November 2011

Kim Gek Lin Short


The Trees the Trees by Heather Christle

Heather Christle's second collection The Trees The Trees reminds me of something. It is not something in particular, but a pattern of part disappearing act part tada -- ever transformative -- of reminiscence. Something was here, now it isn't. Encore. The spectacle of self at work in these prose poems has the effect and charm of magic, that weird way magic works by staging unknowns in the physical world thereby revealing spiritual knowns in the believer. It's tricky big geographical stuff imagined small enough to manhandle. Take the first poem in the book, "That Air of Ruthlessness in the Spring": 

here is the hand           here is the hand           on my face

it is not my hand         it's a beautiful day       again       I

can hardly believe anything     what about you who

are so frequently touching         some part of the world 

This poem introduces a central motif of the book: touching (or not touching), and ways of being (weightless). Even the prose, shot up with space, attempts to be less dense, lighter than itself. This airy prose poetry seems in constant postponement of flight, or teetering, poetically, in a temporary geography of prose. Is it trying to touch or not touch? 

                    when I go up enough I jump                 then I

am not touching anything         then the world thinks

I've disappeared 

In The Trees touching is all a part of some mysterious non-action of being -- the way feelings so often touch "some part of the world." Like when we feel feelings' hands on our face, and the way feelings are a type of touching that is hard to believe in and impossible to know. The manner in which Christle's words and phrases interact on the page emphasizes this interiority while at the same time externalizing enough feeling to manhandle. Yet, touching transcends experience and activity. 

                                                                               did you touch

            the world      the wrong way     everything is always

            happening           and not just for show         I want to

            show you something   I don't care what    I want

            you to look where I say 

Even the prose blocks in The Trees appear manhandled. These are amputated prose poems, with ghosts, "gap-toothed" yet, miraculously, fully intact. Like dreams. We come to them over-touched and about touching, or failed touching, amputated (think limbs), but about ways of touching. How strange and marvelous is that? 

Christle manifests this idea in the very appearance of her text, which is rendered in spatially spaced phrases that operate as metrical feet. Each dead space is a caesura, working to lineate these poems. The spacing does not give the effect of something missing, these poems are not so dark; rather, the effect is spiritual and airy, making the form -- the prose poem, which is usually heavy and dense -- light, almost unbearably. 

I know my eyeballs move           if I press

            them         I want to see everything            surely and

wrongly      like a tree without wind thinking   I'll

just keep moving myself   

Christle's touching and non-touching are also a type of moving and non-moving, or a moving that is the effect of a cause. What happens when you take away the cause? Or the effect? Christle's poetry often plays with mutations in equations like cause and effect, which is a way of regarding another ubiquitous binary: interiority and exteriority. The speaker's voice is so fully open, and open-minded, that logic and rationality are undermined in exaltation of a bigger truth. It brings to mind Romanticism. Even the cover image, with its dense and lush floral pattern, is replete with busy reminiscence of a once a past a time ago. 

With a childlike innocence and optimism, Christle writes "I want to see everything / surely and wrongly." This statement is loaded, as it characterizes a tenet of Romanticism that is also a fundamental experience of childhood: that there is more truth in experience, right or wrong, than in Keats's consequitive reasoning: "I know my eyeballs move / if I press them." Throughout The Trees The Trees, Christle layers corporeal sensation, like sight with touch, or sight with movement. Certainly Christle is interested in creating a prosody of contrast, but it seems that this desire to create is more than reactionary. Creation, it seems, for Christle is something that must be cultivated urgently and quickly ("I want to see everything"), maybe during adolescence, as truth in this text is more a function of instinct than contemplative cogitation, or consequitive reasoning. 

Throughout, there are voices and characters, often childlike, teasing, and usually lacking in exterior clarity. We do not get clear images of the bodies from which these voices emerge. The man-man, the half-hedgehog man, the man-child, the two-day-old cat, the tree, the voice on the phone, the cave painting, the not-married woman, the not-pregnant woman, the baby. These voices are often disembodied or impossibly bodied (think of voices over the phone). These characters are manifestations of the speaker's interior geography, a never-neverland of Lacanian Mirror Stage. 

            I am an unruly bundle when I fall down

I take up room      it disappears when not in use   no

I am not using it          do you want to             go ahead


This "unruly bundle" is a function of contrariety. Christle develops an aesthetic in which contrary forces or elements, even ones destructive to the other, require the presence of the other for identity and existence. The relationship, then, between space and not-space -- the room that only exists while in use -- is like the relationship between the poet and poetry. In other words, it is a relationship of imagination and creation. Beingness, then, is the product of that relationship; hence, the poet has made what is exterior (like touching) interior. 

This poem in particular has other striking allusions. Christle's "room" that only exists while in use, reminds me of Mark Strand's being-as-absence in "Keeping Things Whole": 

In a field 
I am the absence 
of field. 
This is 
always the case. 
Wherever I am 
I am what is missing. 

When I walk 
I part the air 
and always 
the air moves in 
to fill the spaces 
where my body's been. 

We all have reasons 
for moving. 
I move 
to keep things whole.

 Strand's poem, from his book Reasons for Moving, is a suitable companion piece to Christle's "Thank You I Will See Myself In," as both poems derive axioms by equating being and nonbeing (and action and non-action) as dependent upon one another for identity. 

The reminiscences do not end there. Throughout The Trees The Trees, I felt sharp nostalgia. But very unspecific. I felt a fuzzy sense of missing something. I did not know what. I felt "refurbished feelings." I felt like "Catalogue": 

                                                                        it didn't look like

            anything    that is how I came to lose it     I reported

            my loss     in return     I got several feelings      there

            were nine         they were refurbished feelings   

Or "Our Sense of Achievement," the last phrase in particular: 

every day many things do not happen

a perfect love        a perfect winter        you don't fail

once         you keep failing             just when you think

you've got it right             arrives some spring   

Christle's spacing and rhythm has the effect of trance, which is a type of reminiscence. Here, too, Christle emphasizes interiority, and the inefficacy of exteriority. The imagery and characters (feelings especially) are airy pieces of self, one mind it seems, pulsing inside each sentence-based lyric. Her playful tenor can take a serious turn, as something said in confidence to a loved one, an aside, and then just as fast become a quirky riddle. 

                                            for my birthday         I would like

            to be an airplane          an airplane with no pilot and no


Christle pushes phrases of text around her prose blocks like the heart-shaped planchette of a Ouija board, a child's game just as much as not. Here again the poet makes what is exterior interior, the planchette another way of touching what cannot be touched. Christle's phrases move as if on casters, voices guided by interior suggestion yet eternally of the world. 

In doing so, she successfully pushes the prose poem around a wonderful and bizarre game board that I am pretty sure she invented. And while the poems in The Trees The Trees at times over-revel in the rhapsodic, it works. Poets do this, right? The trick is to do it with charm, and Christle does. 

The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle
Octopus Books
ISBN: 978-0980193879
72 pages