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Review: ' The Book of Winter Cures'

Black Hills Poetry Press

Published exclusively to coincide with his recent tour of Australia, (funded by the Irish Arts Council), Tony Curtis’s The Book of Winter Cures is a soft gem of mood and cadence. This new and selected is taken from Curtis’s four previous collections, not readily available to Australian readers. This is therefore a rare opportunity to sample one of Ireland’s most popular poets.

Throughout the dominant themes and concerns of these poems, with their evocative sense of Ireland’s landscapes, is a recurrent mood of hope and optimism. Curtis frequently places himself in history, not only in a broader political context, but with a more personal ambivalence towards Ireland itself. There are poems exploring a sense of abandonment and reconciliation with a past that will not be buried. Like compatriots Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson, Curtis examines political issues through the window of the personal. Take the haiku:

Over the dark Foyle
the bark of Kalashnikovs,
an old Derry air. (p. 43)

Many poems draw the link between history and the present, where the spectres of the past are still active.

And I can feel a ghost growing inside me. (p. 51)

There is a very Irish sensibility at work here. The language comes alive under the lilt of accent as much as Beckett’s does, whom Curtis admires. There is an astute ear for the rhythms of speech. Interestingly Curtis has adapted Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for the stage. Within the wit and irony there is also a Catholic sense of perception and gratitude, particularly towards landscape and human relationships.

The West of Ireland is an empty church
built of curdled blood and brittle bone
of sheep’s placenta, flies, hedge, scutch. (p. 20)

Religious imagery emerges from a landscape that can be no other, as something integral rather than imposed or contrived.

From where I stand on this lonely bog
they call the feather bed, to the
curve in the road, between the grotto
and the graveyard at quiet Glencree
the sky is gone. (p. 26)

Even when this spiritual concern evolves to an interest in Eastern or esoteric mysticism, as in the poems taken from Three Songs of Home, this realization comes naturally. More broadly this interest is reflected in poems which reveal a cyclic sense of journey and return; of pilgrimage; of birth and death;

for it is late autumn
and this child is dreaming
the brown into her eyes. (p. 63)

Even within this religious impulse and its occasional abstraction the graceful language of Curtis’s expression is grounded in concrete imagery. The reader is aware of an introspective mood of calmness; a mix of the earthy and devotional.

Surely love and death
are the two great shrines
to the bewildered. (p. 73)

I do not, however, want to give a false impression of this book. Curtis’s interests are varied. There are plenty of humorous poems; others dealing with painting; or with the curse of the muse; others which are concise domestic scenes laced with irony. Throughout them all there is a strong sense of narrative lyricism; also a fine balance between levity and seriousness; resignation and hope.

So I say -
Let everything that falls, fall
beginning with tired love
and ending in the old way. (p. 70)

This, from one of the ‘new’ poems - What Darkness Covers, (‘Quite a lot,’ Curtis quips, quoting an ill friend). There is a great economy of language and stylistic eloquence within the scope of his narrative; also a lovely evocation of character. The poem ‘Preferences’ demonstrates a witty love for Irish foibles as well as a patriotic justification for Irish drinking.

I am fond of bicycles
There is great peace
In the shape of a wheel.....//
And yet there are days
I drink for Ireland. (p. 29)

This, and other poems reveal a frequent sense of self mockery and humour. The wonderfully satirical ‘The Olympians’ recalls something between Adrian Mitchell's mock epics and a Monthy Python sketch. All the poets of history (or most of them), are lined up ‘like something out of Brueghl’ for poetry’s last marathon:Shelley/.....Wordsworth/.....Coleridge/ and.....Byron / all testing positive for opiates. (p. 85)

This poem moves easily through the logic of its own conventions, presenting a series of succinct metaphors for the frustrations and joys of the creative process. There is a deceptive simplicity in his imagery which gives the reader a rewarding sense of recognition and discovery.

The range of Curtis’s interests is reflected in the accomplished variety of formal structures that allow language both the freedom and precision to move within the confines of their form. One of the most ambitious poems ‘Small Interior’, is a series of ten prose poems in the form of postcards that cover most of the predominant themes. There is deference to other poets and artists, as well as a spiritual awareness grounded in the corporeal. Curtis makes his gentle observations with an assurance that the light of art will reveal fresh insights, as with this example of a painter’s model:

I look like a woman//
Taking a bath without water.
A saint burning without flames.
A bird opening its wings. (p. 82)

Tony Curtis has visited Australia before and this selection contains several poems detailing Australian experiences through the eyes of the outsider. They also reveal a familiarity with Australian poetry. His language is gentle and accessible; humorous and always engaging in the way it appeals to the senses and the emotions. Much to be learned from what, given its Australian rarity, could well be a collector’s item. Well worth a look.

About Mark O'Flynn

Mark O'Flynn

Born in Melbourne Mark O’Flynn now lives in the Blue Mountains. After studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, and working for a number of years in the theatre where several plays were produced, Mark turned to fiction and also poetry. A first collection of poems The Too Bright Sun was published in 1996. He has also published a novella Captain Cook (Pascoe, 1987), and the play Paterson’s Curse (Currency Press, 1988). A second book of poems The Good Oil was published in 2000. A second novel Grassdogs was published in 2006 after winning the Harper Collins/Varuna manuscript prize. What Can Be Proven, a third collection of poems was published in 2007. A selection of these poems, Falling Awake, was published by Picaro Press in 2010. Other books are False Start, A Memoir of things Best Forgotten, and The Forgotten World, a historical novel set in the Blue Mountains in the late 1800’s and launched at the Sydney Writers' Festival, 2013.

His short stories, articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in a wide range of journals and magazines both here and overseas including Australian Book Review, The Bulletin, The Good Weekend, Heat, Westerly, Meanjin, Southerly, Island, Overland, New Australian Stories, Picador New Writing, and many others.

Further examples of his work:

Waiting for a phone call
On Darling Point

Jennifer Harrison's Folly and Grief (Black Pepper, 2006)