The Color She Gave Gravity

By Stephanie Heit


The Operating System
March 2017

Reviewed by Ally Day


Stephanie Heit's first full-length poetry collection, The Color She Gave Gravity, is a stunning excavation of neurodiversity, love, loss, and futurity and an important contribution to what we might think of as a disability poetic. In the book's final section, "Field Notes," Heit tells readers, "Dance was my first language. Poetry was always woven into my creative practice but came into the foreground when movement wasn't available to me due to disability. To continue to move and do what I love, words offered another way to sculpt space in the choreography of a poem." Indeed, this work feels like a choreographed performance—a collection of movements that take the reader through an embodied dream-like landscape where time and tempo are muddied and fantastical. If we understand a disability poetic as one that takes seriously the poem as a body and the body as a three-dimensional space that is inconsistent, surprising, and unwieldy, then we can understand Heit's collection as a masterpiece of bodies moving against and through one another, making meaning with one another while also each dancing in their own rhythm. 

The collection, composed of eight poems, begins with "Penumbra," where two figures make their way across an urban landscape:

we help each other
down the train steps
into the city we shape
in the slow gestures
of a person adjusting
to too much light. 

The poem, written with only one single end stop but the occasional stanza break, feels like a long wavering breath. Heit writes of the banal every day—"she crosses the street / to get us coffee" alongside the more philosophical, "do bodies create a city?"—allowing the reader clarity and precision that then gets shadowed by what feels like the shadow of the poem itself: a lingering loss of consciousness—perhaps the survival of a stroke, if we take the poem's title to be a reference to the medical meaning of ischemic penumbra. Interspersed in the poem are series of words, at first more connected to the two figures moving through the city ("vibration gateway compass") but later, more ephemeral and disjointed ("nightgown echo doorknob sister" and "rose petals birdsong").This practice of listing reminds us of neurological testing in medical settings. And within the poem, as two figures move across a city, another emerges incarcerated behind a window and we are left wondering how many figures there are, where the speaker is, and who the speaker is. Heit writes often with a kind of inversion of meaning that lends itself provocatively to this movement and muddiness of figures in the poem:

lines collapse
ceilings give weight to floors
we push the sky
with our spines
wish between vertebrae
a city less broken. 

The poem itself plays with ideas of weight and weightlessness, sense and the non-sense. 

She sleeps in tourist office maps
latitude imprints face
the morning
she asks the color
we gave gravity. 

With this poem the reader is immersed into a neuro-divergent landscape.

Heit takes us through many geographies as her choreography develops in the collection. Just as the first poem plays with themes of weight and weightlessness, sense and non-sense, so too does the collection. Some poems appear and read weightier on the page ("Z Cycle," "Lake Etymology") than others ("Enter Amnesiac"). Many poems incorporate what feels ephemeral or fantastical with historical and scientific narratives. Heit's poem "Lake Etymology" is perhaps the most powerful example.  

"Lake Etymology" opens with an excerpt from a 1920's pamphlet, The Tragedy of Crystal Lake, written by a state senator describing the "ill-advised" project connecting Crystal Lake to Lake Michigan. Again, Heit begins her poem with an attention to place: "Before this outline shifted these trees were water. The bank covered in lake. Bluff / submerged." In this poem we follow a girl into the waves:

Simple measurements and
the girl would be under water where now are woods and green. Her house would
be fishes and rippled sand. At night she dreams gills. This is under. Under dream.
Under where breath is held. 

From this first stanza, Heit moves us into an explanation of the origin of this lake project, "There / was no engineer consulted. Water poured the channel overflowing the river / banks. Crystal Lake lowered. Enter beach property. Resorts from logging towns." A listing of towns. Newly wed parents. And in the third stanza, Heit effortlessly merges the historical with the personal: "I was born a hundred years after the tragedy of Crystal Lake. Our cottage was built / on land once lake bottom." As the poem weaves the history of the lake with the history of the speaker's family, we again have two figures, this time in tension with one another. "They give me the name of the sister who died. Stephanie. I am gilled and finned." As the poem moves through tragedy, the speaker imagines this drowning, "Water. She slides off the prow. Life vest trapped tight. She slips through orange." In this remembering, the lines are long with many end-stops, a kind of jagged breath and jerky movement. The speaker does not discover this ghost sibling until she has already mastered the movement of swimming. The water becomes the sight of deep ambiguity as the speaker ends, "One hundred years before I was born and before you / died, a man had the idea to connect one body of water to another."