Standing in the Forest of Being Alive by Katie Farris Alice James Books 2023 $18.95 by Arthur Kayzakian
I am not afraid to light a flower and destroy her beauty –Max Ritvo
There are many reasons why the cover of Katie Farris’s newest collection, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive from Alice James Books, reveals the long, amber strands of a poet’s hair, woven into one another and snipped at the helm. It is in the halls of San Diego State University: her amber hair full of light as she conversed with students, half jokes and brilliance filling us with hope and chance. I regret never having the opportunity to take one of her classes, but her collections, have never ceased to teach me a new way of writing even now as she faces death where all things end, but as Katie also teaches us here, only seemingly, as this memoir in poems gives us is a story about a poet who has lived through the act of mortality; All things must change for us to continue living. If there is anything that identifies a lyric poet, it is the bridge that connects the self to the public world and the personal one. The opening poem, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” is an invitation to wrestle with the global terror we are all living in at this moment in time, and yet, it is about survival. But not just about survival; it is about survival’s cut-off hair: hope. She starts, “To train myself to find, in the midst of hell / what isn’t hell.” This is direct contact with us, a social offering to persevere through our own hells by learning about serenity through personal battle. The poems turn inward and follow an intimate, surgical trajectory reminiscent of a dramatic play. In “On the Morning of the Port Surgery,” Farris praises the moment as if speaking to the loss of her hair:
my braid. I’m wheeled into
the operating theater
for the opening act of what
will become a defining role as Cancer
Patient: Stage Three.
The effect of a spell occurs as soon as we begin to phenomenalize the speaker’s “braid,” drawing us into a struggle with living. By now, we understand the dire circumstances, yet can also see the operating room as a theater, There is no mourning or antagonism about life in these lines, but the process of forgiveness. Prayer. Love. All on a personal level. A crucial element is a return to the public with an ode to the braid that signifies that art is above all things, even our lives. Even when we face the life-threatening rooms that can decide our fate, we have a chance to perceive our tragedy through the act of catharsis. The enormous subjects explored here—love and bodily failure, love in marriage, Emily Dickinson, to name a few—are woven together like a braid, again, the hope, what keeps the poet alive. The poems in this collection will sustain many readings because the poet has surrendered her body and disappeared into the work. One such poem is “Finishing Emily Dickinson, First Deacon in William Blake’s Church of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in the Oncologist’s Waiting Room,” as she writes in homage to Dickinson: “I meet / your sweet velocity in every / thing that flies—”. What stands out in this poem Farris has literarily abandoned her own body of work to occupy Emily Dickinson’s verse, simultaneously holding the idea of an iconic American poet and the rhythmic syntax easily detectible in Dickinson’s musicality. Farris also admits she is held in Dickinson’s “sweet velocity.” The verse ends with Dickinson’s infamous em dash, which in many ways foreshadows life’s uncertainty, yet we resist the full stop. There is only a suspension in a line break—we are not done.
In “The Wheel,” amidst a personal dystopia, Farris, in repetition, confesses her love to her husband with comic yet deeply ecstatic pleasure, “One must train oneself to find, in the midst of hell, / what isn’t hell . . . what isn’t hell is your big belly now— / how it rounds itself: my hemisphere.” The poem wheels the opening lines back, establishing the living hell of the speaker’s world, only to relinquish the doomed world she lives in by the strength of her beloved’s “hemisphere.” We notice the em dash again, fusing her nod to Dickinson with her admiration for her lover. Farris’s sharp use of imagery continues with “finding a mouse in Russia’s armpit” and the “deep black pupil of an Englishman’s eye” leading us to another public moment we can relate to in unity: “how we’re all afraid / to die.” In several universes, this line transcends space and time to reach Theodore Roethke’s “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” This is another example of Farris’s ability to outer-body a poem and make it eternal.
In “Standing in the Forest of Being Alive,” Farris engages death with absolute humor and profundity when her speaker walks through a graveyard:
A heavy bird flapped its wings over someone’s
sepulcher. Some of us are still putzes
in death, catching birdshit on our headstones.
Some of us never find what we’re looking for, praying
it doesn’t pour before we find our names;
verses speak volumes to the flexibility of Farris’s lyrical ability to be personal and public in the same life. The humility of taking “birdshit on our headstones” reduces death from its mythologized grim reaper effect, followed by a discovery revealing our vulnerabilities. In these lines, Farris outer-bodies us since we too, pray to find what we seek before we “find our names” on a cemetery headstone. Such an estranged body experience is the very device Farris uses skillfully to ghost death in the name of being alive.
Perhaps the braid is given a second life, which has transformed into her devotion to the written word for the sake of survival’s phantom: hope.