“Peanut-Butter the Apartment”: Jonah Meyer Reviews Sarah Katz’s Poetry Collection Country of Glass

In her debut poetry collection Country of Glass, Sarah Katz has woven a humane and haunting book of poems. Imbued with a compassionate sensitivity that seeks to acknowledge and grapple with the harsh realities which too often afflict humanity, such as strife within both self and family, illness and assault, and larger societal and global issues of murder, war, and torture, Katz’s work embraces these realities yet—perhaps more significantly—asserts an evocative struggle to nevertheless move forward and upward through such overbearing calamity.

In the opening poem describing (in a total of four succinct lines) the meeting of “[t]wo woolly animals … their bodies as luminous as stars,” it is the “stillness between them” that the poet aims to understand. One cannot help but wonder, then, if this serene, quiet tone struck from the book’s beginning is a purposeful literary choice, presented in high-definition contrast against much (even most) of that which is to follow. For straightaway, in the very next poem, “Da Album,” Great Grandma Sonia relates stories of the Old World, during the war and genocide of millions of Jews (and others), when “Your Great Grandma Sonia / received Skippy / peanut butter / from the Red Cross / and not knowing what eet vas, used eet / to fill up cracks / in da apartment.” Within this same sharing of family history, Great Uncle Lou jumps out the window, umbrella in hand, “thinking he could fly” and the poem’s speaker begins to play an accordion Lou snuck, under his clothing, from one labor camp to another.

Later, in “How to Be a Child of War,” Katz presents a five-year-old on an icy Siberian road, surrounded by mountains, as:

Up above, your mother in the forest—
too thin to exist—
grinds a double-handed saw
across an oak
with another starved woman …

Your mother who
has eaten nothing
but a slice of black bread.

Katz, who is a deaf poet, disability rights journalist, and co-founding editor of The Deaf Poets Society (a literary journal featuring creative work of people with disabilities), further explores issues of body and trauma, not shying away from personal intimacy, such as the freeing scene painted in “Portrait of My Deaf Body”: “I have many sisters / They all look like me / He bites her lip / No, it can’t be / Licks the curves of her stomach like an icy spoon.” In writing of a life-altering car accident in 2014, where she was struck as a pedestrian, Katz shares, in “The End of the Ordinary Body, 1,” that “[a]fter the accident, / I was redrawn in light,” with “[b]lossom of blood / at my feet. / Rupture revealed bone, / salt-crusted skin. / Smoldered through me / like memory.”

As an avid reader and student of modern and contemporary American poetry, Belgrade-born poet Charles Simic is a personal favorite—for a multitude of reasons. Katz includes an epigraph at the opening of Country of Glass citing a beautiful and stirring line from Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. She also writes a poem in this fantastic collection “after Charles Simic,” entitled “Memory,” wherein Katz describes, as the first child in a fondly-remembered apartment, running with crooked fingers, eyes broken by “the forests’ arms,” in want of answers, in want of “a book of Pushkin / to wear like a hat.” Asking Poland to “scatter” her music, fingerless and with ears which are dead, Katz declares that such music (presumably from the Eastern European country now broken, now in glass), “You’ll have to carve into me / one number at a time.”

I bring up Simic, especially in relation to Katz’s references, because—reading and re-reading and enjoying and being touched by Country of Glass—much of Katz’s work is reminiscent of some of the best Simic himself has written. A strong aesthetic correlation—if not literary influence—can be discerned through reading these poems. To be sure, this is a high compliment, in this reviewer’s honest and humble opinion.

As we enter with heightened curiosity Part Two (of Three) in Country of Glass, it is notable that all of the poems within this section are comprised of (relatively brief) prose poems, such as in the opening of “Dream of Arrival,” in which a crabapple tree, lush with pink fruit, “juts from an oasis.” Then the poet, donning sneakers on her feet, addresses the tree, its return from somewhere far away: “a world,” Katz writes, “I am learning.” Throughout this section, Katz employs every day, down-to-earth, quite approachable diction, and other scenes portray Katz-as-child, visiting the velvet eggs lining her mother’s bathroom shelves of jewelry, which, despite her mother’s admonition to stay out, also reveal, in one crimson-colored egg, “Six baby teeth, all mine.”

The third (and final) section of Katz’s work begins with an epigraph by Louise Glück—appropriately so, as Glück is another poet who immediately comes to mind (such as Simic). Collected within are pieces that re-visit, for example, Katz’s father’s seizures, in the intensive care unit: “a moon-egg face, his skull full of staples and blood.” Following are “Photograph of Swimmers in Prague, 1912,” and the historical “Intent,” wherein “[n]early a hundred Pollacks milled around the American Red Cross tent, / squinting through the sun and awaiting their bread,” as one young boy secures a loaf “sheathed in crinkling plastic … so white it could have / been the ass of a swan.” Finally, an erasure poem, which takes as source material “Torture at Abu Ghraib” by Seymour M. Hersh from The New Yorker, displays, across four pages, poignant testament to the state-sanctioned torture of Iraqi detainees during Bush Jr.’s misguided and devastating invasion of the middle eastern country. With equal dis-quieting effect, Katz quotes Hersh’s description of one of the leaked photographs which brought the war’s grotesque home to many Americans: “Private England, a cigarette dangling from her / mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young / Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates.”

As life itself serves us all a mixture of pain and pleasure, in matters large and small, so too does Country of Glass capture in poetry this ebb and flow. With Country of Glass, Katz has honed a considerable style, tone, and grand poetics, and this constant migration from carefree play to, for example, medical horror, establishes a tangible equilibrium, a balance achieved which intrigues, invigorates, and makes for simply outstanding reading.

Country of Glass, by Sarah Katz. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, May 2022. 76 pages. $18.95, paper.

Jonah Meyer is a poet, writer, and editor based in North Carolina. He serves as poetry editor for Mud Season Review, assistant poetry editor with Random Sample Review, copy editor/proofreader with Under the Gum Tree, poetry reader for The Maine Review, and staff writer with The US Review of Books. Jonah’s poetry and other creative work has been published widely, both in print and online.

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