Sunday, March 22, 2020

Meryl Natchez: Catwalk

In these trying times I search for silver linings. This blog post is the result of two. First, unable to host The Poetry Connection, where Marin County poets are introduced to a wider audience and readership, and unable to attend readings of my own work and of the work of others, I now have ample time to fulfill my commitment to review new poetry collections by Marin poets. There are ten such books on my desk that await a more careful reading and / or their respective reviews. Second, my reading of Meryl Natchez' Catwalk (Longship Press, 2020) has caused me to fall in love with poetry all over again. I told my partner, Janet, the previous sentence should be the standard for all poetry collections. Congratulations, Meryl Natchez and Lawrence Tjernell of Longship Press for creating such a book.

I imagine doing a word search on Catwalk, entering favorite word after favorite word, and finding each one of them somewhere in the manuscript, chiseled into an apt image, fleshed out into a fresh metaphor or engaging narrative, riffed upon to create a lyrical variation or an entire prose poem without punctuation—in short, whatever I’m in the mood for, delivered in poetic spades. 

And this would be no idle exercise on my part because Catwalk is the result of the poet’s own search among the details of her capacious life embodied in forms as appropriately chosen as they are varied in content. The student of poetry will recognize her free verse, haibuns and cinquaines, but perhaps not her Looseplexes, an adaptation of Jericho Brown’s Duplex, that begin each section. Scowering her embryonic and past failed poems, Natchez rescues lines that deserve a home and builds a nonce form structure for them. To assemble it, she literally cut out with scissors the best lines from poems on life support, as if she were selecting DNA strands to genetically engineer a new breed of poem, placed them upon a white board, and rearranged and massaged them until her Looseplex was born. 

The poems in Catwalk, however, are not mere poetic detritus cleverly cobbled together to make meaning from their sound work or their visual presence upon the page. They are the result of sifting through a language and a life to find what, if not permanent, will at least give the comfort of meaning while they are here. In Judaism this rigorous process of fixing and rectifying has a name—tikkun. It is the closest word in the Torah to perfect—the kind of perfect I believe Natchez writes about in “Perfect Balance,” from section II, Dark Shell.

Perfect Balance

We imagine
a world of perfect harmony

We imagine imagining
how the lion

lies down with the Xbox
as the dragon needle

of dread
ceases its endless stitching.

We imagine this, strapped
to the wheel of this world

as it creaks
against sinew and nerve

where the work is to grasp
perfection

in every terrible turn.

Turning the terrible into the tolerable and the tolerable into the loveable is one of the features of Catwalk I love most. Here is the second half of my favorite poem from section I, Heart of the Matter, entitled “Full Circle, A Diptych.” Each half reverses the line order of the other half.

Full Circle, A Diptych

Sleep-deprived, disoriented, your nipples so sore
you can hardly bear the baby’s ruthless gums,

and when they cry, you pick them up again,
and wander the few rooms your life has narrowed to,

the soft floss of their hair, the bluish pattern that blooms
under transparent skin, shrimp-shell fingernails so fragile

they bend when you try to cut them. Soon
they begin to know who you are, they reach their chubby arms

toward you, they smile, they nuzzle the soft bones
of their fontanel into your neck and cover it with kisses

limpid as soap bubbles, and there has never been anything
more delightful, not sex, not the best meal, not driving fast

in a convertible on a winding road by an azure sea,
and you would do anything for them, and you do,

give up nightlife, adult conversation, hour-and-a-half
massages, spicy food, uninterrupted thought,

and they learn to walk,
to swim, to read, and you’ve paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college
and helped out with grad school and they’re launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat,
their own ways of slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

It is not only the specificity in Natchez’ diction that pulls me into her poems, but it is the way these poems seem like the news from this morning’s paper, stitched from the celebrations and concerns of my own life, as I nod yes, yes, yes over morning coffee recognizing myself in their lines. In “Another Morning on Earth,” the poet itemizes pictures on the altar in her living room: “…parents, / my brother at forty, Larry’s parents, / my mother and her sisters on Atlantic City Boardwalk in the thirties, / and Erwin, my mother’s last love, for the besotted, lively gaze / she turns on him, though I try to keep him / behind the flowers.”

This passage reminds me of Malena Morling’s short poem “Traveling” with it’s first stanza: “Like streetlights / still lit / past dawn, / the dead / stare at us / from the framed / photographs.” However, unlike Morling’s photographs that are “traveling / continuously / backwards / without a sound / further and further / into the past,” Natchez’ dead stay close by and reach their long lines around us because the poet tends to them.

              I change the flowers as they wilt,
alstroemerias, anemones, the last sweet peas,
because I want my dead to keep watching out for us,
for the children and grandchildren and beloved friends
in this chancy world where death lurks on the landing
or in the car, or microbes
or snipers or breast
or bone or stomach.

And instead of cold, Spartan lines marching down the page, ending abruptly to leave the white space of nothingness, Natchez fills her poem with an abundance of “random moments that can converge / into a ravishing pattern” walking right up to the cliff of sentimentality, placing her toes over the edge and only glancing into its depths, avoiding jumping into the abyss by keeping her eyes on those concrete images.

             What do they think about the time I waste?
Such an abundance that I throw whole hours
into online Scrabble or Threes,
because it’s hard to be here now,
now being a confused elixir
of sun and fog and email and bird shadow and superstition
and chicken feet and toast and news
and insatiable longing and I have to pee, a fusillade
of random moments that converge
into a ravishing pattern,
which I have, from time to time and briefly, glimpsed.

            But mostly I wander the planet with blinders on,
            going somewhere fast.
            I like to keep moving.
            I like my time full.
            And I like to believe that because
            Their photos look out from their niche
            In the living room, they are present, and if
            I keep a fresh parade of flowers on the altar
            They will keep on keeping me
            from harm.

Some critics would say that the poem ends with the penultimate stanza, that the final stanza is an unnecessary afterthought and, thus, out of place. Natchez never shies away from “telling us” in the midst of “showing us”—not from a lack of writing ability, but rather, seemingly, from an abundance of wise commentary earned from a life lived to its fullest. I would say that what works about this final stanza is the repetition of “like” that softens any didactic tone.

“After” is another fine example of this blend that works, partly, because it is in the second person—in reality a “first person light”—bridging the emotional gap between reader and poet, accentuating, as do many of Catwalk's poems, its haunting echo of facing the COVID19  pandemic.


After

At first, to be alive is all you need.
The sweet bitterness of coffee,
the hand with the umbrella,
the blanket’s warmth
as you step from the wing of the plane
afloat on icy water
onto the deck of the rescue boat.
Even the air’s acrid sting
on the skin of your cheeks
is welcome.

But soon
you begin to miss your laptop,
your keys, the numbers
stored in your phone.
This is the daily wonder,
to take life for granted
each time
it’s restored to you.

Natchez utilizes multiple forms in her quest for a permanence beyond permanence and impermanence. Here is a prose poem from section III, Brief Poems on Physics, rendered in one breath, enacting the cycle of connection / dissolution that embodies our existence.

Made of molecules

I take for granted that the earth is solid the idea of permanence
seductive as I move about checking the time going here going there
the small chores and pleasures of daily interaction shaken when
the lanterns in the Hunan restaurant suddenly being to sway and
we run outside remembering that the reliable ground under our
feet can suddenly shift that the live oak with its wrinkled elephant
trunk and ancient lichen its catkins and acorns reassembles itself
moment to moment as if forever as if predictable as if not vulner-
able as if not a continuous regrouping a notion a casual kiss that
might be the last

“Looseplex: Despite everything, spring” is emblematic of Natchez’ intriguing nonce form. A quest poem, uncovering the darkness and the light, universally and inexorably bonded together, as we are to all things, it appropriately introduces the final section of Catwalk and concludes this review. 

Looseplex: Despite everything, spring

No one was watching. We searched the silence
Like a farmer in drought, ears open for rain.

            Each morning, each evening, scatter of yellow.
            Whatever else may occur, it’s spring,

A framework for the rags of this world,
Real joy mixed with a certain uncertainty.

            Overnight a fuzz of tender green.
            It glints and shimmers. It pulls me towards it—strong

Carpet of newborn shoots under last year’s weeks.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies.

            Aretha’s hat, Yo Yo Ma’s delight,
            Is this our work, to love what is here?

To move along the skin of this earth
Married like enamel to the tooth.


Meryl Natchez' most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. She is co-translator of Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001, and her new book, Catwalk, is forthcoming from Longship Press in June 2020 (pre-orders available now HERE). Her work has appeared in Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, The American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, The Pinch Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Lyric, The Moth, Comstock Review, and many others. She is on the board of Marin Poetry Center and blogs at www.merylnatchez.com

Catwalk may be pre-ordered HERE







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