The carefully crafted poems in the new Michael Curtis collection manage to combine anger and detachment, observes Rosie Johnston

Michael-Curtis-187x300The Fire in Me Now
Michael Curtis, 
Cultured Llama Publishing 
ISBN: 978-0-9926485-4-1
98 pp   £8

Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape shows Krapp in old age listening to tapes of his past, musing: Perhaps my best years are gone. But I wouldn’t want them back, not with the fire in me now. 

Michael Curtis’s poetry has been published, anthologised and translated all over the world. Much of the fire in this latest collection comes from his anger at how we humans degrade ourselves and that world.

The first of four sections is called ‘Anger Management ‘as if the act of poetry keeps the poet himself composed. The poems are issue-based and range from the neglect of Rumanian orphans and the slaughter of shearwaters to the contrast between the lives of tourists on beaches and Africans trying to sell them baubles. Always rhythmic and carefully crafted, the poems’ tone can feel detached. In the opening poem ‘Paradise’ for example ‘we’ are Western tourists, voracious in our search for the perfect holiday:

                        and when we’d picked
the whales and dolphin clean, ransacked
the broken shells, exhausted the crater rim,
we left them to salvage and sent out scouts
to probe for paradise, the next one ,

somewhere more verdant, complete
with mountains and occasional rain
(forget desert latitudes), took
our package north, bought some time
a few degrees further from the sun.

In ‘Proof Positive’ the first person appears again –

‘I was dreaming air, counting down
to shore leave with the kids
giving their mum a break.’ 

But the narrator is not the poet – he’s a vivisectionist:

Back at base they zeroed 
settings, tightened straps, jabbed
electrodes in the mother’s brain
to measure (what was it again?)
the synaptic polarity of the ganglions

so dead on time, one by one, we
strangled the lot and yes, as each
of her brood left its little life
fifty fathoms down, they did record
a measurable discharge of protons. 

The later sections (‘Stabs in the Dark’, ‘Not in Love’ and ‘Thin Air’) are laced with this dark wit too. In the poem Not in Love the narrator tells us about a friend’s adulterous flirtation:

younger of course, single
but they didn’t get it together
on the walking holiday with her husband around

though little was left unsaid
of that I’m certain

The affair is thwarted when the potential lover drowns (presumably on another holiday):

she didn’t seem too upset
because as she pointed out
she’d only been in lust with him
not in love and after all
they hadn’t done anything. 

Again the tone is disengaged, bleaker than even Larkin at his most curmudgeonly.

In Curtis’s military poems on the other hand the simple understated vernacular is moving.’ Clapping in the Dead’ takes us to Royal Wootton Bassett in the days when military funerals passed through the town, though even that comes to a cynical finish:

Silence snaps
before it turns the corner

rehearsed in loud stadia minutes
a quick rattle of applause

claps each coffin that passes
in stabs at celebration

then retreats to the pubs
to watch it on the news. 

‘The Helmet Camera Makes Its Excuses’ is a clever dramatic monologue delivered by a soldier’s helmet camera in a war zone:

Six tours of duty. Countless engagements.
Lost some pals. 

Accused of murdering a casualty in our custody. 

Caused quite a stir. The boys blamed me when
the transcript was found in my memory.

Why the surprise? If a soldier crosses 
the line it’ll be when he’s lost a comrade.

Soldiers lose comrades because they’re in a war. 
Everyone knows there’s killing on both sides.

The collection mellows into something like resignation in the last section. The final poem ‘Back’ suggests that it is only when this poet warrior contemplates death that he is, for the first time in his life, light of heart:

Make a ship, a small ark
provided with cakes and wine

all you need for the journey back
over gaping fish
and black, endless water

to your original place
where, waiting, you will find
nothing at all
but a welcome refuge
of weightless peace.

.

Rosie Johnston’s three poetry pamphlets are published by Lapwing Publications (Belfast), the latest Bittersweet Seventeens in March 2014. She also writes fiction and journalism, facilitates writing groups in London and Cambridge and is Poet in Residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust.
www.rosie-johnston.com