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How It Is About It: A Review of STANDING IN THE FOREST OF BEING ALIVE



Katie Farris


Standing in the Forest of Being Alive


Alice James Book / 2023 / 100 pp / $18.95


Reviewed by Laura Candler / June 2024


 

Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” A principle that could apply to any creative work. Katie Farris’s first full-length book, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, is mostly about love, America, and cancer. But more strikingly, the forty sharply executed poems in this collection are a practice in vitality, grief, and playfulness against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the author’s cancer diagnosis.

 

The collection begins with “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” a poem that neatly probes this book’s reason for existence, and a question whose asking reveals something about the author’s relationship to writing. The poem’s second stanza provides a window into the speaker’s deft way of holding space for hope while encountering adversity, something further enhanced with impactful lineation. It begins:

 

The body bald

cancerous but still

beautiful enough to

imagine living

 

Imagination and beauty sit right next to cancer and baldness—not sharing the same line, but near enough to be experienced simultaneously. The poem slips from the first-person perspective to a descriptive third-person, and back to first, a move that enacts the experience of being one’s feeling self and also a medical specimen. The line “cancerous but still” implies both the stillness of death and the idea of persisting despite a grim outlook.

 

Farris is adept at approaching material with multiplicity, not just within a single poem, but also within the collection as a whole. There are erotic poems intermixed with mastectomy poems. Poems about Covid-19 beside quotidian marital arguments (like a front porch argument over whether Whitman or Dickinson is the greater poet). But it’s the tone and sharply honed craft the author brings to these subjects that make the work effective.

 

One strength of this collection is its inventive diction. Descriptions are specific and delightfully original. The poem “On the Morning of the Port Surgery” ends:

 

Ungraceful, the heart boinks:

drugged, suspended, spiderwebbed—

 

Even a reader who has not had to undergo port surgery can feel the impotence and fear of the speaker in this moment through the careful choice of verbs. In “In the Early Days of a Global Pandemic,” Farris writes of America, how it:

 

[. . .] twists itself into an eagle,

condenses into a bowl of hot chicken soup,

 

then a factory never retrofitted to make ventilators, then a trillion

dollars, then fresh water, then saltwater,

 

then salt.

 

In addition to the breadth of imagination (try that, AI!), each line is a microcosm of America and a distillation of an image that precedes it, and the swift, shapeshifting movement in this poem is itself a perspective of America as something never static and hard to define. The poem “Five Days before the Mastectomy, Insurrection at the Capitol” asks:

 

What is the door

the bullet makes

in the body?

 

Suddenly the body becomes a stand-in for America, and the body’s cancer, the disease of political turmoil. Using an approach that offers multiple perspectives, the America we glimpse in these poems is more complex than a two-party political system and, instead of answers, we come away with questions.

 

The poems about cancer often enact the scary and uncertain perspective of the speaker as she undergoes treatment that could save or damage her life. Short line length feels like a restriction, an inability to provide more than a few words at a time, a painful eking out during some of life’s most teetering moments. The poem “Woman with Amputated Breast at her Mother-in-Law’s Grave” begins:

 

A grave is

a door

we open

 

The effect of this is to give a reader the smallest dribble of words down the page, as if two or three syllables at a time is all the speaker can manage, in the heavy moments. This also allows the simplest of images to sing against the backdrop of the poem’s context. The speaker uses the image of a door frequently, a metaphor for death and the unknown future that seems to lie just an arm’s length before her.

 

Yet while Farris writes with painstaking clarity about being a cancer patient (there are poems titled “Woman With Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results” and “Ode to Money, or Patient Appealing Health Insurance for Denial of Coverage”), she does not shy away from giving the reader a window into how these moments arrive alongside the practical and mundane. Further along in the same poem, after musing on death, the speaker is addressing her mother-in-law’s grave with:

 

Thank you

for the turkey I forgot

to take out of the freezer, for your forgiveness

and for the lamb in the deli drawer.

 

Rarely are life’s big moments so tidily embodied by a single emotion, and one of Farris’s superpowers is that she doesn’t hold back when her brain veers toward the playful or absurd. A poem called, “An Unexpected Turn of Events Midway through Chemotherapy” begins “I’d like some sex please” and is followed by a short poem entirely about a friend’s chair that is “perfect for lovemaking.” A poem titled “Outside Atlanta Cancer Care,” whose only reference to the speaker’s location and condition is in the title, begins:

 

I return to this point of wonder:

 

what kind of animal began to stand

on such small feet?

 

The reader gets the sense that this speaker isn’t approaching life like a miner panning for Good Material, but simply taking a reader on the meandering and sometimes nonsensical path of curiosity. Who else would lead a reader to the Atlanta Cancer Center to then make it take a backseat to the greater question of animals and foot proportion? It's this refreshing and unselfconscious approach that allows Farris’s poems to lead to unexpected places. And it’s also an approach that respects the reader with its lack of “palpable design.”

 

Farris uses a range of formal choices to embody the speaker’s experience. “Eros Haiku” is a flash of a poem that suggests the brevity of a passing feeling. Poems written in couplets that end in a single-line, or single-word stanza, mirror the feeling of loneliness the speaker has as a cancer patient. The poem “After the Mastectomy” describes how people stare at her and ends with:

 

my bald head the beacon the first

 

alarm.

 

The word “alarm” is shoved off onto a stanza entirely by itself, enacting the isolation the speaker feels in those moments.

 

Similarly, the poem “What Would Root” describes a springtime walk in the woods in eight-line stanzas—a formal choice that becomes an engulfing experience as the speaker assimilates into the greater-than-human world. Poems that end in em-dashes, like “The Wheel,” recall (frequently-referenced) Emily Dickinson and also enact the possibility that the speaker’s life could be truncated, interrupted by the possibility of literal emptiness.

 

If the job of an artist is to offer a point of view with the raw material of subject matter delivered in airtight craftsmanship, Farris succeeds tremendously. The opening poem “Why Write Love Poetry In a Burning World” ends with the lines:

 

To train myself in the midst of a burning world

to offer poems of love to a burning world.

 

This is a speaker who is offering love because she can’t not. These poems about cancer and romance and America exist not to invite personal sympathy, but because the speaker herself is also exploring the reason behind her own curiosity toward them. Like Roger Ebert wrote, it’s the how—the way that Farris approaches the page with wonder and humor and love, despite life’s ugly circumstances—that makes this book remarkable.

 


 

Laura Candler’s poetry appears in Variant Lit Mag and Waxing & Waning, and her book reviews have been published byCivil Eats. Her radio stories have aired on Inside Appalachia, Marketplace, North Carolina Public Radio, and other NPR affiliate stations. She is an MFA candidate at Spalding University, and once spent a year studying clouds around the world as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Laura is a full-time marketing professional for Lodge Cast Iron and lives on a small farm in Sewanee, Tennessee, with her husband and two daughters.

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