Yesterday evening, the poet Heather Christle drove to Cleveland from Yellow Spring, OH to read and discuss her poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt of the introduction I gave for the event.
In “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring,” the opening poem of The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), Christle writes: “I want to show you something I don’t care what I want you to look where I say” (3). While thinking about how to access her book and the poems therein, I read this passage as a directive.
And where does Christle want us to look? Well, she tells us twice in the title: to the trees, of course.
In looking toward the trees, then, I first revisited some of my favorite tree poems in order to remind myself of what they can offer us as readers. For instance, in “Some Trees,” the poet John Ashbery informs us that:
you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
Yes, the trees can function as an analog for ideal human relationships, wherein “their merely being there” teaches us how to “touch” and “love.”
Conversely, in Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees,” our arboreal counterparts remind us of our own mortality, such that “Their greenness is a kind of grief” when we realize that, unlike the trees in spring, our bodies do not regenerate with the seasons; rather, they simply decay.
Or, apropos of the weather this winter, Wallace Stevens considers the “pine-trees crusted with snow” and the “junipers shagged with ice” in his poem “The Snow Man,” so as to arrive at a zen-like “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Armed with these mediations on trees, I returned to Chirstle’s book with one basic question: “How does the poet show us trees and their mere being?” What I gathered is that showing us trees is a bit of a conjuring act, in that, yes, there are “trees…all around us,” but they “move themselves across the planet in wide invisible lines” (46); to see them, then, is to see something that is invisible, ethereal: the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” It is the poet’s duty, perhaps, to show us that nothing; to feel that nothing; to experience that nothing; to be that nothing.
Luckily for us, the invisible nothing of trees finds fertile ground “to in live” in each little “rectangle” (18), which are the prose poems of Christle’s book. And as the trees grow within these rectangles, the speakers of the poems “hang upside down” (56) from them, “fall back up into” (51) them, and are the “noisy” singers who remind us that, yes, the trees do indeed love us (59); because, without the voice of the poet telling us otherwise, we might not know this to be true.
Christle’s collection of poems welcomes us into “a tree-based society” where “women and…men all live in trees” (42), appreciating the “greenness” not as grief, but as a place to “Begin,” as Larkin wrote, “afresh, afresh, afresh.” And although Larkin was correct in acknowledging that we cannot repair our bodies, Christle comforts us in the knowledge that, in this freshness, we can repair our “ruined” souls (57) as we “move faster” through our lives “toward that tree which does not care” (55) because it simply exists in its mere being.
Here is a video clip of Christle reading her poem “Je M’Appelle Ivan” from The Trees The Trees during the event:
The next Poets of Ohio event will take place on Tuesday, 18 March with Dave Lucas, followed by a 27 March event with Tyrone Williams. This semester’s series will conclude with a 10 April reading and discussion by Larissa Szpourluk.