There is a sense of immediacy in this excellent pamphlet by Katie Farris, as though we are reading every poem as it occurs in real time. The poems follow the narrator’s journey from the moment she is informed of her breast cancer diagnosis:
...Six days before
my thirty-seventh birthday,
a stranger called and said ,
You have cancer. Unfortunately.
Even in this short, stark poem there is humour. Farris has titled it ‘Tell it Slant’, an ironic reference to the Emily Dickinson poem. There is very little in the narrator’s journey through the medical world that is ‘told slant’: the brutality of the treatment and its terminology are captured perfectly here and will be recognisable to anybody who has entered the system of illness (“called to these corridors”, as Larkin said).
From the off, the narrator sets out a philosophy they aspire to:
To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.
This statement of individual intent swiftly becomes universal:
Why write love poetry in a burning world?
The pamphlet sets out to answer this question, and in doing so, Farris places her writing both in the context of a historical narrative larger than personal struggles, and as a contemporary writer well aware of our own short time on this ‘burning’ planet.
The ‘love poetry’ in the pamphlet is refreshing, real, gritty and disarming at times. These are poems about love for the “body, bald, cancerous”; about real sex on a friend’s chair, sex during chemo, the intimacy of marriage where you can ask for assistance in “unwinding that pale hair/from my hemorrhoid”.
There are some stunning images in these poems, for example the severed “heavy braid” that, unlike Rapunzel’s, will not be a magic rope up to a tower but a rope to “let me down into the earth”.
Farris describes a cat’s shed whiskers as “pure white parenthesis”, a removed breast as a “...Malignant/magnificent palimpsest”. Language is woven into the body, inseparable from it. The body as an object of love, of betrayal, of beauty and strength are all these depictions are explored here. There is a determination and the poetic skill to stare unblinking at the realities of disease, loss, pain without morbidity or resorting to cliché.
A proud, animal determination for survival is entwined with the need to create and to love. The narrator in ‘The Wheel’ will “...grub at the roots of words” to find meanings in the obscure and the strange: “– finding a mouse/in Russia’s armpit, or the doll baby/ in the deep black pupil of an Englishman’s/eye.”
The surrealism and originality of Farris’s voice permeate these poems. Memory is described as “a prophylactic against loss” and as a gift which we leave behind for those we love.
The final poem, ‘What Would Root’, uses repetition to give a sense of the present moment, pure and separate from past and future:
It was May,
it was May, it was May, and the air was sweet
with pine and Island Mountain Lilac.
The narrator gradually transforms from human into tree roots, a metaphor for the essence of the self, the casting off of physical form with both tenderness and acceptance.
...the roots in my skull shifted and I
lay down beneath my own branches.
In A NET TO CATCH MY BODY IN ITS WEAVING, Farris exceeds her aim to “train myself, in the midst of a burning world,/to offer poems of love to a burning world.” These are poems of beauty and poetic skill. Like all great poets, Farris understands that we are all, in a sense, ‘writing for our lives’ and that only language can transcend the triumphs and the failures of our physical bodies.
Kitty Donnelly is an MA student at Manchester Writing School and has degrees in English and Mental Health Nursing. She has worked in mental health services for many years. Her poems have been published in magazines and journals including Acumen, Mslexia, Quadrant and The New Welsh Review. In 2019, she received a Creative Future Award and was commended in the McLellan Poetry Competition. This, her debut collection, was a joint winner of The Indigo Dreams Collection Competition 2019. Kitty lives in West Yorkshire with her husband and daughter, terrier Zip and cat Pepper.