Sep 22 2023
Poetry review – HAWK’S CRY: Charles Rammelkamp considers a collection by Mary Pacifico Curtis which reflects on the fraught relationship between ourselves and our planet
Mary Pacifico Curtis gives an unflinching assessment of the human condition, as she observes the world from both macro and micro perspectives. Indeed, she writes from a point to view like that of “the god of the sky,” as she labels her powerful symbol, the hawk, circling overhead, in the collection’s final poem, “Another Moment in the Garden of Eden” – peels back the horrors and the flaws to reveal a glimpse of the fragile and precious, the beating heart of existence.
For indeed, there is much that is alarming about our world, not the least of which is the slipshod care of the planet in the hands of its human stewards. On the macro level, the devastations of climate change come under Curtis’s hawk-like gaze. “The Shepherd’s Refrain: It Is Coming” is an ominous poem inspired by Greta Thunberg’s 2020 speech before the General Assembly at the United Nations.
The girl perches, her sight piercing parched landscapes, newly shaped shorelines, fading islands, ravaging storms, scorching sun, crackling nightfall. It is a time of crossing spectral bridges, navigating through shadows, A time when lesser birds fall from the shroud, once air. Hawks cry.
The title Hawk’s Cry comes from this poem, of course, but the crucial possessive apostrophe makes a huge difference. In the poem, “cry” is a verb. In the book title, it’s a noun, and Curtis is that hawk (Thunberg, too, is implicitly depicted as a hawk – she “perches”, her sight is “piercing”), her cry a protest as she observes – and cries over – what our civilization has wrought. She has in mind the cruel treatment of immigrants (“Hunger,” “Uroborous”); our flawed justice system and the horror of our prisons (“On Death Row”); the plight of the poor in general and the neglect they endure (“Haiti, 2010,” “A Wife Contemplates the Pulley,” “5 Stories Below”), and the multifarious ways our neglect and abuse of the environment have wreaked havoc (“Burning,” “Of Men Who Stayed”). Poems about Nelson Mandela (“The World Still Waits”) and the Arab Spring of 2011 (“Shepherd, Shepherd, Where Are You?”) also highlight our flawed world, human mismanagement and imperfection. Her ekphrastic poem, “The Scream,” after Edvard Much’s nightmarish painting, captures the surreal dislocation many of us feel.
In contrast to the omniscient, silently judgmental hawk is the shepherd, whose responsibility is to care for the earth. This is a very Catholic concept, and Curtis’ poems often take on a Catholic perspective. The very first poem in the collection, “One by One,” contemplates a life-sized crucifix of Jesus writhing on the cross in a church and what this represents, implicitly taking on the suffering in the world as a personal burden. “Ubi cáritas est vera, vera. Deus ibi est,” a poem that channels the Maundy Thursday hymn for the washing of the feet, likewise takes place in a church, as does “The Baritone in St. Barts,” just as “Home “ seems to take place in a monastery or convent (‘to live where garden shrubs / needed trimming after church.’)
“Shepherd, Shepherd, Where Are You?” contrasts the hawk with the shepherd (‘Hawks perched, vigilant. / Shepherds slept.’). ‘We are your sheep,’ the speaker of the poem reminds the shepherd, and again cries, forlorn, ‘Shepherd, oh shepherd?’ In contrast, ‘the red-tailed hawk / lifts, / sounds his cry.’
But there’s also a kernel of love at the heart of existence, like the pearl in the oyster, that Curtis quietly emphasizes. “The Imperfect Perfect,” almost a metaphor itself for the purity that lies in the heart of imperfection, is a poem, Curtis tells us in her “Notes,” inspired by a wheelchair-bound young woman with Cerebral Palsy who loves musical productions. Curtis writes:
You are we, the ones who smile and mean it, the ones who don’t turn away. You bring us together in our thriving under sunlight and reflection to live with how we’re formed.
Similarly, the poem “Being. A Father.” is about the love for a damaged child (‘my son, Walker’), perfect in his imperfection (‘is there pleasure in the existence?’ the poet asks, considering the child’s condition, and ‘we do want him to live, don’t we?’ the doctor asks). “Photographer’s Proclamation” and “Quaero” are also poems about the hopefulness implicit in the newborn and young, and in “The Face of the Moon” the poet writes rapturously about carrying a newborn in her arms, the promise of new life.
Cupping her head in my hand, I breathed in, imagining that I held the moon— perfect, silent and suspended until the break of day.
“Meditation on Kintsukuroi,” referring to the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery, as she also informs the reader in her “Notes,” is a philosophical approach to healing the world, not unlike the Jewish tikkun olam, the commitment to making the world a better place. She asks:
How to come together when our backs are up, turned and bent by the weight of discord we sow, faction and fracture, a gash bleeding between us?
Reflecting on our brief time on the planet, Mary Pacifico Curtis writes nostalgically about fleeting time and how death seemed so remote to the young. Frank Sinatra croons in “Just Kids Again” as she remembers being young and untroubled. “Behind the Moon” is a memory of the Apollo 11 mission, contrasting the civil unrest and Vietnam War protests of the same era. “A Child of the Fifties Looks Out on a Lake” is likewise saturated in nostalgia. In “Horsemen of Earlier Years” she writes
In my remembering of that time cotton-haired folks pottered in high-ceilinged rooms of urban mansions until they breathed no more, expired without the drama of blinking screens or chemical remedy —simply dropped one Tuesday or Saturday having run the course of their upright years.
The awareness of the fleeting nature of time, as one matures, simply adds an urgency to our responsibilities as shepherds of the earth, the environment, the living things on the planet, the knowledge that we do not, in fact, have a limitless amount of time.
So we circle back to the hawk, the overriding symbol of this thoughtful book. As she writes in the invocation,
The hawk circles on the ground our transgressions on pause
Of course, our transgressions, like time itself, never pause. This is merely Curtis’ clever way of freezing the frame for us at the start of this deeply reflective collection. Another Latin phrase comes to mind, though, when considering these poems. Carpe Diem. For the time to act is now; Curtis is unequivocally emphatic on that point.