by Maurya Simon | Contributing Writer
Longship Press, 2020
What does it mean, for a person of conscience, to dwell in the twenty-first century as a witness to the ecological and human fallout from our oh-so-casually ravaged planet? How to make sense, both as a spectator and a participant, of the ongoing degradation of the continents, the air, and the oceans? How do we mitigate our private tragedies as well as attend to the suffering of those around us? Most of us counteract the weight of looming loss that hangs over our world by buoying ourselves with the lift of despair’s antidotes. Such endorphin-spawning remedies may include personal activism, random acts of kindness, or, after a storm, taking the time to notice “patches of intermittent radiance play[ing] over the washed world.”
In her new volume of poems, Catwalk, Bay Area poet Meryl Natchez navigates the high, narrow walkway between possibility and stasis, being and nonbeing, dread and wonder, memory and loss. She occupies a catwalk forty stories up; assaulted by high winds, it swings back and forth. Yet Natchez holds steady, never losing her footing, inching forward—bravely, tentatively—balancing her weight against time and gravity.
Catwalk is divided into five sections, opening with familial, domestic, and love poems, then moving to elegies, laments, and political poems. Natchez provides a note for the third section, explaining that its prose poems “were inspired by Carlo Rovelli’s lush, literate explanations of the history and current state of physics” found in his books, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Why Reality is Not What It Seems. The poems in this section consider with grace and conviction a number of physical, philosophical, moral, and existential quandaries. For instance, in “Looseplex 21: Nancy, an Elegy,” Natchez writes, “No moment [is] entirely free of shadow.” Each lived moment is haunted by the previous moment, and it’s foreshadowed by the moment that’s moving in hot on its heels.
The poems in the volume’s fourth and shortest section, “Spring and All,” celebrate a variety of real and metaphorical rebirths, “real joy mixed with a certain uncertainty.” This marriage of joy to uncertainty is a leitmotif throughout the book. Natchez considers the same “burden of uncertainty” that attends every revival, and that “can ruin even a tulip,” knowing that natural processes, including cause and effect, are often unpredictable and/or antithetical. In the same poem, the poet notes that even as the earth blooms with a “carpet of newborn shoots . . . five billion miles away, a galaxy dies.”
The book’s last section, “Praise,” covers a wide-ranging and surprising miscellany of praiseworthy subjects: sexuality; animals who sacrifice themselves to science and our appetites; research and knowledge; friendship; cheating; flatulence; endless chores; the Muse; the spirit (which Natchez wonderfully likens, in the poem “Part of the Spirit,” to “a touch that gives comfort / even after the hand is gone”); and, finally, “Death,” which “can dazzle: a brilliant flame and then // Finish the job and turn into gossamer. / Exit this life into ashes and pure air” (“Looseplex: Praise”).
As this overview implies, Natchez’s subjects are far-ranging; they inspire a number of poems devoted to the domestic realm, wherein the poet explores and dramatizes family love, kinship, misunderstanding, mortality, identity, and loss. Her poem, “Motherhood,” honestly and viscerally owns up to the paradoxical nature of maternal emotion: “You can’t imagine / the despair and rage snarled / within the besotted adoration / that tiny body wrenches from you / at birth.”
Her poems reveal a full and richly lived life, one that’s composed of “random moments that can converge / into a ravishing pattern,” as well as containing “insatiable longing.” Other compelling subjects which this poet tackles are: the enigmatic bonds of marriage; the rational versus the irrational mind; social and political duplicity (and the ubiquitous hypocrisy inherent in consumerism); impermanence; the mysteries that attend our human condition and that bind us to the physical world; and the vagaries of the life of the mind. In her prose poem “Art,” Natchez also examines art’s power to nurture, console, and heal us, if only temporarily.
Wherever her thoughts roam, more often than not, Natchez finds something extraordinary to celebrate within the confines of mundane moments and ordinary experiences. Indeed, at every turn in this marvelous book, I encounter original and unexpected insights, startling images and cathartic revelations, such as the “The incessant OM of cars on [Interstate] 880” in “Looseplex: Praise” and “A one-thumbed glove, / the fig has nothing to prove. / Soft as a scrotum, / silken from top to bottom, / smug as a full house / where wasps drowse,” (“Consider the Fig”), and the splendid “Acres of gold-brown weeds disrobing (“Looseplex 21: Nancy, an Elegy”). In her prose poem, “Thinking About Einstein while Waiting For the Big Blue Bus,” Natchez employs a paragraph-long sentence to enact the dazzling leaps of Einstein’s mind, and to demonstrate his theory that light travels at the same speed for every observer, defying the space/time continuum:
how is it that the light at the corner of Pico and Lincoln that spills so
generously over sidewalk blue metal chairs five lanes with their cross
stitch of traffic can be “discrete packets, discontinuous, distributed
across space” how could a mind on a series of ordinary mornings
forkfuls and mouthfuls and earfuls deconstruct the everywhereness
of light into microscopic moving parts some of which only exist
when they bump into each other . . .
Natchez’s poems in Catwalk serve as stepping stones for our collective psyche, for although they record her intensely personal perceptions of the world, they also point us toward the universal. Here’s a poet capable of noticing how “racist rants…infuse a gritty particulate into the common air” (“Sleepwalking”), and how the moonlit ocean’s “glittering path…disappears as you / enter it” (“Haibun for Amanda”). Indeed, there’s often this kind of sultry movement in Natchez’s poems, from the mundane material world to what’s unexpected, otherworldly, transitory, evanescent, or ephemeral.
In “After,” Natchez notes, “This is the daily wonder, / to take life for granted / each time / it’s restored to you.” And, in “The Conservation of Matter,” Natchez shows us how “the dead look out from their accustomed photos, / stopped in time, but not altogether silent, // as the last whiff of the whale’s breath / transforms into ocean, air.” How deftly she dramatizes the wonder of that law of physics: that matter cannot be destroyed, though it may be conserved and perpetuated via its transformation into energy–and, through the poem’s articulation, it may morph into something more ineffable and mysterious than the rational mind is able to comprehend.
“Lying on the massage table at the mudbaths,” from the book’s “Spring and All” section, provides an example of how Natchez can employ a stream of narrative enlivened by physical sensations and sensual imagery to transform the physics of time-space matter into spirit. She imagines what will happen after “the engine finally stops and I cool for good / and the cells of me transform into earth ash air as my spirit into yours / as you read these words.” This movement constitutes a sly and effective alchemy, whereby the poet breathes (inspires) life in the reader, even after she imagines herself gone.
A skilled and versatile poet, Natchez works with ease within a variety of poetic forms and modes: she’s equally adept at writing elegies, homages, or odes; haibun or haiku; cinquains or loosely metrical lines in dimeter and trimeter; prose poems or tautly rhythmical, lineated ones. Some of the most powerful poems in this volume are Natchez’s “looseplex” poems, written in a form she’s adapted from Jericho Brown’s “duplex” form.
One of Natchez’s “Looseplex” poems opens the volume, as well as each of Catwalk’s six sections. This is a tricky business, because these poems are structurally experimental. Their strategy involves uniting disparate images and moods to create an impressionistic yet coherent whole. Each line of a looseplex poem initially seems autonomous, yet when read in relation with the lines that precede and succeed it, meaning rises and reverberates. Consequently, these are some of the richest and most memorable poems in Catwalk, and their successes are due partially to the risks that they take architecturally and intuitively. Here’s “Looseplex: Losing Patience” in full:
How many years was my path obscured by junk
My ungovernable heart, pocked by grievance?
Starting from something simple, like milk.
Push up bras, slim jims, and cheese doodles
Endlessly stitching snags in the sky.
Remember being crazed with desire?
Seeds release in heat, the ground charred clear for them.
We talk after dinner, wine glasses refilled.
The monks who touched the match to their own dowsed robes.
What I believed was the absolute truth, no.
The fluorescent, merciless present.
The earth gearing up to shrug us off,
These are the stamps on the final envelope.
Even while Natchez is disarmed by the world’s dangers and contradictions, she also takes a full-hearted delight in being alive. Her poems possess a double-edged awareness of how “the untamed continues to exist / despite the microwave, / the disposal,” and how the “savage lurks/ above the sink, the dying / fly, the primitive flash I feel / when you leave the good knife unwashed” (“Skull of a Small Mammal”). This astute understanding of the dual or paradoxical nature of consciousness reminds me of the famous comment by Danish physicist Niels Bohr: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”
Maurya Simon’s tenth volume of poetry, The Wilderness: New and Selected Poems, received the 2019 Gold Medal in Poetry from the Benjamin Franklin Independent Booksellers Association. Her poems have been translated into Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Farsi, and Simon’s recent work has appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Georgia Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and American Literary Review. An Emerita Professor at the University of California, Riverside, Simon lives in the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Meryl Natchez’ most recent book of poetry is Catwalk, June 2020, from Longship Press. Her translations include: Poems From the Stray Dog Café: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev, and Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her book of poetry, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Her work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZYVA, American Journal of Poetry, Literary Matters, The Pinch Literary Review, The Comstock Review, Altanta Review, Lyric, Moth, Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Review, and many others, as well as the Tupelo Press anthology Cooking with the Muse, Against Forgetting: Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché, and America We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resiliance. She is on the board of the Marin Poetry Center and blogs at www.merylnatchez.com.