Heather Christle’s ‘Heliopause’ Disintegrates Reality
Christle's latest collection of poetry is a book easily larger than the sum of all its parts; it widens the rift between fantasy and reality in a way that makes the world somehow both clearer and more mysterious.
The first time I heard Heather Christle read, I'd had more than my fair share of tequila. I'd taken up one of those states where both shouting and mumbling feel like normal forms of speech delivery, and nothing actually had walls. This is, of course, not the best state of mind to be in while attending a poetry reading, and yet I remember this one distinctly. As soon as Christle opened her mouth her voice controlled the room—not due to volume, or some kind of rigged-up performative maneuver certain readers might channel in an attempt to captivate, but because hers was so obviously the voice of someone in control of her own wavelength. It became immediately clear, even in tequila-hell, that it was time to listen.
Since then, both aloud and on the page, insane or sober, Christle's writing has vibrantly defined itself the bearer of a clear, incantatory quality, almost mythic. Across her first three books, The Difficult Farm (2009), The Trees The Trees (2011), and What Is Amazing (2012), a central spirit, somewhere between the real and the unreal, incorporates into its wake a both-mesmerized-and-mesmerizing tone, one through which nearly any kind of information could appear: the narrator of a Heather Christle poem is as likely to offer you shopping tips ("Any time you buy anything, / you should buy an extra, in case / you really like it. I am aware / this makes me sound dumb, like / I am a really dumb shopper. / But buried in my shoulder / is a light that swells constantly") as it is to push you head-first into the plain-faced statement of an otherworldly fact ("Someone shut down the local shimmer / but not the police who thought / it was Sunday and so spent hours / arranging their long and pliant hair.")
Throughout these poems, the surreal is as real as the actual. Anything can be invented and seem as if it has always been. I like to think of the collection's narrator as some fixed character buried in a video game fantasy, waiting for the player to arrive so it can deliver the epiphany it has been coded to transmit. The consequence is a refreshing, if simultaneously revelation-bearing, state of address, where what is transgressed is world-weariness and stasis—each line insists itself alive, a kind of organism.
Heliopause, Christle's most recent book, is her most effective yet in that regard. It brushes that feverish imagination against a more historical anatomy, that of technology, communication, exploration, and death. The book is centered around a subset of three longer poems, in which the author's grip attends more meticulously than ever on its outline in space and time. There is, for instance, "Disintegration Loop 1.1," a 13-page work divided into segments that visually mimic the William Basinski recordings of the same name, a fragment-based ambient project the composer is said to have completed on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Pronounced effects produced from minor detail are a key component of Christle's writing, and help to make it so immersive, while at the same time unassuming of clear shape. The anatomy of her images are often simple ones—flowers, the sky, language, blood, birds, quiet, clothing, people—yet in the same breath made mysterious, contemplative, a drug-without-a-drug.
Nowhere could this effect be truer than in Heliopause's second long poem, "Elegy for Neil Armstrong." Here is an erasure poem taking as its body the transcript of communications between Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and mission control during the first moon landing. Seven stark black pages form a bed for blips of language culled from the edges of what we know, and yet as everyday as anything in their foundation. "Neil, / You're / a picture / on the TV / Oh." What is provided is so little, and yet in its breadth creates a hole around which the reader and the language come together, touch, like walking in the darkness with only words to guide you. The effect is obscuring, open, and at the same time, kind of funny, in an abstract sense; what we come to at the edges of our experience of the universe is the fragmentary communications of men in sealed suits, toddling without sure purpose but to be there, to have seen it, and continue.
It is in this uncanny valley that Christle's reach comes on strongest through the page, dislodging unexpected sensation where it seemed simple pain or listlessness could have been. There is as much left off the page as on it, allowing imagination and expectation space to take hold; and thereby, a patience in the power, a pleasure derived from experience itself instead of the old tropes of terror and sex, itself made that much larger by the ongoing trust placed in its pause. "It's not necessary / to write everything down," Christle writes in "Nature Poem," which constitutes itself by describing very simply a series of outdoor walks with loved ones, and ending, suddenly, with a consideration of how ants cannot masturbate, and the conclusion: "They do not love themselves enough / They only love each other."
In the last third of Heliopause Christle shifts the tone very distinctly from that of space and technology to something much more everyday and close to home. Mostly comprised of a series of poems written as letters to a close friend, it feels like a panel opened in the larger machine to reveal its simpler innards, its heart and other vital organs. Our otherworldly speaker also has a daily life, one concerned, at various times, with food, sports, relationships, current events. "Chris is very worried / about his eyes," she writes, "his mismatched pupils / but I think and say they're probably just fine." The relief of these more ordinary subjects, in reprieve against the incantatory elevation of the earlier two-thirds, humanize the machine in such a way as to make it even nearer; the face of the speaker is at last pressed against the glass.
And finally, moving from this subset of public private letters to the final poem, "Poem for Bill Cassidy," which the end notes of the book explain is addressed to a friend of Christle's who had recently died, the book's trajectory is again altered, this time veering into perhaps the most arcane-feeling logic yet encountered. It reads like a transmission between life and death, in a way of speaking that sometimes exists between two friends so close they are the only ones who understand. And yet, here we are again included; the cryptic joy is also ours: "But think how grand it would be / to glide as casual as the sun! / shining / light in mild trapezoids along / the floor or hill." A surprising way to address the dead, but also much more heartfelt in full, larger than something like the moon is, maybe, or at least more fundamental, inherently magical.
In the end, the magic is what it's all about. Say what you want about intent or position, but the point is, at its heart, here is a book easily larger than the sum of all its parts; it widens the rift between fantasy and reality in a way that makes the world somehow both clearer and more mysterious, a space outside of outer space itself.
Three poems from Heliopause
In every place
you seem to end
I have loved you
There was that small
and dead and pink
bird we saw
near the sidewalk
with its smashed
a place to let
the world in
a way of not ending
I loved you so
I had to crawl inside
There were erecting a conversational
in the middle of the inconsequential
like one of those unnatural flowers
you drop into water and watch
And then then what
Has anything changed?
They were emigrating from one wall
to the other
like swans of
They were not so much
humans as blood drenched with hair
NOT MUCH MORE ROOM IN THE CEMETERY
I will lie down on top of the graves
People beneath and people behind me
with their faces and their little horns
and the places from which they are shining
I know there is something else
that they have tried to teach me
and I am sorry for all of the times
I have listened and not learned it
No I am not crying
I'm maybe um a demon
For certain I am waving this fruit fly away
Buy Heliopause here.
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