by Ayten Tartici
Published by Wesleyan University Press, 2015 | 112 pages
NASA’s website for its Voyager mission defines the heliopause as “the outer limit of the Sun’s sphere of influence,” the point at which the Sun’s radiation fades into deep space. As chance would have it, Voyager 1—the space probe launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond—is believed to have crossed this boundary on the same day as Neil Armstrong’s passing. Heliopause, Heather Christle’s fourth and most recent collection of poems, takes inspiration from this coincidence, which neatly relates the profound voids of death and interstellar space. Through her careful, gentle attention to the local and personal, Christle gestures outward toward the cosmic and sublime. Her lines explore boundaries both personal and metaphysical—those between self and other, between being and nothingness—and the potential of language to bridge such divides.
“Myself the eager magnet,” writes Christle, and indeed, she gathers together a variety of materials in this collection, including NASA transmissions of the first Moon landing, notes on William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops,” and e-mails to her poet friend Seth Landman. Christle is a deft poet, nimble in juxtaposing these elements while revealing the surreal and evocative possibilities of language itself (in one poem, buildings are “verbless,” the lights inside them “pronouns”). Her tone wavers between the personal and the philosophical (“There are limits / These are my limitations”), the playful and the solemn (“I think / of us as laughing at death / knowing / and not minding that death laughs back”). In such constellations Christle’s poems become “a place to let the world in / a way of not ending.”
In any book of poetry, language is the exploratory probe, the means of delving into the unknown. In Heliopause, Christle engages playfully with language as language, problematizing the medium and revealing both its possibilities and failures in her attempts to communicate across the distances that exist between self and other. “They made / the telephone,” she writes, “in order / to say / Come here / I need you.” In both her epistolary and elegiac modes, there is a sense that the poet speaks intimately yet into a void. In her personal, urgent “Dear Seth” series—whose text consists of e-mails sent to Landman—Christle talks through her daily life and approaching motherhood. Landman’s replies are not included. In her elegies, Christle grapples with the pain of separation: “how long do we wait before we say / there’s no reply.”
Christle explores these ideas through a range of poetic strategies. The book opens with “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” an explicit “project” poem. She wrote this long piece over the course of several weeks, while listening each morning to William Basinski’s original composition, “The Disintegration Loops.” Basinski’s work arose during a period when he was digitizing old cassette tapes and found that the physical tapes were degrading slightly with each play. The final “Disintegration Loops” are recordings of short segments of tape run on loop, altogether documenting the gradual erosion of the contents until only ghostly traces remain. (Basinski later paired the digital recording of that process of degradation with footage of the last hour of daylight on September 11, thereby adding specific meaning to the musical ruin and decay.) As Basinski’s tapes function as both artwork and historical document, so Christle’s “Disintegration Loop 1.1” serves as both poem and documentation of the process of its own composition, with the music’s irreducible hour, the video on the computer screen, woven into both the meaning and structure of the poem. “I drag the cursor backward / so it can start again,” she writes. “I’m reversing / into morning what was night.” In her poem, as in Basinski’s compositions, destruction becomes generative; creation arises from disintegration. The poem breaks into short stanzas, “loops” that continually resist closure (“this is where to escape”), circling back repeatedly to Basinski while gesturing outward into a broader network of influences and relations.
The second long poem of Heliopause, “Elegy for Neil Armstrong,” employs a different conceptual strategy, in this case an erasure project involving NASA transcripts of radio communications between Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and mission control during the first moon landing. Erasure, an artistic process in which the artist erases parts of a source text to reveal a “new” text, simultaneously challenges the idea of an autonomous poet-creator while embodying that poet’s singular creation. Here, Christle sculpts an elegy out of her source material, sensitively engaging with the materiality of language while evoking larger questions of distance, space, and death.
The original NASA transcripts Christle “samples” in her “Elegy for Neil Armstrong” were printed as white text on black paper, and that format is preserved in the poem to astounding effect, as the black “space” of the page evokes that of space itself, the characters on the page each a distant glowing star. Black pages are also used for the epistolary sequence and divide the general sections throughout, providing both a symbolically rich medium for her text and an elegant way to structure the book. Throughout Heliopause, Christle employs the experimental and emotional possibilities of language to evoke the broader ontological questions that lie within the everyday. “I think I know how / it’s going to end,” Christle writes, but “there is uncertainty enough /to hold me still.” The poems of Heliopause dwell within this uncertainty, employed as telescopes of sorts, pointed upward toward the stars and void.
Rose Miller is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA in poetry. She is from Cincinnati, Ohio.