What is Amazing, by Heather Christle
Wesleyan University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Gerald Yelle
Recently released in paperback, What is Amazing is a book of poetry put together like a good record album: Enough solid consistency to make its weak tracks forgivable, even interesting as points of contrast with its strengths. This is a book that hooks the reader with its quirky high-energy obsessions. It functions not so much by rubbing words up against one another as by bringing ideas together in ways that reveal character--the work of a mind struggling to come to terms with what it means to be alone, or in society, or in nature, or some combination of all three; in other words, what it means to be alive. It does so without being self-consciously or patronizingly psychological, confessional or poetical. This ease of voice makes it highly readable, and at 64 pages, it’s the kind of book you can read in a day.
Accessibility may be a key feature, but that doesn’t mean it steers clear of the opaque and mysterious. The opening poem, “The Seaside!” presents us with “a wall of great intensity and furious.” The speaker wants to know: “Why / is all the beauty in the wall and not / in me Captain,” It’s as if, in beginning to write, Christle immediately collides with an immovable object: the overwhelming reality of nature, the sea, Walt Whitman, the immensity of literary culture that could easily live without one more voice. This only makes her more determined. “I can tell you things I’m not a piece of foam” (3), she says at the end of the poem, and the book is under way.
The first section concerns itself primarily with gardens, with the flowers, mosses and animals that inhabit them, and with the elemental materials such as fire and water, that both compose and threaten them. The best, “Self-Portrait with Fire” and “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef,” flow with seemingly effortless energy. “The people Obviously they loved me were warm and pink,” Christle says in the former. It’s the extremity, the urgency, the repetition and self correction that gives this eleven line poem its irresistible charm.
They asked me if I was on fire and I said No no no no
no no no I did not want to make trouble I was lying I was
on fire on my legs and on my hands I was ashamed I tried
to hide my legs by kneeling I set the grass on fire (4).
The latter poem, a free verse sonnet of sorts, sings of love and windows and seeing people in windows, ending with “Oh people You have to love / people They are so much like ourselves” (7).
While a celebratory tone outweighs even the most painful moments of the book’s first section, the second is characterized by anger, defiance, isolation and despair. The title of the opening poem, “We Are Not Getting Anywhere,” states the case clearly enough, before slipping into its deceptively simple narrative.
The shark was calling to express his feelings
on his ugliness and his mortality
The two seemed related but the message was choppy
Where was he calling from
The shark said to call back He was dying
He regretted that he would die soon
I did not want the message to happen
but it was too late I’d already heard it.
While the speaker’s relationship with the shark may not be getting anywhere, and while it’s clear that she doesn’t particularly want it to, the fact that she listens to his message seems to require some effort on her part: “Perhaps I could go rent a boat” (23). The title poem, “What is Amazing,” comes at the end of the second section, and with it a return to the obsession with animals. With it also comes a very effective deflating of the positive associations the title brought to the first section. Here, “What is amazing is how / the animals won’t stop sleeping” (42), as if anything could sleep with all the death and destruction going on. The poems are not uniformly negative in this section, but they are uniformly well crafted. Note the humor in “A Very Remarkable Story:”
It is shameful for a girl of my size
to be so cowed by horticulture
so I slap myself on the rump
and now every time I open my mouth
a daisy chain crawls out (37).
What is Amazing is composed of three sections, the first two of which are more engaging than the third. Maybe it’s just that the third gets off to a slower start. Its first five poems continue to work themes of absence and loss on materials such as light, sky, people and birds, but the speaker is less active, more evocative and contemplative. Consider the last lines of “Happy and Glorious:”
What I can say represents what I cannot
Grey snow filling in the driveway
Flown away bird to split the noon (46).
With “I Will Know You by Your Red Carnation,” however, the quirky energy is back. Speaking of a lost “box probably full of live animals / or other animals,” and of “blown out” stars, Christle marvels that we are able, “To have lost as we have so greatly / And to discover we still hold abundance” (50).
So how does this abundance of parts fit together as a whole? If the first section suggests that despite its challenges the world is an amazing place, and the second suggests that it’s amazing that anything survives in such a chaotic war zone, the third seems to suggest that chaos itself, as represented by the ocean, is the source of all amazing things: “A cruller comes from there / and also once some beauty” (64); it’s pretty amazing in itself, and it’s the source to which we’ll return.
Gerald Yelle teaches High School English. He is a member of the Florence (MA) Poets Society.
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