Katie Farris’ chapbook, A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving, is more than a chapbook of haunting; it returns us to that distinctly humanist “point of wonder” of what separates human beings from animals. The Oedipean riddle by the Sphinx and Pico della Mirandola’s famous speech all point to humans as the two-legged miracle. It turns to this miracle as a point of departure outside Atlanta Cancer Care, as the speaker wonders if humans stood up, as trees do, to uplift their arms and “if you long hard enough, / do you find fruit in your palms?” The fruit, then, symbolizes not the first fall from grace, but that miracle within miracles, in a brutally honest work that shows the seams and pains of cancer.
In this sense, A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving fulfills its mission to offer “poems of love” to those Farris loves, Farris herself, and we who may be facing similar Herculean feats. Its relevance comes in its commonality among Americans (approximately 39.5 of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer) and its financial burden and emotional impact on cancer fighters and survivors and their families (“Three drains, five scans, twenty thousand dollars!”). For women in a society that for the most part continues to define femininity and in turn humanity and identity by their breast, Farris’ amputated breast continues its afterlife, defining Farris the speaker as the “Woman with Amputated Breast” even in its absence.
Farris opens A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving by addressing the age-long question of Why poetry during difficult times? in what felt like a direct conversation with “We Lived Happily during the War” by Ilya Kamisky in Deaf Republic. It comes as no surprise, as Farris and Kaminsky are husband and wife, and the chapbook is dedicated to him. Whereas the “hell” of Deaf Republic emerges from the guilt of non-protest and non-opposition in light of systematic oppression, the “hell” in Farris’ chapbook emerges from “the body chewing” itself, creating a schism between “good” and “bad” body parts that ratchet up to eleven the dramatic dialogues between the speaker and her breast, that “Malignant / magnificent palimpsest” as Farris undergoes chemotherapy to control the spread of the cancerous tumors to the rest of her body.
What sets Farris’ beginning poem, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” apart is her manically funny tone which pokes fun even as she faces the larks and plunges of a macabre subject matter: cancer. Indeed, her intense lyricism (with echoes of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Emily Dickinson’s signature em-dashes) is defined by a willingness to to subvert and poke fun at the literally sterile and cold healthcare system. In this setting, when “Six days before / my thirty-seventh birthday, / a stranger called and said, You have cancer. Unfortunately. / Then hung up the phone,” Farris answers by writing poems that capture passive aggressive thoughts, her rage, and her despondency in oncology clinics or hospital rooms, and at home.
Farris keenly feels the other’s objectifying gaze, whether from the man glaring at her amputated breast in the oncology room or the doctors pursuing the next course of treatment. Farris’ poems allows her to air her grievances aloud to us and invert the actual power dynamics where the male gaze on the female cancer patient and the physician-patient relationship is transformed. Thus, in the poem, “Woman with Amputated Breast for Her Injection,” Farris writes, “Come, Doctor, how do you like me now— / I never wanted to be anything but biddable” in the decidedly obsequious but also tongue-in-cheek tone demarcates the limits for the poet, “in the forest of being alive” at once burdened by this scientific world and at once enthralled by its ability to fill the outlines of the speaker’s body “with color,” meaning physical color marking the body as a map as well as animation to survive even as death lurks, close by, and gets progressively closer and closer.
Farris’ poems treat their subject matter with urgency and immediacy, through and after Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Like Emily Dickinson’s poetry, where death lurks as a “master” figure, Farris personifies death in “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer” in addressing her breast, Emily Dickinson, chemotherapy and the echo of her silenced voice in contemplating her actual and metaphysical death as a woman, poet, and human being. If Emily Dickinson’s master is invariably a higher being, the human “you” is treated as a coequal, the way “the boy you / are brings me a melted candy bar / in your pocket” and is commanded to find and bury the speaker’s “heavy braid” so that the braid will be transformed into “a rope” that will let her “down into the earth.” In this sense, each planting of what is lost (hair and its serendipitous cousin, cat whiskers) as the mapped and overborne body is laid to rest, caught as “What used to be / a rope descending / my vertebrae to the basement / of my spine / grew thin.”
Farris’ short-lined poems are visceral, often turning from physical pain or public shame to gesture towards the beyond the body. By that, I do not mean that Farris leaves the “bald, cancerous” body behind but rather than through and with her body (to borrow the words of Carolyn Forché on the back cover), which is “still / beautiful enough” for her to imagine the body’s opening during mastectomy and its weaving back together after death. This opening of the self, peering into the struggles and courage of Farris the poet’s battle against cancer may be “just enough / to pull” the days of ours taut as they see in that “lofty sunlit dome / Lined with pietà after / Pietà” the grave grief in every Virgin, and many years thence remember Farris’ “love poem from long ago,” and “how it shook” them to the core.
A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving, by Katie Farris. Beloit Poetry Journal, February 2021. 36 pages. $12.00, paper.
Tiffany Troy is a poet, translator, and critic based in New York.