Heather Christle, “Pursuits”

Pursuits (from Poetry)
Heather Christle

It is not that you want
to be the one to make prints
in the untrampled snow
It is that you want
to be in the snow
without having touched it
to be of the snow
not beginning
Everywhere commerce
dictates the shapes
that move you along
that seat you at the table
far from the snow
far from the act
of not touching
It only gets worse
A girl’s gotta eat
And your hunger’s
not even your own

Comment:

While this poem is very, very good, I do wish it had a less colloquial tone. For me, the issue it raises runs deep. We’ve been taught for so long that want of control and pride are linked. But what of wanting innocence, purity?

The poem starts with a playful image – yeah, we frolic in the snow. Then it suddenly moves to an existential comment. The audience is told they “want to be in the snow / without having touched it / to be of the snow / not beginning.” One might think the playful tone is out of line at this moment, but it reinforces that if we want innocence and purity we at least have to start with simple, childlike pleasures. “Not beginning” is a strange want of ours, but I think it has to do with how a state of innocence does not progress. Our desires are their own fulfillment.

To be sure, this makes the image presented very, very strange. We are not talking about someone being snow simply. If there ever was an image associated with becoming – coming-into-being and perishing – it sure as hell is “snow.” And yet, look at our speaker’s language to this point: “to be in the snow;” “to be of the snow.” Somehow, the snow is supposed to hold us – we are supposed to be in it – and we are supposed to be composed of it, and the two are one and still two. That’s how, on a basic level, desire gets its fulfillment immediately. That’s how “snow” is a kind of being; it is cheating, but the speaker is hinting that if it has an identity, then it is. It is pure, after all – it must be something more than all those impure things out there.

It is not hard to notice that this is a ridiculous state of affairs, and the outstanding question is why we ever desired it. The problem of desire is that of control. “Commerce” gives us “shapes” that move us; we have to be seated at the table. The world feels like a conspiracy of our and others’ desires, and we’re not simply stuck in it. We’re unfree to the point where we cannot recognize ourselves; we’re moving, eating machines. At the same time, it is impossible to talk about the human being itself without reference to something. Thus, snow: that which mirrors us in being so easily impacted.

The poem is logical but the logic is nonsensical. This is intentional, as there’s a moral to be had. We started with hating how we’re dictated to by one desire or the other. This moved us to the wish to be “in” and “of” snow. That wish is more problematic than being ridiculous – the thought stems too directly from the rejection of desire. One can say the rejection of desire is also a desire. There’s more, though. “Your hunger’s not even your own” speaks volumes: do we really want to be? As we’ve discussed before, the heart of Greek piety for the tragedians was that it was better not to have been born at all. Our very want of an identity is conditioned by what’s around us, what’s higher and lower. In a weird way, our want to be of and in snow is confirmed. Snow just “is” in the sense it is wholly passive. A certain stillness in this life, regardless of what desire screams and control seeks, isn’t a bad thing.

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