The Body At a Loss by Cati Porter
CavenKerry Press, May 2019.
Reviewed by Robbi Nester
Each of us will die someday, a day we hope is in the distant future; this much we acknowledge. However, under normal circumstances, we don’t give the fact of our mortality a lot of thought. The mind distracts us with its chatter, the body with its sensations. It is only in age and in extremity, moments of immanent threat to the body and the mind bound to it, that we are forced to address this basic fact of existence.
The poems in Cati Porter’s collection, The Body at a Loss, present us with a mind coming to terms with personal mortality, addressing it with unaccustomed clarity and frankness in the face of just such an emergency, and presenting the lessons of this experience to the reader. The book records what it is like to live with cancer, to acknowledge that “there is always a diagnosis, and not always a cure” (“Tiny Baby Cancer”).
The body knows nothing of courtesy. It is blunt, and often cruel. For its part, the mind can only try, vainly, to make sense of it. This book is a study of the body from the perspective of the mind, which is, for once, forced to give up its stance of imagined supremacy. In the book’s title poem, Porter muses “How like the body// To make of itself its own battlefield” when cancer, “the foreign object/That really is not that foreign has turned the body against itself” (“Even at Their Best, Doctors Only Guess”).
Not all of us have faced cancer treatment, but most have been touched by the disease in one way or another. By the most careful attention to this experience in her own life and the life of others she has loved, Porter embraces the task of poetry to cross the barrier between minds via shared experience.
In “The Fly Implores You to Attend to Your Life,” the poet takes on the persona of a fly. Here, as in Dickinson’s famous poem, the fly, which lives on death, insists on the extinction of the body and mind, refusing any effort the mind may make to nullify or refuse this truth. The narrator/fly advises us “to sear/Stubborn feet to the light, so that death may feel/as near as [the] breath.” We must maintain a sense of each moment’s urgency, for death is as inevitable and near as the next breath we take. It will “sear” us to live with this knowledge, but it is necessary, since “All I am is what I am now, and now, and now” (“What Lies Between”).
To this end, Porter makes poems of the odd flotsam life throws at her: a note her mother jotted to herself in preparation for a lumpectomy (“Mom’s Surgery Instructions”), the process of administering cancer therapy to her dog (“Administering My Dog’s Cancer Therapy, I Think About My Sons”), even an entire surgical procedure she herself undergoes. In “The Boundaries of the Body,” a tour de force of attentive writing, the poet recreates the state of her consciousness during surgery, recording how “the Blue-Mouthed blossom” of the oxygen mask descends, filling her with “the crisp apple of Oxygen.”
The book’s structure is also carefully wrought, forcing us to read and reread, as though training our faculties to apply to our own experience. Poets frequently group the poems in a collection around particular themes, giving numbers or titles to each section. It has become such a commonplace that we hardly inquire why sections were necessary at all. On first reading this book, though, we wonder at these elliptical section titles, and what they might refer to. In subsequent readings, like children engaged in a scavenger hunt, we will discover where these bits and pieces fit into the pattern of the whole when we stumble on these titles embedded in poems placed somewhere in that section.
We might also notice the book’s circular structure, which takes another familiar trope of poetry collections, an opening poem that prefaces the entire book, and uses it in a deliberate way. We may wonder why Porter bookends the collection with poems taken from another temporal stratum of her life, years before her illness. The final poem signals this circular construction by being titled “Where it Begins.” This suggests that the death in our future has always been with us, that to live is in some sense to prepare to die.
Robbi Nester is the author of a chapbook, Balance (White Violet, 2012), and three collections of poems, A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014), and Other-Wise (Kelsey, 2017). Her latest collection is Narrow Bridge (Main Street Rag, 2019). She also edited two anthologies, The Liberal Media Made Me Do It (NibevToes, 2014) and Over the Moon: Birds, Beasts, and Trees available at www.poemeleon.org