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Winner of the 2022 Paterson Poetry Prize
Wonderama is a collection of cinematic, surprising, and at times harrowing poems that captures 1960s Paterson, New Jersey, as experienced by the poorest, most vulnerable children living there.
In poems of candor, ferocity, and stunning imagery, Catherine Doty explores survival and loss in the life of a young girl escaping the perils of want, neglect, and abuse. At times both heartbreaking and vaudevillian, Doty’s work chronicles sexual awakening and assault, alcoholism, the hazards of Catholic school, and the complex consequences of coming of age in the inner city.
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Catherine Doty is a poet, cartoonist, and educator from Paterson, New Jersey. She is the author of Momentum (CavanKerry Press, 2004), a volume of poems, and Just Kidding, a collection of cartoons (Avocet Press, 1999). Doty has received prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. An MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has taught for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Frost Place, the New York Public Library, and many schools. Her poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies.
When William Carlos Williams wrote “Memory is a kind of accomplishment,” who knew he was writing about Cat Doty and her long-awaited second book of poems? From the mean streets of mid-century Paterson where she is accosted by an inexperienced mugger and the weekly confessional which she leaves with a “head full of sin and two Holy Cards” to the temple of the boardwalk arcade, Doty’s “accomplishment” takes us on a hurricane-in-a-whirling-teacup rush that is both alarming and beautiful. I found myself reading these poems so many times, I swear, I thought my eyes rubbed the ink off the pages.
—Peter Murphy, Founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University
In Catherine Doty’s poetry the lyric gift and the comic gift are so finely interfused that you can turn a poem inside out and not expose a single seam. Over and over in her poems, these two rarest of gifts react, and produce the mysterious virtue called style. In Doty’s first book of magic, Momentum, I thought I was just being sledded too fast to see how it was done. Now we have this Wonderama, with its more relaxed texture and magisterial tempos—and I still can’t see how it’s done. But that is a wonder for the way home. For the most and best of this book’s wonders, just open the gate and walk through.
Catherine Doty’s Wonderama delves gloriously into the shame-filled mess of searing poverty and finds wonder there in the absurdity of human meanness, our stupidity, frailty, madness, and kindness. Doty drops us directly inside childhood experience without sentimentality. Despairing as they sometimes are, these are not poems of despair. She’s not looking toward heaven to justify the suffering of the people in these poems. She knows they can’t afford such luxury. Instead, with compassion, humor, and often astonishingly beautiful imagery, Doty invites us to stay right here, rooted to the earth with her and them. We’re grateful for the invitation.
—Martin Jude Farawell, director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, author of Odd Boy
Softly lit in a murk of amniotic dust, the only two faces in the hallway of Saint Ag’s School:
a clock with its echoing voice and shifty hands, and a girl, in a cloud of perplexity
and distinction: the only third-grader who cannot learn to tell time.
Told to return only when she can name the hour, she watches the red hand
hiccup around the track, and the longer black one skip forward, click by click,
and the shorter black one, like her, not do much at all. Teachers lean from their doorways
to witness her fecklessness, then turn, like the painted figures in cuckoo clocks, to vanish
into the movements of their classrooms. She’s as likely to grasp the time as to knit a sock.
While Peggy draws John Lennon on the wall, I print, in magic marker
on the ceiling, a poem I love about poppies and the dead. Mary cracks black walnuts
with a rock, and feeds the pieces to our sister Judy, who pries the rusted lid
from a can of house paint so she and Tommy can camouflage their beds.
In the kitchen, our happy mother plays Nelson Eddy so loud that it drowns out
the screams of the couple upstairs. She is the reason, she tells us, why we are so smart,
and smarts you can’t buy, or we’d sell ours and get a TV.
from “JC and Me in the Summer of ’64”
Catholicism and puberty duked it out the summer my body
broke out of its corral and galloped Paterson’s streets
in search of sugar through the new and luscious grasses
of impure thought.
The priest I confessed to dismissed me as overly scrupulous—
I was thinking too much about thinking of dirty things—
and, distracted because the word scrupulous started with screw,
I left with a head full of sin and two Holy Cards, which he passed
me as if they were discards in Holy Strip Poker, a game I imagined
instructive and entertaining.
Pub date – February 2, 2021
Trade paper – 6 X 9″
Florenz Eisman Memorial Series
5 Horizon Road, #2403
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024
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