The Eyeball Falls Through the Poem
Heather Christle:: The Difficult Farm:: Octopus Books
Some poems are flat—in fact, most are. These poems ask little from the reader. These poems don’t even ask to be read—they wait to be read lazily, leisurely, and uninspired. They have no motion, spontaneity, or uncontrollable outbursts. Other poems grab and prod the reader, demanding an attentive audience and earning that audience’s participation in their whirligig maneuvers. These are thick, physical poems that emphasize the activity of the poet. Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm has these poems in spades. Christle’s poems read as if the act of creation is still taking place and the reader is caught up in it. At the same time, these poems are accessible, witty, goofy, and brilliant. I’d even go so far as to call many of the poems sexy, owing to their command of pace and commitment to sharp line breaks that jostle and tickle the reader. The poems are bodies on the page, in the sense that there is movement and chaos in their lines and logic:
Look, you are using your head
to bite me. That ought to be
proof enough. Maybe you
would like a drink? Beside
the constant downpours, this is
the driest state I’ve lived in. And
somehow full of, what is it,
The poetry is shaped by its excitement. It rips into new visions with almost every sentence, while simultaneously jostling the reader around with its sharp line breaks (the hanging “Beside” and “And,” for example). Each poem forces the reader to jump with it, line to line to line, and to therefore also acknowledge its physical attributes on the page—here, the eyeball falls through the poem until it smacks into “shelves.” Christle’s work is anything but flat, measured, and predictable. Later in the above poem, Christle plays “I spy” with the reader (“I spy, with my little eye, / the German city of Hamburg”), goes to Zanzibar, and then becomes a marauder.
The book is broken into four sections. Though themes such as religion and marriage surface throughout, focusing on these topics of content would be missing the point as the poems are so far-ranging and wild, jumping from “the difference between a cross and ball pen” to a man grooming his “phantom antlers” in the air. The content of Christle’s work reads like the aftermath of her creativity, the streak and smoke behind her energetic fireball. Most of the poems have a conversational tone addressed to “you”, a method that works for the most part:
compare my hand to a bobbin
or else another thing. Like you
I live in the area. I live
on the second floor. Even
though our altitudes mismatch
I hope you will think of me.
A good time to think of me
The poems manipulate, criticize, love, and scorn the “you”. It is one of the few consistent elements, besides Christle’s energy and imagination. The treatment of “you,” and its allusion to another person does not approach the reference as a character or symbol; the “you” is ungendered, unnamed, and mute. “You” is a vehicle (quite literally), in the sense that the “you” statements carry the poet from one observation to another, from one orientation in the poem to another, as the poems build into wild, tangential collages—Christle uses “you” to abandon “you.”
Although the continuity of voice can get repetitive at times, the majority of the book, and especially its best pieces such as “Rough Science”, “Acorn Duly Crushed”, “The Fledgling Crocus”, and “The Long Divider” allow the voice to become a part of the chaos the poet is flirting with, rather than a distanced observer or describer. Find poetic monologues cut to pieces by their own enthusiasm is refreshing—a destructive enthusiasm that arrives:
goodbye chickens have a nice
time exploding in oblivion!
Perhaps the most memorable aspect is the attention to the physical reality of the poems. Each poem builds in the collection line by line, leaving the reader with a clumsy, sensual, rollicking work constructed on a foundation of contradicting proposals and observations. A series of stops, starts, retreads, annulments, addendums, and interjections attack and seduce:
I would love to undress you.
I suspect underneath
the zipper you are
no less than gold,
that you emit a fat
bold light. That in sleep
you curl up completely,
a red plastic fish.
Look at you flickering.
And it means you are stubborn.
The reader is often told what observations mean, or, rather, what they mean to the poem. Each poem constructs its own logic that is exploited through tangents and forays into unrelated whims. In “Whatever Doesn’t Arrive Will Later,” two unrelated observations are coupled, bridging tangents alarmingly quickly while relocating the poem’s vision:
……………………………In thirty years the
sun will have
pulled off a lot of dirty tricks and not been punished.
you can’t arrest are: leaves and crazy loving. The leaves
all at once this year, came on like a clumsy chorus. Hi!
We’re all here
in our outfits!
The poem builds upon itself; the physical aspect of these poems is remarkable. The reader is forced to become an active participant in the work—the poet draws the reader down through her poems (literally, and physically) as she drags, kicks, prods, and pinches the reader with her observations and quick eyes. The poems are clumsy and inspired, wobbling along into oblivion.
This is not to say that reading The Difficult Farm is difficult at all. On the contrary, Christle’s book is accessible without sacrificing creativity or vision. The poet builds and destroys, letting images and even stories surface and burn over the course of a poem:
I love my car, my lawnmower, my knees which
are still burning. I love systems, like the weather,
and love to adopt them on Monday and by Thursday
have renounced them altogether. You are older
than eight but too young to enter a pageant
for retirees. I’m a scientist and a businessperson,
looking for results.
Any discussion of the book would be incomplete without an appreciation of the wonderful humor in the collection—if it hasn’t come through already in the quotations above. In one sense Christle is an entertainer in this collection, committed to making her audience laugh by any means: funny observations, John Cleese-levels of ridiculousness, hamsters, democracy, etc. She is comfortable with the absurd and finds comedy in the ordinary. This humor keeps the poems quick and bright, often giving them a necessary playful tone. There are great laughs to be had over the deadpan lines:
In Hanover they’ve detected a weakness.
Thanks a lot, Hanover.
The Difficult Farm is at its best when it is both bulky and bright. There are a few stumbles when the creative energy runs out of steam. The poems are wild, each headed for their own special collision, and sometimes this wildness ends up taking the poem into a mess it can’t quite get out of, creating its own roadblocks and slowing itself down so much that the poem’s energy fizzles into a weak stream. It is as if some poems suddenly find themselves trapped by a tangent they can’t shake, such as in “Individual Portions”:
Just as suddenly it was over and I felt
like an old sheet someone had dropped
into the river, and which had not yet sunk,
but drifted with blue shadows in the largest
of its creases. The river itself resembled
the wooden roads they did not discover
until someone remembered to look down
from orbiting space, and then modern-day
England had to start thinking hard
about the wide-ranging work of the Druids.
Nobody knows what the Druids were like.
When you peel the silk off an ear of corn
you look as though you are sabotaging
a maypole, but also contemplative…
Christle spends a long time jumping from her “creased river” to the Druids, and then simply abandons the Druids for another tangent. While this tangent roulette works in the vast majority of her poems, here the move isn’t quick enough to quite get pulled off. There is a lack of energy in this poem, making it come across as a lazy monotone dialogue. Other poems utilize sharp contrast and juxtaposition almost line-to-line, which keeps them energetic, physical, and much more aggressive. Only a minority of the work finds itself flattened by the lack of spontaneity just mentioned, though. And it seems in the spirit of Christle’s work to find these small cul-de-sacs. She is a poet of proposal and imagination; her work is a collision of ideas about creation that do not bore reader with notes on how that creation will actually get done. As she writes in “The Cabinet’s Advice”: “Perhaps, like me, you prefer blueprints to architects…”. The primary concern here is energy, i.e. the “blueprint,” not the droll work of completing or managing an idea. Her poems are a spark, whereas many other poets are content with poems that are a flint or the dulling and burning flame.