Pacific Rim Review of Books

Volume 11, Issue 21, No. 1, 2017

Southness by Vincent Katz
(Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016)

Review by Paul Falardeau

“Short, but sweet,” as the saying goes. It seems that this may be something of a mantra for New York poet, translator, critic an Yale prof Vincent Katz, whose latest release Southness is a collection of pared down verse.

Its cover adorned with a detail from a painting by poet and painter Etel Adnan, Southness contains 47 sparse poems. These are often bare and event list-like at times, frequently employing the use of one word lines and mid-sentence breaks. This is not to say that his poems necessarily lack due to their thrifty word count. Katz’ often rich images fade into one another, parading past the mind’s eye like the little jewels or scribbled notes on scrap paper and just as quickly are crumpled up; discarded. At times it feels like a reader unfamiliar with Katz’ usual haunts might be missing some key to unlocking meaning in his work and that certainly seems to plague Southness intermittently. Mostly the effect is closer to an approximation of Satie’s minimalist piano
compositions. Think Beat stream of consciousness with Basho’s frugality of language. For example, in “Botanical”, he writes:

The grass
is beautiful.
So is
the ass.

In the
park, people
join, then

grow, lean
in sun.
You leave.

The brevity of his work and a pleasurable pallet of imagery are not the only stylistic tool that makes Southness a surprisingly challenging piece of work. Though sometimes hidden, meter and rhyme start to materialize, especially when the collection is read aloud. Though initially the verse is somewhat cold, a little effort will begin to reveal a greater depth to the collection. Ultimately, these poems require the reader to slow down, a more contemplative state better suits the hodgepodge bursts of imagery. A meditative willingness to let the images fall away is almost requisite. In “Siren”, for example: “calm winter descending/ clear day’s outlook pond/ sky cream shades/ light sound’s roof puddles/ hums as in others’/ towns vibrating peace/ inkling rest wet/ utmost grace day dies/ sigh last care release/ other saves beyond”.

Katz’s work seems to grapple with a balance between intimate experience of inspiration and the production of work that is universal, hence the minimalist approach. By giving the reader provocative imagery with little to no context (or even complete sentences for long runs of time), it seems like one is challenged to recreate what inspired the writer of the reader’s own experience. The struggle of trying to eliminate the ego from a work centered in it is a worth cause. Sometimes the result is a puzzle missing too many pieces, but Katz’s work seems to be pushing itself; challenging the reader to find the things that are truly universal. In poems such as “Memory” though, Katz goes right for the throat:

Soon, she’ll go.
He’ll go, they’ll
Then life will be
just the way you

want it: still,
rested, according
to schedule and
plan. but it will

be duller then,
all the laughter
and confusion,
memory, pale.

Ultimately, Southness is a complicated book, certainly more than it may immediately suggest. It is ambitious and has well earned payoffs. It’s not perfect, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it?