The Progressive Reviews The Mind-Body Problem: "Gorgeous and tasty as a florentine cookie dipped in chocolate"

The Mind-Body Problem
Review by Matthew Rochschild
The Progressive, September 2009

You probably know Katha Pollitt from her incisive and unflinching columns in The Nation, which have helped many of us survive the last three decades of reaction. But she’s also a poet, and a wonderful one at that. She’s got a new collection out, The Mind-Body Problem, and you’ll find her in a wise and reflective, if existential and mostly cloudy, mood.

She conveys this in “What I Understood.” Even as a child, she writes, she already knew “there was no God and that I would die.” Then, through almost a Hobbesian lens, she writes:

the only thing I didn’t understand
was how in a world whose
predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness,
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grass-
blade, a tablecloth.

She still doesn’t understand it, she confesses at the end.

Her weariness also shows in “Small Comfort.” Little things, like “coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafĂ©” or “the laundry cool and crisp and folded away,” provide insufficient solace in a world where it is

. . too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than
suffering and inflicting suffering. We’re near
the end.

But even she can’t drop us there. “O before the end,” she allows,

let the last bus bring

lover to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope
miraculously, down its own street,

In a few other poems, she’s not so melancholy. She offers praise to “this marriage of friends and lovers made in a dark time,” and she does take pleasure in small comforts, writing that it is “possible to believe in a bearable sort of life.” I’m relieved to hear that.

Pollitt devotes a section of her book to debunking religion, which won’t surprise readers familiar with her courageous atheism. She calls this section “After the Bible,” and has some fun with it. She starts at the beginning, with “The Expulsion,” whose opening stanza sets the feminist tone:

Adam was happy—now he had
someone to blame
for everything: shipwrecks, Troy,
the gray face in the mirror

The tree of knowledge, however, is “forlorn,” she writes, because, for a brief and vanished moment, it was “the center of attention.” She concludes this section, naturally, with “Rapture,” where

. . . Truth
blares from every station on the dial.

The last line of the poem stands as a final rebuke:

“God, it appears, is elsewhere, even

If you’re looking to Pollitt’s book for a translation of all her politics into poetry, you’re looking in the wrong place. For instance, there’s only one explicitly anti-war poem, and it’s not exactly to the barricades:

and what good are more poems
against war
the real subject of which
so often seems to be the poet’s superior
moral sensitivities? I could
be mailing myself to the moon
or marrying a pine tree,
and yet what can we do
but offer what we have?

This is Katha Pollitt the poet, at a critical distance from Katha Pollitt the columnist. I appreciate the candor. Most of all, I admire the beauty. Lines pop out, like “the world creaks on its hinges,” or:

culture is a kind of nature
a library of oak leaves.

Then there are entire poems, crystalline in their perfection, gorgeous and tasty as a florentine cookie dipped in chocolate. “Lilacs in September” is one. “The Heron in theMarsh” another. So, too, the final poem, “Lunaria,” which ends with this stanza, describing perhaps the poet herself:

A paper lantern
Lit within
And shining in
The fallen leaves.

Here is a poet fully in control of her artistic talents, someone who has taken the time, as she puts it,

wondering how to write
so that what she writes

stays written.