Friday, November 3, 2023

Katy Bridge by David Watts

KATY BRIDGE, David Watts. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 56 pages, $18 paperback,


Memory is at the center of Katy Bridge, a physical place as well as this collection of poems that records narratives from childhood such as “standing next to girders…pressed flat by the bellow of a passing train.” But Katy Bridge also, perhaps, distorts and embellishes memories that “splatter like oil on the rails” (a gorgeous and apt description of the poem-making process)—swimming with girlfriends, details from the funeral of a childhood friend who fell from a tower, Marilyn Monroe’s seductive gaze from the image on the wall of a bar, and death’s stare from the shadows residing in almost every poem in the collection.

“Afterprint,” five poems into the book, introduces an important theme of dualities with a lover that is not only a lover, but a figure that exists simultaneously in two worlds, “ris[ing] from the bed / leaving a swirl in the sheets / the shape of her leaving / … / …The air disturbed in layers. // Everything tender / about this moment gone. / And still here.”

In “Two Deer in Early Morning,” the observer gestures more deeply away from the fashioned world to the organic one that is not ruled by mechanisms we can fully explain:

If I stand very still they will go back to chewing a tuft of summer grass.


                         If I move,


        the fawn will turn her fire-streaked eyes on me

                                asking to know me

                                                          for who I am.


                       Conversation      just a heartbeat,

                                                                                         not spoken.                                                                                         



                  the moment changes.


                               For something has been watching


             from the forest


                                                       and reaches now


                                    to draw them back


        as if their world had waited too long


                                                                     to call them home,


                              as if they were never here.


            But Watts never abandons the sensorial for the abstract or mystical. These poems negotiate a pact between these two poles, as in the poem titled “This Poem is Curious,” wherein the poet declares “Delicious was the tension between our world and the other world. How it / brushed our bones with silver. How there was no other world,” and the poem, “Five Stones” that begins in the sensorial (Five stones sit between the coffee maker / and faucet, tokens I picked up / on Wreck Beach off the straight of water, / north of Puget Sound…”) and progresses, as so many of these explorations do, into a portal between two worlds:


…these stones know something

about me as they glisten quietly

on the counter: one, the countenance of 

a gibbous moon, the second, the unstill arc

of Jupiter’s stripes, 

third, the creamy mildness of a spirit in repose,

then the rose pink of salmon flesh,

and last, a darkness that never speaks.

We walked together on that beach,

you and I, speaking

as lovers do when they remind themselves

their pasts, saying those things

we’d not found time to say, not saying

what no one will ever hear,

cradled in the chambers of two hearts

swelling. Something changed

in that moment, as if no person or thing

could ever be alone in the universe,

the moment opening,

the waves at our feet,

the stones in our hands,

these collected treasures, colorations

of the elements that made us.

Watt’s poems call and answer to one another, inform one another and, appropriately, are organized in this collection without sections. No poems illustrate this dialogue between poems more than the previous “Five Stones” and “Jenner Stones” (“I press them between my thumb / and forefinger. It may not be so bad / to go on for years with nothing // happening, nothing / but the downward heft of sediment—and then / this blossoming!”). This truth, drawn from geology, of pressure producing beauty is also applicable to other realms, enacted in “Returning Home” (“the wind… / / pushing cottonwood tufts / out to the horizon”); “At Night” (“These images are unruly. / They change even as I hold them tightly”); “This Poem is Curious” (“Delicious was the tension between our world and the other world…”); “Love by its Own Plan” (“I gave a girl a buffalo nickel. / / …She spent it. / Made a worry nickel out of me…”); and “Conversations” (“Did you know that if you sit real still you can feel the earth move? / It’s like sitting on a spring-mounted platform waiting for it to push you up. / Only slower.”). In “Abundance,” about changes brought about in the midst of illness and sorrow that bring their own treasure, we find these lines:

            You say you’ve changed.

               It’s true.


            We both are different,

               but also not

            different: we still say

               “It may be cold out.


            You should take along

               a pull-over, or

            Can you remember where

               I put those blue pillowcases?


            Love is not love that cannot be deepened

               by sorrow—

Convincing imagery, sparing use of abstraction—used only when necessary and with strong intention—tension-filled language that is concise and rarely familiar enough to even border on cliché, are all earmarks of Watts’s poems. The title poem is emblematic of these elements. In addition, the structure of these poems supports their content, often using couplets, reminding readers of those two worlds, two people, two rails of that railroad track that passes over Katy Bridge.

            KATY BRIDGE

            Rumored to be a Lover’s Leap over shallow water. Home of ghosts.

            River running low in summer.


            Thought I remembered standing next to the girders one time,

            pressed flat by the bellow of a passing train.


            Turned sideways to the eyes of an awkward death that lured me there,

            foolishly there. I ignored his stare and didn’t die.


Never sure I really did that. The bridge probably made it up where memories

            splatter like oil on the rails. Mostly,


            it was a place to take your girlfriend for a scare, a kiss and a dare

            and beat it when the rails start to shake.


            Rare seasons I had one. Girlfriends, that is. Scary thought: trains and girlfriends.

            What I can say is that walking rails gets a tad different


            with trestles on either side of you. Always a train somewhere up the tracks

            headed your way, the rails alive like snakes slithering,


            the 4 o’clock hissing its way down from Waco.


The couplets foreshadow both the dualities throughout this collection and the final, single line foreshadows inevitable loss, as this opening poem freights its compelling narrative on powerful poetic machinery that doesn’t lose any steam as it echoes through every poem in Katy Bridge.


Thirty-four books from the pen of David Watts have been published: short stories, mysteries, westerns, Christmas memoirs, NPR commentaries, haiku, small books of aphoristic wisdoms, translation, and at the heart of it all, poetry. Trained as a physician and classical musician, he turned to poetry mid-life and has never turned back. He has led workshops nationally and teaches poetry at the Fromm Institute of San Francisco. His interest in the contribution of the unconscious to the process of creation has led to a body of imaginative work under the pen name, Harvey Ellis, a leaping, associative voice that is to be found as a quiet influence in parts of the current work. His new project is a collection of essays and reflections.


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