Tony Curtis Approximately in the Key of C (Arc Publications)
Tony Curtis was born in Dublin, his latest collection Approximately in the Key of C, is a work of seeming ease. The key of C is thought to be the simplest of keys because it has no sharps and no flats, though Chopin apparently regarded the scale as the most difficult to play with complete evenness. Music recurs in the collection, starting with ‘Blessing on Things Made Well’ where a set of uilleann pipes made by Michael Egan are displayed in a museum under a sign that says “Approximately in the Key of C”. Curtis loves “the beauty of those words” seeing in them a metaphor for the difficulty of writing a good poem (and for life), when they are too often “buckled and bent”.
Fortunately for the reader Curtis poetry moves with subtle cadences and deceptively simple language, singing in his own way, on the borderline between the earthly and the unseen, evoking Ireland’s landscape and past.
In the collection’s first poem, ‘The Mole and the Cosmos’, Curtis writes “I have taken down a piece of the night sky/just for the night” giving a clear sense of the scope of his poetic world, where the mole is described as “a poor country fellow naming wildflowers” with “a voice sunk like the roots of a tree, sturdy reassuring.”
Curtis places himself in an historical context, both political and more personal, exploring a sense of loss and of reconciliation in a present haunted by the past. There are two moving poems about Seamus Heaney and Curtis also examines political issues from a very personal perspective. In ‘Civil war’ he writes of two brothers his grandfather knew and says, “What’s odd is their dead ghosts haunt me.” In the same poem a girl in his class realises that Civil War is an oxymoron.
His language is clear and alive, with irony and wit, he is effective in capturing the rhythms of ordinary speech and giving voice to the otherwise unheard as evident In ‘Talking to the Wallpaper man about a Sculptor’, “No, I’m completely lost. Maybe his art / is beyond me, says Kevin “.
The poems range from the humorous including an appropriately shaped poem, Mallarme style about pregnancy ‘One Hundred Words on the Consequences of Sex’, to those about the arts, including ‘The Old Painters’ Journey’, where “a pair of old boots, not good enough for gardening”’ prove to belong to Lucien Freud with his “…relentless journey/ from his bed to the fierce solitude at his easel”. Sigmund Freud is also the inspiration for another poem about being a poet. Poet Elizabeth Bishop is featured a number of times, with a short sequence of two poems in her memory,
Religious imagery emerges, whether Christian or Eastern, as in ‘Two Poems for Gary Snyder’. “the old poet logger / Buddhist, is eighty five today / he climbs a different mountain now / higher, steeper….. “
This sense of the sacred comes naturally to Curtis and is reflected in poems, revealing a sensitivity to the cycles of birth, aging and death, of journeying and of return, asking in ‘Fair Weather’, “do poets ever reach their destination?”
His sensibility is manifested in rich imagery “poems written on prayer flags/ and chanted by an old Buddhist by a butter lamp” taken from his homage to Seamus Heaney ‘Electric Light and Butter Lamps’.
A concern for those marginalised by society is also clear, as in ‘ From the Central Mental Hospital’ and “ In the Wilderness’ featuring a vagrant in an asylum who appropriately carries a quote of John Clare’s in his hand, which is also the epigraph for the collection “ I have a friend I value here/ and that’s a quiet mind”. Poetry and marginality combine in ‘The Blue Eyed Fish’ where Hannah Barnes, a poet admired by Elizabeth Bishop, according to Curtis, is last seen “heading toward the pier at midnight/ running over the stones as if someone were calling to her.”
There is the recurring theme of music of course, with Schubert appearing in two poems and most tellingly in the Samuel Beckett inspired “The Last Breath” where a woman speaks of her old husband near the end of her own life and of how he “played Schubert up and down my back/ I could feel the notes pulsing through his fingers.”
At times it feels that Curtis is too keen to refer to other poets in his poems, as if seeking to validate his own work. Despite this, he is accomplished in a variety of forms, showing the care and precision found in Michael Eagan’s pipe making: a lucid lyricism is present throughout, the narratives finely balanced between lightness and gravity, with economy and eloquence, sitting alongside self-deprecation.