Neil Curry, Some Letters Never Sent, (Enitharmon, 2014), 79pp, £9.99. ISBN 9781907587764
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]
There are various conceits that can be employed when writing a poem. These are usually listed under ‘Helpful Tips’ or ‘Get Inspired’ or ‘Writing Hacks’ in certain magazines and websites; they might include going into an art gallery and writing a poem based on a response to a painting (this is now referred to as an act of ekphrasis), or giving you an initial sentence such as “She didn’t meant to take the bag”. These can be helpful, although it might depend on how interested you are in a painting, or in someone who didn’t mean to take a bag, in the first place. In this collection Neil Curry consistently explores one avenue of poetry creation that might well have cropped up in a few of these columns: writing a letter. It’s an interesting theme for a poetry collection, not least because it’s an endlessly fruitful one. Pick any person, alive or dead, famous or unknown, newborn or petrified in the amber of distant history, and write a letter to them. The simplicity of the idea is its strength, that and the fact that it allows for endless diversity in the poems themselves, while gathering them all warmly into the same postbag bundle. It might also be seen, obliquely, as a slimmed-down contemporary homage to that once-popular literary genre, the epistolary novel.
Each letter-poem begins with its addressee and a specific address, so we have: ‘To: Ms Angela Carter, The Berkeley Café, Bristol’; ‘To: Job in the Land of Uz’; ‘To: Meneer Jan Vermeer, Oude Langendyk, Delft’, and so on. The intimacy inherent in the act of letter writing, even to a stranger, (and something I’m depressingly aware of losing as more and more of my missives involve a host of ‘CCs’) allows Curry’s tone to remain personal without tipping into self-indulgence. There’s no particular urgency to these letters, so that a leisurely, but still acute, curiosity emerges in each one, Curry muses, for example, to the Venerable Bede, on how:
When the Third Rider – plague – trampled down Jarrow.
Frightening for a child it must have been: those bulbos
Big as apples, the retching […]
The versatility of the letter form allows it, in these pages, to be almost anything: nostalgic recollection, potted obituary, overdue paean, eulogy, castigation, Q and (imagined) A. What, for example, was Herra Ketill Ketillson thinking,
[…] that sunny
morning in the June of 1844,
when you stamped on the egg
of the last great auk
and watched the yolk
go splattering over the toe of your boot?
For every letter to a well-known character – Odysseus, Emily Dickinson, Henry James (unsurprising subjects for a litterateur) – there are several addressed to more diminutive figures, an intelligent way for the author to portray part of himself without making it explicit, nodding not just to large-looming figures of inspiration (or otherwise), but also to the unknown who quietly contribute to the shaping of a life. The enigmatic address, ‘To: N.C.’, brings memories of ‘your diary…Nineteen you must have been when you bought it’. The poem’s elegiac tercets (‘the tins/ Of cigarettes – Markovitch Black and White – / You smoked then’) are bookended by the act of finding, and the guilt of abandonment. A poem which straddles the posts of famous figure and personal acquaintance is the aforementioned ‘To: Ms Angela Carter’, which remembers Curry and Carter as ‘mature students’ together:
[…] At times you could be
so cutting. Do you recall that pale,
Flat-chested girl wo read Old Norse and wore
Those long silver necklaces? You called her
The Muse in Chains. And you got no better.
Fond and funny, I found this, perhaps because of the eagerness to remember, one of the more moving poems in the collection.
Curry has some fun with language, including ‘To: Mr Henry James’, an 18-line, one sentence prose-poem imitating that author’s incorrigible style, and a quasi-ode ‘To: The God, Mercury’ addressing, in flowing Bardic pomp (tongue firmly in cheek) that
Bright Lord of Eloquence, grandchild
of our round world’s upholder […]
To Jupiter, figurehead of Interflora
And bringer of packages from Amazon.
For the most part, however, these are unshowy, unpretentious poems, as you’d expect from a writer who comments to Euripides, ‘I couldn’t stand/ The way that you, and others, had been Classic-ised’, who wishes he could tell his esteemed English professor that ‘There was once an article on Incontinence/ Co-authored by Messrs. Weedon and Splatt.’ This down-to-earth approach not only makes the poems likeable, but heightens their effects elsewhere; coming across ‘I wonder, Cuchemar/ My love, if you can remember’ in ‘To: Mlle. Lucienne Bertin’, that spare ‘My love’, retained all the tenderness it was meant to possess. The crackle of anger is restrained to similar effect. In ‘To Mr William Tyndale’, the poet reimagines Tyndale’s hounding by the Church, and his death at the stake for wanting the Word to be known by all, including ‘The husbandman, who driveth his plough, […]/ the weaver’. Only at the very end does the hangman ‘garrote you, before he lit/ The fire’. The poem ends tautly:
[…] Oh yes, blessed are the merciful
For they shall…How did you put it? I forget.
This collection is a good example of how poems can be the whole world writ small.