Having admired Averill Curdy’s work since I first read “Sparrow Trapped in the Airport” in the November 2005 issue of Poetry, I snapped up Song & Error soon after its March 2013 release and relived the discovery of that poem, which opens the collection:
Never the bark and abalone mask
Cracked by storms of a mastering god,
Never the gods’ favored glamour, never
The pelagic messenger bearing orchards
In its beak, never allegory, not wisdom
Or valor or cunning, much less hunger
Demanding vigilance, industry, invention,
Or the instinct to claim some small rise
Above the plain and from there to assert
The song of another day ending;
Lentil-brown, uncounted, overlooked
In the clamorous public of the flock
So unlikely to be noticed here by arrivals,
Faces shining with oils of their many miles,
Where it hops and scratches below
The baggage carousel and lights too high,
Too bright for any real illumination,
Looking more like a fumbled punch line
Than a stowaway whose carriage
Recalls how lightly we once traveled.
This single sentence in twenty lines enacts the hallmarks of Curdy’s verse: a startling freshness; a dexterous if at times difficult syntax; an intense reveling in texture; gorgeous musicality; and affinities to the metaphysical poets, in particular Donne, along with later, idiosyncratic poets such as Hopkins and Dickinson. There is, in addition, an overt debt to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Song & Error is always and everywhere preoccupied with creation and especially with transformation, as in the long poem “Ovid in America.” Structured in three parts, it is one of the collection’s many personae poems, and follows George Sandys’s (1578-1644) journey to America in 1621. A member of the Jamestown settlement, Sandys also and most significantly translated Ovid into English. “Ovid in America” is dense with meaning in its dramatization of Sandys’s inner struggle with who or what he might become in this new land, words addressed to a recipient we know only as Thomas. In light of the violence and suffering of our country’s history and the global legacy of colonization, transformation in this poem and in the collection as a whole is inevitably invested with terror; dark places open up in the self that is estranged from what it knows, without and within:
This arrival, so unforeseen, disorderly
As my hope you will not forget
Who I was, & am,
Unwildered, unwestered, constant, returning....
What may never not be strange? What,
This morning, will wake & make me new.
(from Section I)
I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds.
Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting
& my hours unsettled by some new show
Of riotous & mystical imagination...
I wonder how the world holds any more shape
Than a dream?
(from Section II)
Who am I so far from home?
My face painted blue & silver, my body
Washed in crimson dye, they would greet me
First with lamentations to mourn my old life,
Then by psalms I could enter
Purged & reborn & singing in a tongue
Not mine I know not where to go. (I know.)
(close of Section III)
I quote this difficult but compelling poem at length to draw attention to the progress of its questions, the eerie power of its voice, and its sonic and imagistic explorations.
Like many of Curdy’s other poems, “Song & Error,” which looks closely at her mother’s dying—“What hid you so that at every hour’s dusk/I startled on you where you lay, nearly resigned/In the talons of your most personal shape?”—is subtly but indelibly marked by a debt to John Donne, whose late work enacts his anxieties surrounding death and resurrection. Like Donne, Curdy struggles to find something that abides—some spiritual coherence—amid decay and loss.
The journey that the collection embarks upon is suffused with such spiritual questioning. Cast in the third person, “Chimera,” a more experimental poem that follows the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza da Vaca, who became a slave to, and then a shaman and ruler of the Native Americans during his eight year journey in Texas and Mexico, places this spiritual questioning at its center:
In what hour of what night did he know his soul
to turn a stranger to him
Pilgrim he will venture forth across uncertain fields
Explorer he will cry out
He may be nothing more
than a hide rigid with gore & soil to be
scoured pounded abused by caustics and by iron
and in watered pigeon shit kneaded until supple
for the hand—
The jagged edges of the syntax in “Chimera,” as well as its violence, which echo both war and the martyr’s quest, push further the dislocations of “Ovid in America,” or make them more viscerally felt so that Cabeza da Vaca seems to court suffering for the revelations its brings. “Chimera” closes with a statement that encapsulates the heartbeat of the collection:
Twice a year his skin like muslin pulled from his body
Without armor or felted wool or hide afterward
he was discovered now
small pricked loose & unpleated opening
to manifold injury & errand
A channel for pain and a channel for hearing
Similarly, at the end of “Northwest Passage,” a poem that re-traces the contemporary poet/speaker’s voyage, we are led to contemplate “Some route between suffering and song.”
Song & Error is about the creation and the tracking of a “route between suffering and song,” one that finds not just value but sustenance in the way beauty can be made out of the channel that brings together pain and hearing. The wildly original, high lyric mode of Averill Curdy is fugitive music of the most difficult but also the most urgent kind.