As part of filling Station's monthly review series, Ethan Vilu reviews Katy Wareham Morris’ Violet Existence (Broken Sleep Books, 2022). Find the book at your local bookstore or online at Broken Sleep Books.
Read the full review below.
It is a rare and distinct joy to read a collection of poetry that is filled with genuine intensity. To sustain such a visceral quality across a variety of structures, subjects, and emotional tenors is an immense challenge, and it is success at this task that defines Katy Wareham Morris’ latest chapbook. The poems in Violet Existence are riddled with sharp turns and surprises, spirited (and at times unsettling) images, and moments of fantastic sonic inspiration. It is a remarkable text, and a clear product of an extraordinary and highly energized practice.
Amid the often-unpredictable nature of the collection, Wareham Morris’ evocative and yet compellingly indeterminate poetic voice serves as a governing principle and guide. The speaker(s) in Violet Existence are thoroughly formed (particularly through the poet’s use of the first person, the lyric “I”), and yet little is revealed as to their nature, at least with any specificity. Though certain vantage points are explored concretely – that of a mother, of an academic, of a woman interfacing with the patriarchal gaze – the perspective seems to shift from poem to poem, and this ambiguity results in a kind of prismatic quality. Wareham Morris’ choice to avoid neat, clear-cut identification and narrative contributes enormously to the experience of reading Violet Existence.
In terms of sonics, one must read no further than the first line of the text in order to be given an indication of the poet’s tremendous skill in this area. The opening poem “Labour” begins as follows: “She lay on stiff white linen, sleeping: / head lolled back, palms loose / in surrender.”. The alternating s- and l- sounds of the first line, united in the final word “sleeping”, immediately took me aback as I began to read the chapbook. Throughout Violet Existence, Wareham Morris displays a remarkable ease in suffusing her poems with deeply enjoyable sonic qualities. “After the strangled screeches we thought were thunder, a reverie” in particular stands out as a veritable cornucopia of sound; highlights include “huddled in groves once green / fireworks fade and sleep” and an impressive section which deserves to be quoted at length: “torn-up forage in teeth / ripped up babbies / eyes pulled through / morning chiaroscuro / seeking / circling / too high for syllables to speak”. All across the text, the poet exemplifies a practice which is intimately concerned with sound, to exquisite and commendable effect.
A final aspect of Violet Existence which contributes to its quality is the wide variety of structural modes employed by the poet. Among more conventional forms (such as in “Being Shadow”) as well as a number of prose-oriented pieces (“Immediately after the terrorists set off their bombs,” “Role Play”) there are engaging examples of multi-linear pieces which invite more than one reading (as in “Mother said”) as well as a number of very whimsical choices (such as the steep hill of ls in “I have forgotten (it’s not about me)”). One poem which stood out along these lines is “An Advert For This Body” (stylized in the collection with "An Advert" struck through), which makes use of an incredibly wide array of unorthodox structural tools. These include strikethrough erasures, bolded and italicized words, spaced-out words and phrases (e.g. “a b a n d o n e d”) and heavy use of forward slashes and other punctuation. While I will readily admit that this sort of intentionally chaotic structure is something which as a rule I am quite skeptical towards (simply because it is often wielded by poets as a cudgel against technical inexperience), I was profoundly affected by the rigorous usage of the form which Wareham Morris demonstrates in this piece. Indeed, the appearance of “An Advert For This Body” on the page seems to me almost like a spatial map of a thought process deeply impacted by anxiety, something which is carried through by the subject matter and voice utilized in the poem. It is through these kinds of thoughtful, controlled decisions (structural and otherwise) that Wareham Morris is able to sustain the outstanding nature of the collection. As a text which is replete with ambitiously conceived and sharply executed pieces, Violet Existence can be seen as a determined campaign into as-yet-unexplored poetic territory. It is inventive and imaginative, and yet firmly held together by a well-honed sense of control. This combination allows the chapbook to reach its emotional and experiential heights; it would not have nearly the same capacities if possessed by merely one or the other. As it stands it is a truly exceptional collection, and comes emphatically recommended.