Heather Christle - If you are reborn every night into a different extraordinary world, then why shouldn’t it happen when you wake

Heather Christle, The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009)

"WHEN I AM BORN, the whole world’s born with me,” writes Heather Christle, and it’s hard to think of a better line to sum up The Difficult Farm. Each poem in her book is a new world born with the speaker, who “struts” at one moment in a “matchless squirrel coat” and at another moment feels “like an old sheet someone had dropped / into the river.” The speaker finds herself in places as disparate as forests, battlefields, motel rooms, suburban streets, and Zanzibar—often in rapid succession—but her wry, sensible voice steers us through this surreal safari with remarkable ease.
This casual tone might seem an odd match for the marvelous events Christle describes, but it doesn’t mute their mystery. In fact, it does quite the opposite:
People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret.
The ordinariness of the language here makes the strange content of these lines even stranger. In what universe could this statement warrant such blasé treatment? Christle’s poems challenge us to revise our criteria for deciding what is real and what is imaginary, and demand that we treat everything in them as equally possible and equally significant.
Many of the poems in this book are like dreams, emanating from the dreamer but not entirely in her control. The worlds she moves through are marvelous but frustrating, transforming before her very eyes just as she was starting to understand them: “Now you are quite well. Now you are, // what, made of sand? And leaking. / You are a taxing companion. // If anyone is chasing us they will / surely track us down.” And just as puzzling as the things that do happen are the things that don’t: an unmade birthday cake bears a likeness to the new girl in town who never came to school, “despite the exquisite sharpness / of the pencils we had readied in hopes / of dazzling our unfamiliar friend.” These small absences haunt us like ghosts; they are peculiar thing and person-shaped holes that can’t be mourned but can’t be forgotten. They are exactly the sort of thing that we dream about, the sort of thing that shouldn’t be important but is. The Difficult Farm asks us to learn from our dreams, bewildering as they may be—if you are reborn every night into a different extraordinary world, then why shouldn’t it happen when you wake up in the morning, too?» - Erin McNellis

"A little over a week ago, the second edition of Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm came out, from Octopus Books, with a revised bunny and some dropped poems. I want to mark the occasion by remembering my old, outdated copy of the book, released September 2009, and how Christle’s poetry started acting like a part of my nervous system.
I’ll be as objective as possible. Here’s what my copy of The Difficult Farm looked about a week ago: bright, bee-yellow cover with a sketch of a one-eared rabbit; “THE DIFFICULT FARM” above Christle’s name written in a shaky, watery font; two blurbs on the back from James Tate and Dara Wier; and about 77 pages of book with a few little gaps from dog-ears. Certainly, it looks like it’s as “joyfully imaginative” and “surreal” as the SPD website has said, and as “fun” as Blake Butler and Chris Hosea have said. Slowly, I’ve made my marks. I drew a fat pen line between “DIFFICULT” and “FARM,” put a small, dense spot in the bunny’s leg. The corners are rough and upturned. I underlined parts of the back, like Dara Wier writing “urgent” and “careful” and “a little scary, very scary, and awfully generous to us all,” circled James Tate’s “This is serious.” Inside, I can’t even count the number of brackets, stars, and “holy shits” I’ve penned in, writing mantras, creeds, and a few knock-off theses on poetry in general. Yet for all this digging, I still feel like I’m not taking Christle’s poems—marvelous, immense, beautiful, literally wonderful—seriously enough. It’s like trying to hold a farm in the hand, easier to imagine as a cartoon than as the actual dirt, blood, and crops it is. The Difficult Farm offers us all the full, raw communication that we’d never expect from an animated bunny, and all the honesty and giving we don’t expect from poetry.
There’s no doubt, though, that this poetry has sheen and surprises, and is intensely pretty. From “It’s Not a Good Shortcut If Everyone Dies,” here are the book’s glamorous opening lines:
Yesterday, looking at a cinderblock’s
reflection—lightest grey on golden floor—
I finally understood painting. I was irate!
Just following the lines, moving immediately with the narrative, we get a nice familiar cinderblock, some dazzling flashes, a golden floor, a painting, and a crazy shift in tone. It’s a bright montage, a film—it could be enough. But there’s companionship, darling animals, and romance too—it could be a movie:
I went
door to door, to my neighbors, trying to explain
the system we actually inhabit, and they became
absorbed, so we all flapped our arms together
and though we did not fly away I finally
understood how geese make decisions. I was
crushed. I wandered the earth for eighteen years,
honking at anyone who’d listen and there were
a few who even fell in love with me, but because
they did not understand I was under a powerful
spell they could not help me…
The turns are heartbreaking in the cutest, most teen-movie way. They via videodetective.com leave you wanting to take the speaker out to some local diner that plays Joy Division at three in the morning. This brand of cuteness certainly abounds in The Difficult Farm, whose very title, very cover suggests a poetic catalogue of MTV movie originals and fuzzy little animals. I—and the poems too, I think—want to get past this, way past this, but these warm bits are worth looking at. Poem number two, “What Is the Croup” (a title I’ll never stop guessing at), reads almost like a cento or collage of these Polaroid moments. “Monday evening I took out/the garbage. Nobody/saw me but I looked beautiful.” Like something from the Xanga archives, the lines don’t seem to do anything but document a life we pretty much already know. “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.” It’s darling enough to make me stop breathing, and then it goes on. “A good time to think of me/is now.” All this has a kind of deadpan, Wes Anderson quality to it—the quick, slightly predictable line breaks—that any twenty-something could grin at. “Like you/I live in the area” is charming because it’s flat, like forced conversation, like weather-talk, which Christle cites constantly (“and listen, the weather is good”). It’s charted territory. It’s like poetry written on bright red 8th grade valentines. This reading is, sad to say, especially easy and automatic for me, having half-met her and seen how beautiful she is. However, it hardly gets at the poem’s careful, careful work. Note the strange, unmapped space this seemingly sweet and familiar poem enters, without flinching. The flat, dumb enjambment gets even flatter, and the cuteness dies hard: “In my brain I use the town hall/as a landmark and then I make/my way. In my way I am/keeping an order. I killed/the insect after I was born.” These lines aren’t tricky. They aren’t magic. They aren’t charming. The pictures fragment and collide and stack up in jangly piles. “Make my way” is treated like it’s supposed to have some surprising turn, and then, boring as hell, the “way” continues straight into a Foucaultian keeping of order through death, taxonomy, and birth. This weirdness is beyond personality. It’s beyond my theorizing. This is straight-up brain country, and it’s very, very scary.
Christle alerts us constantly to this issue of personality, in a book full of trees, suitors, and animals. The book’s third poem, “Variations on an Animal Kingdom,” starts out goofy, but swinging:
People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret.
Indeed, it’s weirdly easy to read these poems in terms of traits, quirks, and habits—to put (at least in my case) an attractive human face behind it. That could be the bird here. But even without this context, the images here are stunning—poet as huge, probably multicolored bird, confused, surrounded with the test tubes, light bulbs, and beakers called up by “invention.” Then there is the gendered reading. The speaker/poet is reduced to a sexy parrot (or even just bird/dame/crone/chick/girl)—one we nonetheless meet and experience, despite the fact that it’s her own regrettable creation, her own part-deliberate performance. How much of the author’s plumage—real or mistaken—do we put between us and the poem itself? Christle’s bird could just as well be a literal invention, mechanical and creepy. Either way it’s confrontational.
Miraculously, Christle’s poetry is generous enough to let all this go on without stopping the poem. Even when I feel like a patriarchal shithead, there are countless nicer paths to take through the language. Christle seems to sacrifice the personal—her image, her mythology—in the name of the poems. “This is a televised/attempt to bring myself to justice,” she writes. “A way of reaching up to touch again/the harmless, feral sky. I won’t stoop/to demonstrate the birds’ small and frantic/black eyes, but you can probably/imagine and then probably stop.” And we can.
The Difficult Farm almost always reaches out and up, even when its peculiar language—forests, geese, historial fact, line break jokes—is most limited or limiting. Like Jack Spicer said in his 1965 Vancouver Lectures:
Now, if you have a cleft palate and are trying to speak with the tongues of men and angels, you’re going to still speak through a cleft palate. And the poem comes distorted through the things which are in you. Your tongue is exactly the kind of tongue that you’re born with, and the source of energy, whatever it is, can take advantage of your tongue, can make it do things that you didn’t think it could, but your tongue will want to return to the same normal position of the ordinary cleft-palate speech of your own dialect.
Since the Farm’s major cripple would probably be too many adorable bees or too many trees, this might sound a bit harsh. But Spicer’s examples get a little kinder and more to the point. “It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message,” he says. “This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.”
The unique virtuosity of The Difficult Farm is in how it works beauty into this very resistance of language. Take “Acorn Duly Crushed”:
Dear stupid forest.
Dear totally brain-dead forest.
Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest
full of nightingales
why won’t you shut up.
What do you want from me.
Even as Christle crushes her lovely, idiotic trees—through address, the same way she was converted to a vibrating bird—the nightingales emerge. They punctuate her total, justified rage, making it glimmer a glimmer she then, too, snuffs.
Dear rapid bloodless forest
you are talking all the time.
You are not pithy.
You are like 8,000 swans.
With every thrash comes a new, insanely gorgeous sensation. “Dear rapid bloodless forest” is really a poem in itself. The trees sprout 8,000 otherwise graceful heads, which we feel in the chest. It goes on: “Blunt international forest./Forest of bees and of hair.” Every iteration of forest rebirths a forest. Despite the anger, the letter blocks remain. However, through combination and rearrangement, the forest’s genetic makeup seems to change with the poem. Sure enough, it becomes something active and dark, something not fully a forest:
You should come back to my house.
We can bag drugs all night.
You can tell me
about your new windows.
How they are just now
beginning to sprout.
beginning to sprout.
Christle wrote recently on her blog, “Trees happen to be the furniture in my room, but they’re not real trees. They’re figures. They’re the nouns that I need to do the real work, which is all the stuff between the nouns.” The Difficult Farm isn’t here to trick you. It’s here to literally work the old tricks into real magic, to fix poetry’s lame old tools by using them again.
Given this, it’s strange that Christle would frame the book with a title like The Difficult Farm, which suggests exactly the kind of easy, domestic surrealism her poems shake off. It’s also strange that she’d wrap it in bright, cleaning-product yellow (though it’s now available in Robin’s Egg Blue). For an answer—or really, a working solution—we’re offered a poem uncannily titled “Stroking My Head with My Deception Stick.” After a weird arrangement of hair, police, and conversations with the elastic-lipped dead, it comes.
And then you hear the screaming, not to be found
within the dead, but rather in the tiny
black pot which holds the greater part
of our mass and the difficult
farm where all the hens are black
and black are the wheatfields through which
runs a black and silent wind. Thin teachers
explain to our children: if the farm is a burgeoning
snowglobe, then the screaming’s a legend, like glass.
In the difficult farm—“the difficult/farm”—the screaming half-emerges, its other half in a pot, and everything is black, and the farm is propositionally explained as a snowglobe, maybe bounded by its own legendary terror. This happens. The darling snowglobe on the darling bureau gets blown up into something that contains screaming and ash, yet somehow still burgeons. Growth becomes possible in the most charred and cold of places, even a troped-out, boring farm.
Under this new construction, which comes three-quarters of the way through the book, Christle gives us some avalanching moments as sublime as anything from Harmonium or Some Trees, and with their same emphasis on processing and simultaneity. Here’s the ineffable last third of “Pale Lemon Square.”
I feel like I’ve been studying
to become a doctor forever and now, faced
with a real-world pandemic, I’m full
of unmitigated lust for business—as though
I were sitting in a high school classroom
watching the morning’s snow foster impending
cancellations and all the attendant policies. Soon,
if not at once, the library and gymnasium will be
redubbed infirmaries, and you and I will drift
among the cots like swans in ever-wider grids.
The lines pile up like sophisticated, readable snow. There is both immense clutter and immense organization. Narrative works alongside the total change in frequency happening with every enjambment. When one thing happens, another will happen “soon, if not at once.” In the space of one written poem, snow can become policies, become swans, get dropped into a high school campus, then a storm shelter, get seen from the window, then from the sky, then get forgotten among the sweet, familiar cots. We are endlessly propelled toward the bottom, yet resisting propulsion.
And indeed, Christle’s poetry is smart enough to recognize our ability to experience all this, and generous enough to give it all to us. The brain is miraculous and immense, even sacred. On her blog, Christle writes,
If anyone would like to dress my poems in some kind of outfit, it should be a cognitive blouse. When I sit down to write, that is where I am facing, toward the brain. The brain is linked to the earth and to the past, but I can’t head straight toward them. I’d miss too much on the way. Everything is there for me in the brain. It gives me everything I need. And you have one too. And it seems likely to me they have much in common. So that, I think, is where I start.
If there’s an ethical or political project behind the book, then, it’s less capital-F Feminist or capital-S Surrealist or capital-E Environmentalist than it is an Ashberian project of being pleasant with whatever masks, voices, animals, and ceilings strike the mind. Whatever can be thought of is fair game, whether it’s schematic or moral or boring or black and white. Christle also shares with Ashbery (and Stevens) a masterful awareness of poetic momentum, her final lines often turning with the weight of everything that came before. Tough, irritating poems become worth the struggle in their last moments, exploding beautifully. “Now stand and shake that butt as though/some god were shaking it for you.”
via PennSoundWhere Christle and Ashbery differ, though, is their framing. The Difficult Farm’s first line, “Yesterday, looking at a cinderblock’s/reflection,” doesn’t toy with the same hard, unbending, patriarchal authority that Some Trees does, opening “We see us as we truly behave.” The potential power of the cinderblock gets undercut as a reflection. Presence is lost, the glossy mirror takes over. Farm, with its big white bunny, seems to accept classic feminine associations the way Some Trees accepts the masculine—that is, it performs them, bends them, lets them energize the poems, then forgets about them and writes. Still, Christle’s poems, with their frequently TV-like pace, tend to hurry us along through their deepest, murkiest territory, in moments when we need most time. The book seems acutely aware of this, and its response is the poem “Television.” It begins, “People like surprises./Surprise! I am your uncle./And that kind of thing.” The joke is on us, I guess. But the poem goes further than mere acknowledgement. Its arbitrary surprises wind up at an overdetermined end: “Car alarms surprise/nobody. Nobody, you surprise me,/how you are always sneaking in./Ladies & gentlemen, Uncle Nobody./Nobody, this is your life.” Somehow, the speaker seems to be suddenly telling the hard, hurting truth.
These last lines, along with many other closing lines throughout the book, work to put some faith back in the line as a unit, as whole. In poems that undoubtedly reward close attention, this is an important reminder. Difficulty takes time. We need to process the poem. Like difficult Stevens, Christle’s poetry looks both backwards and forwards, communicating without warning across the page, in the faith that you’ll try to keep up. Once we make the effort, big things happen. Here’s a second look at that particularly paisley-dress-shirt-esque passage from “It’s Not a Good Shortcut If Everyone Dies,” the book’s first poem:
I went
door to door, to my neighbors, trying to explain
the system we actually inhabit, and they became
absorbed, so we all flapped our arms together
and though we did not fly away I finally
understood how geese make decisions. I was
crushed. I wandered the earth for eighteen years,
honking at anyone who’d listen and there were
a few who even fell in love with me, but because
they did not understand I was under a powerful
spell they could not help me…
The density of the action is incredible. With its near-uniform line length (a feature we see throughout the book), the poem becomes this space where door opening, wing flapping, total absorption, and physical witchcraft can happen at once—not one after the other, but at once. That The Difficult Farm can offer us this explosive mania alongside a softer, more mediated narrative, is remarkable. This, I think, is what Dara Wier meant by “awfully generous”. There is so much joy in jumping the bright, beaming hurdles Christle throws at us. Maybe that’s the poor rabbit’s secret message. When we accept our compulsion to hop, Christle’s landscape goes past itself, past its pleasant sunlight, and almost touches some harmless, feral sky.
But the compulsion is still primarily to think, and to feel oneself thinking. These are poems that read themselves as they move. Whatever strength it takes to process a word or phrase ultimately gets absorbed, recycled, becoming a part of the poem’s language. The book adds up and expands and implodes and reconstructs, while somehow containing itself. Christle seems to have opened her brain to us in the straightest, most honest ways possible. She’s even lit up and wallpapered the tunnels to get there.
The Difficult Farm is just as difficult as it is a farm, but in it, things happen in spite of the world, and in spite of the poet, and in spite of the reader, and they happen quickly, “and it is the Fourth of July/and it has been for months.”» - Tommy Jacobi

"Forgive me, friends, for looking at this book through poetry-colored glasses. Heather Christle’s lyrics in The Difficult Farm have a great deal to share. Of love, bitterness, generosity, fortune cookies, heartache, empowerment, beasts, and more. You will find so much to enjoy.
I personally, however, couldn’t stop thinking about Heather’s poems as meta-poetry. I read the whole book through at Think Coffee on Bowery and 2nd Street, and these songs sounded to me, at least, like a wild cry of poetics. Too much macchiato? No, folks, I think this one is pretty much down to me.
Here’s why. As poets go, I am not as academic as they come. Yet I am quite academic. I became a poetry fan at college, and like it or not I often reflexively consider poetry in terms of past poetry, dormitories, canon formation, the Norton Anthology, teaching, Major British Writers 10a and 10b, social class, bluebooks, race, psychology, imperialism, wealth, close reading, libraries, feminism, legacy kids, new historicism, the history of the avant-garde, privilege, final clubs, Karl Marx, you name it. I know I am far from alone in this, and this won’t come as much of surprise to anybody who has caught wind of me or my ilk.
Yes, I have backpacked around the world, worked for a medical device consultancy in South Asia, paralegaled, mowed lawns, written obituaries for The Princeton Packet (is this sounding anything like a seventies poetry jacket flap?), done P.R. for Adderall, even rung cash registers at a New Jersey farm stand (is this last more relevant here?). Yet I would lie if I didn’t admit vigorous academic shampooing, grooming, and primping. In front of gilded mirrors with the stylists at an industrial strength deluxe college and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Master of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers, where Heather also studied at the time. If, unlike David Byrne, I can’t sing, “I’ve met the people that you read about in books,” I can at least say that I’ve read about them in books. I’ve been conditioned to think about poetry in academic ways. That is, partly in terms of traditions of poetry as codified in academe. Zzzzzz.
Wake up for a minute; it’s time for more true confessions. I have had a lifelong fascination with places where brains grow. Partly as someone who loves to teach and study, but I also mean this in a literal sense. Have you seen The Man with Two Brains? With Steve Martin? I haven’t. I wish! I was ten years old when it came out, and my parents were strict about R-rated movies, particularly films in the gross-out comedy genre. But I remember being really fascinated by the picture’s title and begging to go. Now I see the movie is streaming at Netflix.com. I’ve recently turned thirty-six, so I’m definitely going to watch it soon.
One time, at debate camp, the director, a noise music enthusiast who called himself ‘Tuna,’ gave us all extra-large black tee shirts that read: “BRAIN FARM: WE GROW ’EM BIG!” Tuna was extra large himself, and extra-large tee shirts were fashionable then. The late eighties. I wasn’t a very sportif teen, as you might imagine, but my tee flapped about my paltry frame as I shredded my friend James’ quarter-pipe on a Vision Old Ghosts skateboard. Later, during college, came yawning moments when, just before I stepped aboard the last train, I pondered what for me was the Red Line’s more intriguing terminus: Braintree.
By now you’ve probably guessed that the brain/farm figure germinated thick as sod in my tender mind. Indeed, the brain-farming metaphor rooted itself deeply enough in my psyche, gentlemen and ladies of the jury, that I will now go and misread The Difficult Farm’s opening of the field primarily in terms of an idiosyncratic meta-poetry. As if Heather had written a book of poems about poetry, for crying out loud! This is a quirk, or quark, of my own, and should not prejudice other readers’ readings of this wonderful book. The Difficult Farm is definitely varied enough and vigorous enough and, yes, difficult enough, to invite a cornucopia of readerly responses. As Tuna would say, grow ’em big!
“It’s Not a Good Shortcut If Everyone Dies,” declares the title of the book’s first poem. Sound advice. The poem’s self-conscious speaker is not a little miffed about the contemporary scene. “I finally understood painting. I was irate!” she exclaims, proceeding to grab a “sledgehammer” and demolish a “cinderblock” and “terrarium.” Later, the speaker comes to the realization that she “finally / understood architecture. I was irate!”
…I went
door to door, to my neighbors, trying to explain
the system we actually inhabit, and they became
absorbed, so we all flapped our arms together
and though we did not fly away I finally
understood how geese make decisions. I was
crushed. I wandered the earth for eighteen years,
honking at anyone who’d listen…
These geese are the first animals named in Heather’s teeming bestiary of a book, though before them come human animals (the speaker and her neighbors) and the unnamed inhabitants (if there were any) of the smashed terrarium. The geese made me think of Walt Whitman’s meditations about the (male) goose that, according to Walt, calls the shots:
The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.
Whitman’s sure declaration that the gander’s only seemingly “meaningless” cry of “Ya-honk!” is in fact purposive foreshadows the poet’s famous self-identification with a yowling winged creature, later in “Song of Myself”:
I too am not a bit tamed… I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. (Leaves of Grass, 1855 Edition.)
Through the imitation of goose behavior (“we all flapped our arms together”), Heather’s speaker in “It’s Not a Good Shortcut,” does not discover (as Whitman did) an arrogant, bossy, companionable, authoritative, autobiographical, progressive first-person poetic voice. On the contrary, the trajectory of “It’s Not a Good Shortcut” leads to a radical diminishment of the speaker’s sense of self, to the point where we can’t be sure if the speaker is really there, or even if the poem really exists:
…I’m down to quarks, an idea
so tiny it’s sometimes not even there and it suits
me—I appear, the thought appears: quark.
The speaker is bereft of aesthetic pleasures (which bring anger and violence, not edification); sustainable shelter (“running / outside to see my house collapse”); intersubjective discourse (the neighbors flap together, but it’s unclear if they converse); and lacks even the goose’s instinctual ability to migrate away from inhospitable weather (“so I walked sadly / north, migrating so slowly I never reached / anywhere”).
The first speaker we encounter in The Difficult Farm may be read, then, as a kind of disgruntled and sorrowful poet. One who repeatedly cries, “I was irate!” (I couldn’t resist breaking this last word into its two syllables: “I rate.”) Of course, it would be a grave error to equate this speaker with Heather herself. In fact, the speaker of this complex parodic poem is the first of a motley multitude of characters to cross The Difficult Farm’s burlesque stage.
Okay. Let’s consider Ezra Pound. He made “a pact” with Whitman in Lustra (1916) only to reject as dubious, to a relative degree, certain of Whitman’ tenets about the stability of authorial identity. In Lustra, Pound dons the masks of multiple personae in order, in many of the book’s lyrics, to critique the poems of his contemporaries: either allegorically or head-on. I think Heather’s project in The Difficult Farm analogous in its outlines to Lustra, although different in several important respects.
First, a difference. There is a refreshingly feminist flavor to Heather’s approach that is, shall we say, rather lacking in the Pound. Her poem “One of Several Talking Men” hilariously lampoons the affected paranoia of a pedantic shut-in who asserts, “I am, moreover / a senatorial moment.” “Wilderness with Two Men” gives us a rather pathetic pair who go to ridiculous lengths to suppress the erotic nature of their homosocial bonding and end up shooting guns at each other. “The Barbarist” is voiced by an outraged and outrageous kind of Madame de Salon, who brusquely asks “Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Adams, / Mr. Didn’t-Feel-Obligated-to-Wear-Any-Pants. / Where are your bustling wives?”
Second, The Difficult Farm marks a withdrawal of autobiographical authorial identity to a remove several orders beyond Whitman or Pound, or even the Eliot of the oft-repeated dictum, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Of course, a lot of poetry has come down the pike since Lustra, but if I’m not mistaken, Heather isn’t gaming to reclaim the Romantic. She is having a lot of fun pointing up the foibles, small victories, trickery, trumpery and frumpery of the current poetry scene.
As I’ve explained above, for my own autobiographical, quirky reasons I’m reading Heather’s book as a brilliant and sometimes savage critique of the poetry industry today in these United States. Viewed from this slant, The Difficult Farm is a sociological, topographical and zoological study of the poetry farm where American poets work hard and hardly work. A farm that produces difficulty, and not much else.
Which makes each of us poets, in Heather’s world order, a kind of animal. Which we were already, of course, but with a difference. As zookeeper/inspector/overseer Heather’s great predecessors are Marianne Moore with her precise biology of types (see, for example, the wonderful “The Octopus”) and Elizabeth Bishop, with her curious, exacting, overdetermined analogies (“The Fish”).
In “Variants on an Animal Kingdom,” Heather’s speaker begins:
People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret.
In numerous contexts (the reading room of the British Museum, for example) such a salutation (“Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird”) properly could be construed as misogynistic and offensive. But the speaker’s explanation asserts her power and freedom. The speaker claims responsibility for her misidentification with an invention (a robotic bird? a gender identity?) by owning that invention, naming herself its regretful creator. Later, a similarly assertive but distinctly more anxious speaker declares, “I will not renounce the decorative” (“Themselves Performing Small Brave Acts”). The question that lingers in both cases, as the title of the second poem hints, is whether such mini-declarations of freedom and invention amount to a hill of beans. My sense here and elsewhere is that Heather is poking fun, with considerable justice, at the self-seriousness of poets who make bold claims about the powers of the imagination.
The poetry industry might be responsible, in fact, for runoff more insidious than mere rosy pronouncements. In “What an Undertaker Does to His Family at Night,” Heather’s rather sinister speaker asserts, “Most of the world gets embroidered in the end.” Not a very comforting thought in an era of pollution and global warming. The Undertaker goes on, “If you’re under / my feet, you’re a plant in a poem by an Episcopalian poet.” We can read “feet” two ways here. As the feet of the Undertaker, who “steps on” (borrows from?) the pages of an Episcopalian poet (e.g., the famously Episcopalian Ashbery?) in order to climb or to destroy. Or we can think of metrical feet, and again of the inheritance of leaves of poetry. And there may be a hint of Whitman’s bequest, that we look for him, bodily and spiritually, under our bootsoles.
Yet Heather has her unnerving character, the Undertaker, say, “There are times I’d like to be perfect, i.e. digital.” Can we recognize this type of poet? This type of person? Have I looked closely in a mirror today? As the poem’s rather terrifying closing chords go:
…My favorite kind of singing
is choral, but I don’t believe in harmony. When we all
sing the same notes, we wake a newborn monster.
Elsewhere a speaker takes a flustered, impatient, yet kindly approach:
The geese—all of these
wild geese are beeping
There is a lack of new reeds
in the lake.(“Vespers”)
The furiously intense speaker of “Barnstormer” might be calling for the banishment of lament:
I do not feel well do you feel
well? my throat’s on fire I mean
missing something crucial let’s say
the filament say filament!
Yet a page later we hear from a rueful speaker who admits that
when goslings die the nation
gets sadder.(“Because the Limit Seeks Its Own”)
Yet for all of what I see as The Difficult Farm’s mourning for and chiding of contemporary poets (or poultry, as the case may be: “I call the chickens names,” a speaker remarks), this book emphatically is not for poets only. The question of how to foster a closer personal relationship with breathing, with language, is one of those questions everyone can spend more time with. As is the question of where we might find beauty, if not in painting, terrariums, or architecture.
Heather’s book invites us to come in out of the “ad hoc rain.” As one of her speakers generously suggests, “If a farmer wants something / to do with me there is a way for him to get it” (“Upon the River Pang”). Heather’s savage and wild and surprising and critical book contains multitudes, and in doing so forges new pathways for poets and everybody else. Did I mention that it’s really funny, too?» - Chris Hosea

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