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Aaron Belz reviews

Understanding Objects, by Vincent Katz

Hard Press, 2000, 144 pp.; $12.95

This piece is 1274 words or about three printed pages long

URBAN ROMANCE never had it so good. From the roses on the cover (painted by the poet’s father in the sixties) to the glorious shamble within of sun-stippled streets, record jacket-brightened apartments, and proper nouns, Vincent Katz articulates an unquestionably consistent vision. If he is dazzled, he also speaks confidently; if he waxes introspective, he is sure to mention a variety of external objects.
      He has learned from the masters how to break a coherent world into fragments that lend themselves to recohering in the reader’s mind. There is a strong impression of Frank O’Hara, in terms of apparent rapid transcription in the midst of sensory overload, and of John Ashbery, in terms of referential complexity.
      These poems are, to borrow Katz’s own coinage, ‘word-patios’ (29), and for a poet who also spends time translating Sextus Propertius, it’s an appropriate designation. They remind one of mosaics — chiseled inscriptions, chunks of marble, scraps of paint. But the streets of New York are also ever present.
      The first stanza of the book captures the mood eloquently:

Such a warm light, as in Greece descended
but with flying snow, not sand, along
this April ice on window frame appended. (15)

For Katz, to inhabit New York City is to inhabit the countries of Europe and vice versa. The worlds commingle linguistically, spatially, and architecturally. Sometimes we’re here, sometimes there, sometimes both. The speaker of the tercet quoted above is in frosty New York thinking about, perhaps yearning for, warmer Greek climes.

Katz book cover       A poem like ‘La Traviata’ (83), happens squarely in New York: mentions of Houston Street and the Brooklyn Museum confirm it. ‘Zürich’ (106) is obviously in Zürich.
      ‘Told By a Child’ (50-53) takes place in Paris, as indicated by a number of French phrases and a reference to ‘La Bastille.’ The poem ‘Victor Hugo’ (59) is a sticker-covered valise: Paris, New York, Rio, London, Athens, Rome, and Cairo.
      But occasionally I found myself a bit embarrassed not to know where I was. One title, ‘Validade’ (43), for example, might be a place-name or a Spanish or Italian word. (Please forgive this revelation of my own ignorance.) The attached poem gives no conclusive indication as to where the action takes place. Here’s the whole text:

Christ is caught up in antennae
the city is beautiful in the rain
it washes its sins away
o nenê parece um velhinho
quando ele dorme
the Denmark cookie tin
the exquisite tins from Hong Kong
and New York are only details
of a life, the fruit forms
a design on marble counter
now the Christ lights up the mist

Lines four and five look like Italian, to me. The Christ figure in the poem suggests a Catholic culture, so perhaps it is Italy. Well, it could be Brazil or Portugal. Not knowing Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese, I don’t know without doing a little research. Even if I did know the ‘o nenê parece’ language, assuming it is all one language, the ‘location’ (admittedly a dodgy notion in a poem this misty) might yet be an Italian or Hispanic neighborhood in New York City.
      I am not making a case for my own level of awareness as normative. My point is that one’s ability to receive this poem depends on one’s cultural knowledge. The world of Katz being Euro-NYC, we sometimes find ourselves in a blind alley. All we can be sure of is several great hotels, restaurants, and museums within walking distance.
      Time is only a factor in that so much of it has already happened. Hence the remorse of lines like, ‘There are postcards, photos, in boxes, from friends / who will never again write’ (20). Hence the fixation with seasons and specific places in poems like ‘Salon d’Automne’ (76) and ‘Bryant Park Revisited’ (124). Time makes its presence felt by changes in the weather, and Katz is not afraid to point them out:

        New York
in her springtime, when feet
touched damp sidewalks
littered with forsythia
You go back to most
basic principles: work
a breath of air, conscience
and the rain on August
delivers streets their full
impact ... (118)

How romantic! The trend in current poetry certainly has not leaned this way, and the more one reads of Katz, the more one has to respect his Whitmanic unabashedness. He is even so uninhibited as to posit ‘the poet’ as a romantic loner who ‘struggles against other poetry / naked in bed after drinking / and eating too much’ (46).
      Formally speaking, Katz is somewhere between old school and inventive. He plays around. Sadly he has not completely escaped the variably narrow and slightly thicker, paragraphically stanzaed one-to-two pager, the amorphous tube sock of 20th-century free verse. Nevertheless some of the most sock-like poems are also the most glittering; ‘Ousadia’ (89) and ‘June in Progress’ (30-35) are especially tremendous, allusive and full of bright description. These poems demand comparison to James Schuyler; after you’ve read them, please look up Schuyler’s ‘Morning of the Poem.’
      When Katz manages to get away from formal cliché, interesting things happen. A good example is the aforementioned first poem, ‘Spring Frost’ — containing the only hint of traditionally rhythmed or rhymed lines in the book — which Frank Lima in the introduction correctly compares to Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (10).
      Another example is the more aggressive ‘Painted Life,’ a majestic but granular meditation with lines as long as the page is wide. Also of note formally are a few poems with blippy little quatrains of one to two words per line, one of which is the frolicsome ‘Leopard Spirit Society’ (69). Here is an excerpt from late in the poem:


jokes on

lust, sexy


gored by

live surrounded
by same.

In this passage, words cue thought: sexy / sorceress / stories, Balanchine / brutal / beatings, Balanchine / chocolate / churches. Consistent with the overall design, some of the words are of foreign origin. A case might be made that words, especially thick crunchy ones, are the compositional starting point for Katz. One also sees in this poem a habit that might end up being Katz’s hallmark — a stuttering, sometimes robotic delivery. Even in conventionally-lined poems, he tends to write in little blocks of words. A passage from ‘28’ further illustrates this: ‘Child’s eye looks down at dirt of park , leaf, / bark of wet tree, how dark and wet, I put / hand to trunk, feel friend there, old, huge [...]’ (21). Given the overall mosaic-like design, these formal patterns seem appropriate, as does the predominately aesthetic use of language. The title itself hints at these conclusions.
      If I have done a disservice to Vincent Katz by overcomparing him to poets in whose poetic vein(s) he operates, allow me to balance that with some unabashedness of my own. The calling card in Understanding Objects is fearlessness. Katz goes about his poetic business like some latter day Garcia Lorca or Neruda: passionate, remorseful, a gatherer of objects. He does not care that dropping so many foreign names and phrases might be regarded as affected. He cannot be accused of worrying that he is operating in a 1950s or 60s poetic. He certainly hasn’t fallen into the trap of substituting cleverness for vision.
      Katz’s strong natural instincts lead him to investigate his world in a way that causes visible artifacts, memories, desires, and cultural references to wreath together — like the laurels that crowned his forebears. An archeologist of urban experience, he creates a ‘great mound of expressed desire’ (26).

Photo of Aaron Belz
Aaron Belz is working on a Ph.D. at Saint Louis University. His writing has appeared recently in Fence, Books and Culture, and Fine Madness. He invites email at

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