Caleb Curtiss, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, Black Lawrence Press, 2015
Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
Elegies, quite literally, have nothing to say, and they must keep reinventing new ways of saying it. What is there to add to a mournful, inarticulate wail? And yet, laments modulate and recombine memories assured of ruin, seeking to sound a more acute sense of life out of bereavement, as if only by fading can feelings be brought to consciousness. Half in love with loss itself, the elegist calls back the dead by remembering that one's own future is among them. In this way, all elegies are self-portraits, and they allow the reader to grieve for a person they knew only distantly: oneself.
The elegies in Caleb Curtiss's first chapbook, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, contrast the painful reality of death with the plaintive unreality of those who have died, in this case the narrator's sister who ran a stop sign when she was eighteen. But the elegies also meditate simultaneously on the narrator's estrangement from his living siblings as well as the estrangement between memory and actual events, language from the things it would describe. Curtiss premises his work on the idea that memory is erased and rewritten, unraveled and revised, as are bodies, as are poems themselves. Loss is engendered in the very process that ensures the integrity of both writing and remembrance, of both bodies and relationships. Though it may be impossible to speak of the sister, rather than the fragments of days and dilatory afterimages left floating in the skull, the aura of negative space around her is burnished and made bright.
Ironically, in many cases, the techniques that allow the speaker to forget or void his grief enable the reader to feel enlivened by the poems that result. The poems give contradictory facts, insistently repeat phrases, leave off syntax or let it go astray; lacunae often disperse the words and make the white space of the page come into sharper focus. The tone is flat, spare, almost taciturn; it is at once lyrical and resisting the lyric impulse toward extravagance. The numb and uncommunicative lines risk becoming static, the narrative threatens to stall out, too much seems on the verge of being withheld, yet somehow the punctual energy of the poem's small, quotidian details revolve into a fugue of potent metaphors. The sister in "Ghost" is depicted "fixing herself a slice of toast," "eating barbeque," or "lip-synching," activities that would seem insignificant in themselves, but which point to the daily texture of intimacy the speaker misses. The speaker superimposes his life onto hers, daydreaming her back into a fleeting existence, as the voice of the song—the poem's own and the one she lip-synchs—fills her vacant mouth.
"Self-Portrait Without My Dead Sister" similarly accumulates such throw-away catchphrases in order to lament how easily our thoughtless, everyday moments may get tossed aside:
The connective tissue here is simply the ampersand, a paratactic hook linking the pointless sub-linguistic filler, which often does little more than occupy dead air; yet the emptiness assembles into an overarching order, the poem enclosing such vacuous inanities within its rhythmic pattern. Each non-image is snagged onto the next, boxcars clacking along a preordained track. The words reanimate the body, mouthing them back into solidity if not signification; the words are at once remainders and things which have remained. The smirch of mere cosmetics—powder or shadow—transforms into something genuinely beautiful.
In one sequence, titled simply "Elegy," Curtiss states that "the hulls of thousand year old ships / remain whole, un-eroded," by which I imagine he refers to the process of petrifying wood: the organic fibers dissolve, replaced by minerals that harden in their place. The original desiccates; only a calcified fossil remains, a perfect, a more dazzling effigy. Or perhaps the ship grows a cover of living barnacles, the corrosive parasites in fact helping the hull retain its outward form. Either way, the otherworldly ship appears like "a loophole in time," a place where the poem's changing shoreline, "defining our divisions," converts through associative logic into the waving grains of the dusk-lit cornfield where his sister wrecked her car. Writing, too, takes shape in a similar manner: the husk of inspiration rots away to be replaced by a sharp, lucid, mineral body: "This poem has no occasion. / I edited that out a long time ago," Curtiss states in a different piece, and the poem "rebuilt itself over time." The self is excised until all its vital durance shines within a vestige, casing, crystal.
In the eponymous prose poem sequence, the speaker projects his well of grief into an ontological principle: "the many universes that make up all of existence do not come into contact with one another just as the molecular vibrations that enshroud every object we touch in fact keep us from touching it." The speaker's emotional isolation hollows out the entire cosmos into a sponge cake: each monad or spark of consciousness is trapped within its own confectionary bubble. The effort, however, of writing seems to require the speaker to at least pretend as if communication were possible, since even the act of weaving this parable out of string theory presupposes a listener, and thereby helps the speaker break free from his solipsism. The speaker slowly emerges from his sleepwalking, anesthetized addictions—smoking, drinking—even though he knows life gets pissed away, goes up in smoke; even while he knows himself to be the revenant his dead sister, his depressed brother have become. Still, the speaker begins to direct his language, his future, toward this asymptotic, this optative as if.
In two of the collection's strongest poems, "Moth" and "Guncotton," the lines snarl out a series of self-interruptive parenthesis that lack closure. The ragged stuff of memory becomes moth-eaten, knotty, embroidered within its own fabrications. One motif defers to the next, shimmers, then evaporates into a mirage of another. A "misaligned film reel" scuttles into "a corn snake's / sudden retreat / into itself," which then disperses into the screeching tire's "marks over rural / asphalt." Or the alcoholic burn of too many whisky shots feels like swallowing rosary beads until the mouth's a hole-ridden velum, "a bullet-shaped body of a moth" that embraces its ghostly flame. Such mercurial imagery imbricates its own cerecloth, recording the act of its vanishing: the haunting passages smolder like permanent shadows. The spirit impresses its negative, Turin Shrouds an ethereal if thereby undefined (unidentifiable) face.
A lament is lamentation's undoing. The elegy retreats from the bodily eye to behold and hold fast to an inner remembrance, in which it re-members the dispersed parts of the person it mourns. Blindness inscribes its elegy like the light-raptured silhouettes of bodies scored against the sides of buildings during Hiroshima in the very instant their figures were vaporized. The body becomes less than nothing; death is "the kind of thing / we could never look at," yet by its darkness we may arrive at specters, at moments of vision.