“Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.”
Robert Frost believed a book of poetry should itself be structured as a poem, with individual poems functioning the way stanzas and lines do to create a beginning, middle, and end, or some other pattern that alchemizes the book into its own artistically complete and synergistic whole. In Catwalk (99 pages; Longship Press), Meryl Natchez’s meticulously structured and sequenced new book, the placement of every poem feels right and the result of a considered decision. That is, the poems are rooted in context in an organic, of-a-piece way, and I think Frost would approve.
Catwalk consists of five sections: “Heart of the Matter,” “Dark Shell,” “Brief Poems on Physics,” “Spring and All” (after William Carlos Williams’ poem), and “Praise.” Each section opens with a “looseplex,” a poem in a nonce form invented by Natchez that was inspired by Jericho Brown’s duplex form. Within each section, you will find other poem groupings, and often, the seeds of one poem are sown in the one that came just before. “A Good Lie,” for example, is followed by a poem involving a lie of omission (“Apology to Mrs. Joliff 47 years too late”), followed by a poem regretting things left unsaid to a deceased brother (“The Fight”), followed by a poem mourning the death of a mother (“Anniversary of My Mother’s Death”). Some poems, like “Stuck in the Middle with You” and “Who is this man,” come in thematic pairs that feel like call-and-response, or poems otherwise in conversation with each other.
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A stylistic element binding Catwalk is the appearance in all but one section of prose poems; the third section consists entirely of these after the opening looseplex. Another is the recurrence of interrogatory titles (e.g., “Who is this man?”) and longish titles that also serve as a poem’s first line (e.g., “The field of me twines with the field of you”). In conceiving an order that pays such close attention to the connections among poems, the book enacts one of its major themes: the interconnectedness of everything—good and bad, dark and light, high- and low-brow views of human existence—and how all things, including all of us, burn in time’s fire.
The dominant mode here is lyric-narrative, with a conspicuous absence of meter or rhyme, but there is music in the beauty and power of expression that comes from artfully employed language, image, and line breaks. Diction is vernacular, kept lively and interesting with allusions to science, math, current events, classics, and popular culture. “The Population of Loss”—a poem that interweaves “Robert Pinsky’s translation / of Dante’s Inferno” with the speaker’s discovery of her mother’s vibrator during a house move—is typical of the mercurial intellect and deflationary wit that inhabit these lines. Point of view is intimate and close, tending to be in first-person or else in what some call “first-person you.” Syntax and punctuation are regular, making Catwalk accessible in the best sense—welcoming to most readers without ever falling into banality or cliché.
Though the voice in Catwalk is intimate, I would not call it “confessional,” even in the non-pejorative sense of that loaded word. Although family and human relationships are central, you will find no dirty laundry here. What you will find instead are familiar-feeling scenes and situations that, in the course of the poem, open up into something larger. For example, the titular “Stuck in the Middle with You” moves from examination of a long marriage into broader issues of human existence, awareness, and mortality (“as we falter together / on the catwalk of consciousness”). “Passenger Tenderness” opens with the speaker at a poetry reading, distracted by having arrived late. A line she hears about air travel pulls her back to poetry and to “the jagged silhouette of barnacles on / memory’s exposed pier.” Then, the poem is off on a journey that travels the expanse of a lifetime and its losses, ending on a fragile and aching line (“lilac, lilac, lilac”) that manages to evoke James Wright and Robert Hass at the same time. Overall, the voice is polymathic, inquisitive, wise, and funny, leavening serious subjects with wit and a long-view perspective.
“Diptych: Full Circle” is a poem I know well, having heard Natchez read it during a meeting for the Marin Poetry Center where we both currently serve on the board. (I featured it here in a weekly series of columns Amanda Moore and I write for Women’s Voices for Change.) For some time before it went into Catwalk, that poem consisted of just its first part under the title “Theodicy.” In the book, the poem is extended via mirror-image format in which the second part reprises the lines of the first part in reverse order, ending on the poem’s first line (“for which it turns out you are the cause”). Like the best mirror poems, this one evolves in its second iteration so that each line means something different than what it meant the first time around. Although I miss that wonderful title, “Theodicy,” I had to marvel at the enlargement of subject achieved by putting the poem into the diptych format.
Readers looking for political poems won’t find them here, but issues of social justice are suggested in the subtexts of poems like the haunting “Looseplex: Tsunami.” Catwalk’s subjects range from current state-of-the-world issues like technology and climate change to abstractions like aging and mortality and more intimate matters of family and other human relationships. What is unique here is the absence of sentimentality or cliché in the treatment of these subjects. In fact, a wry humor is more often the dominant emotion. While many of Catwalk’s poems are set in the relatively circumscribed world of family and home, this is often merely the way Natchez accesses larger issues of humanity and art. Also unusual is this author’s willingness to take one step further into territory other writers may be reluctant to explore, what Jericho Brown describes as “no place this poetry won’t touch.” By way of example, Natchez plumbs the dark sides—the really dark sides—of marriage (“Skull of a Small Mammal”) and parenting (“Motherhood” and “Full Circle, A Diptych,” among others).
V. S. Naipaul once claimed to be able to know within a few lines of reading a piece whether the author was a woman because, according to him, we are limited by “sentimentality” and a “narrow view of the world.” One rejoinder to this is that there is infinite space in the narrows—for example, between the particles in an atom—and it is in just such interstices that truth is often found. Another might recall writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and others whose work powerfully proves that the lives of women are legitimate subjects for great art.
Catwalk sings of life’s disappointments and consolations and reminds us that sorrow is a matter of perspective that tends to dwindle in the long rearview. Catwalk is a record of one woman’s fully lived and realized life, viewed with honesty and humor, and expressed in language that transforms it into art.