The Sweet & Low Down

Author Photo: Ellen Augarten  

In her first book, All Roads Go Where They Will, Phyllis Beck Katz moves from poems reflecting on the troubles of childhood to poems expressing joy in the natural world and the world of art. The book has a dark underside in which death, peril, and loss are faced head on, but in the end, joy and hope prevail. In the great Romantic tradition of Frost and Kunitz, Katz counters grief and despair with her ability to look beyond dark moments and treasure the gifts that life offers. As she says in the book’s final poem addressed to her husband of many years, “to have held each other through times of / pain and darkness / will have been enough.” And all of this occurs in verse that sings purely, gifting us with its elegant simplicity and natural philosophy: “I take the Hermit / Thrush as my philosopher, / sage bird who teaches me / with melody transcending thought.” At the same time, the work of Phyllis Beck Katz rewards multiple readings with the richness of its undercurrents and the plenty of its mythical patterns. Early readers of the book have been delighted by its unpretentious sagacity.
All Roads Go Where They Will cover
  Front cover painting: “High Road” by Edward Hopper © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Vijay Seshadri writes that “Phyllis Katz’s poems are spare, unforced, and ring with clarity. Though they are perfected, they always move beyond their own perfection to something else, something miraculously tender for which only they are the words.” ‘Do’ Roberts, Editor of Bloodroot Literary Magazine, adds this: “Phyllis Katz’s poetry is rich with the color and music of hope. Every image, every word captures the spirit and the courage of human survival. The struggle to embrace a world she cherishes radiates from her lyrics with an elegance that is accessible and a joy to read.”

Phyllis Beck Katz received her B.A. in English from Wellesley College, her M.A. in Greek from UCLA, and her Ph.D. in Classics from Columbia University. She taught English and Classics at The University of Illinois, City University of New York, SUNY Purchase, the College of New Rochelle, and Miss Porter’s School. Since 1993 she has taught at Dartmouth College, offering undergraduate classes in Classics as well as Women’s and Gender Studies. She has also taught classes in poetry, cultural studies, and gender issues as part of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. Her poems have appeared in many journals including The Connecticut River Review, The New England Anthology, Ekphrasis, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and The Salon. She and her husband, Arnold, have four children and eight grandchildren. She has traveled extensively and enjoys cooking, biking, hiking, and bird-watching.

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ISBN 978-0-9843418-8-7

Copyright © 2010 by Phyllis Beck Katz

6" x 9" paperback, 112 pages






She stood in the middle of the babies’ section
hating it all — the early getting up, the bus ride
into town, the older salesladies who lorded
over her, the endless refolding and tidying
little shirts, tiny socks, blankets, and diapers.
There was the phone to answer, customers to serve,
and always, always, admonitions — she “was too young,”
she “had to learn, she “didn’t get it right again,”
she “wouldn’t last.” She hated going home
to help with meals and do the dishes, hated
being tired, despised the waiting for another day to come,
another bus ride to the hot and sticky town.

When she could, she retreated to the stockroom
to tie up parcels and label them for shipping.
She loved the solitude, the single light bulb
casting shadows in curious shapes
upon the wall, loved the cool, the looming towers
of empty boxes, all sorted out by sizes, like children
lining up for school, the smell of ink and paste,
coarseness of the coils of twine between her fingers,
the giant plastic cans, plump with bags of trash
like well-fed matrons, arms filled with purchases.
Sometimes while she was working there
Mike, the store’s old janitor came by.
Most of all she loved to talk to him.

Mike brought the mail and took away the trash,
and there was little time for conversation,
but she found out that in the dimness of his past,
he had sailed on a merchant ship,
crossed oceans to places with exotic names,
and when he spoke of traveling open seas to Bali or Japan,
in the dark quiet of the stockroom, she could hear the waves,
could smell the water, feel the breath of ocean breezes
in her hair — a ship, heading out.

Winter Soup

I am cooking the soup my mother used to make,
a good soup, thick and tangy, smelling like
cinnamon and raisins, apples and tomatoes,
spices that surface in an old and dented pot.

I can see my mother standing at the stove, stirring love
and tears into her broth with a battered spoon;
I hear the popping of bubbles
rising to the surface like my father’s anger,

simmering until it came to boil and bitter to the taste.
I turn the flame to low but now my soup smells sour
till you come in and put your arms around me
and bring me back into our lives together.

At once, the fury in the soup subsides
as if the storm within the pot had passed
like some brief squall across a summer pond.
The acrid scent within the room dissolves.

My mother’s soup is ready. I fill our bowls,
slice bread and fragrant cheese, and we
sit down together. No need for words.
We dip our spoons into the past and find it sweet.

Indigo Bunting at the Frost Place

It isn’t the blue that draws me to him,
though his is dazzling as the blue of Chartres.
No, not the blue; it is the urgency of his call,
his sense that fall is soon to come.
He’s wooed his mate and raised his young,
and yet he still must sing, as if his were the voice
that summons summer’s final tunes — buzz of crickets
in the grass, hum of bees in goldenrod, creep of red in maples.

It’s this insistent song that punctuates the teachings
of the poet at the lectern. She speaks of form
and structure, skeleton of poems; talks of variation,
of artifice that shapes a line. The bird provides a palinode.
Written against her words, rhythm no poet ever crafted,
his poetry is woven out of air and wind and rain.
He takes me far beyond poetry, up to his tall pine
in strophe and antistrophe that turn and turn again.

In Praise of Wild Leeks

Tenacious, they come up each spring
where the dirt road curves
round birch woods and dips
when it passes orange-traced tailings
of the old copper mine,
where dump trucks lumber
up the road laden with new fill
to bury the poisons in stone and sand,
and rivulets of winter’s melt pollute the river below,
where woods are barred by wire fences
and windows of abandoned houses
are boarded shut, where doors hang jagged
on their frames, and forgotten gardens
bloom with piles of rusted cans,
stained mattresses, old tires,
where once, I like to think,
there were children playing,
dinners cooking, wood smoke in the air,
music flowing from lighted windows,
while in the dusk, the miners hurried home.
There in mid-April I slip around a gate
to search for leeks down a trail
into the forest that skirts the remains
of the old deserted mine,
listening to the drumming
of the grouse, insistence of the oven-bird,
arpeggios of the thrush on hillsides
purpled with spring violets.
Kneeling in shaded patches
of broad leaves, I plunge my trowel
into the rich earth, digging
my fingers down in moist chill ground
untouched by effluents
left along the river by the mine
to reap the pungent bulbs that grow so deep
I must reach up to my elbow
to pull them out.
And yet, for succulent wild leeks,
garnishes of salads and frittatas,
casseroles and soups,
I’ll dig my yearly harvest
while they and I survive.

Somewhere, a Road

after Edward Hopper’s High Road

Some roads bring us home
or where we plan to be — a house
beside a lake, apartment with a view,
family and friends who cherish us,
work that we excel in and enjoy —
or carry us to lands we’ve always longed to see.
Others lead to places we do not want to go,
to canyons so deep and narrow there is no light,
no air, to tunnels ending suddenly
before a wall of stone, or down a hill
to cross a river where there is no bridge,
or to a frozen lake that stops our hearts.
But there’s a road through Truro
that comes from nowhere and disappears
as strangely as it came, a road that neither
beckons nor repels, a road that makes no statement,
has no dogma, no lesson to convey,
but runs between a row of wireless poles — disconnected,
yet aware of where it is, a road that rises
from a vast horizon that never seems to end
and passes just one solitary cluster of houses on its way,
a road that knows where it is going,
and how to get there, a road I choose to travel
when I can.


Green-up Day

How is it possible that I
am cold blue, veined blue,
woad-blue, soul-deep blue

on a day when green
is the color of morning
and a robin is cascading

song from the top of a beech?
Yesterday I tasted deep
of the bubbling nectar in my glass.

I rejoiced in the sun,
Spring Beauties in the woods,
phoebes hunting for a nest site.

Joy was a Bach cantata
playing the air around me, daffodils
and violets fortissimo in my heart.

Today, my eyes are knotted
in a blue funk,
ears garbled, tongue twisted

with words I want to say to you,
but can’t. Here I am
waiting — for my mind to green again.


Raven Call

I woke this morning to a heavy mist
that hid the hills beyond our meadow,
concealing all the woods,

but shortly rose, unveiling as it went
vermillion flame and brilliant golden-orange
of autumn leaves. The woods,

bereft of spring and summer birds,
still seemed to want to claim an immortality
in boldest speechless oratory,

as if such colors would stay forever,
branches splashed indelibly,
leaves fixed in all their splendor,

so that the falling of the leaves,
mornings dark and cold with frost,
evenings long and black and bleak

would never come. Then, a solitary raven,
piercing the solemn stillness of the morning,
called through a woods still shimmering

with shifting panes of multicolored light
and broke the morning’s spell,
reminding me.



based on a photo from Srebrenica

I see your tented, black-robed
figures bent in quiet agony,
your hands and shrouded faces
etched by waiting and despair.
You search to find the remnants
of your husbands and your sons
in pictures of their clothing
dug from a common grave,
photographed and itemized,
the album of your dead.

I watch as you make your search
in silence for your men,
turning through the pages,
looking for a sign
amidst the soiled and empty shirts,
the torn and tattered trousers
and ragged muddy socks,
the twisted hats and threadbare coats
and worn and broken shoes,

watch pale and trembling hands
reach out as if you felt
these cold and silent images
grow warm —
as if your men were living still
and you could cook their meals,
wash their shirts, mend their
socks and trousers.

Though you do not speak or weep
before you close the album,
I hear your voiceless cry.



Socrates, my life is unexamined,
directed by some force beyond
my agency, a windless weathervane.

Just when I think my sextant’s holding
true, I hit a valley or a mountain
that I did not see, crash on the rocks

of accident, as if some new-discovered
element had drawn the needle of
my compass to an unknown direction

designed by some elusive atom
whose electron is chaotic,
its path uncertainty.

I’ve tried to understand
the movement of my soul,
to plot its course, to question

its intentions, unveil its deepest
thoughts and plumb its voyage.
Instead, the map I have has latitudes

and longitudes outside of any
globe I know — it puts the stars
beneath the ground,

shows snowstorms in July,
a field of daffodils in winter,
train tracks going nowhere in the sky.

And so, I do not try to comprehend
parchments with letters I
cannot read, refuse to look

for hidden meanings in
those random pages that chronicle
my life as one worth living.

In place of you, I take the Hermit
Thrush as my philosopher,
sage bird who teaches me
with melody transcending thought.


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