For weeks now I’ve been feeling like a nineteenth century explorer in my own home. I’m not referring to the fact my three-year-old daughter and I made aliyah last month in the middle of the academic term. Or that I have built every piece of furniture in the new apartment with my own bare hands. Or that I have to map out every tiny detail of my domestic world from scratch : Where do I buy paint? How do I pay bills? What’s the deal with these strange mops?
No, this exotic and exhilarating feeling is the direct result of reading Joy Katz’s The Garden Room (Tupelo Press) which won the Snowbound Series Chapbook Award in 2007. The poetry collection is astonishing for the way it breaks open the smallest, most insignificant domestic objects and spaces until these spaces contain cities, worlds, cosmoses, and all of history. But, remarkably enough, they remain intensely intimate. Here is an excerpt from “A Desk,” a symbol for our mediation with the world, presumably through language:
Perhaps I cannot have a sentence without a desk,
more pepper than salt, more voilá. Perhaps in life
one does not discover a desk enough—its cruelty and trousers—
simple as a line of dancers, full of bone.
Is a desk modestly a field?
No: a turnstile, an airplane wing.
You can count on railroad bridges, on a cut celery.
You can count on the flatness of bateau,
on all that is not the flesh, such as a deck of cards.
The boxes fit one inside the next, the cutlery is put away,
sturdy to push on as bike pedals. All this belongs to the desk,
not panicked or insane.
Here we have a mundane and useful object, a servile object, in fact, in the sense that desks are merely the hard surface that allow us to exert pressure (in the days of pen and ink) to produce words or that, today, hold our laptops. Our words are the agents that create or define reality. But in this poem, the reverse is true: the desk becomes the central reality, or consciousness, and the mediating I that normally constructs and orders the world is secondary.
Other objects are imbued with the accretion of daily significance that makes our lives meaningful. The bed, for example, in the poem “The Made Bed” becomes a historian place-marker as well as moral paradigm:
is a highway between us, we go away from each other.
Further it accepts contagion, conferring upon it the dignity of a
Between our birth and death, this place marker.
Between sex and fights the made bed turns a clean cheek.
It makes us believe we are clean, too.
It breathes slowly, evenly, like Gandhi.
If this is true, then what kind of mind must I have?
Surely not disordered.
Katz is also the author of the full-length collection Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press 2002) which examines the history and culture to which we stand heirs “from Dachau to the deceptively still surfaces of American suburbia, from Proserpina to Plath, from the subjugation of women to the lust for empire.”
Joy Katz has given both of these books to the new reading library for creative writing students at Bar-Ilan.
When I first discovered I would begin directing the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Creative Writing Program, I began building a reading library for all creative writing students. I went about soliciting as many recent prize-winning collections of fiction and poetry as possible--also journals and magazines—from people I knew, barely knew, or only virtually knew.
Obviously, I, like many writers, believe that books are the sacred, magical, mundane spaces through which we find meaning, order, and intimacy with and in the world. As Katz puts it in the dedicatory poem of Garden Room [“To the sun]:
This black wet I walk myself through is the world
I am ashamed of needing,
Is the “black wet” ink?
Maybe. Send us your books!