Dad remembers walking to the Chicken Man’s
with his Romanian grandmother. Chickens
in chicken wire cages, a butcher block
taller than him in the middle of the shop….
…Back home she gutted,
separated thighs and legs, butterflied breasts
while he played. Came out of the kitchen,
a slimy narrow tube in her hand. She stretched
the opening, held it to her lips, blew between
the flaps. A larynx, like a kazoo. Here, Eddie.
This unsettling playfulness, an ability to find beauty or at least pleasure in what might appall, is Skurtu’s trademark. This is not a woman who flinches from chicken guts, and the clipped precision of that last line transports the poem and the reader into a place of wonder borne out of the hard realities of a life where “Black rubber fingers / of the chicken plucker machine smacked // the body smooth.”
for after Mass and fed it to the ducks
to make them holy, I believed it just might.
I didn’t believe Sister John the Baptist
when she told us Buddhists go to Hell,
(but thought maybe I would, since I received
Easter candy right before eating the Eucharist)….
Here is a child’s logic I remember and believe in. Skurtu possesses an uncanny ability to alight upon just the right detail.
if this is a maximum security facility.
She tells me they’ve got her in here with murderers
like The Gardener—worked at a daycare,
killed a few kids there, buried them
alive. They gave her yard duty until
she began to name the trees she planted:
Josie, Maggie, Stephanie. Slicing deep….
Skurtu, like the great-grandmother who made a kazoo out of a dead chicken’s larynx, does not avoid the gruesome. And in this way, the unthinkable becomes possible, tenable, and the murderer known only as The Gardener not such an alien being. Not that Skurtu is in it for the sensation. This same poem ends with immense tenderness, and it is tenderness that abides in all of her work, demonstrating her ability to go from one tonal extreme to the other in the space of very few lines:
in our Florida backyard, wide-eyed and silent.
She fills buckets with garden snakes,
catches strawberry-necked lizards
poised with the want of a mate.
With one hand she holds a wriggling lizard,
with the other she hinges its jaws open
then closed onto the lobe of her ear.
A less adept poet might conclude with the sister hurting the lizard, or doing something disturbing, but not Skurtu. The imaginative mileage she gains with this closing gesture speaks as aptly to Skurtu’s art as it does to the memory of her sister. This sister might be any one of us who, at least for a time, lost direction and could not find a way to live in and love the world.
The title poem takes its name from a childhood game that has no rules, a game girls play in the dark at summer camp, twisting or gliding their bodies into unfamiliar shapes and patterns:
only that they weren’t human or animal,
and moved like a thousand blind legs
treading through molasses….
The amoeba game emerges as a precise metaphor for the journey into adulthood as well as the navigation of immigration. In a particularly right way, this game speaks directly to the art of Tara Skurtu’s strange, mysterious poems with their acrobat’s agility and gritty, immigrant-daughter’s tenderness.