A Well Constructed House


Comet Over Greens Norton - new and selected poems
, Simon Curtis
(Shoestring)


Simon Curtis describes himself as coming from 'the formalist end of the poetry spectrum' and this is true insofar as he has a deeply ingrained sense of traditional verse forms as encapsulated in English poetry over the centuries. His engagement with modern poetry is chiefly with the Hardy/Auden/Larkin/Betjeman lineage and a liking for light verse is tempered by a strong melancholy streak, a nostalgic yearning for a better past which can be seen as small c conservative - as in the 'Orwell-inspired' 'Spinster and Push Bike' where we get - 'O would it were so and could be believed,/With spinster and push-bike Orwell conceived.' There's certainly an interest in the minutia of domestic suburban life, as in the charming 'Goldfish', which details the 'Darwinian' conflict between home-owner with small pond, and the gull, heron, or was it the neighbour's cat?, which finally decimates the goldfish. Yet there's another side to this celebration of the rural and the urban which could fit neatly into the culture and society tradition within literary studies, as exemplified in Raymond Williams' later and more exploratory yet polemical book The Country and the City. In 'Crunch', for example, we are given an understandably confused yet angry response to the near melt-down of the banking system, which combines satire with a plea for an 'old-fashioned' sense of good husbandry, dear to the green movement and to anybody concerned with the state of the planet and with the effects on individuals of global capitalism:

          Ask laissez-faire free marketers
          Why Alan Greenspan, taking stock,
          Expressed his disbelief and shock?
          I try to fathom how it's turned
          To fuck-up on a whopping scale -
          Deregulation's Holy Grail
          A grand illusion. Verdict: fail.

Who could seriously disagree with that?

Despite having met some of the key innovators of mid to late twentieth century poetry during his time studying at the University of Essex (Ed Dorn, for one) Simon Curtis' poetry has remained resolutely uninfluenced by the 'wild excesses' (or formal devices!) of both modernist and post-modernist movements and tendencies. Which is fair enough and although his approach to poetry is not one that I could embrace in terms of my own writing, I can still find things of interest here, not all of which deal with nostalgia or a desire for things to be other than they are. He has a nifty interest in aspects of popular culture - 'Plymouth Vignette', for example, in praise of Beryl Cook - and the surprising 'Satie at the end of Term', where the music of the innovative modernist composer comes to the aid of a protagonist struggling with an over-burdened literary syllabus. I'm not sure I'd describe Satie as a 'clown' but I can see the point being made clearly enough.

There are other poems which deal with aspects of the modernist tradition which surprise by the boldness of their content - 'Kurt Schwitters in Ambleside', for example, which suggests a sneaking regard for the master of montage and 'found materials': 'Dark skeins, odd blues and eerie whites, sharp fleck/And scumble-whorl - the fire! The restless drive!' There's a similar tone in 'Picasso, Late Drawings, at Geneva', where the 'conservatism', if I'm reading the poem correctly, is turned on its head:

          Where, as the dancer, it shines. And those prim words
          Of jealous, self-righteous, primitive hate
          Scald in the air-conditioning.
                 Who said that we'd progressed, of late.

I was also taken by 'In Dunham Massey Park', mainly I suspect, for its unusual choice of subject and vantage point. Succinct, empathetic and reflective.

          In black leather jacket and pale blue jeans,
                 On her own, unconcerned, in half-sun,
          She was walking the broad grassed deer-park ride -
                 As a man on his own might have done.

          To go for a tramp and be by themselves,
                 Among oaks and head bare to the breeze,
          Unanxious, unharassed, quite unremarked,
                 And equal and really at ease.
                              (from 'In Dunham Massey Park')  

This is effectively, a collected poems, featuring work from Simon Curtis' two previous substantial collections,
Devil Among the Tailors (2011) and Reading a River (2005) plus a short, prefacing section covering more recent work. There's a wide array of subject matter, ranging across sporting activities, bereavement, country matters, city life, travel, the evils of literary theory(!), and of course, cosmic meditation. He has a fine eye for detail and the rhythms are as traditional and sturdy as a well-constructed house.

       Steve Spence 2013