As a woman, I am concerned about the body. As a US-American woman, I am concerned about our bodies, your body, my body. Whether our bodies, individually or collectively, are present in doctor’s offices or classrooms, gathered in protest or gathered in celebration, we are always housed within them. In Susan Sontag’s essay “Illness as Metaphor,” she writes: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” I have been returning to Sontag often throughout the past year, as more and more women I know are diagnosed with cancer. The women are young, three of them in their thirties, and a few of us have been friends since we were eighteen. Within our social circle, some of us are experiencing phantom aches in our breasts; pangs in our abdomen that cause worry. Our bodies, we share, are responding out of love and fear.
This tender combination of love and fear, for the self and for our communities, resonates in the beautiful new collection of poems by Katie Farris titled Standing in the Forest of Being Alive. Set to be published by Alice James Books in April 2023, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is a memoir in verse, chronicling Farris’s diagnosis with breast cancer at age thirty-six amid the COVID-19 pandemic and great political upheaval. Farris’s poems resonate with all that is human: the various manifestations of desire that permeate a marriage, the anxiety that comes with medical emergencies, and the determination to find delight during inward and outward struggle. It is through Standing in the Forest of Being Alive that Farris boldly addresses the complexity of citizenship—within the body and within the nation—and provides her readers with a blueprint for persistence: one of joy, humor, and love.
Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is organized in three sections, beginning with an introductory poem (“Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World”) before moving into the core of the text, complete with thirty-three poems, and closing with a six-poem denouement. It is in this prefatory piece that I am provided both atmosphere and grounding, one in which Farris presents the body as “cancerous but still / beautiful enough to / imagine living” (1) and answers, with epistrophe, the question posited in the poem’s title: “To train myself in the midst of a burning world / to offer poems of love to a burning world” (1). Here, through a dedication to care and caring, Farris confirms that the illness being faced is disease within and dis-ease without, thereby acknowledging the interwoven connections between self and body and self and country.
The middle section is one that reaches from diagnosis to surgery and recovery. Farris arranges her poems in chronological order, allowing me to witness the trajectory of young breast cancer. With titles such as “On the Morning of the Port Surgery,” “Woman with Amputated Breast Returns for Her Injection,” and “Scheduling the Bone Scan,” Farris narrates what is not often made visible or public; she illustrates and pushes back against societal expectations that attempt to dictate the way in which women heal. In this, I am reminded of Audre Lorde and her pivotal work, The Cancer Journals; I am reminded of a question Tracy K. Smith asks in “How Audre Lorde’s Experiences of Breast Cancer Fortified Her Revolutionary Politics,” one that, I find, corresponds to Farris’s lyric and reflective gestures; Smith asks, “What does it mean to claim for ourselves a sense of wholeness and visibility when the world insists on us being hidden or disguised?” I think of Lorde, the significance of her oeuvre and activism, and Smith’s question, in all of its power, when I encounter these poems of Farris’s. Farris answers Smith’s inquiry and engages with Lorde in poems like “After the Mastectomy.” She begins with the epigraph: “At the oncologist’s office, a man stares. I stare back / until he says, ‘People must stare at you.’” Despite what-is-deemed-presentable, Farris proclaims “I go to the world with my tongue out / and my shirt unbuttoned” before depicting herself in this manner:
I am well-positioned to seek out
my bald head the beacon the first
In addition to Farris’s documentation of experiencing cancer, throughout Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, I encounter poems that expand the notion of the body from the individual to the national, urging me, as a reader, to (re)consider my understanding of what it means to belong—to be part of something. Because Farris’s diagnosis coincided with COVID-19 and the 45th presidency, poems such as “In the Early Days of a Global Pandemic,” “The Invention of America,” and “Five Days before the Mastectomy, Insurrection at the Capital” trouble the relationship between one resident and the country in which she resides. Farris addresses current events while exposing contradictions in claimed values (“Everyone is writing about America’s citizens / as if they were visible”) and meditates on the manner in which a society tumbles in denial and conflict (“America, which is an idea / in our grasp, twists itself into an eagle”). Through this series of poems, Farris evinces that, much like the systems of the physical body, or the attack on immunity attempted by cancer, so too the United States is impacted by, or unwell with, ideological division and abuse of power.
Katie Farris’s Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is not a book of euphemism or oversimplification, and there is strength in this positioning of poetry. Farris confirms: The body is the body, both in sickness and in health, in the act of lovemaking and the act of surgery. In rejection of forced optimism, Farris chooses not to dwell in the ingenuine but, instead, practices the important work of joy-finding, alongside moments of intimacy and engagement, even when the outcome is yet unseen: “And whom / can I tell how much I want to live? I want to live” (“Woman with Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results”). In each poem, Farris writes frankly, and I see myself returning to her collection out of necessity. When the women I know post updates on their radiation schedules, their operations—wondering what’s next and what’s next—I think of what Farris offers up in verse. In gratitude and uncertainty, I will return to Standing in the Forest of Being Alive for the voice and evidence that Farris provides—knowing that her poetry demonstrates a vital and important reflection on existence.
Tara Ballard is the author of House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press), winner of the 2016 Many Voices Project Prize, and the recipient of a 2019 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize. Her poetry has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, North American Review, The New York Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is an affiliate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review and a teaching and research assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is pursuing a PhD in English.