The Color She Gave Gravity (Stephanie Heit)

Reviewed by Denise Leto

“Torque a non-linear forever like a heart arrhythmia”
–Stephanie Heit, The Color She Gave Gravity (77)

Content Warnings: Electroconvulsive therapy, suicidal ideation, psychiatric oppression

In The Color She Gave Gravity, Stephanie Heit writes a poetic kinesthesia in which the landscape and the body give way to loss and renewal: language, place, survival, and connection are explored. But the book transcends location and lamentation. The poems are not a geography of experience nor are they a standard bearer of sorrow. They are a sensate form to an unseen force. Heit is also a dancer and a teacher of somatic writing and Contemplative Dance Practice. She writes within an interdisciplinary and site-specific art of queer/mad/disability poetics. The tactile and rhythmic influences of these different practices bare a variance of lineation and an organic precision and explosivity of form.

The cover art, “Crossing Visible” by photographer Gwynneth VanLaven, also evokes movement and incorporeality with its unsettling beauty, immediacy, and threat of place. It depicts an orange traffic cone—the icon of accident—set over double yellow lines in a roadway. A woman’s legs seem to dance or fall or crash in a narrow strip of bright yellow mist rising from the blacktop and fading against a night hued background. There is an overlay of traumatic appearance, disappearance, visibility, invisibility, solidity and ethereality in the image: street and body as departure and arrival. The action of getting there is the same as leaving there.

Part of what stands out about the book is how the poet constructs and reverses a multifaceted view of presence and absence throughout; they are often indistinguishable. Whatever safe assumptions we as readers might have about how, when, and where a collection of poems becomes a book do not belong in the world of this work. Without conceit, Heit writes a new world into existence and consequently invites us to relinquish a comfortable artistic pretense. The shape of time and reality stagger toward a balanced imbalance. The poems welcome and challenge in equal measure and they always feel honest—especially when the power of authorship collides with the vulnerabilities of erasure.

Heit works with varied and layered themes. These themes include, among others: the complexity of mental health difference and creative practice; surviving the psychiatric labeling, treatment and institutionalization that erodes true agency and healing; the entropic carousal and distortion of a medicalized “post-cure”; the ritual of dance and movement in the social body; issues of family, grief and death; the perilous abundance and unmistaken sensuality of waterscapes; the feminist/queer identity, sexuality, politics and ecstasy of desire; and the joyful discovery of tender ballast in a radiant, queer relationship are all given to you with generosity and craft.

Most importantly, living and working with the daily passage and proscriptive diagnosis of bipolar disorder is both foreground and background. This exploration gives the reader a real-time, material insight into radical acts of culture creation or containment. For the narrator, there are sometimes silences in extremis during which new poems, readings, or publications may not emerge. But pages, events, and interactions are filled with who isn’t there. I think of this often: do we perceive artists to a lesser degree when they are outside of or re-define the margins of production? Or when they are coded as outlier to involvement and use-value? Notions of participation, hiatus, and community building in normative expectations of poetic labor that are sometimes imposed upon books that contend with issues of disability, illness, or mental health are aesthetically and politically problematic. Heit enters these ideas with conscious contention and grace. If time passes for an artist with a “different kind” of presence in a shared experience of multiple, intersectional commons, she is not an object of trauma-based “non-productivity”; she is a subject of her particular body-mind in a world that has not yet caught up to her.

In the first section of the book, “Penumbra,” submergence and emergence are the mapped and unmapped surround. Heit envisioned the poem during an improvisational dance piece and you can feel the moments of interwoven expression. Sound and body are a fragile and reverberating progression, a finesse of wave and particle. Water begets land begets motion and stillness. Buildings twist. Sidewalks shimmer and trip. Figures are intimately revealed or shrouded in turn. A sense of ache coats a redolent breeze and a delicate dress gives way to a haunting, skinless promenade in an internalized urban setting of near-danger and restless architecture.

The alternation of margins in “Penumbra” lends a controlled disorientation to the tightly composed stanzas. Consciousness is not situated precisely or, rather, it is re-situated in mutability—the city/body as personae, specter, and nervous system. For example:

                                                                                         the sound of bells
I hold the afternoon

white knuckled she
                                                                               erosion of consonants
slips the dress
                                                                                        city without tears
over geography
                                                                             water exiled from water
travelled by the careful
                                                                          riverine the city breathes
arrangement of water bottles      
                                                                                    wrought iron lungs
nightgown   echo   doorknob   sister
                                                                             a cradle of mortar & rib 

I no longer find her with words (22)

These are poems of internal and sequential repetition, association, elegy, disruption, and surprise. The connective tissue of the book—color/gravity—does not exist in resolute arcs or catacombs of despair. The color might be a bright ultramarine and then a sticky-flat gray on the same page or even the same line. The rules of falling, motion, and stasis defy. There is a breath, then a shift of gasping exhalation, then another breath. The landscape is inconstant and labyrinthine while the waterscape is soft and suspect. Barbed wire exists alongside a languorous stretch of horizon. Memory entangles with voice while death speaks through a tensile and actively scarring de-sanctuary of pain. But what is at risk—or what is already lost—is not always clear.

I feel her
trapped in
the city after
zipcode washed
drunken by tides
rose petals bird song
the bodies we touch for arrival
the line torn from my notebook
we enter backs to the outside
disappeared (29)

The second and third sections, “Z Cycle” and “Lake Etymology” respectively, are a series of prose-like poems. Here, the work is more narrative—subversively so—and highly descriptive. Where “Penumbra” blends the sense of mystery, “Z Cycle” and “Lake Etymology” sharpen the sense of story. Place and time are more easily apprehended. By definition, “Z cycle” refers to a cycle of sleep, which the poet-narrator struggles with throughout. The split world of day and night becomes the site of dizzying, insomniac suffering. Likewise, vertiginous, choice-less states of mania and depression fleck and seize. The title also refers to a kind of interlocking rubber tile, which evokes bland, institutional hospital floors. (41)

Have tried meditation, warm baths, no TV or stimulation
and still this duet with awake won’t let you off the dance floor
but keeps you spinning until dawn when the birds start announcing
a new day as if you care the earth rotated its axis while the sun
stayed put you rode the ceiling white but close study variances of
color from bad paint jobs the interface where wall meets ceiling a
ridge of build-up then the color in the backs of your eyelids as you
try and try not to try. (40)

An entry into the poet’s mind and physicality intensifies. The doctors, the restraints, the urine, needles, and blood, the after-effects of electroconvulsive therapy, the memory loss are indicting, scathing, vulnerable, and reeling. The reader is not a passive witness: you are invited into the hospital bed. The electrodes are fastened to your temples. It is a light storm of punishing medical intervention and stigmatized neuro-diversity. You are the one existing in abeyance and communal isolation with the agonizing proximity and end-cycle of self-harm and suicide as the closest possibility toward relief.

“Lake Etymology” makes known a past trauma—or the figuration of one—and marks a turn toward a named and identifiable geography. The title refers to the history of Crystal Lake in Northern Michigan. This is a location of origin for Heit and a site of respite and study. She describes a failed engineering project that was meant “to connect Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake with a navigable channel.” Instead, Crystal Lake was lowered to disastrous result: a stretch of beach was exposed which then opened the possibility for development. It becomes a complex wetland commodified and re-made by patriarchal manifest but still subject to and revealed by natural forces. This simultaneous reshaping of land and water with the transformation of above/below creates a mystifying doubleness, “…the limitless notion that blue should enter blue” (53, 55).

Since “Lake Etymology” begins with factual information, it is easy to read the rest of the section with the anticipation of further autobiographical content and upended metaphor. How the author occludes, expresses, and troubles memoir is a welcome complication. But it is a mistake to parse for detail in that way. It would bring too cold and rigid an approach to what is intensely searing content. The reach of hybrid genre is the same as its manifestation. What is actually happening in the poem, and to whom it is happening, crashes over you with the same force as the pounding paratactic lines.

In one possible reading, the poet-narrator is born into loss. The tragic death of a sister who seems to have drowned as a child during a storm on Crystal Lake—
in the same year the speaker was born—is unbearable. This exit and entry is a central incomprehensible dilemma of the story: it is possible that the body of water the speaker comes to love is the same body of water that took her sister.

They give me the name of the sister who died. Stephanie. I am gilled and finned. Water trial.
They must breathe for me. I fight my way back to fluid. To darkness
under amnio and womb. Because they have given me your name I must swim. I
must breathe under water. I must see in the dark. Tiny palms crowded with both
our lifelines fighting to survive. I must live amphibious. I am one of two. Water.
Land. Land. Water. (58)

The poems trace volatile accidents of nature while the backdrop of misguided engineering corrupts the once pristine setting. In this way, a particular level of lake that the poet-narrator swims in—and that her sister may have disappeared in—turns into an otherworldly inland sea even as it remains beautiful.
In the unfolding trauma of disquieting narration, the mother, father and sister are overwhelmed by a devastating chance encounter with a Lake Effect storm. In what reads like simultaneous and suspended time, the father tries to right the boat and the mother is in despair trying to save one child while trying not to birth the other.

They yelled our name with the full power of their lungs. While your lungs filled.
The wind took their words and flung them across the lake. Mother underwater
now. Where is my baby? While I kicked from inside. Breathe. (62)

Lake effect storm swept over the bluffs. No warning. No signs. He knew how
to read the water. It told him nothing. He would argue with this nothing until
the events blurred yellow. The color of the boat. The color of her hair. (61)

As in: The Color She Gave Gravity. In a twinning of mortal identity and life force, self-recognition becomes the face of loss. Poetic gravity displaces the body in water of one sister while pushing the other out. In the world of the book, the way mirroring changes in water—light-waves dispersing with the depth—is the way color and perception give shape to breath and grief. The Ghost Sister and the Embodied Sister traverse but can never meet.

In dreams, I searched for you. Swam past the drop off where light no longer filters
down. To see my face looking back. To give you the lines in your palms. Blue.
Reach. Sometimes only your bones, fragile and fishlike. Water burial. Or your
eyes, blue like mine, floating to the surface to recognize me. (64)

The reader is left with multiple associative possibilities: Stephanie the poet, Stephanie the lost sister, Stephanie the recombinant personae of both, Stephanie the symbolic second self. And Crystal Lake? It is visited or haunted by each.

In the next section, “Enter Amnesiac,” the landscape changes significantly. The poems were written while Heit was sitting inside Richard Serra’s sculpture installation, The Matter of Time, at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. In these huge, but sometimes narrow and spiraled spaces, the poet is inside/outside, hidden/exposed. How she describes the curling and settling in a near-womb of weathering steel gives her voice a close quality. Though the poetic voice in this section of the book is more abstract, a sense of vertigo touches the lines and it hurts in the same way that falling against a metal structure might hurt.

a suggestion
or a vein collapsed
excuse me
finger latch jumble
of nightmare flings (74)

In the first six pages, the stanzas are placed in continuously shifting margins. This approach seems controlled; the text appears choreographed while capacious and brazen. The form surfaces pace and therefore highlight the physicality of the author as dancer. The writing here is an immersive and vulnerable meeting of her body in a body of art. But the poems do not read as compositional sculpture; instead, they transpose their own durational art-scape. The connection between writer and reader/viewer is an interstice of textual/visual eavesdropping. Language and the body, as much as the physical artifact, need to be witnessed in a field of space-time, birth-death:

Incubator with a panel for chance, delinquent pink sweater, observer, unlocked
umbrella, museum guard. The ellipse wants to be watched. (79)

These poems also function as a pull for memory-making. When forward/backward and entrance/exit occupy a simultaneous reality, direction (perhaps) doesn’t matter, as long as you are there somewhere.

Enter amnesiac like remembering birth. The walls scratch at light. A tilted
plane collapses and tries to make up for failure. I listen for the louder shape.
Misrepresent the surroundings. Collaborate steel with bodies thinking. Resist
the pressure to hurry up and practice reverse walking. (82)

The following sequence, “Quiet Anatomy,” is nearly the least quiet series of poems. It is dense, denuded, fluid, angry, bereaved, fearsome, and replete with care and resurgence. The world slams into the flesh and skeletal structure of a woman’s body; Heit writes the body alive. She de-romanticizes mental health difference rendering the somatics of disability culture poetry with complicated iterations of “psychological” resistance and recovery. There is very little punctuation; in the scarcity of familiar marks, the reading scans faster, yet each word makes itself known. The layout invites you in and the motion scales your stay. Each page has a single italicized word on the bottom right; these words are more like inverted titles than footnotes. They are floating signposts that place the reader directly in the velocity and syntactic fracture of the poems.

she was light on the bay rippled stories (untold) line the marrow
her bones solid shadows movement never betrayed (soft)
underside welcome inward gaze a strength she did not lie down
on the shore dream of memory (salt) (blood) figure foreground
against the sky body constellation discovered full bloom

                                                                                               archaeology (87)

Here, and elsewhere, the restorative aesthetics of art practice and the sustained reclamation of self are expressed in the context of queer relationship and intimacy. Heit surfaces the embodiment and sensuality of the Lover as erotic partner, poetic collaborator, and pained and powerful guide through the immensity of shifting states in a palpable presence of gentle and lifting witness.

The last section of the book, “Coda,” is the irresolute umbra and empathy of the book. Heit included an earlier version of the manuscript as part of a suicide note in which she asked her loved ones to find a publisher. It was to be a posthumous collection. Instead, writing, revising, submitting and publishing the book became an act of being rather than a bequest. When you read the book, you are in-process at every turn. Text/body, creation/production are ultimately indivisible.

                        silence    here
                        rust thick
                        oblong & swivel
                        this oxygen ship
                                                         the only out
                                                         the way you came

it depends on where you stand(71)

The writing outstrips both tragedy and heroism. Heit doesn’t offer a redeemed poetic performance or the erasure of waiting. Nothing is fixed. Categorized symptomology remains inequitable to mythic wholeness. Open spaces of connection and awareness collage. Love and renewal are both risk and grace. Writing as healer or catharsis is made elegiac, unanswerable, and present.

latitude imprints face

the morning

she asks the color

we gave gravity (24)

Title: The Color She Gave Gravity
Author: Stephanie Heit
Publisher: The Operating System
Year: 2017

Editor’s Note: Read Michael Northen’s review of Stephanie Heit’s Psych Murders (2022) in Wordgathering.

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About the Reviewer

Denise Leto is a multidisciplinary poet, writer, and dance dramaturge. Her ongoing project, home (Body), is a collaborative poetry/dance/video installation which premiered at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and will be produced at The Cultural and Educational Centre Artium in Viimsi, Estonia. She co-created the San Francisco Baylands Eco-Poetry Project. Denise wrote the poetry book for the collaborative dance performance Your Body is Not a Shark. Most recently her work has appeared in Writing the Self-Elegy (an anthology from Southern Illinois University Press), The New Orleans Poetry Festival, The Poetry Foundation, Jacket2, Orion, and the Woodland Pattern Book Center and Belladonna Press broadside. She does cross-genre, disability culture work with the international art collective, Olimpias.