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A Poet’s View: ‘Closely Observed, Deeply Felt’

Poet Phyllis Katz, of Norwich, Vt., has a new book of poetry to be published this fall. (Valley News Ð Jennifer Hauck) Ê

Poet Phyllis Katz, of Norwich, Vt., has a new book of poetry to be published this fall. (Valley News Ð Jennifer Hauck) Ê Purchase photo reprints »

If, in Wallace Stevens’ adage, the “poet is the priest of the invisible,” then Phyllis Beck Katz has spent her life paying attention to the ephemera many of us miss or choose to ignore. In Migrations, her second book of poems, which was published in the fall, Katz writes of “a trembling of tiny finches,” the sight of birds’ “winged shadows across the moon’s bright lantern” and of the coming of spring in “the woods, so quiet under winter’s rule, now open to the music of desire.”

Her first book All Roads Go Where They Will, published in 2010, was a book of poems collected around such themes as family, friends and nature. And although Migrations, also published by Antrim House, also has poems about family, friends and nature, as well as ekphrastic poems (poems that comment on other works of art) certain themes emerge clearly throughout: mortality, aging, death, struggle and uncertainty as well as the stirring beauty and also the violence found in nature.

“The second book has a lot more unity to it, which tends to be typical of second books,” Katz said in an interview in her home in Norwich.

The original title of Migrations was Holding Fast, Katz said. But she changed the title as she “began to think more and more it was about the changes in my life.” Although the poems allude to her experiences, which are either described directly or refracted through the lens of nature, she doesn’t see the act of writing as some kind of personal catharsis.

“I don’t view them as confessional at all,” she said, looking slightly perturbed at the thought. “I view them as experiences that other people have access to.”

In 2002 her husband Arnold Katz suffered a grave illness. He eventually recovered, but that was, Katz said, “the event that really made me think about mortality and family and it entered into my writing certainly.”

Katz has had a long, distinguished career as an academic, teaching English and the Classics at schools and colleges throughout the country, including, most recently, at Dartmouth College, where she taught in the Classics, English and Women’s Studies departments from 1993 until her retirement in 2012.

She grew up in Hamden, Conn., the daughter of a Yale professor, Fred Beck, who could be, she said, a difficult father and husband, and a mother who had married young and regretted giving up her dreams of being a dancer and artist. Some poems in Migrations describe the walls her father erected between himself and his family, and her mother’s disillusion. “I was very conscious of my mother’s unhappiness,” Katz said.

When she went away to college at Wellesley, where she studied English, it came as a relief. “I wanted to get away from home,” she said.

After college, she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1959 to work for National Geographic, and it was in the city that she met her future husband, then working at the National Health Service. They were married in 1959, and their first child, Paul, was born two years later while they were living in California, where Katz got her M.A. from U.C.L.A. She went on to earn a doctorate in Classics from Columbia University. The Katzes have four children.

As Katz was in the later stages of her career she began to focus more on writing poetry, a pursuit that she’d embraced in high school but then put aside as she moved into adulthood, teaching, writing scholarly books and articles and raising her children. While at Dartmouth she met and took a course on poetry from the late Donald Sheehan, a professor in the English and Latin departments, as well as a teacher in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, who was also the first director of the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H. It was Sheehan who helped to turn her in the direction of poetry. Her poems have been published in Bloodroot Literary Magazine and Birchsong: Poetry Centered in Vermont. A recent poem, Falling Time, appears this month in The Avocet: Journal of Nature Poetry.

The poems in Migrations look to a wellspring of sources, from childhood to the passage into adulthood to marriage and children to the lessons of nature. The poet Alan Shapiro, a winner of the prestigious annual Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his book Night of the Republic, praised Migrations for its “closely observed and deeply felt” poems that “console and disquiet in equal measure.”

Katz spends as much time outdoors as she can, and it’s from nature that she draws much of her poetry. An avid birder, Katz said she is “interested in their behavior and what they like to eat and what they sing.” She also makes excursions into the Vermont woods with the Norwich chapter of Keeping Track, a Vermont nonprofit founded by noted animal tracker Susan Morse that trains amateur naturalists to monitor natural habitats so that data is available on the flora and fauna in any given environment.

Although Katz doesn’t want to belabor the analogy, she sees some similarity between poetry and bird song, with its musicality and coloration, and complex form and structure. And being outside frees her mind, lets it wander and reflect and create. “I sometimes write a poem when I’m walking,” she said. “I put it all together in my head.”

When she is in the woods, she listens, she said for “bird song, I listen for the rustlings of the leaves and that’s wonderful. I’ve learned there’s so much to see at every level.”

On a trip to the Galapagos with her youngest daughter, an evolutionary biologist, Katz realized that, from the largest organism to the microbes invisible to the eye, there are worlds within worlds within worlds. “You can keep looking in, and in, and in, and find more,” she said, just as looking through a telescope like the Hubble takes you “farther and farther out.”

Poetry has that capacity, to burrow in and then pull out, all the way to infinity, and the music of it has always run through Katz’s head. “I never thought of writing a novel or a short story. I get a lot of pleasure out of writing a good poem, and feeling it’s been birthed the way it needed to be,” she said.

Katz will read from “Migrations” on March 18 at Left Bank Books in Hanover. The event begins at 7 p.m.

For further information on Katz, go to phyllisbeckkatz.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com