REVIEW: Heliopause by Heather Christle

by Heather Brown

Heather Christle’s fourth collection of poetry is named for the outermost boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. It is the theoretical boundary where the interstellar medium and solar wind pressures balance. It is maybe the last predictable place —that is, of places we can know (or think we know) from our vantage point on Earth.

The language of Christle’s collection—more specifically the weight and emphasis of words, the slightly off-kilter syntax and the line breaks—also suggest a last knowable boundary. Punctuation is theoretical and less important here than rhythm and precise arrangement, both of words and lines, and forces of nature seem to be held in balance, right on the dividing lines between human and human, human and animal, human and object.

Object and action too, seem interchangeable, as in the first poem “A Perfect Catastrophe,” nine lines in three sentences that come out all in one breath:

What’s in charge here is the scattered light all over
and how it pulls my very blood into my hands
until they graph a fat what the sun likes holding
and some dumb mutter good and nails me to the bone.

Here, Christle makes active forces of the intangible (light, mutter, a fat what) and brings them to bear upon the physical body (blood, hands, bone). We are challenged to see active and passive in reverse, the immaterial as container for the material.

This is also a collection about simultaneity, about an action that is transcended (perhaps canceled out?) by its own contemplation, and vice versa. In these poems we are both present and absent, both already and not-yet. We are particles and waves, energy and matter, all interacting with one another and outside of time. She begins the poem How Long Is The Heliopause” with this fatalistic observation:

They say before you know you want
to move your hand
                               your hand
is already about to move
They say in advance
                               these things
are decided

In “Such and Such a Time at Such and Such a Palace,” the representations of language are depicted more as taxidermy than taxonomy as Christle bemoans the lack of a single-word infinitive in English and likens it to a poorly stuffed exotic bird

Previously on this show they put
a peacock back together wrong
after its demise
                        Something
there was in the syntax
Poor bird could feel it in his bones

Again and again, boundaries are blurred or challenged, between victim and culprit,

Today you find yourself guilty
as the rim you split
an egg against

between active and passive,

Through the window
the grass tells you
to give up
and you are trying
and

ultimately, between the efficacy and inefficacy of words,

So much can’t be
put back together
To burn the house down
to burn the house up
It’s the same problem
in any direction
You’re matter
You turn on the light

Some say this is a collection about grief, and I suppose it may be, but even more, perhaps it is about the inability of language to capture grief, whether it be caused by the destruction of our monuments, or by any daily, monumental experience. In the epigraph, from W. S. Graham, it seems Christle, while acknowledging the task is impossible, is attempting in her collection to make a place for language and to make it “a real place/Seeing I have to put up with it/Anyhow.” She is in no way resigned to the inefficiency of language, she is merely attempting to put it in its place and to make that place more real than language can be. This is what good poetry means to me.

To Christle, perhaps we are each our own solar system, perhaps we are reaching out to our own farthest boundaries, to collect what data we can about the galaxy that surrounds us, knowing we can only theoretically conjecture and hope the messages return to us intact. Perhaps we are staring into the glass eyes of animals and trying to imagine them back to life, or alive for the first time. As she says of the Voyager spacecraft,

                                               perhaps having left our solar system
perhaps about to leave it very soon
                                                          They cannot say
The message takes so long to drift to reach us.

Even in this last line, “they cannot say” may refer back or forward, making the meaning go two different ways. Begging the question, what can’t they say? And what can’t we? And inside (or outside?) that question, what can we say still?

Wesleyn University Press (2015) : $24.95 Hardcover, $19.95 Ebook

Heather Brown lives and writes poems in Portland, Ore, where she works as a copywriter and freelance literary publicist.

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