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Southness by Vincent Katz
reviewed by Paul Falardeau

Vincent Katz
Luna Chandelier Press


“Short, but sweet,” as the saying goes. It seems that this may be something of a mantra for New York poet, translator, critic and 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 even 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 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 a 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 the greater depth of 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 sounds roof puddles/hums as in others’/ towns vibrating peace/ inkling rest wet/ utmost grace day dies/ sigh last care release/ other saves beyond”

Katz’ work seems to grapple with a balance between the 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 or something of the reader’s own experience. The struggle of trying to eliminate the ego from a work centered in it is a worthy 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?

Paul Falardeau is a frequent contributor to PRRB.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.