“Why,” asks Katie Farris in the title poem of her new book’s opening poem, “write love poetry in a burning world?” Except that in her title there’s no question mark. And the poem that follows is not so much a revelation but a proposal, to the self, that the difficult work—the work of writing, reading, surviving, living in these times—is both self-evident and in regular need of restatement. “To train myself,” she writes in her plain but looping, leaping style, “to find in the midst of hell / what isn’t hell.” And then: “The body bald / cancerous but still / beautiful enough to / imagine living the body / washing the body / replacing a loose front”—the enjambments are jagged, part of how the form is speaking its music—“porch step …” Farris’s poems are explicit in their grappling with her breast cancer, but the tautology of being—no matter how bad life is, it’s the only game in town—reveal a poet who is training herself “in the midst of a burning world / to offer poems of love to a burning world.” Farris echoes Adam Zagajewski’s famous call, a couple of decades ago, to praise “the mutilated world.” Farris’s collection, her first full-length book of poems, is called Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, and it folds into Zagajewski’s urging the urgencies of a mutilated body.
Still, the poet never sinks deeply into the narrative of illness that permeates everything: this is not a narrative sequence. And her book marks a departure from the hybrid texts that made up her previous book, boysgirls. Whereas that work appeared as a prose form, here the poet works in lines, often very short ones. Farris is married to the poet Ilya Kaminsky, and so their love, in these pulsing little verses, is charged with the love of language, the play of language part of the play of their love:
Come to me,
Warm as a
As a boy.
Come to me,
From the cliffs
The cancer unfolds in the midst of everyday longing and the reverberations of political catastrophe. “Five Days before the Mastectomy, Insurrection at the Capital” is the name of one poem—“America, the gun— / predictable, mechanical”—is followed on the facing page by “After the Mastectomy,” leaving the actual operation somewhere unspoken, unspeakable, lost in the wayward pit, maybe, of the book’s spine. The book, and the poet’s incredible style—stoic, they say, or brave, though those words do insult to the unchosen suffering—remain nimble, deft, the book somehow weighty and buoyant, often funny, supercharged, a kind of pageturner. “Contrition,” for instance, goes like this:
At the twenty-
fifth twitch of
the blanket, his thirty-
I snapped and whacked
his shoulder. Contrite now,
I push my face against his face,
say, Dream of water, my love.
And we both let go
JESSE NATHAN: How did this book come to you? How was that you found yourself writing love poetry at a time like this?
KATIE FARRIS: Standing in the Forest of Being Alive began with a pun.
“What is the most romantic meter?” A student asked in my prosody class.
“Iambic dimeter!” I said. “The rhythm of each line is ba-BUM, ba-BUM— the sound of two heartbeats pressed against each other… GET IT?!” I awaited applause and received groans as usual.
But after that, I wrote hundreds of love lyrics in this form. I have always been interested in the parts of love and marriage that don’t make it onto the television screen—my young vegetarian husband suffering from gout, hollering because I’d barely grazed his toe with a sheet. Or the way he reads at night, one eye open determinedly even as he falls asleep with the other. Or our arguments about him throwing apple cores in the street. All those things I love him despite, rather than the things that cause me to love him. I later edited most of these poems without paying attention to the dimeter, but “Irony,” for instance, about my husband’s gouty foot, is still very dimetric. That takes us to roughly February 2020.
As the pandemic began and political rhetoric became even more toxic, I started trying to write more reflective poems. Like many folks in that time, I deepened my resolution to spend more time listening and less time speaking. I began to feel that my envisioned book of love poems was simply wrong. I was celebrating love when the collective was grieving—the deaths in this new millennia as well as centuries of hatred, and I wanted to respect that grief. At that point, I couldn’t imagine writing love poetry in a burning world. How could I? Why would I?
In August 2020, six days before my thirty-seventh birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bad news kept piling on: shockingly, chemotherapy gave me heart failure. My mastectomy created significant nerve damage in my shoulder. My radiation had to be much deeper and more intense than the original plan, as it appeared there might still be cancer after nine months of aggressive treatment.
Because I was diagnosed in pre-vaccine pandemic days, I was (and for the most part still am) alone at every single appointment. No one could visit during chemo, and my husband had to pick me up outside the hospital after my mastectomy. I have never seen my oncologist’s face. The poems were coming with a new urgency now—the burning world felt like it had taken up residency in my own body, and I was so afraid I was going to die that I couldn’t stop reaching out into the world, trying to touch what I could, while I could, even if it hurt. I needed to know—how can I write love poetry in a burning world?
The book is my messy, imperfect answer to that question. I have learned that the right time to write love poetry to a burning world is when it is burning—and it’s always burning. Whether the world “deserves” love is beside the point. It is the action of loving—the brave, ridiculous, absurd, delicious, silly, excruciating work of it—that answers the question why love?