“What Is Amazing” by Heather Christle

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What Is Amazing by Heather Christle is another illustration of my frustration with the word “critic,” why I think “appreciator” is a closer approximation and why I’m still open to one-word suggestions.

Christle was born in 1980 and has two earlier books and a Believer Award to her name, as well as poems in Verse, Columbia Poetry Review, Boston Review, The New Yorker, and publications Rumpus readers may not have heard of and should get to know better. Her New Yorker poem, a finely-wrought, fascinating, emotionally magnetic piece called BASIC, is in What Is Amazing and was selected for the 2012 edition of The Best American Poetry.

There is nothing static, relaxed or dull in any of the poems in this book, so don’t come here if you’re in the mood for gentle reverie or immature, superficial awe. Come instead to work that lives up to the title of the book, making all the senses more alive. HOW LIKE AN ISLAND is both a visual exploration and a love poem exuding wisdom from every pore :

How like an island we are in love encouraging
moss & like an island we are barely moving Just
to exist takes much concentration & like an island
in love we have a house in our two imaginations &
they intersect It strengthens the house & our feelings
Unlike an island we wake up An island never sleeps
That is its duty & ours to remain in love barely moving
We do not want to disturb the house Do not want it
to fall into the ocean that is always so nearby It surrounds
us & is moving Like an island the ocean does not see us
or care why though we persist in loving it at one rate
or another & are waking close together in the dark

Her grammar and punctuation feel spontaneous but of course they are not. They work just right with her words, and there is a tender urgency and respect for what surrounds her and who is beside her. Not every poem is as completely successful, but all succeed in varied ways and are likely to make their way into even more fine fabric of American letters.

“Parking Lot” is beautiful and flawless, healing and wounding :

Light breaks and its edges are sharp
O face wound bleeding profusely!
O pressure applied by the quick-thinking cloud!
If a man approach and beseech thee
speaking in voluble cursive :
What is the world and where am I?
tell him
You are the ruined thing
and the world is what loves to repair you

It’s the kind of piece I like to see closer to the end of a volume because it is such a gracious, hopeful summing-up. But I will take it where I can get it and enjoy the music that reminds me of (former U. S. Poet Laureate) Charles Simic and others who aren’t afraid to go big and intense with punctuation and questions. Christle’s approach to nature can also be compared to the under-appreciated (I’ve said it here before and deliberately say it again) Ed Roberson, making me think the two of them plus Simic would make a intriguing panel on the topic of nature, exuberance and fear in poetry.

“Last Time I Wore This Sweater” makes me wish (I confess to wishing this frequently when reading the writers I’ve mentioned and many others) that glossy magazines like Outside and Smithsonian published verse :

That morning when weather erased the mountain
and I kept talking into the white like an American
and could see nothing I then rubbed the feeling
that all the data I had collected (the white) (the
mountain) (the talking) was draining away through
this vast and new hole with which I coincided

I will feel seriously stupid if the lack of punctuation at the end is a misprint, because “coincided” is perfectly open-ended. A lot of data can be collected in a white cloud erasing a mountain and not all of that data needs to be named all the time. This piece is an excellent instance of judicious restraint. It is often considered poor form for a teacher to use one’s own writing as a tool for instruction, but Christle , who has taught at Emory and U Mass, Amherst, ought to get away with it at her next gig.

“A Long Life,” with the exception of the word “wonderful,” which feels jarringly easy, is deceptively simple and rightly connected to the basics of living honorably:

It was like this,
We regarded the animals,
could not help but do so.
And light
which shapes wonderful colors
hurt our eyes.
They were too pale.
When two events
occurred at once
It made everyone laugh.
I think we called it.
The air was full
of silver.
At night we kept out the cold.
A long life
lived slowly
in the company
of all our mistakes.
And how sometimes
in the evening
I’d cut what hair
you’d lately grown.

The conversational rhythms backed by hard and soft vowels and consonants provide another display of a package with everything to make this composition valuable, as in an object with (not too much) heft and hints of the timeless. Again, judicious restraint. Jane Hirshfield fans, take note. Aspiring poets, read this (and everything else in What Is Amazing) aloud and examine its soundworks. Then close your eyes and see the composition. It’s an exercise in multidimensional pleasure.

“Being judged too earnest about his subjects would bother him less than being too detached from them.” That’s from a Wall Street Journal piece by Richard B. Woodward, about photographer Robert Adams, who is 75 and taught English literature at Colorado College before devoting himself full-time to photography. I consider that line a “found poem,” discovered the week I was working on this essay. Like Adams, Heather Christle is a tenderly rigorous witness. What Is Amazing provides hope for a similarly distinguished career.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →