In The Difficult Farm
reviewed by AngelaVeronicaWong
In The Difficult Farm, Heather Christle creates a parallel universe where the everyday weaves into the fantastical, where the things we don’t understand are magnified and elevated (“Yesterday, looking at a cinderblock’s/ reflection—lightest grey on golden floor—/ I finally understood painting. I was irate!”). This is a world of absurd magical realism; a world where men have “phantom antlers” which they try to groom, but end up grooming air; where relatives are (not represented by, but are) the “small green dots” on maps that glow and “move around”; and unmade birthday cakes resemble schoolmates we never met. The poems delight in oddities, inviting us to celebrate life as a collection of oddities. There is something beautiful and brave in the way The Difficult Farm embraces the small, strange things we are, exclaiming: see, everything may be weird, but everything is ours.
Guiding us through the collection is Christle’s narrative “I.” Bemused and amusing, consciously self-conscious, her narrator is at times borderline blowhard, at times patient prophet. She is blessed with a childlike self-centeredness balanced with sophisticated wisdom and understanding. The narrative “I” makes an appearance in each poem, though in one or two appears as a “we.” Each statement or question the “I” makes places her in context of a “you” or a “we.” This is fitting, because Christle’s poems desire to seek and understand—and what is more important for an “I” to seek out and understand than a “you”? Christle’s “I” searches to be seen and heard, not out of egotism, but because the “I” realizes this life is about relationships, about the “you” and the “I” coming together to become a “we,” no matter who the “you” and “I” actually are. The loveliest moments occur in lines that render extraordinary all these ways we try to escape being alone:
… Maybe one day we will be the two lonely souls forced to sit together on the Ferris wheel. We will need a signal. What if when we reach the top you start humming something from “The Planets”—then I will know it’s really you and not some radio DJ trying to give me another prize.
Perhaps the speaker in Christle’s poems are endearing because they love hearing themselves speak, and so we too adore their monologues. The “I” may be inclined to be suspicious of its reader, but she is generously forgiving of our faults. Christle’s poems feature an optimistic curiosity, simultaneously poking fun at everyone, but also dependent on another for validation:
Monday evening I took out the garbage. Nobody saw me, but I looked beautiful. The last time somebody saw me I said hello. (“What Is The Croup”)
Here, the “I” revels in the mundane, elevating the act of taking out garbage because the “I” looks beautiful. She questions if beauty can exist without being seen, but by quickly claiming it, she establishes it to be. This kind of nimble logical movement occurs often in Christle’s poems, keeping us aware of the speaker’s partiality. Though we have little choice but to accept her version of the story, her mixture of insouciance and vulnerability, make us gladly accept it.
The Difficult Farm is full of great one-liners, the kinds that turn unexpectedly and delight in their own stating: “Democracy stinks. My classmates/ elected the hamster;” “If you cut your bangs short/ you’ll look more constantly/ surprised;” “I love/ the asphalt and everyone’s terrible behavior;” “No liver/ would call me a friend.” They ping-pong into poems, coming from all directions and quickly launch into something else, like they are deliberately trying to distract the reader from realizing they are really exploring who and what we are. These are lines that insist upon attention—how can lines such as “Because my head is a magnet for bullets/ I am spending the day indoors” be ignored? Christle dares us to prioritize the line in favor of the poem, which often proves extremely difficult because of the charm of the poem as a whole.
It’s hard to resist quoting a Christle poem in its entirety, partially because it seems futile to describe the effect of her writing as opposed to presenting the writing so it can take effect—but also because each sentence, when looked at singularly, can look disjointed from the next, yet fits within the context of the poem so well, it seems a pity to untangle it from the group.
In “Barnstormer,” call and response collide as Christle folds statement with question with answer, combining the three into one. She leaves out the end stop, but keeps the question mark and exclamation point. Reading the mashed-together sentences is like hearing someone inexperienced read off a teleprompter:
… I think beauty rises from the dead do you think beauty rises? like the great retarded sun? like here comes beauty with its slow dumb light and it’s touching stuff & now I’m scattering feed I ordered from mother nature’s catalog which everyone knows has the best pictures that’s why it’s all cut up & the seed is falling out the holes & the chickens are falling out the holes & everyone gets papercuts! goodbye chickens have a nice time exploding in oblivion!
The poem’s momentum builds through the interaction between each of its sentences, quite often because of the unexpected ways the poem moves and the unexpected spaces the poem moves into.
Christle delicately layers unpredictability into poems.. She uses punctuation, language, form, titles, and the narrative itself to keep the reader uncertain and curious. In “Television,” Christle explores “surprise,” a perfect meta-action/object for Christle’s work: the act of surprising is only completed if the recipient is surprised. The poem opens declaring this fact:
People like surprises. Surprise! I am your uncle. And that kind of thing.
While Christle uses the word “surprise” twice in the first two lines, and four times in the last eight lines, in the middle fourteen lines the word only appears once. She sets the reader up to expect a barrage of the word “surprise,” then takes it away, and brings it back as soon as we have comfortably accepted its absence.
The relationship of the title to the poem is unexpected as well. Nowhere in the poem is “television,” or anything directly related to “television,” mentioned. As readers, we build our own connections: is it titled “Television” because reading through the poem is feels like channel surfing?
It is refreshing to read poems bursting with openhearted sharing. “Let’s say all the things to each other/ as if we were two friends chatting/ while waiting for the bus,” Christle writes. These are not “happy” poems—there are funerals and wars, people are abandoned and misunderstood—and they are quick to point out our fallibility and foolishness, but it’s hard not to be hopeful, even a bit happy, while journeying through The Difficult Farm. As Christle’s “I” throws her arms open wide to embrace her world, we are inspired to as well:
… How can I help but love the whole stupid planet? In which I make mistakes. In which growing occurs almost daily, for those who don’t expire. For you I would make an entirely new animal, perhaps a larger, more polite bee. It is very clear to me that I will never learn my lesson.
“The world is fond of us, with reservation,” she informs us in another poem. Maybe it’s okay to admit that despite ourselves, we are fond of the world too.