Review: ‘From the Fortunate Isles’ by Tony Curtis

28 03 2017

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This book gives accommodation to five decades of Curtis’ career in literature.  Selected poems from ten collections are housed adjacently, with forty new poems, building ‘From The Fortunate Isles’, Curtis’ latest project, abutted at the gable end.  Here is a terrace of verse, akin to a loop of sea-staring houses strung along a Pembrokeshire shore; multifarious in tone, diverse in size, unique in structure, this is a collection, ‘where the light and summer sings’.

Within clearer, more prevalent themes of Curtis’ verse – South West Wales, identity, war, his father – there are subtly similar features.  Two poems from the 1983 collection ‘Letting Go’, ‘The World’ and ‘Tortoise’, ponder the concept of legacy.  ‘Tortoise’, the sole narrative poem in the book, recounts the discovery of an errant hibernating pet in a neighbour’s loft:

Just that.  A shell, hard, perfect and whole.  Inside, a shrunk ball of jelly.

Curtis reflects on the grotesque image that begins to take residence, like the tortoise itself, ‘lodged in the back of the mind’ until he is prompted to question the bleakness of a predestination, where a body can be outlived and made redundant by its skeleton:

to travel and come to nothing

On the page parallel is ‘The World’, which announces its portentous subject in the opening line, ‘this is how it ends’ before almost listing the cataclysmic events that occur as humanity recedes: ‘Russian subs…acid air…fire…the Third World / eats itself and starves.’  The final stanza delivers mankind back to its origins and to a fearful inheritance:

And farther out floating

towards them on a floe

a man,  a woman and a child waving

spears

Half a lifetime ago, Tony Curtis was a lecturer of mine at university.  In one workshop, he spread images of John Digby over the wide table and encouraged his undergraduates to address the surreal collages.   ‘There are two ways of looking at a thing’, he implored.  Six of these artworks, ornately decorated Moorish doorways used as window frames looking out to terrain populated by Grecian figures, dinosaurs, lighthouses, Victorian bathers, are aligned with their respective poems from the 1998 collection ‘The Arches’.  ‘XXII’ concludes with a stanza on the duplicity of language:

            This was ever the way –

            from the high clarity    

            the waves of confusion

            turn into the words

            that lead us astray.   

A piece of advice I recall from Curtis’ teachings was the need ‘to always begin strongly and end strongly’; he prized the first and final lines of a poem more than any others.  Thumbing through the two hundred and fifty pages of this book, it is clear that Curtis’ adheres emphatically to his own precept.  The thirteen poems taken from ‘Preparations’ are particularly charmed with resolutions of momentous, pacing, funereal sadness.

We turn our backs on a sky that goes on forever.

(Return to the Headland)

…our dead friends and fathers,      

 on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.

(Poem for John Tripp)

 

Under the sun, the prodigal sky,

there are no healing waters.

(My Father in Pembrokeshire)

Of the forty poems from the eponymous collection, ‘From the Fortunate Isles’, many are observational, many are elegiac.  The title poem is languid and ambling and warmly reveals an encounter with street vendors and performers in the Canary Islands.  Against a theatrical drop of a menacing and rough Atlantic sea, Curtis experiences a hiatus and a temptation to ‘let loose of it all’.  The title of the poem, an allusion to a classical myth about idyllic islands reserved for favoured or blessed mortals, is slightly ambiguous: it is a simple reference to geography; it is hyperbolic in Curtis’ appreciation of holiday paradise; it is an acknowledgement to the artists and writers that both the poet and the collection mourns.

Elegies to the landscape painters Peter Prendergast and John Knapp-Fisher, to the poets Dannie Abse and Dylan Thomas, to the memory of his father, to personal friends, usher in the reflective mood and, once more, the theme of legacy:

if my ashes were emptied out here.

(Wanting Choughs)

Start strongly and finish strongly; the final poem of the book, ‘Seamus on the Tube’, does exactly that.  Reading Heaney’s poem ‘The Railway Children’ amongst a train filled with commuters ‘looking away, not looking away’, the narrator of the poem becomes mesmorised by their own escaped nostalgia.  Although it is written in second person narrative, it seems safe to assume the poem is autobiographical and consequently, safe to assume, from the final words of the final poem, that Curtis is content with all that he has built; serene in his legacy.

Reaching Warren Street, you’ve read it

Four or five times, absorbed the innocent wisdom

And sense of the thing.  Those people opposite

See a crazy old man mouthing words, appearing to sing.

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THE EMERGING VOICES OF WELSH POETRY

22 05 2016
Last week I was immensely proud to feature in this Wales Arts Review article about the rising voices of contemporary poetry in Wales.
The Emerging Voices of Welsh Poetry

WALES HAS ALWAYS BOASTED A WEALTH OF POETIC TALENT AND VISION. AND SO, TO MARK INTERNATIONAL DYLAN THOMAS DAY THIS YEAR, WALES ARTS REVIEW HAS DECIDED TO TAKE A LOOK, AND PERHAPS SHINE A LITTLE LIGHT, ON A FEW ENGLISH-LANGUAGE WELSH POETS WHO HAVE NOT BEEN DEAD FOR SIXTY YEARS. HERE IS (BY NO MEANS COMPREHENSIVE, AND IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER) A LIST OF SOME OF THE MOST EXCITING YOUNG VOICES IN WELSH POETRY.

The Emerging Voices of Welsh Poetry





Memories of Shakespeare – an article for Wales Arts Review

23 04 2016

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Crouched in the gloom at the side of the curtainless stage, the three bodies were silver-skinned and rag-wrapped; one woman was shaven-headed, one woman was, in fact, an elderly man, one woman was revealing more flesh than anyone in my pre-GCSE class (in their pre-internet schooling) had ever witnessed.  The three witches were immediately intimidating; to a group of boys who had never been to theatre before, they were formidable.

No pupil wanted to be shepherded by the stewards to the front of the theatre and none wanted to bookend the draughty first row. My first experience of Shakespeare was to sit directly under the glare of the three witches before Macbeth began at Mold’s Theatre Clwyd and, as the school bus had arrived thirty minutes early, my ordeal of eye-contact avoidance began early.

The witches lurked stage left throughout the play, haunting Macbeth from his periphery. They possessed during the interval and even remained to jinx the audience as we left; I am fairly sure that, while the rest of my class echoed bad Taggart impressions and sluggedNo-Frills Cola, one of the witches was stood in the aisle next to me on the coach, then followed me home in the rain.

My son repeats ‘shakes peer’ rhythmically in the café, like we have rehearsed it for the Americans who are noisily debating whether to stay and order. He colours the playwright’s face on a brochure, shading the pupils, rainbowing the lank hair. We tell him that Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways and try to show him, but he will not forsake the crayons and begins instead to write his own: the hooped ‘A’, a hangman’s ‘r’, a wide, flamboyant ‘t’, then, realising he is choked of space, doubles back, adds a ‘h’, ‘u’ turns and slots the ‘r’ between earlier letters.  ‘Shay kspere’, he says, ‘shhhhake speer’.

He sounds the name as we thread the narrow corridors of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  The tiled floor of the living room is as cracked as the back of an old glove, the button-sized windows look out onto the courtyard where a seam of Chinese tourists are being led by an actor playing a lute. Over the empty beds, the empty fireplaces, the empty cribs, he says, ‘Shakesp ear’ and seems to inhabit the place.

In the garden, he is finally stilled. It is beginning to get cold and there is drizzle hiding in the late afternoon; the blossom cloaking the cherry trees is a reminder that it is still Easter. A lady in a cloaking, green dress covets his attention and earns it with her playful accents, ‘Double double, toil and trouble,’ she begins, casting her arms, stretching her fingers.

‘Double double,’ he mimics.

The actress plays all three parts and bewitches him. He is silent for so long on the winding walk back to the hotel that we know he is trying to make sense of it all, that he is trying to give voice to the changes happening to his thoughts, that he is rapt withal.

Memories of Shakespeare