Lives lived slightly out of tune

Book Review by Elizabeth McKenziemc_9781910345412

Tony Curtis: Approximately in the Key of C; Arc Publications 2015 UK;
RRP: £8.09/£10.79

ISBN: 978 1910435 41 2(pbk); 978 1910435 42 9 (hbk);
978 1910435 43 6 (ebk)




For most of us, poetry would be the last thing on our minds if our computer crashed. Losing any data, never mind the draft of a new book, might not evoke a poetic response.

Yet it is just such a response that inspires ‘Unusually Dusty’, a poem by Tony Curtis in his latest published book of poetry Approximately in the Key of C. The poet employs a very clever play on words, – (a recurring device – for example in ‘Tunes carried on the Night Air’) -using the normal connotations of language associated with images of both a car ‘crash’ :

I hadn’t even indicated,
hadn’t even put it into reverse

 and of a house fire:

It was as if the house burned down

but no fire brigade arrived,
no ambulance

 in his description of the catastrophe.

But his wife does arrive. We can hear her agonised cry of pain in the italicised

Don’t say you’ve lost everything.
You can’t have lost the new manuscript.

 as she contemplates the consequences of the demise of the computer.

All is not lost however. The images of disaster segue into a completely different scenario: ‘the dusty scribe who lives inside of me’

That flustering old pedant
Who likes the sound of dust settling

 has written it all down

word by word,
with pen and ink.

 We can almost hear the scratch of the quill on parchment.

Acoustic, you might say
before it all went electric.

The origin of the title of this publication – Approximately in the Key of C – is itself the source of another poem, ‘A Blessing On Things Made Well’. In the conversational, almost intimate tone of the language of the poems, the poet tells us how,

Michael Egan made a set of uilleann pipes
In 1850

with admirable care and precision

as tuned to this life as possible.

 Nevertheless the poet is drawn to the craftsman’s admission, displayed

under a sign that says
‘Approximately in the key of C’.

that even the master craftman’s expertise cannot achieve perfect pitch.

He admits to loving ‘the beauty of those words’ and extrapolating from them a whole philosophy of life.

For isn’t everything, if looked at closely,
a little off key: lovers and dancers
only a step out, a step away ….

It is this sense of lives lived slightly out of tune that informs the subject matter of most of the poems. In fact, dysfunction is a recurring theme, although its impact is softened by the poets acceptance of it as an everyday occurrence. We are beguiled into a kind of complacency by the voice of the poet – conversational, almost chatty, reassuring, in particular, witty – there are several LOL moments! We are drawn, almost imperceptibly, into the narratives of the poems, the stories which at first reading seem ordinary, almost innocuous.

But the  content of the poetry challenges this too-easily-arrived-at perception. There are themes of both physical and particularly, mental suffering – discordancy, loneliness, approaching death, loss, – in the subject matter of each poem.

In ‘Civil War’, fractures caused by the Civil War of 1922/23 encapsulated in the story of two brothers, Willie and Jack who fought on opposing sides of the conflict, provide a prelude to a realisation of wider dysfunctions in our society. (My own father, John and his brother Willie did in fact fight on opposite sides of the Civil War!) The story haunts the poet and he uses the term ‘civil war’ in a poetry class

What’s odd is their dead ghosts haunt me.
Yesterday during a creative writing class,
a boy asked me ‘What’s an oxymoron, sir?’

 I said ‘It’s where two contradictory words
appear side by side: act naturally, old news, ill health.
My own favourites are: customer care, safe bet, routine surgery.

 This leads his students to contribute their own examples – bad sex, Civil War, – and

‘Happy Families’ the small girl beside her
uttered almost to herself,
but everyone heard and everyone understood.

The poet is sometimes seems to remove himself from the experiences of the folk who people his poems. He observes and records impartially, leaving the reader to plumb the implications of the scenario he presents to us. But every now and then, he reveals his own his own grim battles, with encroaching age, creative barrenness, inclement weather, even hints of a declining relationship:

I’m not sure if we like each
other anymore, but the old love,
like the silver in hour hair, 
will never fade.

 Several poems record the experience the poets regular visits to mental institutions. ‘In the Wilderness’ is a sustained metaphor of an inmate of one such place.

I met Moses in the asylum
In a yellow room that smelt of sorrow.

 He has exchanged his flowing robes and wooden staff for jeans,

And a T-shirt that said

Follow me on Twitter’

But it is the timbre of his voice that firmly establishes the connection between the Prophet and the inmate,

But it is his voice
I will remember:

 It was ten thousand miles
of dusty roads,

 It was a parched riverbed,
a dried out well;

images that are hauntingly reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet.

There are positive, almost joyous moments too. A sense, in the poem, that it is possible to achieve harmony with nature and with one’s fellow human beings. This is demonstrated in the scenario of a more upbeat experience of a mental asylum in ‘The Cure’.

In the hospital’s sterile corridors
and leafless bare wards
these gentle folk found it hard
to heal

But this situation is reversed when

Some caring soul noticed their loss

 and filled the wards and halls with herbs and wild flowers,

until the wards were a blaze of colour,
the air scented with sweet honey

 and a healing process began.

But it would seem that there was no such respite ‘For The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’. The relentless rhythm of questions

And what’s it like in there? Is it all stillness?
Are there chairs lined up against the wall?
Is there a clock ticking? Is it damp and dusty?

indicating that, when it comes to the isolation of mental illness, there are no easy answers.

Woven unobtrusively through the poems are references to other poets and artists and landscapes that have influenced the poet to a greater or lesser extent. They are for the most part celebrities in their own right, – George Snyder, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Paula Meehan, Michael Hartnett, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva – but are best known for their quirky and offbeat poetry. But the poet also admires this quirkiness in other master craftsmen – Lucien Freud and Philip McCracken are singled out as admirable and influential. His enthusiasm for McCracken is palpable:

he is like a forest

He gathers.
He gives shelter.
He nourishes and shades.

Tony Curtis is a master craftsman himself conjuring striking images out of the ordinariness of words. The poems in ‘Approximately’ are not just accessible, but absorbing for the non-poetry reader, their narratives easy to follow, the threads of sadness and even mourning off set by a pervasive humour. In the short poem ‘Easter Monday 1917’, he links the Resurrection of Christ and the death of a young soldier, Philip Edward Thomas.

They must have just missed
each other in the lane, shadows, though the mud of Arras
and the mud of Calvary must have been on their boots

 or again, the poets quirky sense of humour is evident in ‘Bless’,

When Emily Dickinson was my age, she was dead –
she had been dead four years.

 Yet very often the subject matter is challenging, upturning our preconceived notions about mental asylums, mental illness, the 9/11 holocaust used as an image for a tsunami of grief;

I knew from her voice it was bad news:
I could hear the glass shattering
around her; feel the dust rising;
the bricks fall;

References to once passionate, sexual relationships are oblique, in one instance a paean of praise to pregnancy is couched in the outline of a pregnant woman, in another an afternoon of passion is recalled but,

We lay for hours in a stillness
so complete we never found it again,
and that was our loss

There are hints of darkness in the poet’s own psyche. In ‘The Blackbird’s Lullaby’, he reveals:

I could blame
my poor physical

my tiring heart,

 my tattered soul,
fretful in the dark

for his growing awareness of his creative impulse flowing more sluggishly, the increasing difficulties of pursuing his chosen ‘trade’,

In truth, I think it’s
this troublesome trade

obsessively adding
word to word

 There is a sense of the increasing obduracy of words as he perseveres in sculpting them into poems. He

finds words frayed things
unequal to their task

 But the sometimes startling imagery, the accessibility of the narratives, the tone of familiarity imbedded in the poet’s use of language, inveigle us into his world. And it is only then that we realise that, in his world, everything is in fact slightly off-key. It is not just the poems which

are bent, buckled
everyone of them ‘Approximately in the key of C’. 

This is a beautifully produced little volume – excellent quality paper and lots of white space set off the layout of the poems. The poems themselves are lightly presented. The poet favours two or four line stanzas although there are several poems, which use a denser format. However this is in no way to imply that the content of the poems is slight. In fact quite the opposite is true. They are multi-layered and thought-provoking, the more one dips into them the more there is to consider and ponder and be challenged.

The cover is taken from Aran Currach, a book of art photographs with the text of Haiku and Tanka written by Tony Curtis and also published by Real Ireland Design in 2013

Elizabeth McKenzie
Elizabeth is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team