Monday, July 12, 2004

NEW! Review of Joy Katz's Fabulae [Joyelle McSweeney]

Fabulae by Joy Katz. Southern Illinois University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney

Title aside, Fabulae is more concerned with divining parallels and mapping spatial relationships than with storytelling. Katz observes form in the world and bodies out her findings in metaphor.

An orange leaf on every finger bowl: a dozen tongues,
mute about their clear water and their own orange scent

and the way the glass presses the heavy, white-flossed linen
a little, as a cat flattens grass in the yard

reads a poem which responds to Stevens’ "The Poems of our Climate." "I don’t know how to live with beauty," the poet-speaker remarks halfway through this poem, yet her skill belies her claim. This carefully drawn world in which form answers form seems beauty’s ideal habitat, and a human one.

Katz’s poems are simple in their approach, depicting seaside drives, the deja vu effects of travel, one body learning the sense of itself in various houses or near other bodies. Against such simplicity, Katz’s beguiling metaphors are set like gems. The seaside drive reveals "neat paragraphs of beach"; the wary traveler observes "Black-eyed Susans / gone dead except for their centers--a cloud of small entrances"; a new wife considers "The new word husband / hush of a car up a street." Katz’s metaphors make these poems, and are poems in themselves.

The best pieces in Fabulae are those concerned with vision and artmaking, because it is in these that Katz relies most fully on her gifts of description and comparison. In the very lovely "Still Life,"

How things come to light as I draw them: the curved-wire stem
of that flower which, until my eye moved to the prill of dried petal
and past that to the dead sepal
and then down to the stalk, I didn’t see.
I can draw that, prill, which is both the look and the sound
that piece would make, if it could, the way a thumbnail skimming comb tines
sings this small-spoked bunch of reeds.

One senses delight on the part of the author in this observation-cum-self-observation. With precision and agility, she moves from straight description to an efficient disquisition on "the look and the sound," before settling on a metaphor which combines both senses. The entire poem has a neat trompe l’oeile effect, rendering the depth of the room on the flat space of the page, one kind of vision inside another.

Also noteworthy in Fabulae are the numerous poems charged with the misperceptions of childhood and memory. "Falling Toward the Furnace" recalls Bishop not only in its title but in the controlled yet hazardous panache with which it moves through its ingeniously patterned subject matter: cats inhabiting heat ducts, a girl inhabiting a mis-constructed dress, and a speaker stumbling through a new house in a blackout. Another poem about a house, "Four Storeys," also capitalizes on misprisms of scale as the speaker lifts away a (dollhouse?) roof and meditates wittily yet meaningfully on the precarious life therein: "The second story, with its darkened bedrooms, is empty save for the sleeping mother--and comes up too easily, like a glass pitcher that turns out to be plastic."

Given Katz’s skill in drawing from her own perceptions and memories, those poems attending to a diverse array of outside sources are less satisfying. While her explorations of footbinding and Adam and Eve are fully inhabited enough to be fine, there is something lacking in the corollaries drawn between accounts of the Holocaust, or of Jefferson the linguist, or of various naturalists and explorers, and the speaker-poet’s own life and poem-making. Set against history’s bulkweight, her two-way arrows seem flimsy. Yet there are enough pleasurable and surprising poems in Fabulae to counteract these transhistorical efforts. Katz is a poet of invention and verve.

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