Intimate Love and Tremulous Loss
- By Elisa Rowe
A Review of Standing in the Forest of Being Alive by Katie Farris. (Alice James Books, 2023)
Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself in the midst of a burning world
to offer poems of love to a burning world.
—Katie Farris, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World”
In the face of medical vulnerabilities and the march of sudden illness, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Katie Farris’ full-length debut) embraces grief and wit, counters beauty with cruelty, and pairs eroticism with nostalgia. Farris is a poet, translator, fiction writer, and Pushcart prize recipient. Her piece “An Untitled Collection of Generalizations that Mobilize the Eye” was published in volume 60 number 3 of the Massachusetts Review and is included in the collection under the title “I Wake to Find You Wandering the Museum of My Body.” A self-titled memoir in poems, the collection travels through the milestones of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, moments of pause, episodes of wonder, the concept of a corrupt country, and a global pandemic. Farris’ breast cancer is a seemingly central theme in the collection, but what propels the book forward are her body’s yearnings and her mind’s questions.
In many poems, Farris uses wit paired with images traditionally considered vulgar to challenge an institution or idea. Marriage is compared to pulling a hair from a hemorrhoid, the body continues to crave sex in the midst of chemo, a poem challenges America’s hierarchies and declares “all things are erotic,” and, later the speaker declares: “I vote but prefer smut/ to politicians.” In the midst of surgeries, treatment, and a cruel country, the body makes itself known through desire. These events and actions, at times obscure, evoke the often contradictory ubiquity of intimacy. Even in the ethereal style of the poems, before the reader can be swept into disembodiment, they are grounded in visceral imagery.
Throughout the book there is the image of strings. The sky puts its hand in the body, “as if you were a puppet.” The heart is “suspended, spiderwebbed.” In the poem “In the Event of My Death,” a cat leaves its whiskers on the floor “in solidarity” with the speaker’s first round of chemotherapy. The speaker, in turn, buries thick braids of her hair, explaining:
I will need a rope
to let me down into the earth.
I’ve hidden others
strategically around the globe,
a net to catch
my body in its weaving.
Strings leave the reader with the idea of suspension as safety. These pieces of hair and rope and whiskers are gently placed mechanisms against danger. In certain pieces, however, the strings are not present and the hazard is the size of a country.
In these poems the speaker wrestles with the concept of America. This is first called into question in the piece “The Early Days of the Global Pandemic” where Farris says she is writing about love while others are writing about America. She writes, “Americans are spreading rumors,/ writing about a country as if a country existed.” The piece ends without concluding. Later, she returns to this question in the poem “The Invention of America,” which begins: “I am trying to be a love poet though I cannot escape/ America.” The rest of the piece makes use of anaphora with “America” placed at the beginning of fourteen lines. In the remainder of the piece, the erotic trumps politics, a cockroach is placed in a mouth, and the speaker poses the question: “why write love poetry/ in a time of/ government brutality?” The poem’s conclusion echoes the previous one with its invocation of America’s unreality: “everyone is writing about a country/ as if a country existed.”
To read Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is to be wound in stories of intimate disbelief. From the cruel call announcing a cancer diagnosis to the image of a smooth cockroach on the tongue, events and images leap out from the book’s sensual yet disembodied world. Readers will embrace the erotic and the ethereal. The collection engages the senses and refuses to let the body go quiet, even in its apparently passive role as a cancer patient. It is a collection to return to, filled with images and questions that linger.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and raised in Boston, MA, ELISA ROWE (They/Them) is a writer, book reviewer, and poet. Their work has appeared in WBUR, Boston Art Review, Geez magazine, and elsewhere. You can find more of their work at www.elisarowe.com