Posts Tagged ‘The Ditty Bops’

Oh Say Can You Twee? : Heather Christle’s “The Difficult Farm”

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Heather Christle

If The Difficult Farm were a human girl, it would have bangs and roller skates and carry a lunchbox as a purse. But that’s not to say that this book is hipstery. It doesn’t come off as hipstery in the slightest. It’s just twee—you know, “aggressively cute.” But I say that in neither an insulting nor a dismissive way. In fact, I think it is a strike against other MTV-Generation poetry that it has so far not succeeded in being quite this balls-to-the-wall twee. Twee has been a defining attribute of the Other Arts for the past decade, and poetry has been out of the loop. At least, until now, because The Difficult Farm is as twee as a remake of Juno in which every part is played by one of the Ditty Bops. It’s like the unholy love child of Zooey Deschanel and a LOLcat. Why is this a compliment again? Because The Difficult Farm is one of the only contemporary books of poetry I’ve read that feels like the time it is from, to the same extent that music and movies do.

I’d like to try it again. You give me
your native handbag collection, and I will give you
my lilac soap. Later we can get carried away
and perhaps even employ a tombola. I will not,
I cannot remain in charge of prizes. Please,
you must look quickly at our fellow citizens
and tell me, do they not seem unwell? I feel so
concerned.
        —from “Pale Lemon Square”

You could show these poems in 20 years to someone who has never seen them before, and they would be like, “Wow, these poems feel like that time in the late Aughties and early Teenies when everybody wore those glasses and every movie trailer had that one part from that Arcade Fire song that’s like Oohhh-OOHHH-Oh-OH-Oh-OH-OOOOHHHH.” But don’t worry—it’s not an ironic, calculated twee like the Progressive Insurance Girl. It’s more an organic, slightly unhinged twee like those Sony Ericsson commercials with Kristen Schaal.

It bears mentioning that I saw Ms. Christle read, at Bushwick’s Poetry Time series, before I ever read any of her work. I bought her book immediately and enthusiastically after the reading, which is rare for me (and no, it wasn’t because of Ms. Christle’s looks, although she probably thought it was, because someone probably told her that, so whoever told her that, thanks a lot, ASSHOLE). I bring up the reading for two reasons. One, in order to mention that Christle is a phenomenal reader, with possibly the best stage presence I’ve observed in a poet of my generation; it’s obvious that she has put a deal of thought not only into developing a vocal persona that suits the work, but even into the business of commanding a room and playing with and off of an audience, decidedly a rarity in living American poets (before one poem, she entreated the audience to stand and spin around for 30 seconds, as she felt the poem was best appreciated while dizzy). If you have the opportunity to see Heather Christle read, make it a top priority to do so, even if it requires travel.

The second reason I bring it up is that, as a result of experiencing the reading before the work on the page, I was powerless during The Difficult Farm not to hear the poems in Christle’s unforgettable stage voice. This was very much a good thing, but it begs the question: would I have enjoyed the book as much if I had never heard the poet read? I believe so, but as a point of honor I must admit that I can never know. I suppose it also begs the question of whether this is even a problem: if I like poems more because the poet is a good reader, then—provided that I feel no disappointment when left alone with the page, which I definitely did not in this case—why should anyone feel that this is problematic? I think the question makes us uncomfortable because it cuts to the heart of how we fancy poets distinguish ourselves not only from slam poets, but from more popular arts generally: one cannot be accused of sliding by on personality if one has no personality, so many contemporary poets simply get rid of their personalities—especially while reading, during which they. Just. Stare. Straight. Ahead. And. Talk. Like. This. Until. You. Want. To. Punch. Them. (I have addressed this before.) I must get back to discussing Christle’s book, but be aware that this question is only going to get louder. The internet, with its rich multimedia opportunities, is indisputably the friend of the rising generation of poets, and the stronger that friendship gets, the fainter the distinction between our words and our voices is going to become.

Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me say that people are influenced by Dean Young, but I tend to review poets of my generation who are good, and poets of my generation who are good tend to be influenced by Dean Young. Examine these lines from Christle’s “Variations on an Animal Kingdom”—

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. Yesterday a whole tree
emptied itself at once and my garden
was large, sad and full of evidence.
You can do so many bad things
and it is so easy. It takes only
a little research and 90% perspiration.
It takes funding and love for the thrush.
People like to say that when I issue
apologies like this it only teaches
others how to modify birds
to their liking. I say very little
for the most part because I am
shaking and very hungry all the time.
It’s like there is an actual alarm clock
in my ribcage. It’s like an angry harp.

The difference, to me—and it is an important one—is that unlike Young, with his affinity for the French surrealists, Christle does not seem to be trying to subvert anything. As vibrant and fun as Young’s poems are, he is of the academic generation, and his corpus is inseparable from literary theory—this is, to his credit, largely because he looks down upon and mocks literary theory, but the fact remains. The rising generation of American poets seems largely to be characterized by having absorbed the dissociativeness and stark irony of the Academic Era, but jettisoned the self-important political origins and reprogrammed the robot as homo ludens. In short, fun is a priority for American poets under 40—especially, I am happy to say, the ladies, who are gleefully torching their gender’s association with 80s/90s academic humorlessness—and Christle is a fabulous example (Matthea Harvey is another). Mark my words: the poets of the MTV Generation who end up with their faces on the cover of the anthology are going to be the ones who put the most work into obliterating the art’s thralldom to inside-baseball post-structuralist tenure-battle nitpicking, and those who allow themselves to backslide into the dead marshes of Theory do so at the utmost peril to their legacies.

The overall tone of TDF is one of little-girl-lost imperiled earnestness tenuously constructed out of hilarious observations that upon closer inspection may not be hilarious and upon even closer inspection may not even be observations—it’s like if Christina Rosetti got extremely, extremely high.

Troll 2

                                      So is 'Troll 2'

At one point, while reading The Difficult Farm, I lost my place because I actually squealed and bounced up and down in my seat and clapped. I forget where. It may have been here:

The article said it helps to look for one thing,
as a way of accidentally discovering something else.
I picked bears. I was looking for bears.

I didn’t work. I mean,
All I ever got was bears.

The secretary at the elementary school
which had recently seceded
from the Governor Wentworth District
was a bear, and also a steamboat enthusiast.
        —from “The Avalanche Club”

The above, like any number of other poems in TDF, expertly walks the line between being an ironic appropriation of childlike attitudes and imagery in a complex poem for adults and being something that would, you have to admit, work perfectly well as an actual children’s poem if someone decided to give it to some actual children. This, I’ll point out again, is another compliment, as evidenced by the fact that the assessment applies equally to a goodly bulk of Wordsworth, Blake, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Roethke, and the Shakespeare of the Comedies and Romances, among others. All told, there have probably been fewer poets who would not consider it high praise to be informed that children would enjoy their work (Pope and Pound spring to mind, though I love them dear, as do any number of living poets, though I do not).

This is not to say that TDF is merely pleasant. Far from it. In fact, one of the chief advantages of a childlike (as distinct from childish) voice—especially in women poets—is that it allows you to express rage in a sympathetic fashion. Consider:

Democracy stinks. My classmates
elected the hamster. Teacher
doesn’t vote and can’t change
anything. Hamsters die all the time
for good reasons. Once I was
a hamster who loved waterparks
but nobody ever knew. Secrets
are also for presidents.
Teacher knows very little.
        —from “Five Poems for America”

The poems in TDF are allegorical but not, sexual but not, psychedelic but not, cutesy but not, and of course, about nature but not. How can a poetics be about nature when it has to spend all its time just figuring out what does or does not constitute nature in the world in keeps finding itself waking up in? And that’s how poems so indisputably fun locate their imperilment: this voice desperately wants to know what’s going on, and why it isn’t surprising anyone else. It’s been denatured out of everything save its own bright-girl-in-the-front-row wryness, like Lisa Simpson Through the Looking Glass. The only thing that keeps you from falling in love is the sneaking suspicion that once you do, the joke will be on you.

You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It came out over a year ago but I’ve been writing this review for that long because I liked it so much that I couldn’t think of what to say. Then there was a thing with my computer and I lost the original review and had to start over. I can’t guarantee that the poems in it will make you feel better or that they are even intended to, but they will make you angry that you not only didn’t write them but can’t even figure out how to write poems like them after you’ve read them. They will make you say everyone wants to hold these poems but in a respectful way so maybe I should go around acting like these poems. They will make the things around you, buildings mostly, and ideas, easier to deal with, to bend; matter more and matter less. You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It runs around proving that all sorts of things are surprising and a great time.