An Engagement with Heather Christle & Kevin McLellan

by Trisha Katz

Heather Christle, Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press, 2015)

Kevin McLellan, Tributary (Barrow Street, 2015)

“They say before you know you want to move your hand / your hand / is already about to move.” One of the speakers in Heather Christle’s newest book, Heliopause, expresses this knowledge, and it is surrounded by poems that explore the dominance of anatomy over mentality. Similarly, Kevin McLellan’s debut collection, Tributary, constructs itself upon the idea that regardless of how strong emotions may feel, one’s physical body ultimately controls life’s course. However, rather than submitting to these beliefs, the two collections dissect and aim to disprove them. In doing so, Christle and McLellan utilize anatomical imagery, leading to a contrast between freedom and physical subjugation: illumination versus darkness. And it is this opposition that comes to define the books, for only after confronting dissonance can the speakers break free from its once unwavering grasp.

Throughout both works, the speakers often express anxiety towards the bodies they exist as, and then introspect upon escaping them. In Heliopause, the poem “They Are Leaving You a Message” relates this unease with the statement “What they are trying to tell you / is that you are wearing the wrong bra / for your shape and situation.” The scenario described here is not unfamiliar to women, nor men for that matter, since most can relate to not being able to wear something due to sizing issues. However, what distinguishes this poem from a straightforward commentary on body image is the succeeding, existential statement: “This might not even be your life.” This contemplation hints at a far-reaching identity crisis, and based on the previous lines, anatomy is largely responsible. Similarly, in McLellan’s “Split Personality,” the speaker describes a situation in which “The Tulip wanted to be the rose / and the rose wanted to be the tulip.” The implications of a “rose” and “tulip” emphasize their inner conflictions, for a rose has strong, carnal connotations, while those of a tulip are much more innocent. Unfortunately, both of these poems--in McLellan’s case, a section of a longer poem--lack resolution, as the subject of Christle’s work leaves her house that “is on fire” to go “buy all the things / I do and do not devour,” and the two flowers realize that no matter their form, they “would still be cut.” In other words, Christle’s protagonist attempts to distract herself from anxiety though indulgent means, and the two flowers realize that no matter their species, they’ll still have the same, tragic fate. So, in a similar fashion, both poems communicate the frustration and dismay that rejecting one’s body may cause.

Unfortunately, vexation is not limited to the previously discussed poems, as the books explore the disregard anatomy has for one’s emotions and goals. In a latter part of McLellan’s “Split Personality,” the speaker describes having “foreign shapes inside [his] blood,” which strongly suggests that he has been struck with an illness of some sort. Later on in the poem, the speaker narrates, “My neck is in front of who I am becoming or rather what I have become,” conveying that his body, or perhaps, his illness, has decided his fate before he could resolve his emotions. An analogous conflict is present in Christle’s “And This Too Comes Apart,” in which the speaker is “arranged into a mother.” The word “arranged” strongly suggests that the speaker’s body has been altered without her consent, which is particularly unsettling given the responsibility bestowed upon her. The lines of the last stanza, “Enumerate to her the lines of the song you haven’t meant yet,” reiterate this notion, for “the song” is a metaphor for wisdom that the speaker has yet to achieve, but must try to express to a child she has not yet met. However, neither speaker rigidly accepts these circumstances, as Christle’s expresses a desire to stand “perpendicular / to the quiet,” and McLellan’s wishes to “live like an open window blows.” Despite the dominance of anatomy in these poems, the speakers’ ambitions to overcome it allow emotional autonomy to make its way.

Unfortunately, before this independence can be gained, periods of darkness must be endured by both Christle’s and McLellan’s speakers. In Christle’s poem “Summer,” the speaker describes how “night moves in with you / into your room / until even your sleep / is not your own.” Here, “night” is a symbol of darkness; and its ability to intrude upon sleep, a physical process necessary for survival, demonstrates a refusal to be ignored. The poem maintains its devious tone: “You undress yourself / more deeply down / like this is the way / to get to the future.” These lines effectively use the body as a medium for introspection, noting how in order to move on from discomfort, one must “undress” it, or in other words, deeply reflect upon its cause. Similarly, in McLellan’s poem “Denouement,” the “forever of 7 long nights” is needed before the speaker can hear “Something / calling & calling / his name. From within.” These lines again suggest that some despair is necessary on the road to self-understanding, for only after those “long nights” does the speaker have a spiritual revelation. And although McLellan and Christle do not reveal what the voice “from within” communicates, or what the “future” holds, both phrases are symbols of opportunity that darkness once concealed.

Towards the end of McLellan’s book, the motif of light becomes a powerful weapon in contrasting darkness and preventing anatomical tyranny. In the poem, “Scattershot (A tribute),” the lines “a beetle flies / / into a lamp / the spiraling // until motionless / a dark spot on / a dark spot / in a glass dome” juxtapose light with darkness in portraying the chaotic death of a beetle. This produces a dismal tone, as the “dark spot” overwhelms the lamp, a source of light. However, his later poem, “Form (A Tribute), offers a glimpse of hope: “dry light defining / the unmade bed.” These lines convey understanding that the speaker’s physical condition has caused a period of darkness, but also that much of his life is  “unmade,” or, yet to be determined. Hope presents itself even more strongly in the latter poem’s final lines: “My body is a trench / To fall in / To climb out of. / Morning light on my body.” Here, the speaker has recognized that his mind can “climb out of,” and exist separately from, his illness; rather than the “dry light” that had previously shone upon his skin, his body now embraces that of the “morning.” Mornings inspire images of renewal and hope: two concepts that the speaker has progressed toward achieving, and that his body previously threatened to inhibit.

In Heliopause as well, illumination is a force that opposes barriers created by one’s anatomy. This relationship becomes strongly apparent in "Poem for Bill Cassidy," which begins with an assertion that despite her “wet tongue” putting out a match, the speaker herself will not “go with it.” Here, the speaker rebels against an act of her body, declaring that she will not allow it to diminish the light, a metaphor for hope, which she has within. However, the mood saddens midway through the poem when the speaker desires to have a “green thought or a mind of winter,” before lamenting how she only has “this green tongue this wet mouth,” and “there’s no detaching them.” By referencing the speaker’s “mind,” “tongue,” and “mouth”, these lines portray a psychological limitation caused by her body: a dilemma that has endured throughout the book. However, immediately following this dismal thought, hope appears: “and look it’s back / the sun.” Thus, at this point in the book, productivity is asserting itself over stagnation, as Christle consistently follows negative metaphors with a source of ambition. The final lines of the poem exemplify this once again, as “black words” are unable to permeate a barrier created by “thick light.” Like McLellan’s conclusion, Christle’s has used luminescence to portray a future not limited to anatomical control.

Although they end triumphantly, much of the material comprising these two collections is unsettling and negative, often expressing subordination under and stagnation caused by one’s body. In Heliopause, anatomy is a barrier to anxiety that the speaker at first refuses to recognize, but which layers of contrasting light and dark metaphors eventually pervade. And in Tributary, McLellan’s speaker must assert independence from a more obvious hurdle: an illness, an affliction to his blood. However, by their ends’, the books both demonstrate what Christle’s poem “In The Dumps” proposes: “Just because we’ve broken my head / doesn’t mean we must glue it together / there’s other work to be done.” Anatomy may define one’s appearance or medical records, but deep introspection will always allow a more powerful, independent existence to emerge.

Trisha Katz is a first-year student in Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences at Boston University. Originally from Rhode Island, Trisha has been an avid reader and writer of poetry since elementary school; however, until now, her work has only appeared on Internet forums under obscure, egocentric usernames. When she isn’t writing, Trisha can most likely be found wandering the streets of Boston, trying extremely hard to not appear lost.