To fall with grace and compassion: A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris

I know people who shy away from poetry for fear that they will not know what it means, as if a prerequisite of appreciating poetry is an intimacy with style and form and an inexhaustible knowledge of that which came before lest an influence be mistaken or missed in the reading. So, here is a collection to assuage that fear, a small book that can be met by anyone. Paradoxically it is accessible precisely because it chronicles an experience, a reality, that we all fear—a diagnosis that so many of us have known, if not intimately, then in a friend or loved one.

In the miraculously titled A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, Katie Farris invites us to walk alongside her, as she ventures into hell, so that we can know, as she is determined to believe, that even in the midst of hell, there are things that are not hell. Her words, lines, poems, bruised against the flesh of living, become an offering, an answer to a terrifying uncertainty, a string of songs that speak to her journey, expose her joys, and catch her falling body in their shadows. Love poetry to a burning world.

Here’s a shot between
the eyes: Six days before
my thirty-seventh birthday,
a stranger called and said,
You have cancer. Unfortunately.
Then hung up the phone.
– from “Tell It Slant”

This slender chapbook is her response to the third stage breast cancer that is staking a claim on her body, tracing the shock of diagnosis, the invasion of surgery, the toll of treatment. Unflinching and honest, this collection of poems speaks with an awareness only illness can heighten.

For Farris the experience of cancer seems less of an inward looking process, but rather one of looking and extending outward, into the world. Which might, appear at first glance, counter-intuitive. She turns to her husband, wondering about the balance of intimacy and caregiving, if a “slow / sweet collapse into / oneness” has its limits, and yet discovering, to her surprise, that mid-chemotherapy she wants sex:

Philosexical, soft and
Gentle, a real
Straight fucking, rhymed
Or metrical—whatever
You’ve got, I’ll take it.
Just so long as we’re naked.

Poetry itself is also a comfort, a companion, as one might expect and, at this time, it is Emily Dickinson with whom she develops a special friendship, if you like. Echoes of her idiosyncratic spirit may be heard. “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer” playfully addresses Dickinson, alternately with questions directed to her own condition and treatment. The kind of questions that evade comforting responses:

Will you be
my death, Emily?
Today I placed
your collected poems
over my breast, my heart
knocking fast
on your front cover.


Will you be
my death, chemo?
The shell of my self
in the sphere of time
plucking, plucking
the wool of my hair
from its branches.

But, perhaps one of the most powerful elements in this collection, one that speaks to me in particular in relation to illness and healing, is her engagement with the natural world, with images of trees and birds. In front of the Atlanta Cancer Center she ponders whether we arose in imitation of trees, longing for roots and raising our arms like branches, while another poem contemplates the strangeness of survival, of standing “in the forest of being alive.” It is, however, in the closing poem, “What Would Root” that she finally gives herself to that forest, a reconnecting with a vivid, corporeal recognition of being one with nature—the water, the soil, the roots and branches—however tenuous or complete the journey is. In just 37 pages, this chapbook, is evidence that when the world is falling apart, writing love poetry may just be the best defense.

A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris is the winner of the 2021 Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize and published by Beloit Poetry Journal.