The first poem by Averill Curdy I came across was “To the voice of the retired warden of Huntsville Prison (Texas death chamber),” published in the June 2009 issue of Poetry. I unknowingly began to memorize it. With its unsettling music, precision, and technical dexterity, the poem haunted me all week: “Because the spectacle / Of suffering corrupts us, all punishments / Are now executive, offstage.” I’ve followed Curdy closely since, through regular appearances in Poetry and The Paris Review. Now, at last, her long-awaited debut Song and Error, forthcoming this March from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language,” said W.H. Auden. By his estimation, Curdy is a poet in the highest order. Her musicality finds its counterparts in Auden, Donne, Hopkins, and Merrill, to whom she seems to have apprenticed her syntax and ear. But there is something else in her writing that is entirely her own, an almost excessive pleasure in texture and alliteration that has been unfashionable in poetry of late. Curdy’s precisely conjured images and similes transform the mundane into the metaphysical. The poem “Sparrow Trapped in the Airport” begins:
Never the bark and abalone mask
cracked by storms of a mastering god,
never the gods’ favored glamour, never
the pelagic messenger bearing orchards
in its beak…
One hears, in these opening lines, a faint echo to the opening of Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland:” “Thou mastering me / God! Giver of breath and bread; / World’s strand, sway of the sea; / Lord of living and dead.” The sparrow is later described as “lentil-brown, uncounted,” and “looking more like a fumbled punch line,” a Bishop-esque characterization of the mislaid traveler who serves as a commentary for all travel. Through skillful negation, the sparrow steps down from its mythologized role, not a pelagic messenger, but an overlooked oddity.
Many of the poems in Song and Error engage with historical personae, challenging and enacting the idea of “the new world” as it exists in and relates to writing. Figures who appear in the collection include Ovid’s first translator of the Metamorphosis into English, George Sandys (1578-1644), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and writer and spiritual healer Alva Nunez Cobreza de Vaca (1490-1560). These gracefully researched personas widen Curdy’s linguistic spectrum, coloring the poems with “carmine from cochinel” a body stuffed “with niter, salt, and Indian pepper.” Curdy’s paced, metaphysical lyrics are emboldened by this specialized vernacular, deftly used throughout the long poem “Chimera”:
Every step makes him more wilderness
He goes interiorly
to trade conches sea-snails & screw-beans
for red-dyed deer-tail tassels and the arrow-makers’
sinew & flint between ragged bands
surrounded by enemies enthralled by visions
that command them to bury their sons alive
The dramas of America’s foundational days are refreshed by the greater drama of language offered in startling, alliterative combinations. Poetry serves to redress fact. One thinks of Shelley’s declaration in A Defense of Poetry: “Story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” Curdy’s gift for personalizing history through vital imagery seems precisely the kind of energy sorely lacking from history books.
The poem that most directly addresses the question (and cost) of geography is “Northwest Passage.” Five stanzas of five lines create a deceptively ordered, solved appearance beneath which beats the difficulty of addressing theoretical geography. What makes this poem especially effective is its modern first person speaker: “Standing on this deck I have watched / Morning’s first pale peach jeopardy.” The speaker’s strange imagistic pairings make the familiar foreign, and vice versa, “melon scent twined,” “timbers strained by tons / of fool’s gold.” The poem’s last stanza proves particularly poignant and essential to the collection:
after dinner, who dreams of trading
his knives for nutmegs, mirrors,
for cinnamon and pearls, and beyond—
finding by brute necessity and skill
some route between suffering and song.
These lines evocatively address the price of inquiry and persistence, our imaginations forfeited to the easy infinity of spices. The “route between suffering and song” is walked by many of these poems, which layer toward a vision of travel, exploration, and ultimately transformation.
The risk this collection takes, and it is a worthy one, is denseness or occasional inaccessibility. This collection is serious both in its subjects and its strategies; the play, if it can be called such, is of a scholarly breed. Because of this, a gestures towards hyperbole, for instance, in a confessional poem like “Single Room” can be hard to decode: “Between me and the Oreos I’ll create / Dramas of temptation and resistance.” This “drama” falls flat in comparison to the other meticulously woven historical dramas. At other times, a poem’s complex syntax can takes its toll on the immediacy of a line. Curdy’s project and high-lyric mode deserve praise and will no doubt be celebrated this spring.