Book Review

Heliopause, Heather Christle’s fourth book of poetry, exhibits many of the same strengths and singularities that made her previous books so remarkable. The poems in Heliopause are nimble, intelligent, playful, and bold; there is wildness and surprise in the journey of each poem. Even the titles of the poems are unmistakably hers, forceful and inventive: “Me and My Head as Pieces of Wood,” “Flowers Are Also Letters,” and the double-take-inducing “Such and Such a Time at Such and Such a Palace” come to mind. The poems also feature the same formal and linguistic ingenuity as before, only more nuanced and mature. Highly attentive to how lineation, blank space, capitalization, and punctuation (or lack thereof) operate as tools to structure and deploy a given idea, she is—more so than in her previous books—masterful with form.

Heliopause on the whole, however, feels like a much more ambitious project than her earlier books. Its concerns are more varied, as are its strategies—which include erasure and ekphrasis—and its modes—which range from the elegiac to the epistolary. New types of reading experiences are created, as one poem, “Elegy for Neil Armstrong,” even uses white text on a black page. Additionally, in more pronounced ways than previous books, the collection takes full advantage of its length. Far from feeling like an assortment of discrete lyrics, chords of meaning resonate across the poems, which are guided by a number of complex, overarching ideas. Perhaps the best example of this is the heliopause, a concept that gets introduced, complicated, and woven into the modes of thinking in the poems.

The heliopause is an astronomical concept that serves as a lens through which we come to understand the book’s concerns. At the edge of our solar system, where the territory created by our sun’s solar wind ends and interstellar space begins, is the heliopause. Very limited data exists on it, and only the Voyager spacecraft has traversed it; therefore, its nature remains mostly theoretical. As the book wrestles over and over with unknowing and the effect unknowing has on the self, this mysterious boundary between what is known and unknown is a poignant metaphor for the psychological space of the poems. The work of the poet even reminds us of that of Voyager, with its Golden Record of knowledge drifting into the unknown.

The concept is first and most directly addressed in “How Long Is the Heliopause.” Early in the poem, we are met with two of the central crises of the poem and the collection more widely:

They say it is hard to believe
that when robots are taking pictures

of Titan’s orange ethane lakes
poets still insist on writing about their divorces

This is a poem for my husband
on the occasion of Voyager
                                                   perhaps having left our solar system
perhaps about to leave it very soon
                                                                  They cannot say
The message takes so long to drift to reach us
Christle points out the insignificance of the self in our contemporary moment, where we possess such vast knowledge of so many fields such as outer space. She gestures toward the sense of unknowing that, for her, also defines our contemporary moment. Unknowns continue to accrue through the rest of the poem, as Christle writes that this is “the year of evidence of chemical warfare / clear or uncertain / depending on where you live,” before going on to talk of her own possible pregnancy: “Two days from now I will either / bleed or not bleed.” She brings these two unknowns together later in the poem:

And in this moment yes and in this moment no
and in this moment all the lights
go off at once and it is a bomb
or it is a daughter
In these lines, we see the poet’s unknowing span an enormous spectrum, from the inner—the womb—to the extremes of the outer, in the heliopause. Amid these uncertain either/or statements, the poet displays an intelligent self-awareness, beginning with the irony of criticizing poets who focus on their personal relationships before immediately declaring that the poem is for her husband. Here, Christle acknowledges that yes, perhaps it’s absurd for poets to write of their relationships in the age of Voyager and chemical weapons, but at the same time, the self is the only lens there is and the only way to (try to) make sense of the world (and the solar system, and beyond).

Throughout the book, the poems continue to argue that contemporary life is defined by the ways in which increased knowledge as a civilization—through technology, space travel, globalization, and more—brings about greater unknowing in the individual, as well as a greater sense of the smallness of one’s own life. In “Dear Seth,” Christle again mentions the fact that Voyager crossed the heliopause long before humanity received word of its crossing:

and we lived
                         in the strange interim
of an event perhaps having occurred
in the uncertainty of something
having happened
                                  without knowing what
It is like wondering which body part
has begun to kill us

The uncertainty of Voyager having exited the solar system is likened to another unknown: whether one’s own body has begun to die—a question in such contrast to the earlier question of her body bearing new life. Although the unknowns brought up in the lines above are particular to the contemporary moment, the question of death introduces an entirely different kind of urgency. Christle calls our attention to the fact that this kind of unknowing is only possible now; in the past, before we knew so much about, say, cancer, the uncertainty over an organ beginning to kill someone wouldn’t even be possible. For her, our contemporary moment introduces entirely new brands of fear, uncertainty, and existential crises. Later in the poem, this idea arises again: “I’d like to know how this year / will break me.”

What do we do in the face of this unknowing? Perhaps the greatest strength of Christle’s work is she doesn’t pretend to know the solution to such an unanswerable problem. She wrestles with possibilities, but the struggle is never solved absolutely. Instead, we see that struggle enacted, challenging our sense of self and our relationship to knowledge, and Christle earns authority and the trust of her readers not by conquering unknowing but by accepting it.

About the Reviewer

Andy Chen, a native of New Jersey, holds an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis and is the recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. His poems are forthcoming in the Denver Quarterly and his reviews have appeared in Hyphen, Euphony, and the Colorado Review.