Catechism New and Selected Poems by Antje Katcher

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Small Press Distribution, with hundreds of poetry titles, is a concrete, important reminder that poetry is a vocation and that within and without the academy one can find a lifetime of interesting work by people whose dedication is heralded in modest creative neighborhoods. One goes there with gratitude and with the urge to encourage others to partake of what is in the nooks and crannies of such places.

Antje Katcher , 1948-2014, was an active part of such a cranny, first in Manhattan and later on the far eastern shore of Long Island. For many years, while she had a day job as a financial analyst in New York, she wrote a lot of poetry, some of which was published. She also served on the board of The New York Quarterly, authored two chapbooks and founded Three Mile Harbor Press. After her death, her friend Paul Genega, an award winning poet and Emeritus Professor at Bloomfield College, assembled this collection, titled Catechism: New and Selected Poems.

Katcher was a Catholic in the spirit of Thomas Merton. Her liberal/progressive convictions never wavered, and her hungry faith made melody and gave strong visuals to the page. Her engagement with her faith was ongoing and never easy, though she is never shrill, and is sometimes transcendent. Always, in the title poem and throughout this text, she wants to know what, precisely, her faith means, even as she knows she will never get a complete answer. Yes, readers. It IS about the journey, and though Katcher isn’t as consistently sublime as Merton (whose playfulness is an important part of his achy-breaky heart) she was just as fearless.

Your kingdom come!
What does it mean? Beware of what you ask-
There is blood in the wine

Raptures and virgins, grapes and mustard seeds,
Prayers and exploding plastics, everywhere they cry:
Your kingdom come!
And in the name of the all merciful.

This is the opener of part three in the title poem, and it is impossible to separate from the present time, though it is unclear when Katcher composed it. Everything she did away from her desk strongly supports this statement. The current Pope, a scientist as well as a theologian, is encouraging the whole world to acknowledge the blood in the wine, especially when pondering poverty and refugees and the Middle East. He has also made fine use of the “mustard seed,” the humble Biblical germinator that accomplishes so much, especially when in the service of an earth too long and far too extravagantly sullied by “exploding plastics.”

Antje KatcherThen go to the word “merciful,” and Katcher’s use of it. Try to practice it in your life and/or in your art, whatever your religious or political convictions may or may not be. Katcher’s editor, who knew her so well, has assembled a handsome sermon without becoming preachy. It helps that she is not afraid to say, “I don’t know,” in more than one way, in more than one composition, even, paradoxically, when she does. Her wilderness is fruitful sometimes especially when she isn’t completely convinced.

If you read even the most superficial news items about the Pope you will know that he has declared 2016 a “year of mercy” and that like Katcher, he is not just talking about a private interior. She had a long history of mercy-to-the-earth activism, beginning with protests after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, an unheeded warning to the makers of Fukushima .

Faith is never without memory, and Katcher, like Charles Simic, owes her much of her memory and convictions to a tumultuous time in European history, and to family experience. “Still Life With Grandmother” is a fine example of that :

The two of them
plaiting hair
in the dim wintermilk silence
letting it fall
and letting it fall
like a thin veil
of aged muslin
that covers
what they cannot tell
they have no way of saying
one has already
forgotten all speech
one knows yet nothing
but words
leaving between them
just brushing
brushing and twisting
around one another
right over middle to left left
over middle to right
middle to left
to middle to right
strand over strand over strand
around one another
in the dim wintermilk silence.

“Wintermilk” is a lovely, made up word, and Mary Cassatt could not have painted the scene better. See Cassatt’s milky domestic still lifes, or appreciate the scene without them. Each deliberate repetition, like a Cassatt brush stroke, strengthens the composition and contributes to the silence. This is exactly what poetry should do, even while it sounds just right when read aloud, as this does.

Back and forth Katcher goes, from inside to out and back , at a careful pace that never lacks passion. “Down at the Dinghy” is on the surface a gentle reverie, but quickly glides into a universal wound:

The dinghy out there
stranded by the tide
it waits on the new moon
to bear me
to that bourn
of dreams

I fear to dream.

We all fear our dreams, the “ghosts unborn” that become “black there/the dinghy -’ Anne Sexton, known for, among other characteristics, a florid excess thankfully absent with Katcher, might have seen something of herself in here, and her own “awful rowing toward God.” I see Sexton and myself, and I see our country in Katcher’s “Recession Haiku” toward the end of this volume :

We’d built our card house
right down at the tide line
then the flood came rushing back
Some had a house made of straw
some had brick houses –
wolves took all the pigs’ bacon

It’s the news from poetry all right, and the last words, like many in these pages, make a small song that should outlive its maker:

Chill winds freeze lilies of the
field, warn us
to share our daily bread

Katcher clearly cared about how her words would be seen and heard by mortals, though her dialogue is always with One she hoped to meet, to be worthy of. I hope so, too.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →