Shannon Nakai reviews Katie Farris’s “A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving”

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Shannon Nakai

A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving

By Katie Farris

39 pages. The Chad Walsh Chapbook Series, Beloit Poetry Journal, 2021.

I’m unfolding the softly-lit covers of the slim but profoundly potent winner of Beloit Poetry Journal’s 2021 Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize: A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, by Katie Farris. Its title a poem in itself with quiet, yet courageous cadence, Farris’ latest collection is both a universal anthem of survival and an intensely personal testimony of a survivor’s relocation from health to cancer through the brutal trenches of chemotherapy and mastectomy. I say “relocation,” as Farris eloquently quipped in a recent post on her Instagram: “Once you have cancer, you’re always a citizen of that nation.” The body–no longer her body, as both cancer and chemo invasively claim piece by piece of her, from breast to bones to heart health–is irrevocably marked and never fully healed, but held, even in remission, in the grisly nation of old scars and fresh traumas. Certainly in the landscape of human suffering, where poetry allows for the necessary space to comprehend and give voice to it, cancer is not a new subject to be reckoned with. (One recalls the lyric work of the late Max Ritvo, for example.) Yet Farris offers a new beckoning with both hands extended into her private theater, where Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and a chair perfect for lovemaking gather in a chorus behind a voice that is vulnerable, breathtakingly transparent, and ultimately hopeful.

            The body, bald, cancerous, but still
            beautiful enough to
            imagine living the body
            washing the body
            replacing a loose front
            porch step the body chewing
            what it takes to keep a body

            (p. 9, ll. 3-10)

As Farris maps out “in the midst of hell / what isn’t hell” in the above opening poem, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” she distances herself from the body she no longer recognizes, an outward posturing of introspection. The subject of the body must be relearned, which Farris communicates both literally–her “bald head” and “a six-inch scar instead of a nipple” (“After the Mastectomy,” p. 26, ll. 9 and 6, respectively)–and figuratively–“What used to be / a rope descending / my vertebrae to the basement / of my spine … I will need a rope / to let me down into the earth” (“In the Event of My Death,” p. 13, ll. 1-4 and 18-19). The poems are brief, lines often disjointed. They reflect the similar piecing together of each newly fathomed stage of illness as the speaker descends further into an underworld in which the body is severed and both husband and wife feel the pain, as depicted in her poem, “Marriage, an Exercise”:

            is an exercise
            in watching another
            lose …
            how pain enters
            their face
            like a hand hunting
            inside a
            puppet …

            (p. 15, ll. 1-4 and 10-14)

Recalling Franz Wright’s similar breathless snatches in fragmented stanzas, Farris’ collection moves quickly in its chronicling. Titles like “An Unexpected Turn of Events Midway through Chemotherapy” and “After the Mastectomy” read more like log entries, and indeed, Farris does not shy away from welcoming the reader into each event that cancer hosts. Her social media (in which many of these poems also appeared) couples an update with a photograph of the poet both posing in normal situations and transparently highlighting a new facet of what cancer has brought or taken away. These poems similarly inhabit a hybridity of life and death. We see a turning towards the natural world in its everyday normalcy. Dickinson’s signature buzzing bee graces the page of “Scheduling the Bone Scan.” The poet deliberately stands “in the forest of being alive” or walks over the earth that must receive her. She aligns herself with the world around her: “red-headed hummingbirds / dipped their beaks into the little red hoods of penstemon / and I, a redhead, could hear everything …” (“What Would Root,” p. 36, ll. 13-15). The red hair contrasts the absence of hair and sylvan vitality in other poems in which the speaker stares in the 2 am light waiting for test results. Echoing Wright again in his quietly desperate plea, “How does one go / about dying? / Who on earth / is going to teach me–” Farris passionately responds in “Woman with Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results”:

            Help me to spell waiting? I forget. And whom
            can I tell how much I want to live? I want to live.

            (p. 27, ll. 11-12)

Perhaps the most beautiful location “in the midst of hell / what isn’t hell” is the ever-present husband, the shadow hero of her poems. The speaker is watchful of birds in the cemetery, of rainfall, of the breast that betrays her, and this acute accounting does not miss the tender moments of a man who bears his vulnerability to her. He attends to her with melted candy bars, takes out her trash, distracts her with playful banter about littering apple cores in the street, and he does not stop lovingly drawing near to the body from which its very owner in the poems sometimes withdraws or scrutinizes. It is to this husband that she bequeaths the task of burying her braid, the final weaving of an intricate net in which to catch herself. Farris’ A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving culminates in the net in which she offers to us herself, piece by piece, poem by poem, though, from her borrowed title, she’ll “Tell It Slant.” Upholding the words of her literary mentor, Katie Farris gives us the Truth that “must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind–”

Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A former Fulbright recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Wichita State University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Follow her on Twitter @shanviolinlove.