Book Review

Kate Colby’s ninth book, Reverse Engineer, meditates on questions of knowledge and everyday experience, embedding questions of philosophy and metaphysics with seemingly banal daily life. Reverse Engineer begins with an epigraph from Rosmarie Waldrop that reads, “doubting I love while knowing I’ve wanted to.” In many ways, this is what Colby spends the entire collection exploring; doubt and love are central to this beautiful collection, as the speaker questions what love is, what we are, and how we make meaning. However, even further, the speaker of these poems, as in the epigraph, is constantly reflecting on the difficulty of making normative statements that are external to the truth of one’s own experience. The speaker meditates on these questions and brings them down to Earth, but never comes to a simple or encompassing answer. Juxtaposing simple couplets with conceptual density, Colby makes these questions of existence and epistemology palpable and relevant. She writes:

if all possible worlds
exist and we’re in

the best one, will you be
awake when I get home?

The speaker asks these classic philosophical questions while refusing to slip into an esoteric or solipsistic meditation, reframing them for the contemporary day and a speaker that readers can connect with. Rather than enter a world that is merely internal, the speaker continues to relate these questions to their material life, to their beloved, and to their doubt.

Reverse Engineer, while being interested in questions of existence and meaning, insists on radically embodying these questions. In the poem “Actuarium” the speaker asks:

Who’s to say when
the world will end

by which I mean
which one?

Insisting on a multiplicity of meanings and natures that are embodied in the material world, the speaker struggles with what these questions mean for everyday life and posits these questions in simple and direct lines. There is never a time when the reader feels that Colby has used superfluous language; the poems contain exactly what they need and no more. Colby masterfully allows the lines to speak for themselves, and the direct language allows the reader to enter the many layers of poetic meaning. In “Word Problems” Colby writes:

There are different kinds of unknowns,
including those that don’t exist yet.

Potato chips, say, were created
by accident, and the unknown

of their previous non-existence has only
ever been retrospective. We have faith

in perception, assume the human brain
will grasp whatever it can access,

but exactly how much we know of what
is or might be the case is unknown.

One unifying theory holds that space
is not continuous, but made of linked
bits of it, in which case there is a smallest
unit of space, but the bits don’t exist there,

they consist of it. Apply this to language,
where meaning is the words for it,

every word needs all the meaning
and what it is is what I’m in it for.

The poems are constantly self-aware and admitting of these facts to themselves, which is evident in “Saint Namesake,” where Colby asks “(am I repeating myself?)” Colby is constantly aware that in these meditations, she is both answering and creating more questions, admitting, “the whole world is / unique to each of us.” Yet, the reader gets the sense that even if these poems cannot answer questions about one’s own experience, they are of profound importance. This collection, as much as any other I have read, refuses the idea that poetry is only cerebral or conceptual, as well as the idea that answers are more important than questions. These poems demand to be not understood, but to be felt in their profound implications, inviting the reader into the process of questioning their own circumstantial existence.

Like the title suggests, Colby’s collection is an effort to reverse engineerto work backward from the seemingly solitary human experience to find truths that are not merely circumstantial or provisional, or maybe, to come to understand that these are the only truths. These truths show us that the way we experience our existence is just as important as objective philosophical answers. However, the speaker remains uncertain of how or from where these answers might come. Colby beautifully models these tensions in both form and content. In “Uni-Bomber,” Colby expresses this sentiment, writing “A poem is a robotic arm / feeling its way in the dark.” Though the speaker of these poems longs after some sort of understanding, the speaker is constantly aware of their own limitations. The speaker constantly acknowledges that as much as they long after truth, their understanding will never be complete. In “Arse Poetica,” Colby writes, “(what I write about the everyday is / not my experience of the everyday).” Gently using the line break, she admits that the world of the poem both is and is not, both is representative and is not, both provides answers and does not. These answers that it does provide, are, for Colby, always provisional. She writes later in the same poem, “A genome isn’t made / of letters—this is / hard to remember.” Again, brilliantly using the line break to show the poem’s self-knowledge and reflexivity, Colby creates lines that nest within themselves, developing layers of meaning that leave the reader thinking about the poem long after they have put down the book. Utilizing this self-awareness of the speaker, Colby creates a tone that resigns itself to provisional knowledge. In this way, Colby humbles the reader, and reminds us that there are answers that we will never have. She writes, “we think our minds / the furthest reach / of evolution” and,

whether I’ve seen a thing
whose word I’m unsure of—

say, a pergola—it’s practically
certain, but I’ve never put

“oblivion” in a poem before.

 In these pages, Colby gives us a much-needed reminder, “there are different kinds of unknowns, / including those that don’t exist yet.”

About the Reviewer

Chase Cate is a first year MFA student in poetry at Colorado State University. They hold BAs in English and philosophy from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. When they aren't reading or writing, they love to watch movies, drink tea, and steal back small pieces of their time from the capitalist machine.