SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Fabulae,
by Joy Katz
Don't expect the narratives in Joy Katz's first book to resolve themselves into tidy morals. There's nothing Aesopian about Fabulae. A glance at my Latin dictionary suggests that a more apt translation of the title is "myths," for these unsettling poems conceal and reveal insights more spiritual and unpredictable than aphoristic. They resist easy expectations.
The first poem of the book, "Women Must Put Off Their Rich Apparel," presents a delicately modulated manifesto ("Women must put on plainness . . ."; "A woman must let love recede . . ."; "the woman who at this moment / does not need the world"). "Following the Orthodox Men," the second poem, takes us into the oddly colorless world of Orthodox diamond merchants and their women "modestly draped with linen, / . . . eyes cast down and . . . neck curved as the nail clippings / my grandfather wrapped and blessed and tossed into the stove / on Fridays . . .," a world from which Katz has excluded herself "from the moment I, as a girl, drew God— / who is never permitted to be drawn—with wild hair the color of sapphire." Either of these poems should rate inclusion in a "best of the feminists" anthology, but such a categorization would be simplistic. Katz's concern is less with sexual and societal exploitation than with the terrible power of beauty and desire that lies behind such exploitation and control.
We soon see that there's as much self-incrimination as finger-pointing in Katz's work, as much empathy as blame; in her fables, everyone is implicated. A Chinese concubine of 1931, confronted with the decree outlawing foot-binding, announces that she prefers death to "walking about / upon the flat lotus boats of country women." The Garden of Eden is populated here with bulimics and the obsessive-compulsive. As the title of one poem puts it, "The Imperfect Is Our Paradise."
On the other hand, Katz recognizes that almost any desire, at its most intense, contains a longing for the transcendent. Reflecting on the marriage of John Wesley Powell, the first Caucasian to see the Grand Canyon, Katz wonders, "What was it like to live with someone / who has seen this kind of beauty?" A poem about friends dying of AIDS concludes, "Sleep pulls you down; / it is a sweet place the body is going." In the prose poem "Falling," perhaps the book's most memorable piece, the adolescent narrator, warned of the dangers of heroin, lies awake terrified: "I would like it. I would like it like heaven and would be lost." In the same poem, Proserpina's descent into the Underworld becomes irrevocable when she finally consents to anal sex. "This was the day she returned, bloodied and dreamy, one broken heel and dress inside out, to the frozen earth—the first time spring came late. Ceres knew then she had lost her."
Loss, death, and displacement inevitably form a companion theme to desire, particularly in a series of poems about the Holocaust. Fifty years after Dachau, an elderly bridge player is unable to live in either the present or the past. Darwinian strategies for survival have "given her something like an extra / wing," and she lacks "the right form for either world." The line between the living and dead becomes blurred. Katz herself, visiting Terezin, tries repeatedly to recite the Kaddish to protect the spirit of her friend Beatrice, who "is dead already, but I worry for her; so fragile, to imagine this place would have killed her." But "the lines get tangled. I forget it's not a death poem, that it's praise—."
Katz, as a poet, however, must negotiate the competing claims of death and desire, elegy and praise. The poem itself is dangerous territory ("Do not step too near the hole I have drawn— / there is no fence around it"), but "there is nowhere for me to go / but to face the entrance into the ground . . ." The urgency of her undertaking, "the insist," is reflected in the spareness of Katz's language and her narratives. They are often pared to the bone, approaching the austerity of a Louise Glück, although without Glück's occasional querulousness. Katz grieves but is not aggrieved.
Her imagery of despair sometimes echoes Sylvia Plath's, but Fabulae is neither self-absorbed nor histrionic. More often than not the poems, even those in which Katz herself explicitly appears, focus on the sufferings of others and her scrupulous care to understand them. When a man reveals to his lover that he was sexually abused by his grandfather, the woman responds, in "Sunday morning and the light," by telling him of finding a freshly laid egg:
With this unexpected image, Katz conveys not only sexual touching suddenly charged with tenderness but also the poet's sense of empathy and responsibility toward the people of whom she writes.
Despite the influences of Glück and Plath and Wallace Stevens, another poet whose presence is sometimes apparent in her work, Katz has already laid claim to her own terrain, the rubble of death camps, the dangerous underground passages of desire, made luminous by imagination and unsentimental compassion. Of an old woman who has died, she says, "Now the door of her house breathes cold air / and her poppies belong to anybody, so I picked them. / Who am I that they should open and cry out to me?" Katz is entitled to the open cries of the poppies, the fragility of a new-laid egg, warm to the touch, and all the other messages of desire and loss offered in her poetry because she is a gifted mythographer, a teller of seriously spiritual fables.