                        nothing with a name

                        to pass on through the green
                        as if it were an hour

                        gathered together by glass
                        as if to breathe

                        were to take apart the sky
                        and why not

                        if everything is moving
                        and down in your gut
                        there is that
                        borrowed blue
Where does one syntactical unit end and the other begin?  Are these lines end-stopped or are they enjambed?  Sometimes, like between the first and second stanzas, we can imply punctuation for ourselves: “Another miracle is to forget in the garden—to find nothing with a name” or “Another miracle is to forget—in the garden to find nothing with a name.”  If the former, the stanzas are knit together much more tightly, and we must read them as such.  The latter choice, on the other hand, lets the first two stanzas hang independently, floating in their own orbit, letting us linger as long as we like before moving on to the next.  The importance of that space, or lack thereof, cannot be overestimated.
We have several such choices in the poem, each decision tethering us to a different breath pattern or set of implications.  Yes, the sum of our experience is a major factor in determining how we’ll receive a poem, but artistic creation is not passive.  The best poet nudges us, often without letting us know that we have been nudged.  Toward what destination does “What Will Grow Here” nudge?  Maybe the freedom to go our own way (within the poet’s framework) itself is the nudge.
Poet-craft aside, the two poems printed above in their entirety dovetail nicely with the theme running through the rest of the book—namely, inarticulation.  In the former, the speaker articulates into a void.  No one there to hear it.  In the latter, the speaker recommends a letting go of knowledge and communication.  We should all be lucky enough sometimes, the speaker says, to pass untouched through life, if only for an hour.  The urgency of the incessant “I” and the pleading “no, no, no” is replaced, peacefully and quietly, with “why not?”  And in reaching this point, the collection has completed the arc. 
Three sections, three distinct sections, make up Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing.   Each, however, despite their differences, speak toward the same element of human longing.  From the almost-reality of the cover art, to the speakers unmoored by their lack of punctuation, the psychic transition is palpable.  Across the three stages—urgent longing, assertive declaration, recognition and acquiescence—we step slightly more toward security, though some things won’t be resolved.