The Mind/ Body Problem by Katha Pollitt


I can’t remember who it was that said ‘childhood ends the instant we understand death.’  For me this instant was when I was around six years old, and discovered a book on my Aunty’s bookshelf titled Does God Exist? Doubt in eternity had never been expressed to me formally before that moment, and doubt channeled in to bury the mindless place where childhood innocence and cruelty sit.  Living with doubt, an awareness of our own mortality is difficult, however, and we invent all manner of distractions to conceal the nature of impermanence. Katha Pollitt’s poems puncture these distractions, but politely so. Her poetry is drawn from the everyday, (‘Lilacs in September’, ‘A Chinese Bowl’, ‘Playground’), but also the Biblical, (‘Martha’, ‘In the Bulrushes’, ‘The Cursed Fig Tree’). In both cases her poems revel somewhat in the doubt and uncertainty that hums on the edge of consciousness.

Her observations lack the confessional vitality and impropriety of, say, Frank O’Hara or Charles Bukowski, but there is an understated philosophical candour to Pollitt’s discreet volume.  She is measured and considered, at times even precise.

Before his hunger

I stood mute.

I did not flower.

I did not fruit.

The  title of the book, The Mind/Body Problem, makes explicit hints at the dualist problematic; the lived tensions between being and thinking, how exactly to abandon ‘unfortunate and high-minded romantic notions’ and to enjoy life when ‘I am being reluctantly dragged by my body as though by some swift and powerful dog.’  In attempting to address this problematic through the course of her gentle allegories we come to cherish, and embellish significance, not in the ethereal and intangible, but passing fragments of the everyday.

The Mind/Body Problem by Katha Pollitt 84pp, Seren, £8.99
The Mind/Body Problem
by Katha Pollitt
84pp, Seren, £8.99

While occasionally ‘Trying To Write A Poem Against the War’ ‘Bombs will be hurled at ordinary streets and politicians look grave for the camera.’ I suspect that Pollitt, as her daughter is described in the same poem, ‘hates politics.’  Certainly there is no over-reaching historical or economic critique of America in these poems, nor any of the restless linguistic innovation as demonstrated by the Beats or Language poets. Pollitt’s more iconoclastic moments are reserved for the Judeo-Christian myths.  In ‘In the Bulrushes’ we hear how Moses’ ‘alphabet crown… spells thunder’ and ‘woe to women.’  These are Pollitt’s finest moments, freed from the everyday and with the mythical lexicon at play with she assembles bursts of lyrical intensity, earthy femininity teasingly profane.

the dark eyed daughters idly stoke their breasts

A jackal hunches in the shadows, hungry for salt.

Perhaps prising herself away from the mundane and familiar she does not need to conjure natural magic, and leaves herself additional room for originality.

Most of the time Pollitt balances observation with introspection.  The prevalent themes of doubt, mortality, and change, are given a warmth and humanistic render.  She doesn’t so much work the reader as take the reader with her.  She is a careful and skillful poet not given to aesthetic or intellectual over-indulgence, perhaps because of this her poems sometimes tantalise, philosophically, more than they satisfy.