Review by Liza Wolff-Francis
Standing in the Forest of Being Alive
by Katie Farris
Alice James Books
April 2023, Paperback, 100 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1948579322
Cancer is a dreaded word, one that no one wants to hear in connection with their health or with the health of anyone they love. In a wise and bold faceoff with the reality of a cancer diagnosis, in her new book Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, Katie Farris spins poetry of hope and reconciliation that humbles the reader and shows bravery in her coming to terms with the possibility of death.
In the first poem “Why write love poetry in a burning world,” we are told the speaker has cancer. For readers who might ask: Why even write poetry when you have an intense diagnosis like cancer? What’s the point? Farris gives two answers. At the beginning of the poem, she says: “To train myself to find in the midst of hell/what isn’t hell.” She is coping with her life continuing even with this diagnosis and pushes to make sure her body is still engaged with this world. The situation is, as she says, “a door I cannot close.” She finishes this first poem with another answer to the question: “To train myself in the midst of a burning world to offer poems of love to a burning world.” She has eloquently written love poems in order to stay alive, understand her path, and to bring a relentless undying hope to anyone who reads them.
Farris takes us through her journey with cancer, from diagnosis to mastectomy to a place of making a sort of peace with death. Often when people think of cancer, they might think it’s a depressing topic or that they don’t know if they want to read poetry about such a difficult subject, but Farris gifts her readers a wisdom she has gleaned along the way that not only normalizes fear of cancer and death, but also challenges it. And not for nothing, Farris’ poetry is stunning.
As readers, we are guided through an individual battle while we also see a struggle for life and country during a global pandemic. In her poem “The Invention of America” Farris writes that she is trying to be a “love poet” but she cannot “escape/ America.” She shows us the difficulty in trying to only write love poetry to the body, the difficulty in only focusing on healing and the clash with the possibility of death as America makes itself very present with its politics. “Everyone is writing about a country/ as if a country existed.” It’s hard to just be America when suffering is global and when one’s own individual suffering is so present. Just pages away, in the poem “Five Days before the Masectomy, Insurrection at the Capitol,” Farris questions: “What is the door/the bullet makes/ in the body?” There she is, waiting for a procedural loss of her own body and the insurrection takes place.
I love the way Farris uses titles. They speak. They frame. They set context and they draw us in. Each title is working for that poem and the overall arc of the book. In the poem “After the Masectomy,” the title gives us all the vulnerability that comes with a mastectomy. It holds a lot of weight and with all of that, she places us in the oncologist’s office with a man staring at her. When she stares back, he says to her: “People must stare at you.”
When I first read this, I was shaking my head at all of the things people say. It made me mad, sad, and hurt for the speaker, but it was also someone making an out loud comment that probably others don’t make. And maybe they stare or maybe they ignore her presence, her bald head, her newly shaped body. All of it is hard to witness and to know how to respond. The reader might see the comment as rude or simply as an observation. Farris responds with a question: “Why bother closing a door/ when everyone demands it open?” Throughout the book, she uses doors to lead us through options and the frank realities of having cancer and having to face an uncertain future. She continues in that poem to say she knows she has a bald head that draws attention and that she goes “to the world with my tongue out and my shirt unbuttoned,” having an attitude of: I am who I am and you will not keep me down or hold me back. Her voice is fierce, unforgiving, and living in the now.
Through her poetry, the way Farris takes us with her to face the possibility of dying, is a true gift. She has explored grief, loss, and mortality more deeply than most. She has fought off death and at the same time, seems to have come to an almost endearing peace with it. In her poem, “Woman with Amputated Breast at her Mother-in-Law’s Grave,” she writes: “A grave is/ a door/ we open,/ lay our dead down in,/ begging/ like a key begs/ a keyhole—/ Thank you, grief—/ whose root is love— and love/ which has teeth, and/eats.” Again, she speaks of the door. Is death a door we open? Is a grave?
Over and over, Farris lightly dances between the doors of this world and beyond, between the possibility of dying, between the possibility of continuing to live, almost daring death, daring the doctor. She continues to give the reader a very candid view of how she copes with cancer, treatment, other people’s views of her, her own sense of loss, America, and her will to live. This book is inspiring and hopeful, but also gives the reader treasures of insight, that despite all that goes on here in this world, in America, in our own lives and battles, death will come and even in hardship, “one must find in the midst of hell, what isn’t hell.”
About the reviewer: Liza Wolff-Francis is a poet and writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She became Poet Laureate of Carrboro, North Carolina in January 2023. She has an ekphrastic poem published in Austin’s Blanton Art Museum and was co-director for the 2014 Austin International Poetry Festival. Her writing has been widely anthologized and her work has most recently appeared in The Phare, Silver Birch Press, Wild Roof Journal, SLAB, and eMerge magazine. She has written reviews of poetry books that have been published on Adroit, Compulsive Reader, and LitPub. Her chapbook “Language of Crossing” was published by Swimming with Elephant Publications, 2015.