The Difficult Farm, by Heather Christle
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!”
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.
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
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.
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
(“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?