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Guest Review: Higgins On Curtis and Williams

Kevin Higgins reviews
Unexpected Weather
The Corner Of Arundel Lane And Charles Street

I read these two debut poetry collections by Abi Curtis and Tony Williams in the immediate aftermath of a three month spell during which I was, on average, teaching eight poetry workshops or creative writing classes per week as well as organising a busy programme of literary events here in Galway, Ireland. The busyness of Autumn and early Winter has been complimented by the spectacle of Ireland teetering on the point of bankruptcy and the worst November chroniclers of miserable Irish weather can remember. It can be a dangerous thing for a poetry collection to fall into the hands of such a reviewer who might be tempted to go in search of things to attack, especially when poet and reviewer are stationed in different countries making it unlikely that he’ll bump into said poet in Tescos next Friday and have to deal with the awkwardness attack reviews tend to result in. Reviewers often take out unrelated frustrations on books that fall into their hands. We have all seen it done. On this occasion it would have been easy for me to throw a bit of blame at Tony Williams and Abi Curtis for Ireland’s icy footpaths and IMF slasher budget which was announced yesterday.

The moment I began reading their poetry though, any such dark thoughts were undone. Since I began writing poetry fifteen years ago, I have been a big fan of contemporary British poetry. Though it is probably treasonous to say so, I generally prefer the British to the Irish: the poets that is. Glyn Maxwell, Sean O’Brien, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McMillan, Clare Pollard, Roddy Lumsden, Peter Reading, Sophie Hannah and co. British poetry tends to have a wit and hardness which, Denis O’Driscoll excepted, contemporary Irish poetry often lacks. Although I do perhaps exaggerate; what I really mean is that in my formative years as a poet it was to the Brits rather than to the home team that I tended to look. And reading Williams’s The Corner Of Arundel Lane And Charles Street and Curtis’s Unexpected Weather brought all of that back.

Yes, in each collection there are poems which don’t seem, at first reading, to earn their keep in the way that others do. But of what poetry collection is this not true? Reading these books which could, in the circumstances, have been an absolute chore turned out to be the sort of pleasure that reminds you why you bothered with poetry in the first place.            

Some of Tony Williams’s remind me of the low budget seventies TV detective series Mannix in that they have very few people in them. In poems such as ‘Sand’ and ‘Gravel’ he breaks the world of things as they are down into its component parts and zooms in close. The sand of which Williams’s poem speaks is inanimate object become character with no sentimental/sensationalist sacrificing of truth.  Sand is “grinning spitefully / as it joins the wind to clean lost livestock’s skulls / and irritate the watery eyes of workers for western NGOs.” Later in the same poem is the memorable stanza:

It bears as anti-effort the print of athletes’ straining lunges,
the end of parabolas and the limit of records. It smoothes by abrasion.
Castles and condoms, bladderwracks and crabs
have learned to speak with sand, but can convince it of nothing.

The poet Williams’s work most resembles for me is Glyn Maxwell; the long lines, the precision of both the image and idea. Although Williams is more Armitage than Maxwell in the sense that he is very much a Northern poet, hailing from Matlock in Derbyshire. And there is a whiff of Northern grime in ‘Poem for Tuesday’:

with your full-tilt weekday clatter, 
tendency to flash by regardless of deadlines,
and promise of dog-training classes in the evening.
Tuesday, the bank-holiday fall-back of all events
habitually scheduled for Mondays, except
the emptying of the bins, which seems to drag on
randomly across the whole of the following fortnight.

This poem has a powerful, build up effect; it comes at you line after line, and will reward the reader best if read in full. The ‘Reproductive Behaviour of the Dark’, ‘Metcalf’s Development’, ‘Notice of Death’, ‘A Missing Person’ and the title poem are also poems of the first rank. Williams is something of a formalist in that he knows what to do with stanza and rhyme and, most important of all in my view, his poems have a strong rhythmic kick to them. But he does experiment with the two page prose poem ‘The Old Harlequin’, and makes form work for him rather than allow himself to become its slave. Tony Williams is a very British poet whose work has a wit which renders allowable his poems’ more than occasional grimness and melancholy.

Abi Curtis shares some things in common with Williams as a poet. Her work is intimately engaged with the world of things we can touch, or that might touch us if we’re not careful. ‘Death by Lightning’ is heavy with atmosphere. The lightning seems real but in the process of the poem is transformed into metaphor:

You know, if you watch anything through flashes
of lightning, it appears suspended
as if life were frame after frame and never moving.

‘Mandibles’ is a series of fourteen loosely rhyming couplets in which words such as “box” and “quad”, and “dentures” and “sectioned” are ‘rhymed’ to strong effect. Whereas too many American poets tend to be make either exclusive or no use of form, giving rise to what seems to me to be a rather knee jerk polarity, poets in the UK tend to be better at making form work for them, when the occasion arises, in a way that is typically British in its pragmatism. Like Tony Williams, Curtis experiments with the prose poem; from its first line ‘Plastic’ is a gorgeous piece of work:

She is impressionable: cellulose and camphor, and I will have her…

The opening poem ‘Lady Jane Grey’ is inspired by visits she made as a child to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, home to that very striking painting of the teenage Lady Jane Grey blindfolded and about to kneel in wait of the executioner’s axe, which also in the painting. I have always thought that this painting is the most striking illustration of political skulduggery come a cropper. The pawn Grey being the one who ends up groping her way to her place of execution where the axe is of the actual rather than the metaphorical sort that Premier League managers nowadays face after too many defeats in succession. They were brutal times. Even for aristocrats. Curtis’s imagination is large enough to allow History in as well as the stuff of her own life. This is an important quality for a young poet to have and greatly increases the breadth and depth of subject matter she might tackle in the future.

Perhaps the best poem in the whole collection is the aptly titled and supremely erotic ‘Tantric’. From the first three lines onward, it is its own small masterpiece:

We moved across long sands
and light-heavy lakes in the direction
of an outrage.

It is a poem, which had it yet been born, would surely have been included in Neil Astley’s Pleased To See Me: 69 Very Sexy Poems.  Curtis’s feminine but very assertive and Southern voice (she lives in Brighton) contrasts with the dank Northern wit of Tony Williams’s work. And yet, for me, they are the two pretty exact halves of what I so enjoy about contemporary British poetry.

Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway, Ireland.  He facilitates poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre; teaches creative writing at Galway Technical Institute and on the Brothers of Charity Away With Words programme. He is also Writer-in-Residence at Merlin Park Hospital and the poetry critic of the Galway Advertiser. His work appears in the anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010). Frightening New Furniture is his third collection of poems, from Salmon Poetry.
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