Standing in the Forest of Being Alive
by Katie Farris
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“Standing in the Forest of Being Alive”
Alice James Books, 2023
$17.95, 60 pages
It might be said that Emily Dickinson is the palimpsest on which Katie Farris writes her own verse. Her poem “Tell It Slant” presents to us the essential drama that drives this imaginative collection:
You float in the MRI gloam,
several spiculated masses;
I name you “cactus,”
carcinoma be damned – you make
a desert of all
Have I said it slant enough?
Here’s a shot between
the eyes: Six days before
my thirty-seventh birthday,
a stranger called and said,
You have cancer. Unfortunately.
And then hung up the phone.
The concept of “palimpsest” is one Farris uses several times, notably in “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer,” which begins:
Will you be
my death, breast?
I had asked you
in jest and in response
you hardened – a test
of my resolve? Malignant
Will you be
my death, Emily?
“Emiloma”: Dickinson as a kind of cancer. “Will you be / my death, Emily?” she repeats later in the poem; “you, the voice, me, the faithful echo? / Will you be / my death, echo?”
The poem, “To the Pathologist Reading My Breast, Palimpsest” begins with a doctor’s notes:
Specimen B, received fresh and subsequently placed in formalin,
consists of a 392 g, 18 x 15.5 x 3 cm simple oriented mastectomy.
Farris then writes:
Dear Doctor – you’ve done my work for me in your first line
with your tidy slanting rhyme of specimen with formalin.
To rhyme mastectomy, I thought my dear friend’s pregnancy;
she and I, our birthdays, two slender months apart –
both of us harboring rapidly dividing cells, so near our hearts.
How’s that for art?
Heartbreaking is the answer. The poem goes on with clever off-rhyme wordplay on the word “nipple” (ellipse, kiss, twists, strips).
But of course, it’s the breast cancer that’s at the center of this collection. Poems like “Woman with Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results,” “Woman with Amputated Breast at Her Mother-in-Law’s Grave,” and “Woman with Amputated Breast Returns for Her Injection” drive the point home, as do “Outside Atlanta Cancer Care,” “A Week before Surgery, I Practice My Body” and “After the Mastectomy.”
“Finishing Emily Dickinson, First Deacon in William Blake’s Church of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in the Oncologist’s Waiting Room” begins:
Oh, Emily, goodbye!
We met in February and parted
in July –
Using Dickinson’s characteristic dashes for punctuation, Farris strikes an elegiac tone. Indeed, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive has been described as a “self-elegy” by Victoria Chang. “Oblique, you preached obliquity –”
But there is also a great urge to live in these poems. Only thirty-six when the diagnosis came down, Farris is still swayed by strong erotic impulses (Eros the opposite of Thanatos, right?). “An Unexpected Turn of Events Midway through Chemotherapy” begins, “I’d like some sex, please / I’m not too picky.” “Rachel’s Chair” is a memory of an erotic encounter with her husband. Indeed, a handful of the poems in this collection are for her husband, with love and gratitude, and desire. “Eros Haiku” reads:
Today my apple
core sat on the countertop
waiting for your mouth.
An urge to live? “To the God of Radiation” begins:
Given the unexpected choice between
uncertain death and certain damage,
I find in the mirror a woman – breastless, burned – who,
in an advisory capacity,
asks, How much do you
want to live?
“In the Event of My Death” deals with the hair loss experienced during chemotherapy. “In the event / of my death, promise you will find my heavy braid / and bury it –” A thick braid of red hair adorns the book cover. The feeling of loss is palpable.
Katie Farris also takes on political themes, and these, too, inform her urge to persevere. “In the Early Days of a Global Pandemic,” “Five Days before the Mastectomy, Insurrection at the Capital” (“Who holds you holstered / America the gun?”), and “The Invention of America” are written in the voice of an engaged citizen. “I am trying to be a love poet though I cannot escape / America,” she writes in “The Invention of America,” and “As an anti-capitalist act, I reject your hierarchies of worth, America –”
Why write poetry
in a time of
This last verse brings to mind the collection’s opening poem, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World.” She answers her own question in the first two lines: “To train myself to find in the midst of hell / what isn’t hell.” (These lines are echoed later in the “Wheel.” “What is not hell is whispering, I like my body / when it’s with your body…”)
“Ode to Money, or Patient Appealing Health Insurance for Denial of Coverage” is an indictment of our shameful profit-driven health insurance system.
Farris’s poems have an almost mythic sensibility. In the title poem and elsewhere – “When You Walk over the Earth,” “What Would Root” – there are echoes of Daphne becoming a laurel tree, as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and a sort of allegorical reverence for the Earth, the sky (“The sky always / has its hand in you”). She writes in “Woman with Amputated Breast at her Mother-in-Law’s Grave”:
all of us,
whether fertile whether fallow,
And elsewhere in that poem, “Thank you grief – / whose root is love.”
Katie Farris certainly tells it slant – the nightmares of ill health, the compulsion to love, the impulse to live – but she is also very explicit, always lyrical.