- Behind the Curtain
David M. Katz
Dos Madres Press
74 Pages; Print, $15.00
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”—Marcus Tullius Cicero
Versatile, resonant and entertaining—David M. Katz nails it in his latest book, Stanzas on Oz, Poems 2011-2014, hitting major themes like love, labor, family, pain, and mortality. The author is associated with the precepts of Neo-formalism, and the 28 poems are predictably tight and precise. Like a jewel cutter, Katz coaxes each poem into a shimmering surface of nearly flawless facets. Such is his skill, that even with a prevalence of end rhymes and strict meter, only occasionally do lines come off as stuffy or formulaic.
Rhyming poetry, long shunned by most contemporaries as limiting and anachronistic, has nevertheless found a place in the poly-structural poetry being written now. A recent New Yorker included two rhyming poems. In this age of “post-conceptual” poetry (a term coined ironically by Felix Bernstein), there is no overarching hegemony of style but rather a mixed bag. Confessional, narrative, concrete, experimental, Language, New York School, New Romantic…the tenants of each are available to all and mandatory to none.
That being said, this collection of verse (Katz’s third) is resolutely formal in technique. Though lines doesn’t always rhyme, the poems scan so well that at times I found myself looking for rhymes that weren’t there (which may or may not be a good thing). And much of his subject matter is surprisingly au courant.
Divided into four sections, the groupings define an arc that begins with individual, but archetypal, portraits. The first poem, called “Anniversary,” is a sonnet portraying an office worker’s denouement. She is being fired on the anniversary of the day she was hired.
The pathos generated here is followed up by cynicism in the next poem. “At the Chophouse” is the name of the poem (and the entire section), and as its foreboding title predicts, it laments our collective state of downsizing, expendability, and the capitalistic race to the bottom. This time, Katz switches from the third person to the first, as if to assign blame. He trains his scope on a defensive boss who has just fired a loyal employee and is grappling with guilt and self-recognition.
Compressed and economic, the images are more than set pieces that help the reader place the scene. They are metaphors for anomie.
…Just behind me there’s aFrozen city: that’s how I see the past, andWhen I let her go, she had started freezingUp like a statue
Of herself, a woman I might once have knownDimly, in a thaw long ago, but couldn’tRecognize. Out front there’s the mostly frozenHarbor….
The second section—which shares its title with the book—is more personal. The poet writes about gardens (including Eden) in three poems, exploring the inescapable topic of growing old and eventually dying. A deliberation about childhood toys segues into two poems about fatherhood. And while love is referenced, no lover is presented.
In “Stanzas on Oz,” we glimpse a lonely wizard at work.
The man’s got magic up his sleeve.Inside that stanza, just below the surface,He hopes you will detect a larger purpose.
This goal becomes a recurring motif, slightly varied at the end of each stanza. It is a sly self-portrait of a poet seeking insight and finding it through experience that is married to craft.
The third section opens with “I Mean You,” which resembles a mating call in its imagery and cadence. “Listen to me, listen to me, the whippoorwill says / Driving its tune.” Using anapests to deliver punch, the author directs his attention to selecting a specific mate.
By that he means not anyone else.By that he means to distinguish….
Much of Katz’s power comes through the deft usage of metrics, line-breaks and enjambment. Multi-syllabic half rhymes are handled with aplomb, creating a mellifluous flow. Not all forms yield surpassing results, however. This is apparent in a...