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