I first read what is amazing by Heather Christle at 2:30 in the morning when I could not sleep. I thought I would start by reading the first two or three poems then read something less interesting until I felt sleepy. I read the book all the way through in one sitting. My initial response was a combination of “you cannot be serious” and “oh, that’s good”.
what is amazing is a challenge if you are looking to enjoy and read traditional poetry. I enjoy well-done experimental, modern poetry as well as a well-crafted sonnet. I heard the echoes of Walt Whitman (compare “Oh, Captain, My Captain” to its antithesis Christle’s “The Seaside!”), Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. I am not sure that is a good thing to hear such loud echoes of other poets in published poems. It is not the same thing to drag the ghosts of great poets into your work as to point at a particular poem and say, “It is like that.” The challenge is to craft your truth as reflected in a William Carlos Williams poem. Christle expresses her truth, a very 21st-century truth, in the poetry presented in what is amazing.
The collection is divided into three sections. The rationale is not obvious. You have to sit and think about the poems as a group which is probably the best way to approach what is amazing.
The poems in this collection are tasked to generate feelings, empathy within the reader. The reader is vital to Christle’s poems. The poems are not a voice speaking, telling you what to think, but an invocation of an emotional response within the reader.
The collection starts out with “The Seaside!” letting the reader know this is not a book of traditional poetry. My favorite poems are found in the middle section of the book. The middle section poems have clearer, tighter imagery. “Spider” is my favorite poem in the collection. The imagery of “Difficulties” and several other poems throughout, such as “If You Go into the Woods You Will Find it has a Technology”, reminded me of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by E.A. Abbott. “Basic” is an amusing poem invoking the computer programming language BASIC. Modern subjects and images are used as the voice and objects interact and attempt to generate an emotion in the reader. These are not easy poems. I think the reliance on imagery and the reader’s response to the imagery makes most of the poems ineffective when read aloud.
After sitting with what is amazing for several weeks I still have the alternating responses of “that does not work” and “very good”. Some things work in this collection, and some attempts are not successful. I will read along and stumble over a couplet that is like Emily Dickinson and that bothers me. I would recommend what is amazing as a solid introduction to what will be 21st-century poetry. What is a unique 21st century emotion or sensibility? I have not figured that out, yet, and Christle is working on it, too.
By Heather Christle, what is amazing (2012), Wesleyan University Press. ISBN: 9780-8195-7217-6.