‘Belief is possible at night’: Averill Curdy’s poetry

Poetry by ancient light. (Credit: www.davidtribble.com)
Poetry by ancient light. (Credit: http://david.tribble.com)

It was such a nice experience this week dipping into Averill Curdy’s “Song and Error,” published a couple months ago by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and finding Ovid there. It’s a pleasure to pick up a book by a contemporary poet like Curdy (or Carol Ann Duffy, whose favorite seems to be Virgil) and find someone who doesn’t hesitate to invoke the Latin greats.

It’s encouraging too. Here’s a writer who believes that those laureled heads still have much to give to our present.

In “Ovid in America,” we listen to 17th-century translator George Sandys as he meditates on life in the new world (Sandys was an early settler of Jamestown) and shares the great poet’s sense of exile in a strange, unfamiliar place:

Without coppice, park, romancely glade,
Or commanding vantage,
Woods press on us; they fester….
I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds.
Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting
& my hours unsettled by some new show
Of riotous & mystical imagination…

Long before strip malls and highways, America existed in a mythic state, wild and  “a-broil with an awful begetting.” Magnificent.

Words are so powerful, but how often do we think about that in the course of our days? We don’t. We write memos and send texts, using language like a shovel or a fork. Which is why poetry matters, and why a poet like Curdy, a teacher at Northwestern University, is to be appreciated in this book, her debut collection.

Here, a little later in the same poem, is an act of creation, as Sandys hovers over  his translation:

From my hands at night (my light
Some oil in a dish or a rush taper smoking,
Not so different from Ovid’s), flower
His fantastic shapes, shadows
Of an old empire’s former splendor…
Belief is possible at night, solitary, firelit.
Then, I can believe in Ovid’s centaurs,
Or that he was met at death by a three-headed dog….

The shadow of Robert Lowell falls here, Amy Clampitt’s, too. Sometimes her language is much more complex, more elusive–and if it feels too elusive at times, well, that’s okay too. The beauty of the language more than compensates, as in “Anatomical Angel” :

Unfastened avidly from each ivory button
Of her spine, the voluntary muscles open
Viruousities of red: cinnabar

The mutagen, and carmine from cochineal
Born between fog and frost….

I think I get it, but even if I don’t, does it matter? The words stay with me an hour later, an hour after that, at the end of the day, at the end of the week.

Can I say the same thing about a text or a TV show?

Not really.

That’s why it’s poetry. That’s why it matters.

3 thoughts on “‘Belief is possible at night’: Averill Curdy’s poetry

  1. The best words are like a plucked string, vibrating and resonating into silence, filling the world with overtones of meaning as they do.

    There’s no tweet or text in the world that allows that, not a facebook posting. Useful as those services may be as tools – the fork or shovel necessary to send links to more substantive work out into the world – they are by nature incapable of poetry.

    It’s very interesting. I have friends who favor haiku – a form that fits nicely into the 140 character limitations of Twitter. All of them contend that somehow, in some inexplicable way, even their best work is affected by that medium. It may be the essential impermanence of social media. Nothing there is meant to last for an hour, let alone to the end of the day.

  2. “Plucked string” — what a lovely way of putting it. You’re so right about the impermanence of words in the electronic sphere. I’m sure there’s a heavy dose of irony to the fact that we’re discussing this using blogs! But I think there has to be a way to make things more meaningful in this medium — and I’ve read plenty of other people on WP who do, too — and it’s a pleasure for me to share the work of someone like Curdy with you!

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