‘What Is Amazing’ by Heather Christle
There is an almost Zen-like quality to the poems in Heather Christle’s third collection of poetry, What is Amazing—a glow of “enlightenment,” coupled with a fondness for non sequiturs—but ultimately the poems are not confrontational enough to provide the satisfaction of a koan, and Zen is rarely, if ever, so precious. Instead of “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” the mood here is more like “If you meet the Buddha on the road, hug the giraffe!” Reading this book is like attending a yoga class where you know that the instructor is creative, skillful, and fit for a challenge, but then the class ends up consisting primarily of “child’s pose.” The experience is better than no yoga at all, but it’s a bit of a letdown, leaving you dulled by the sameness and eager to see if the next class might display more range and ambition.
Time and again, Christle gives her poems lengthy titles that have a Google Translate vibe coupled with a forced naivete, such as “Teamwork Should Come from the Soul” and “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef” and “Wallpaper Everywhere Even the Ceiling.” Time and again, Christle makes superlative declarations that attract the reader’s attention but are not backed up by evidence, logic or pathos, like in “If You Go Into the Woods You Will Find It Has a Technology” when she writes, “The tree is the saddest prophet in history” or in “Talk Radio” where “There is only one thing in life that matters […]The thing is the sky.”
Time and again, Christle deliberately evades making supported evaluative judgments. The poems make assertions, but not arguments, as in “More of Form is More of Content,” where she makes statement after statement without offering any explanatory reference to anything outside the poem’s own hermetic playspace:
As a child X is too small for the furniture The furniture
causes his legs to dangle over other junk such as the floor
and X feels woe X feels like dying.
On the upside, this is a cohesive collection. Christle is obviously delivering the aforementioned consistency on purpose, but what that purpose is remains unclear. And if poems are—among many other things—a negotiation between repetition and variance, then this book overtaxes the former to the point of predictability.
For example, animals tend repeatedly to show up out of nowhere, as in “To Kew by Tram,” quoted here in its entirety:
Lying down among the daffodils I am composed
but not the daffodils because I crushed them! Not
as an act in itself It was auxiliary Were my next
attempt to stand myself erect upon my feet
I would leave behind devastation
In the organized shape of my body
This is also how I move myself through
space Everywhere these holes I don’t look
back to When I return as a giraffe the wholes
will have to change They will say no god
would plan on such a shape And if then
I lie down again on these yellow flowers they
will teach me that my goldenness is dim
Here, the giraffe—and the speaker’s alleged confidence that he or she will come back as one in another life—seems to function as a decoration that signifies a high degree of understanding; yet, the permanent forced satori that the majority of these poems evoke ends up feeling neither persuasive nor thoroughly inhabited.
Creatures also feature in “Taxonomy of that November,” which begins “Then was an animal I could not identify and that also I lived with,” and “More Swans and More Women,” to name a few of many. While the sporadic appearance of pets and wild beasts is surprising and delightful in single poems, when it happens several times over the course of a collection with little discernible connection to themes or concerns, it begins to seem like a formula or tic. It can even begin to seem like an effect meant to distract from the poems’ lack of ambition; in the spot where another poet might provide an insight or a confession or a disjunctive flash or an elegant turn, Christle often delivers a random horse. This practice is evocative of the oft-satirized tendency of self-consciously quirky designers of clothing and home furnishings to adorn their products with the images of unlikely fauna, thereby suggesting that these poems are fashioned not as engaged rhetoric but as some kind of IKEA-friendly lifestyle accessory.
The title poem itself contains numerous mystifying animal references: “What is amazing is how / the animals won’t stop sleeping.” Why is that amazing? Is it, even? Is the reader supposed to be able to figure it out? Does the poet even know?
Part of why the purpose of Christle’s book feels so inscrutable—and why reading so many similar poems one after another feels empty—has to do with her tone, which is open and conversational: a sharing tone. Yet this register, which could be appealing, feels undercut by the presumptuous assertions the poems make as they seek to put themselves over not through idea or argument but through their apparent posture of naieveté and kindness. At the same time, because of the poems’ fragmentary syntax and lack of punctuation, the voice comes off as calculated and difficult to parse. It is hard to say if these poems are sincere or merely exploiting sincerity. More than that, Christle’s tone makes it tough to interpret how much contempt, if any, these poems have for the reader, let alone for themselves—as in “In Accordance” when she writes at one point, “nor do I need anything / certainly not poetry / but bread maybe and tea” and “I will come to you / having cast off these poems / which like me are an excess” at another.
Of Heather Christle’s third collection of poetry, Wesleyan University Press writes, “When asked, ‘What is amazing?’ Heather Christle’s poetry answers, ‘Everything.’” This unfortunately accurate characterization puts me in mind of Simone Weil’s comment on the “monotony of evil”: “never anything new, everything about it is equivalent.” The poems in Christle’s What is Amazing do not deal directly with the problem of evil—they are generally fun in their structure and charming in their content—but in their wide-eyed insistence that every image and experience is as wondrous as every other image and experience, their relentless whimsicality does become somewhat wearisome over the course of 64 pages.