Four Way Books
84 pages/ $15.95
Review by Rachel Mennies
I read All you Do Is Perceive in transit. I read in places where Joy Katz herself may have conducted studies for this polyphonous collection: on the subway. In the airport. I listened to the child in the seat behind me wail, our plane delayed, as Katz’s speaker describes the early weeks of life with her adopted son: “The parents, as if clubbed between the eyes / but with no memory of it, regard the infant / who has no self regard…”
Especially surrounded by this pulsing human noise, Katz’s third collection of poetry shows readers a loud, beautifully chaotic world rendered with astonishing precision. The speakers throughout position themselves as observers at all scales: a poem for the tiny pot of jam, described and imagined from each side; a poem for the lettuce in its plastic bag; a poem for the moment the speaker first touches her child. We try on Katz’s sharp, lyric visions, even literally in “Excuse Me, Where is Varick Street?”: “Can you see out of my eyeholes?” asks the speaker. “Are you comfortable?” Throughout the collection, these poems enact the process of making sense of a world suddenly and gloriously disrupted by the presence of new life.
The son exists at the heart of this collection, and appears in its most transformative moments. “Which From That Time Infus’d Sweetness Into My Heart,” All You Do’s opening poem, thrusts the son into the eye of the speaker’s storm. As the poem maps this introduction through a humming, stirring nonchronology, so the collection continues to explore this new mother-son relationship through out-of-time moments which serve to depict the freneticism and beauty of a child’s first months at home. “How to describe to you,” ends the poem-in-parts “Mother’s Love,” “this height, this opening?” We hear him in each poem, ripping boxes and wailing, cooing and sleeping, his “sweetness,” as the same poem describes, spreading to all corners of the speaker’s life.
Against this newness, another cacophany pushes through: the darker sounding of death and loss, which echoes throughout the collection in the spectres of suicide and holocaust. In these poems, Katz imparts a longing to “revise:” to wish against the inevitability of loss even as such inevitability is inarguable. In “Suicide Cascade,” the speaker remembers a fellow poet lost to suicide, and describes the surreality of looking back, searching for clues to this final decision: “The poet tried to reach her therapist before she killed herself / is a place you can change the ending.” And in the prose poem “In My Mother’s 1935 American College Dictionary,” the speaker wrangles with the etymology of holocaust, then tucks the word under her arm and travels through town with it: “See, that’s light, I explain. There are plants growing. Whole yards, people, a calm world. From inside my jacket that swarming sound. I walk the holocaust carefully back to my car.” Out in the “calm world,” even death, even obliteration, is possible, and while we cannot safeguard against it, we can “hold it and let it beat its arms against [us],” much like an infant searching to understand his new mother.
Some collections of poetry demand our stillness, our silence, as we read. Others, like All You Do Is Perceive, ask us to listen closely to our own made worlds: the noise of what we collect, the strangers, the ones we love and lose, the ones we meet and consider as we push through our wild and “swarming” lives. “Scraping sounds, metal straining, and a baby—gainly, smoother-skinned—enters the world…” describes the speaker of “Big Baby.” Then I heard the rip of the plane separate from the gate, the child behind me still screaming—all of us, ready or not, poised to rush together into the sky.
Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields. Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Gigantic Sequins, and other literary journals, and have been reprinted at Poetry Daily.