Matthew Buckley Smith on Averill Curdy




Song & Error by Averill CurdyFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

 

Almost everything about Song & Error, the first book of poems by Averill Curdy, gives one pause. From the mafia-stop abruptness of the first line to the icy final phrase, this book makes an impression. Its substance is impressive, its manner is impressive, its glacial resting heart-rate is impressive. Books half as hard to write win prizes every year. Some years they're major prizes. There is no mistaking the scale of Curdy's effort––or the ambition.

 

To start with, her word-hoard is heavy with the kind of luxurious terms one usually finds on color samples and SAT flash cards. Abalone, bombazine, clerestory, duenna, festinates, gamboge, kilims, minaudière, niter, odalisque, paroquets, radionuclines, stridulant, tisane, vinegarroons, and zinziber are just a few of the words one won't acknowledge having to look up. Dressed in such finery, Curdy's lines still come off as naturally as Olivier in chain mail.

 

She's also got a remarkable knack for description, one she's not too shy to flaunt. Within the first, short section alone, one is shown an owl's second eyelid, "lucent as a veil of marble chiseled / Then ground with seven degrees of stone, so the veil / Appears to float," then "pit vipers so sentient they stared back / At men and marveled, tails shaking until / They seemed a vapor," as well as "a fist-sized blond tarantula stepping / Deliberate as a muscle-bound bodybuilder." More than one poem seems almost to be a delivery system for the marvelous descriptions it contains.

 

The poems aren't written in regular meter or rhyme (though plenty spend all night beneath pentameter's window, and one comes in choppy syllabics with procrustean enjambment).  All the same, Curdy's hearing is nearly as good as her vision. In the image and in the line itself, we hear with her, "Wet branches breaking: those were your breaths." We share her eagerness at the rhythm, assonance, and consonance of the (misleading) first line, "Unfastened avidly from each ivory button . . . ." (It's an ekphrastic poem about a painting of a dissected woman; the next line begins, "Of her spine.") As with building descriptions, she sometimes lets herself get carried away with making complicated sounds, a vice resulting at times in confusion or unintended goofiness. Listing the bounty of spring in one poem's opening lines, Curdy splurges on this tongue twister: "aphid & berry stridulant / intricate and promiscuous." But one still prefers her occasional excesses to the flat, prosaic apathy of many free-verse poets today. At times, her instinct for linking sounds results in lines of unteachable potency, as it does later in the same poem with this sentence of almost Anglo-Saxon severity: "Husbands groaned / bucked by pain onto the dirt when wives gave birth & both sexes wept." (With an ear like that, one wonders why she bothers with the visual gimmickry of ampersands, flash typography, and whimsical punctuation.)

 

Also apparent throughout the book is Curdy's smirkless wit. "Refusing to make the same mistake / Just once," she deadpans, "I've cried out to the dark / Many names, most given up routinely / As the secrets of friends." In the voice of Constance Fenimore Woolson, she flatters Henry James, "My own / True home, my country, I've found / In your stories, dear Henry,––" but concludes, "Like your letters somewhat more satisfying / Than you." For Curdy, the line break––though mostly treated as a convention to be eyeballed into place––occasionally supplies a nudge-nudge comic pause: "He never recovered from his / honeymoon."

 

Song & Error has neither mean nor median, but if there's a mode it's the history poem––typically narrated by a consciousness that, whether or not it speaks as an "I"––seems to drift somewhere above and behind the subject's head, like the camera in a third-person shooter. Though their grammar and typography vary, these poems are, as Mill would have them, less heard than overheard. And as with Anthony Hecht's bejeweled ramblings, no matter who might be speaking, the voice is the same. Thus in "Ovid in America," the traveler and translator George Sandys muses dreamily to his distant interlocutor:

 

            What may never not be strange? What,

            This morning, will wake and make me new.

 

In "Chimera," a disembodied narrator says of Álvar Núñez Cabeza da Vaca:

 

            After the hurricane the stunned brilliance     like a spell

            or question he woke into     waking by himself     to himself

            and naked as a saint     to discover his ship . . . .

 

In "The Fair Incognito," a similar narrator says of Jean-Jacques Audubon:

 

                                    the Fair Incognito

                 burned upon his inner eye, revolving

            naked, wilderness turning into theater,

                 framed, foreshortened––that trick of revealing

            what remains naked to the eye, invisible.

           

In "From the Lost Correspondence," Woolson says to James:

 

                                                            Distance

            Makes large passions larger, makes

                 Little ones disappear.

                 I suspect I shall mean more

            Later, that you will come seek me in the places

            I have left.

 

Though the setting and the subject matter shift, all of these poems are more about distance than travel, more about knowing than being, more about longing than love. Their debt to Robert Penn Warren's Audubon: A Vision, is apparent long before one reaches Curdy's poem on the same man. The fragmentation, the dreamy narration, and of course the restless search for identity mark each of the history poems––and not a few others––with Warren's influence. As with Warren's long poem, the occasion for these historical studies is ultimately a private obsession. The reader can marvel at Curdy's infatuation with her subjects, but he cannot truly share it.

 

All of which quirks and virtues stamp Curdy as a promising poet. They also make one wonder what that promise means exactly and how it might be kept. Setting out today to be a poet in America doesn't much resemble setting out to be a novelist, or a singer, or even a proper academic. And though there are countless hobbyist poets, these don't exhaust the field. It might be fairer to say that all of our poets are amateurs. At any rate, pursuing poetry as it is pursued today, aside from not really being a career, is not even clearly a pursuit, at least not with regards to any observable end. The work of many leading and rising poets today seems more than anything to resemble the work of being a monk.

 

The similarity is not at all slight. Most people, for instance, pay little attention to poets. The same goes for monks. The discipline to which monks dedicate their lives is understood by almost none outside their number. When monks come up in conversation among non-monks, it is less often as a genuine topic of discussion than as a metaphor for something else. Non-monks, indeed, are far more likely to describe something as monkish than they are to say anything specific about any particular monk. Most non-monks would be hard-pressed to name even one living American monk. And when a young person announces to his family that he plans to become a monk, the news––though sometimes greeted with polite encouragement––is seldom cause for any kind of celebration. Only in rare cases will his uncle not attempt to talk him out of it.

 

And yet, there would be something sad, one imagines, in learning that there were no more monks left in the world. Though few people's daily lives would change, the knowledge of that loss might raise a sigh. It might even inspire a meme. Because the vague, distant notion of monkhood does have a role in our culture, even if the actual presence of monks does not. Little as we might care about local monks, for example, our credulity increases when we hear of monks from foreign lands. Their very foreignness imbues the quaint profession with a fresh charm and authority. The wisdom of eastern monks, in particular, retains for us a popular appeal. Though one might never in one's whole life visit a monastery, one feels the world is a little richer for the existence of such a place. It is comforting, anyway, to know that monks somewhere carry on with their monkish ways, that they practice their devotions dutifully––elsewhere. The biggest difference, perhaps, between living American monks and living American poets, is that as popular interest in monasticism declines, the number of new monks declines with it, but as popular interest in poetry declines, the number of poets seems to increase every year.

 

Given this state of things, what are these monk-like poets to do? Write poems, of course. But if the chief cultural value of poets is simply to go on somewhere quietly being poets––exactly so that one can claim them as a part of the culture and make use of them to decorate an occasional commencement––then what else can one ask that their poems do? If poems aren't read (and they're not, at least not nearly as much as they're written) then their purpose can't be to delight, or to instruct, or to do anything at all to the (theoretical) reader. All they need do is be. By this way of thinking, the promise of a poet such as Curdy is that she will (continue to) produce poems of authentic poeticity. How may one measure authenticity in a poem? Essential qualities might include novelty and difficulty as well as visual, sonic, and linguistic distinctness from other genres of writing. Poems that consistently demonstrated such qualities might be deemed authentic. They could then safely be said to be.

 

Should one, out of contrariness or love of poetry, find such an evaluation lacking, one might wish to reexamine poetry's service to the reader. If poetry can be expected to produce a particular effect on the reader, then it may be judged by the achievement of that effect. But if a poem––as MacLeish famously proposed––should be expected to do nothing more than be, then it may be judged only by the authenticity of its being.

 

Few of poetry's remaining readers can agree on any reliable basis for judging poems. But with the reader's permission, one may entertain a handful of hypothetical criteria, examining each in turn without asserting any one in particular. The following Q & A represents a miscellany of acid tests for poetry, cribbed from various sources––expert, lay, amateur, pragmatic, cynical, credulous––and applied to the case study of Song & Error. One needn't accept the verdict of any of these tests, but the exercise may reveal something about the standards available for assessing a book of poetry.

 

Sample tests:

 

(Q1) When this book comes up in conversation, would it be appropriate to mention one's ten-year-old nephew who also "writes poems"?


(Q2) Might one fill a 50-minute class period discussing a poem from this book?


(Q3) Is one likely to learn anything from this book?


(Q4) Does this book challenge one's grasp of the language in which it's written?


(Q5) Could one translate this book into another language without substantial loss?


(Q6) Are other poets likely to be intimidated by this book?


(Q7) Does this book reward multiple readings?


(Q8) Would a family member who doesn't normally like poetry enjoy hearing poems from this book read aloud on the radio by Garrison Keillor?


(Q9) Is this book memorable?


(Q10) Is this book moving?

 

Test results:

           

(A1) No, this is appropriate only when the author of the book is also ten years old.


(A2) Yes, any poem in the book would work quite well.


(A3) Yes, the subjects, references, and notes reveal an understanding of classics, natural science, and history that involves both mastery of basic knowledge and delight in esotera.


(A4) Yes, in diction as well as construction.


(A5) No.


(A6) Yes, one currently is.


(A7) Yes, multiple readings are not just optional but essential to comprehension.


(A8) Yes, but only because Mr. Keillor's voice makes all poems sound wholesome, accessible, and reassuring. The poems in this book are none of the above.


(A9) Sort of. Shards and images linger in the mind, but few complete passages, or even complete lines. In meter and rhyme, contemporary free verse loses two of the most reliable aids to memory. Still, one will not easily forget such phrases as "Another day, another dolor."


(A10) Not really. It's wildly clever, innovative, surprising, difficult, thoughtful, and stylish, but it isn't moving. In fact, one rarely feels while reading a poem from Song & Error that the speaker would mind very much if one quietly left the room.  These poems are not confessional, they're often not even lyric, they betray few signs of poetic self-absorption––yet the poems in this book care little for the reader. They offer no welcoming hand. They show no hospitality.

 

Luckily for Curdy, there are many accomplished poets whose work similarly operates independent of the reader's emotion: Rae Armantrout, Hart Crane, Lyn Hejinian, Richard Kenney, Brad Leithauser, Paul Muldoon, Michael Robbins, Ron Silliman, and numerous others. Curdy is assured of celebrated company.

 

There is, though, one whole poem that––along with scattered passages throughout––suggests a very different book that Song & Error might have been. As clever, rich, and crisply drawn as any of its cohort, "Single Room" achieves something few of the other poems even attempt. It makes the reader feel for the speaker of the poem. "Single Room" appears roughly two-thirds of the way through Song & Error, and coming upon it then is unnerving. It's something like realizing toward the end of a movie that you're not the only one in the theater. The speaker's voice is bracingly human and specific. Gone is the drifting narrator murmuring philosophical fragments:

 

            Years ago, I suspected I might end

            Alone and imagined myself, fierce,

            Stalwart, walking these beaches

            With a driftwood staff. But not this.

 

Writing about the ordinary disappointment of a lonely, adult life is a chancy undertaking. Countless have done it badly, and––more daunting––a few have done it well. It's easy to embarrass oneself by writing this kind of poem. There's no historical, social, or allusive premise behind which to take shelter. One is oneself the subject of such a poem, and self-pity is seldom attractive to close friends, let alone strangers. But Curdy balances a tall stack of dishes on a very flimsy platter and somehow manages to break nothing. She does it in part through self-effacing humor––"Between me and the Oreos I'll create / Dramas of temptation and resistance"––and in part through clean refusal to whine: "To answer silence, I narrate the minutes: / Rinse the pan, put away groceries." The second stanza begins with a non-sequitur: a sea lion stranded on the beach. One wonders if the poem will lapse into the debonair ellipses of which the rest of the book almost wholly consists. But the image leads ruthlessly back to the start:

 

                                                The gulls

            Moved like sharpening knives above

            A too-elaborate meal for one who eats

            Alone.

 

The trope is a fairly simple one, but the speaker's steady-handed tenderness wrings pathos from a final claim that might otherwise have come off as sentimental:

 

                        Behind the dunes, the Pacific roars,

            Approaches, and withdraws, reaching

            For something, for anything––everything––

                                                But not for this.

 

The poems in Song & Error are impressive, start to finish, but "Single Room"––like a few snatches elsewhere––makes one catch one's breath, reminded of that other thing that poetry sometimes can be: heartbreaking. With this first book, Curdy seems to accomplish all she wants to. Whatever else one may say of Song & Error, a great act of labor was performed to bring it into being. A labor of which few others would be capable. The gods of poetry––intolerant of easy pleasure––who read all poems without envy, without pain, and without pity, could only approve of Curdy's offering. One wonders, nonetheless, if someday she'll write a book for us mere mortals. I, for one, hope she does.




Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World, which won the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems appear in Beloit Poetry Journal, Think Journal, Linebreak, Iron Horse Literary Review, Innisfree, Commonweal, and Measure, as well as in Best American Poetry 2011. He earned his MFA in poetry at the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore with his wife, Joanna.










                                    

 

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