You know those ineffable thoughts, those feelings that turn to gravel in your mouth the moment you try to make them cohere? In Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees (Octopus, 2011), these unspoken sentiments find a voice. Christle has an uncanny ability to uncouple a phrase from its expected meaning and give it a new heartbeat. These poems have their obsessions, and they range in size from that of a flower to an entire planet. Regardless of intellectual and/or syntactical weight, the subjects are examined with an even hand. The mundane and the frivolous become as important (and as interesting) as the ecstatic and the dark. With Christle at the helm, even death, that tiresome inevitability, sings and wants to dance with you. And you, you blushing wallflower, can do nothing but accept the invitation.
These poems may appear on the surface to be light and airy. They are undoubtedly playful and are often charming. The tone is a familiar one, like a soft-spoken storyteller. But their familiarity is only a guise. In “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring” the speaker tells us: “but it is a human face I put on.” Beneath it, strange machinery lives. These poems yearn to be reread, because they reveal their complexity upon a second and third visit. They become sadder, funnier, more exotic each time you let yourself be swallowed up.
I want you to look where I say – “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring”
It has been said that the best way to understand a collection of poetry is to start with its first poem. While there is nothing counter-intuitive about this notion, it has more going for it than you might expect. The initial poem is, after all, the author’s opening gambit, and it should teach you all you need to know about how to read the rest of the text. The Trees The Trees greets the reader with a simple image: “here is the hand || here is the hand.” The repetition is a signal for us to pay attention. It’s about to open a world that is not ours, and it lets us wade in slowly by providing us with something familiar and human. A hand is an object of comfort and intimacy. It’s something to hold onto as you let these new waters soak into your clothes. From here, it only gets more beautiful and strange.
The speaker takes a Virgil-esque stance. She will be our guide through this uncanny universe, where we will discover that what is human is also avian and/or arboreal. Our time in Christle’s world is limited (no matter how long we spend with the poems), so the speaker must be quick. By the end of this first poem, she has the reader in her embrace. It’s loving and a little desperate: “I want to show you something || I don’t care what.”
and I am trying to understand a house || from a nailgun’s perspective – “A Handle on It”
There is a logic at play in these poems, but it is not our logic—it’s not quite dream logic either; dreams, by nature, are anarchic. The worlds erected here have a structure beneath them. It is as if our world was deconstructed, only to be rebuilt incorrectly and still managed to function after.
Take form as an example. These poems are not quite complete prose poems. The lines are fully justified on the page, forming a neat rectangle of text, true. They also happen to be riddled with white space. Caesuras take the place of traditional line breaks and allow the poems to build their own rhythms. And as the lines move from one phrase to another, the caesuras serve as visual cues, performing the leaps in Christle’s poetic logic. This is subtle, though. The magic here is the fact that the leaps work. They’re natural. They never feel forced or unearned. And with these broken lines, the poems signal an inverted worldview. A house from a nailgun’s perspective. Loneliness from a tree’s point of view. Every subjectivity is permeable. Each new angle provides more truth. And as fragmentation becomes a central conceit—the segmented body, the segmented sentence—the speaker of these poems wants nothing more than to converge.
I wish we were only one thing – “Christmas”
The speaker of these poems often longs for connection. The recurring imagery of hands, touching, and faces underscores this desire. Without touch, the speaker ceases to be: “then I am not touching anything || then the world thinks I’ve disappeared.” This loneliness is human and it is sincere. (Christle is one of the most sincere poets I’ve read; she skewers me with how honest and vibrant emotions appear on the page.)
In “Thank You I Will See Myself In” the comfort, for the speaker, is found in proximity: “your face is a room || I am resting in it.” She loves being so close to “you” that she can walk out of “your mouth.” That’s how connected the speaker wants to be. The use of the second person is a tried-and-true literary trick, and here it does much of the poet’s work. It’s an effective and arresting move. Whether or not the “you” is the reader-as-addressee or some third party who only exists in the poem, the reader can’t help but be attentive. The ambiguity enforces a level of drama and participation. That’s part of the game. It keeps you involved, and that’s really what these poems ask of you.
Alas, this relationship is difficult to maintain. In “Outnumbered” the speaker acknowledges that no distance is harder to breach than the one between poem and reader: “either you are reading || or I am || statistics favor you || it seems unfair || you get the living hands.” Reading these lines makes me feel guilty, and when the poem threatens to kill me, not because it dislikes me but because it admits “I like my life,” I understand. I’m more than sympathetic. It isn’t fair. These poems should outlast us all.
Heather Christle is the author of The Trees The Trees and The Difficult Farm (both on sale from Octopus Books), as well as the chapbook The Seaside! (Minutes Books). Her third book What Is Amazing is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. She graciously offered her time for an interview with me. You can read it here.