The Smaller Part, or, on Invincibility: A Review of Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees
A book like The Trees The Trees is eye-opening and also slightly puzzling, a merry kind of puzzling though, with fire in the center of the tale that allows one to find in them a mirror of several things. I read with difficulty, with ponderousness, with an exact eye for what the characters were trying to say. And yet, still puzzled, I remain able to understand them without needing––precisely, the notion of need that they belie––to be a part of their world. Does this make sense? Perhaps not, but the characters are so deeply ingrained in the book that they are able to attune us to the pictures of the world that they see, a troubled world, yet one that is not without a delirium of hope, something to be clung to.
The characters are all about the options that they feel that they have––for example, in the following lines from “Anywhere in Particular”:
I will leave this house and go out into the weather there are only so many ways to get out I will use the window as a shield and nothing can hurt me
There runs through the book an invincibility that is able to want more, something quite intangible, and yet that clings to the same with a fury that I am almost unable to get inside of. In a Lacanian sense, the book is about a set of children––and Christle plays with the voices of these characters as children with great acumen––who have yet to leave the forest of their innocence, an innocence that is tempered by a realism both troubling and impassioned. Christle writes in “Plot the Height and Distance”:
now you have gone and died again you were my family I am up here in this tree it is not impossible
What is this impossibility tied to? Apparently, according to the characters, it is possible to achieve this reality, this fullness, and it has been accomplished:
then people achieved the impossible and disappeared it was like they had gone to live at Space Camp permanently we have to envy them eating freeze-dried ice cream every minute
So what do we have, in terms of Lacan’s presages about the real and its vicissitudes? Scared women? A sense of placelessness? An ideological intensity, or a lack of what would make the seams hold? All of the above, and brilliantly, I think. In “Poem Consisting Entirely of Advice,” the characters (or one of them, at least) says:
you must not look at what may be a man or may be his empty car what if he asks you what are you looking at
There is in this particular poem a sort of congelation of the book’s tendencies, and I say tendencies to imply that the book is about, in a sense, the lack of courage that the characters grapple with, the reasonable humor that makes them shimmer/simmer. What is the world? they may ask, and they want to know, and they feel that they are somehow held off from this world by a box of letters, a box of ethereal nouns that they cannot quite escape or say anything about except to say that they are purchases of a special fashion, a special order.
The poems are electric in these intensities: a mirror of a lost youth, a mirror of a troubled time, a mirror of radiation:
microwave doubles as a nightlight this is that other song the one that likes to sing itself and stops microwave has a note
One wonders, ultimately, about the future of the characters, and the book’s arc gives us clues to their release from this intense mindfulness: in “Trying to Make a Difference,” we are let in on what a swimming release would be like:
to more readily know where you stop surround yourself with water a short cruise a headcount you go first
We wonder, as readers, whether this intensity of a drowning vision has any redeeming qualities––does it? There is a sense in which it does, in which the characters may be released by simply expressing what they feel, in which they may be made to “give birth” to something….
I have to love the baby with the gold car in his mouth I have to love the grass the grass
So here we have the pregnancy myth, the languaged Mummy, as some kind of release. It is perhaps one method of escape from the vision, if not the most tenable one in a realistic sense… Though we also have a clue to what kind of realistic wandering might take place with the women at the book’s end, in the ultimate poem, “What We Have Worked For”:
you were holding me when the tulips collapsed we had not given them the water I was holding the water in my hands and you were holding me when I fell to the wavering ground and for the tulips we are not sorry
Will there be a fall into irony here? Will there be a release from heaven? The book’s last line, from the ultimate poem, reads: “oh it beats me why we try.” One wonders at the exigencies of such a last line, and what it means to “try” incessantly… Does the reader leave with a sense of wanting to remove herself from the book as a concept of eternity, or does the reader fall in with the poems? I hope the former, I really do. I think that, through the brilliance of this exotic mirroring of what a pair (and I do mean monologic pair) of characters can accomplish through a soft convex trick of sorts, is the most compelling and gorgeous mannerism of an accomplished writer’s oeuvre, and that in the sense that we as readers allow ourselves to manifest, through empathy, a sensibility that envelops yet is comprised by the poems in The Trees The Trees, we learn to let go of them. We learn to let go of them so that we can leave their characters behind, the whoosh of the world compelling us to make plans that don’t allow the tenuous meanderings of their letterbox to get in the way of other things.
Laura Carter: Did you begin to write The Trees The Trees with a specific concept in mind, or did you base your writing more on your feelings? The poems show an acute sensitivity to the character(s) they portray, and I wonder whether it was something that you constructed, or whether it grew out of your life in a way that would be more closely allied with the feeling imaginary, the structures of feelings, so to speak.
Heather Christle: I didn’t have a concept in mind, no, but I did have some questions: What’s a line about? and What can I do with conceptual metaphor and cognitive linguistics? The content, the character(s), the poems’ events, they all grew out of my participation in thinking through those questions. When I wrote The Difficult Farm, I was often improvising one word at a time, which was a way of getting myself into a kind of trance state, you could say. And similarly, the work I was doing with form and language in The Trees The Trees was, I think, a way of my distracting/hypnotizing myself. You know, I would think the poem was about prepositions, but in the meantime an actual narrative could emerge. And of course along with that narrative came all kinds of feelings. Sometimes (you have heard me do this) at readings I will make the true joke that "All of these poems are about my feelings."
L: Were the poems in The Trees The Trees written in a specific place, and if so, where? How did you write them, and what was your process like in terms of habits and dailiness? (This always is a pertinent question to me, for some reason.)
H: Yes, they were nearly all written in the same room in the same apartment on State Street in Northampton, Massachusetts: our guest room/study. They were written between May of 2007 and January of 2009 (with later revisions). Usually I sat in an armchair by the windows, which were framed by enormous gold curtains. They were written daily, one poem a day, in the morning, after coffee, on paper, in pen, by hand. There is one poem in there, "About a Whale," that was written at night, in the living room, a situation so remarkable it had to announce itself in the poem. I am so deeply (still) in that morning routine.
L: If you had to imagine what the character(s) in the book look like, what their actual stories are, what would you say? How would you describe them in ‘real-life’ terms?
H: It’s hard to say. When I am reading fiction I am terrible at visualizing. I mean, I get deeply, deeply involved in the characters, suspend my disbelief like anything, but I never really see the faces or land or streets. I am always still with the words, and I think my own writing works the same way. (For me.) So in real-life terms I would say these people look like patterns of language I believe in.
L: Was there any particular reason why you chose the epigraph1 for your book, and if so, what was it?
H: Well, for one thing I’ve been obsessed with that poem since around 2002 or 2003, and so I am always carrying it with me in my head, and it often seems relevant. Here its relevance has to do with the poems’ frequent belief that written language works like a telephone. They have that personal directness. And sometimes I do feel like everything I invent, everything I make happen in a poem really does exist in order to provide the occasion to speak to someone, that it’s that desire to reach through the page that makes me write.
L: If you had to imagine possible futures for the character(s), (and I am guessing your next book will let us in on this as well), what would they be? What kind of advice would you give them?
H: I suppose that if the characters are made out of words and my feelings, then perhaps they do have a future in the next book, but that maybe they grow and change like plants rather than animal organisms. Their identities are distributed more like plants I think. (Though it is exciting to think of blurring that line––reimagining time helps. I was just reading in The Selfish Gene about how a sped-up video of a plant’s progress resembles the scurrying of an animal.) But I don’t know how well I can answer the questions. I only know what these voices are doing when I am writing. It’s just this other space I go into, and then when I come out of it there is a poem on me. Maybe I could say what advice I think they have given me? I think they have said to not be afraid. But that is easy for them to say––and then they go and terrify me.
1. I don’t care/ about the flowers, which I merely invented/ to give myself another reason to address you. ––Aleksandar Ristovic
order your copy now (or get it at your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, bug em, say ‘damn it, this is good, get me a copy, and order 10 more for my friends!’ And here’s the author’s site: http://heatherchristle.blogspot.com/