The Fire in Me Now, Michael Curtis, (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2014) 73pp, £8.00, ISBN 9780992648541.
Reviewed by David Clarke [Originally published in LP5, December 2014]
Michael Curtis is a writer with an extensive back catalogue. This, his twelfth collection of poems, is characterised by an assuredness of tone and the kind of careful handling of language which one would expect from such an experienced poet.
The Fire in Me Now contains fine and moving poems which often capture significant moments of subjective experience. At his best, he is capable of developing a metaphor throughout the length of a poem in such a way that it accumulates meaning and emotional force in a truly compelling way. Take, for instance, ‘Butterfly Box’, which describes the treasured possession of a loved one as a metaphor for their ageing and death. Broken into three-line stanzas, the poem is in fact one long, rolling sentence, creating a sense of emotional vertigo as we are pulled towards the inevitable end. I am impressed here by how much Curtis can say by staying close to his subject and observing precisely. ‘Waiting’ has a similar structure, but starts from the mundane setting of a living room where the protagonists sit out an afternoon rain shower:
while the sky opens up again
and all around us always
inside the green, inside the blue
in the light of the light, the dark in the dark
waits with unimaginable patience
to reclaim and reapportion
every part of every one of us.
This ending is both surprising and yet, because it seems to emerge so necessarily out of the setting the poem evokes, strikes the reader with the force of an emotional truth.
The subjects of Curtis’ poems are confronted with experiences of love and desire, nostalgia and melancholy, and he has an eye for the telling detail necessary to allow the reader access to the movement of such emotions (for instance, in poems like ‘Journey’, ‘Siren’ or ‘Sodade’). At times, however, I felt that these subtle qualities were in danger of being drowned out by the more strident poems in the collection, which address contemporary social and political problems.
These often interrogate issues which outrage the poet’s sense of morality: the opening section of the book is called ‘Anger Management’, which perhaps says it all. While sharing many of the values which the poems wish to uphold against selfishness and cruelty, I was not always convinced that Curtis had found an approach to these problems which could open them up to the reader in their full complexity and ambivalence. He discusses cruelty to animals in the name of science, cruelty to humans in that same cause, euthanasia as a kind of disposal of the inconvenient old, the solipsism of class privilege, and even the recklessness of the dangerous driver. Too often, however, I found the poems approaching those guilty of these moral transgressions from the outside, in such a way that I could neither develop empathy with them nor relate their behaviour to my own experience. Now, it might well be argued that such people do not deserve our understanding and that our only possible course of action is to decry them. While that may be the case, I think the urge to condemn should be left to tabloid journalists rather than to poets.
Here is an example of what I mean. In the poem ‘Still Life’, Curtis describes the denizens of a private beach (from whose perspective the poem is written) cordoned off from the mass of holidaymakers. These privileged few just want to “close our eyes and think of nothing”. When they are disturbed by African immigrants selling trinkets on the beach, they are capable of reflecting on the dichotomy between their world and that of the vendors (who have made a dangerous illegal journey across the Mediterranean), but not of doing anything about it.
We jet in from lucky capitals, crowd
carousels, check into polished lobbies
while locals take apartments, self-cater,
assemble families for beach picnics.
The vendor tries us all, us especially,
circles our oblivious bodies
as we listen mutely for his passing
practised at avoiding the smiles
he fixes to his sunny face
less appalled now at our comforts
holding in his futures
his hunger for another life.
The scene is skilfully and economically evoked, but does the reader really feel part of this ‘we’? Is she or he invited to, through that use of that first person plural? On balance, I felt not. There is something about the way in which Curtis literally cordons of his subjects on that private beach that places the reader on the outside looking in. We are invited to see their selfishness, their contempt for the locals and the people who, like us, sit on the public beach (“they have to make do with towels”), and we cannot help but condemn. But really, to what end? One might easily make the argument that we are all to an extent implicated in the global economic injustice which drives illegal immigration. Yes, the richest are the most easily implicated, but it does not seem to me that pointing the finger at them is likely to help, unless in the sense of giving the rest of us someone to blame. The trouble is, once we have been invited to criticise such people, we may well feel like the job is done.
As should be clear from the poem quoted above, the more political or socially conscious poems in the collection are by no means mere rants. They are set up for us with considerable skill, and many readers will no doubt be happy to agree with the sentiments expressed. However, I would have been more satisfied with explorations of these issues which allowed me to see the problems discussed from new perspectives and which would have challenged me to reassess my relationship to them. The one poem of this kind which really did deliver in this respect was the highly original ‘The Helmet Camera Makes Its Excuses’, where the titular gadget explains its role in battle. Apart from the startling point of view, the camera’s criticism of the politicians responsible does not allow for a general absolution of military personnel. There is also a subtly conveyed acknowledgement that violence can be anticipated as exciting and adventurous in some circumstances, even if such anticipation soon gives way to horror:
I’ve a new recruit now, just finished training. Impatient
for action, to prove his bravery.
Cleans me twice a day to make sure I don’t miss
his big moment.
Only wish I could.
The line-breaks are doing a lot of work here, conveying a sense of shifting perspectives which I find intriguing and more provocative than some of the other poems in this vein.
The Fire in Me Now certainly has much to offer readers, and I have no doubt that many will concur with the sentiments which some of the more issues-driven poems in the book express. For me, however, the real strength of Curtis’ poetry lies in its skilful evocation of an emotional experience, not in its attempts to grapple with moral and political themes.