Portland, OR: Octopus Books, 2011. 72 pages. $12.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The Trees The Trees, Heather Christle’s widely lauded, Believer Poetry Award-winning second book of poems, will bother you. Its fragmented lines will visit you in dreams; when you wake they will pull you back into a discombobulated psychic somnambulance. In a certain light, The Trees The Trees’s wide-eyed whimsy will delight you; let a shadow fall, and suddenly such sweetness is treacherous. You’ll quickly discover that the plainness of these poems is a trap: this is the fairy tale re-fanged, the woods repopulated with threats. “The trees,” stated once, is a confirmation of the real; repeated, it becomes an anxious, inarticulate cry. These poems, while sharing James Tate’s penchant for slapstick absurdity and paranoia, display a distinctly savage stripe. Give Charlie Chaplin a BB gun and a Bowie knife, and you’re getting close.
None of this feels like an accident. In light of Christle’s previous and subsequent collections, The Difficult Farm and What is Amazing, we can assume she knows a thing or two about, well, the amazing and the difficult (and perhaps farms). And this collection, despite its borderline-infantile simplicity and rigid formality, reaches into the soft, nebulous, not-knowing places of the brain where difficulty embeds and blossoms into the amazing—if you can survive the process. All that is familiar becomes frighteningly inscrutable when both controlled and disjointed by literal space—all of the poems in The Trees The Trees, though broken into phrases, are strictly typographically justified—as well as by constantly shifting signification. Once you venture into the first poem in this collection, “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring,” there’s no going back; this is morphology made distressingly actual:
here is the hand here is the hand on my face
it’s not my hand it’s a beautiful day again I
can hardly believe anything
[ . . . ]
but it is a human face I put on I am
hung up under this weather I am hanging on tight
to a swing when I go up enough I jump then I
am not touching anything then the world thinks
I’ve disappeared I am just having a little fun
not much fun at all are you sad did you touch
the world the wrong way
Look around: the garden you’ve wandered into on this beautiful day is filled with poisonous plants. Each line seems innocent as a child’s drawing of a flower, and yet each is bent upon—“hung up,” “hanging on”—survival. The poem hovers between dream and nightmare, enchantment and danger (“but it is a human face I put on”). The “wrong way” to be in the world looks like the right way, and the other side of childhood’s coin is annihilation. The poem compels with simultaneous wonder and implied threat: “I want to / show you something I don’t care what I want / you to look where I say.” Look at everything or nothing, around or through; the object of the gaze is irrelevant. On one level, this is no different from any other poem: most good works of art, in fact, suggest inherent user instructions. Here, however, those instructions come with a tinge of coercion, all the more alarming for its childlike and childish impudence: “I want / you to look where I say.” The threat is irrational, rendering the instructions unreliable. Its childishness, however, only comprises part of the threat, as the poems combine juvenile truculence with traces of intellectual and linguistic sophistication (“then I / am not touching anything then the world thinks / I’ve disappeared”) that ensnare the reader with flickers of rationality.
It’s no easier, or safer, inside. “Indoors the Great” menaces from all angles:
if I silently praise my enemy give him everything
ever he wanted give him room then I will be
king an earthworm making things happen I
will gather my light storm around me indoors
That “ever he wanted,” gorgeous and weird, throws off any attempt to situate oneself, either in syntax or in relation to the world observed, which, in a Christle poem, is essentially the same thing. These poems never allow for any security, existential, syntactical, or phenomenological—the speaker is both “king” and “earthworm,” “making” unspecified “things happen”—for long. Nor does the information the speaker gathers ever lock into a logical, safe design. There is no “right way” to read—as in a dream, logical structures dissolve, language ceases to follow a linear, predictable direction. Paradoxically, while the “normal” procedures of reading are disallowed, any reading must proceed within tightly controlled parameters. Again, while the vast majority of poems are fueled by the tension between form and play, Christle’s poems gesture toward the logical conclusion of living by this tension: madness.
As a foil to the speaker’s demand for supremacy, “1998” stands as a prickly ars poetica about the subject’s reaction to artistic intent, about what happens when poets try to “invent” things that don’t need or want to be invented, let alone submit to paltry attempts at artistic expression:
One time this real moon was trying to arrest me I
was like I don’t even know what I did wrong
has the whole world gone away why didn’t
anyone tell me never much good at escape I
thought I’d try complete surrender dropped every
weapon I had then the moon was like listen
you slice of the future you can cry but you can’t
make me change
Here, the tyrannical speaker is countered by the world it wishes to tyrannize. Not only does the moon—a classic, usually compliant poetic trope that has taken on centuries of ode, lament, and romance without complaint—refuse to be packed into a box of blocky text, it actually retaliates against the interfering, childishly arrogant poet. While on one level this battle plays out on the small scale of the page, it also rages throughout the history of art: despite the poem’s quotidian mode, it contains echoes of Keats’ urn and Rilke’s Apollo. Fittingly for a book that hovers between artistic wisdom and naiveté, The Trees The Trees opens with an epigraph from Serbian poet Aleksander Ristović:
I don’t care
about the flowers, which I merely invented
to give myself another reason to address you.
Christle’s poems ask, What are poems except seized-upon excuses for expression? And if they are simply excuses, what does that mean for the invented aesthetic world we have come to rely upon for emotional sustenance? What happens, for that matter, when the “inventors” of that aesthetic world care little for their particular inventions, and instead “merely” use art to draw the reader closer to rationality’s (and sanity’s) outer limits? Of course, you can put down this book any time you’d like. But, like Alice after her journey to Wonderland, you may never again see the trees, or the moon, or a beautiful day without feeling a slight chill shudder through the darkest places in your brain.