Mists and Flames


Unexpected Weather,
Abi Curtis (80pp, 12.99, Salt)


The title of Abi Curtis' first collection prepares the reading fittingly for the content: poems which are frequently surprising in subject-matter and technique. The opening poem, 'Lady Jane Grey', for instance, is about a painting in the National Gallery, seen by both speaker and lover, and rendered vividly and imaginatively through this dual perspective, and through shifts in time from past to a present viewing:'here the bright straw confronts us, spilling / from the canvas, spread like blonde tresses..' The imagery is violent, heightened, painterly and the ending does its own characteristic shift, something unexpected which is a device in many of these poems, to reflect upon the relationship , 'Once I didn't know you.'and the painting becomes not something doubly looked at but 'a portal' a symbol of transition.

The heading of the first section of the collection , 'Fata Morgana' alerts us to the idea of mirage: shape-shifting. This is entirely fitting for 'Loom' which in itself acts as a kind of portal for other poems which re-work this concern. It's meanings are several and this fact is enacted in the land / sea / skyscapes of the poem and inhabits its imagery, 'comes slowly through a weave of indigos / and greys, the warp and weft / of the dawn weather'. The rhyme and rhythmic patterning serve exactly such an enactment. The poem is speculative. We are aware of the someone who speculates about the meaning of the word as, indeed, a boat, looms through 'a web of mist', and in conclusion, in an almost metaphysical fashion moves from the exterior world and its several conceits to an interior one: remembered indistinctness  of lovers' bodies 'the overlaying drift and push of us'.

The poem 'Fata Morgana' embodies in its in form the properties of the phenomenon and its mode is dramatic monologue in thirty lines: 'From the summit of Elias they saw my dark, elongated towers, / squares of amber light, a hint of railway, church spires,  / hanging in reverse...' It connects with 'Loom', 'I have the power to change shapes / of sliding boats..' and is a skilful mirror-poem with its 'hinge' or, indeed, horizon where the poem flips over on itself, at lines fifteen / sixteen, '...above which a promise of water, / Water above which shimmers a promise...' The lines of the first section are mirrored but not merely repeated and the  voice never wavers; stays persuasive, compelling.

The monologue is frequently which Curtis' vehicle for entering different worlds and, indeed, dimensions, ' We change locations, meshing like ghost-skin then melting again' ('Soliloquy of a Molecule') .The circus becomes an arena of sexuality, 'my girl's body dazzles / with machinery of heft and bone.' ('Bareback Rider') and in 'Lion-Tamer', the passion of man for beast recalls Angela Carter's dark sexual tales: 'At night I rest my head and hands / in his dangerous halo, / breathing the musk of blood and dung'.

'Death by Lightening' is a narrative and is almost prose. It's verb tense-shifts halt the reader and offer a maze of perspectives. The speaker wanders the streets of a foreign village, a partner staying behind, ' I left you in the house, your eyes on me..' There is suggestion of tension or upset. The rain disrupts, dislocates: 'thin fish lost their bearings...sky a marbling of dark and unfamiliar faces'. The speaker shelters under a graveyard yew, (I'm reminded of Stanley Spencer's painting'The Resurrection', a scene which is both  parochial and strange) another woman beside her, ' She was not beautiful',and the poem undergoes another time-shift, 'Later, I learned she felt the shock in her foot:', a presumed death,  and then the present, 'I'm still here, now in the living room / where we question each other'.

We have no real sense of how far back in time the various events have occured and it doesn't really matter; the poem is deliberately kaleidoscopic, dream-like. There are continuities, however, another scarring: 'Every day you run your hands over /  the root-system printed red on my chest'. I think that could have been the final line. We didn't need to know about the detected 'storm' in the eye of the partner as that notion is ever present from the beginning. This poem demonstrates the risks Curtis takes with form, language and perspective yet any workshop suggestions of excision seem irrelevant.

'Hong Kong' is a perfect prose poem: a love poem where sound and sense collide satisfyingly, 'Junks dunked in the brown water, lit up from above by dragons of neon'. Particularly successful and compelling are 'George Gabriel Stokes' and 'Tyndall's Flame': the former's imagery and precise description of place, 'Clouds ... / possessed by a wind that tunnels as blood / through the dark artery of headland', being embodiment of the preoccupations of the natural philosopher and scientist, and the latter delineating the curious physical emotional and physical impact of the experiment upon an onlooker,  'I don't feel well or right. / A flame is a picture. An orange-rind. / A flame is a quick thought of red'.  The title 'Ignis Fatuus' heading up the second section of the book is pointer to another phenomenon that won't be fixed.

Some poems recall Alice Oswald's territory: 'Mole', 'The Allotment', 'The Ghost of The Nature Reserve','...my hair, streaked in silver  /  every evening by star-shine and snails', and 'Mycelium', consciously or unconsciously, nods towards Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', ''Now our lights Braille across soft-bodied forms / not readily given to the process of fossilisation.' Curtis' mushrooms do not speak any universal message as Mahon's do but their names and physical qualities, 'Bell Cap bleeds... a crop of Dead Man's Fingers - the insubstantial roof / above our bed', remind us of sex and death, once more a strain of the metaphysical that pervades Curtis work.

This is striking, original poetry

     Pam Thompson 2009