Columbia Poetry Review
Swimming Home by Vincent Katz
(Nightboat Books, 2015)
Review by Elizabeth Forsythe
Maggie Cheung climbs a fire escape in the rain, but is it real rain?
Vincent Katz poses this question early in his newest book of poems, Swimming Home (Nightboat, 2015). He answers himself a few lines later: “The question/is suddenly no longer
interesting.” Rather than tackling grand themes or existential crises, Katz is enamored with the daily, finding marvel in the simplest observations. Swimming Home emphasizes the importance of noticing, and shows what wonders may be found within the noticing. His poem “Square,” entirely grounded in observation, could very well be a litany of things seen, but something about the frankness of this poem, the open authenticity with which Katz relays the observations, leaves the reader intuitively finding meaning, grasping after the marvels of the mundane. “Bare fat dare cloud/Jean sleeve sweater nice/Sari duo tandem phone/Noon haze sun break//Dog duo low white/Posture sleep sexy hair/Sun out day change/Jog headphone boxer fly.”
Swimming Home is a book delightfully present, but also one which uses the present to make sense of the past, the future, the ebb and flow of life, and indeed, makes use of those currents. In many ways, Swimming Home is not a book for the faint of heart; it asks the reader to work to see what’s happening beneath the surface, like currents beneath water. I found many of the poems to work on an intuitive level, connecting to certain lines or images in a visceral way, commiserating with Katz’s honest framing of the daily struggle we all face, finding meaning amidst lives we never asked for but were given anyway: “I’ve been black, very black,” he writes in “Squeak,” “and I’ve been white, quite white/but now I’m just myself/by myself, for myself/and for the friends I love.”
Katz balances narration and intuition, and juxtaposes the outspoken with the lyrical to usher the reader into the speaker’s journey. In the third section of the book, in his poem “An Openness,” the reader will find lines like, “You stay in one position. And then you move to another position,” and “The times make us what we are,” and “That guy’s haircut’s pretty good” and “I come up to this point. Then I can relax.” The frankness of the voicing hits just this side of heavy-handed, or of what Aristotle would call “vulgar”- speech made plain and unornamented. The next poem, “A Quick Dip,” tackles some of the same ideas posed by “An Openness,” most obviously the idea of motion, but does so in perhaps a more obviously poetical or lyrical way: “Whatever pulls shift one this way and that/to be based in meetings, once can be/and there is life shifting, but in the present/all is what is, and that is timeless.” The result, then, of this juxtaposition of vernacular and language, forces the reader to dive beneath the surface of each poem to see what can be dragged from its depths.
Swimming Home is a tour de force, and Katz doesn’t shy away from revealing the struggles of the journey to find self and to find home, utilizing the push and pull of rushing water and waves to revel in the marvels of daily observation and to examine how those daily experiences wind together to create a life, and what it means to move through a life.