A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving is the winner of the 2021 Chad Walsh Chapbook contest. The collection chronicles author Katie Farris’ experiences through cancer diagnosis and recovery. Readers enter the poems with an immediate sense that they are privy to remarkably private moments where Farris speaks candidly about having breast cancer. Many of the poems appeared, sometimes in early forms, on Farris’ social media accounts, as she made the decision to live her experience publicly. The collection, though, gathers these poems and arranges them chronologically, creating what functions as a memoir in verse.
Farris opens the collection with “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” a poem which anticipates questions about why Farris chooses to approach her cancer diagnosis and treatment with such grace and, yes, love. The first lines of the book echo the tone of the entire collection, explicitly declaring that this story will not be of trauma but of beauty. “To train myself to find, in the midst of hell/what isn’t hell,” she writes. As readers move through the poems, they will realize that Farris is dedicated to this goal and, as a result, the poems also work to remind readers about the oft-ignored moments of grace that surround difficult times.
One of my favorite things about the collection is that Farris engages in a sort of conversation with Emily Dickinson through various poems. “Tell it Slant” invokes Dickinson’s infamous lines about softening the truth lest it render men blind, but closes with “a shot between/the eyes” in which she recalls the doctor’s decidedly sharp disclosure that Farris has breast cancer. “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer” directly addresses Dickinson and asks her, “Will you be/my death, Emily?” Another poem, “A Row of Rows,” invites the reader into a debate between Farris and her husband about whether Whitman or Dickinson is “the greater/epic poet.” Farris argues Dickinson while her husband argues Whitman.
The relationship between Farris and her husband is the subject of many poems, including some of the most heartbreaking. “In the Event of My Death,” from which Farris draws the title of her collection, gives specific instructions to her husband should she not survive the cancer. This poem exemplifies Farris’ willingness to engage with the question of mortality, but even the potential of death is not flatly traumatic. Instead, Farris creates an image of climbing down into to the Earth with the braid she has cut off in preparation for chemotherapy. The image is remarkably soft and, most importantly, grants Farris agency even in death. It’s a gentle reminder that the speaker in these poems has no interest in victimhood or passivity.
Perhaps the greatest strength of A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving is Farris’ juxtaposition of deeply emotional poems with a bit of humor and even whimsy. In “An Unexpected Turn of Events Midway through Chemotherapy,” Farris admits that she’d “like some sex please,” but that she’ll take what she can get in her condition, whether “a real/Straight fucking, rhymed/Or metrical–whatever…” The poem that follows recalls an intimate moment between Farris and her husband while staying at a friend’s house. These poems serve as a reminder that cancer and chemotherapy do not mean the end of human desire. They add depth to the experience of treating cancer and resist familiar depictions of those with cancer as wholly consumed by their diagnosis.
Ultimately, A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving offers more depth and breadth than readers might expect from a chapbook.The collection isn’t particularly long, yet the poems are each so carefully phrased and unabashedly vulnerable that the reader has the sense they have been on a much longer journey. Farris has already proven herself a remarkable voice in contemporary American poetry. With this collection, she also shows her keen ability to capture the totality of human experience, to survive a pandemic and cancer and heart failure in a matter of months without losing her signature wit or her enviable grace. This is a collection you’ll want to sit with, to return to again and again.