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From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems

Tony Curtis
ISBN-13: 
9781781723302
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
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‘His energy, inventiveness and human sympathy make him one of the most exciting poets of his generation.’ – Merryn Williams

An unusually lively and well written oeuvre that is worth the time of anyone interested in contemporary poetry.’ – Acumen

 

Seren is honoured by our long association with the Welsh poet Tony Curtis and we are proud to be publishing, in celebration of his 70th year, his From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems. The book features poems from ten of his published collections, as well as a substantial number of new poems. This is a poet whose themes and variations remain consistent: a deep affection for his roots in West Wales, tender attachments to family, a profound interest in the wars of the last century, and an abiding fascination for all art forms, particularly painting and poetry.

As we might expect from the author of a number of astute and widely praised critical volumes on Welsh Art, many of these poems are often inspired by artists from Wales, poets such as Dannie Abse, Dylan Thomas, John Tripp and painters like Peter Prendergast, Augustus and Gwen John, although European and American artists like Otto Dix and Andrew Wyeth also feature. There is also a brief selection from his collaborative book/performance project with the New York-based artist John Digby: The Arches, with reproductions of the original collages and their accompanying poems.

Another abiding concern is a fascination with war in all of its manifestations in the bloody 20th century. From his collection ‘War Voices’ we have poems like ‘The Front’ and his National Poetry Prize-winning ‘The Death of Richard Beattie-Seaman in the Belgian Grand Prix, 1939’ – which eerily foreshadows the fate of many young men in the European conflict about to erupt. The contemplation of War adds a dark thread of serious intent to this tapestry of Wales in the more peaceful times our generation has had the privilege of living through in ‘The Fortunate Isles’.

Landscapes in Wales also recur throughout the book. Pembrokeshire is a literal and figurative touchstone, from the elegiac ‘The Visit’:

Forgetting flowers, this time
I take a Manorbier pebble
from the car

and, in the ancient way,
lay it on your grave:
my seal-grey limestone on your green slate.

This is a beautiful, engaging and important collection from one of Wales’s best poets.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Fred Beake, Acumen

Monday, May 1, 2017

 

The first thing I noticed about the Curtis Selected Poems was its alternative title, From the Fortunate Isles. “Oddly Victorian” I thought. And reading the poems and digging about a little it seems even stranger, for it comes from a man who wrote a relatively early (1982) study of Heaney and includes a good poem in praise of Dannie Abse at 90. And indeed chooses to have ‘Seamus on the Tube’ as the final poem of his Selected.
But I think a lot of the heart of this matter is in a few lines from ‘Barafundle Bay’, which is addressed to the memory of the Welsh poet, John Tripp (the addressee of a number of the poems in this book):

Then the western edge of Caldey Island and beyond,
sinking like a black apple into the night,
Dylan’s Gower, John, always
out of reach for us.

This might not unfairly be translated as sympathy with the Welsh Romantic poets of the Forties (to Dylan Thomas one should perhaps add Vernon Watkins and possibly that fine late developer Leslie Norris, who took the tradition to the end of the last century). However, it is clearly a sympathy that could not be fully consummated among the cynical
realism and often near-prose of so much of the officially accepted English, Welsh and Irish poetry post 1955. Yet it is precisely this unfashionable sympathy that saves Curtis’s work from being yet another minor oeuvre of the late Twentieth century. The always interesting sound patterns are not obviously out of Thomas or Watkins or Norris, but the complex sound linking is something that they would very much have understood and which is sadly lacking in many of Curtis’s contemporaries.
And if you have good sound in a poem then you have something more durable than literal sense, something indeed that summons that awkward beast the Imagination with its tendency to lead the reader down unprescribed or indeed proscribed paths. This is the more intriguing because it often takes place in prosy contexts.

This afternoon we’ve come to see your new stone,
Jim, and place some flowers and pause a while.
The glass is full of last night’s rain
and so much warmer than your last December day.
(‘Amroth in October’)

The patterning of this verse paragraph turns with surprising success on “Jim”’s chiming with “stone”, “while” and “rain”. “Jim”, indeed, ought to give rise to bathos, but thanks to the poet’s skill does not. Or, which is startlingly different

At the table following – Mrs Steer
having laid cold pheasant, well hung,
that day’s bread
and a jug of ruby claret –
there was talk of his leave taking,
the first peer to be hanged before the crowd.

A lot of the very effective edgy atmosphere of this paragraph from a dramatic monologue about the hanging of Lord Ferrars in the Eighteenth century comes from the clashes of “following”, “well hung”, “leave-taking” and “hanged”. But the interesting thing about the poem as a whole is the powerful sense of something that runs much deeper than the carefully assembled scenario. It is as if Tennyson or Browning has somehow intruded on a poem in the modern style.
This ghosting of the Victorian dramatic monologue (and indeed its extension into third person use of very similar material) is what Curtis does best; and at its best the result is very fine. There are no valiant knights of course, or murderously inclined Italian Counts and the thing is always related to real history and very well thought-through, but there is always an atmosphere beyond the facts. This is nowhere more so than in the extraordinary ‘The Captain’s Diary’. The captain of a Welsh golf club in 1909 grumbles aloud to himself about things as different as having to let the women have their turn at the game, the fact that the military have pinched some of his land and the sea other bits. But the possibility of War is grumbling away in the background, the local volunteers are practicing their shooting, and there is a visitor, Mr David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

“The land”, he said (and all the time
to my intense irritation, he called me ‘Dr M’)
“it is as if a giant had scooped the grass and sand.
Or great engines of war had gouged the earth in bites,
that now grows back to heal its wounds.”
Which I thought smacked too fully of the poet
And too little of the real man.

This to my mind is more moving and effective than Curtis’s periodic ritual nods towards the two World Wars, which address their material head on. Even here though one must mention the deeply felt ‘Friedhof ’, which is about the cemeteries at Ypres and keeps an unusual balance between German and British and indeed the excellent poem about the poet’s parents in WW2, ‘Land Army Photographs’, which works because it places the said parents in a much broader context than themselves.
At its best therefore the Curtis Selected is a fine book. However, as a ‘Selected Poems’ it is arguably too long and too little organised. Much of the work in the first third or quarter lacks the originality of what came later and could have been left out. It sounds what it is, rather middling work in the standard mainstream style of the late Sixties and Seventies. I find particularly aggravating the periodic encounters with Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. It is one thing to absorb painterly images into your own work, but quite another to encounter the paintings directly, which rarely works and was a mainstream plague back then. It is also a great pity that the excellent dramatic monologues and related pieces were not put into a single section, where they could be seen for the fine and unusual body of work that they are. Perhaps one day they will be issued as the separate volume that they deserve to be. However, when all is said this is an unusually lively and well written oeuvre that is worth the time of anyone interested in contemporary poetry.

 

Review by Glyn Edwards, Wales Arts Review

Monday, March 20, 2017

This book gives accommodation to five decades of Curtis’ career in literature.  Selected poems from ten collections are housed adjacently, with forty new poems, building ‘From The Fortunate Isles’, Curtis’ latest project, abutted at the gable end.  Here is a terrace of verse, akin to a loop of sea-staring houses strung along a Pembrokeshire shore; multifarious in tone, diverse in size, unique in structure, this is a collection, ‘where the light and summer sings’.

Within clearer, more prevalent themes of Curtis’ verse – South West Wales, identity, war, his father – there are subtly similar features.  Two poems from the 1983 collection ‘Letting Go’, ‘The World’ and ‘Tortoise’, ponder the concept of legacy.  ‘Tortoise’, the sole narrative poem in the book, recounts the discovery of an errant hibernating pet in a neighbour’s loft:

Just that.  A shell, hard, perfect and whole.  Inside, a shrunk ball of jelly.

Curtis reflects on the grotesque image that begins to take residence, like the tortoise itself, ‘lodged in the back of the mind’ until he is prompted to question the bleakness of a predestination, where a body can be outlived and made redundant by its skeleton:

to travel and come to nothing

On the page parallel is ‘The World’, which announces its portentous subject in the opening line, ‘this is how it ends’ before almost listing the cataclysmic events that occur as humanity recedes: ‘Russian subs…acid air…fire…the Third World / eats itself and starves.’  The final stanza delivers mankind back to its origins and to a fearful inheritance:

And farther out floating

            towards them on a floe

            a man,  a woman and a child waving

             spears

Half a lifetime ago, Tony Curtis was a lecturer of mine at university.  In one workshop, he spread images of John Digby over the wide table and encouraged his undergraduates to address the surreal collages.   ‘There are two ways of looking at a thing’, he implored.  Six of these artworks, ornately decorated Moorish doorways used as window frames looking out to terrain populated by Grecian figures, dinosaurs, lighthouses, Victorian bathers, are aligned with their respective poems from the 1998 collection ‘The Arches’.  ‘XXII’ concludes with a stanza on the duplicity of language:

            This was ever the way –

            from the high clarity    

            the waves of confusion

            turn into the words

            that lead us astray.   

A piece of advice I recall from Curtis’ teachings was the need ‘to always begin strongly and end strongly’; he prized the first and final lines of a poem more than any others.  Thumbing through the two hundred and fifty pages of this book, it is clear that Curtis’ adheres emphatically to his own precept.  The thirteen poems taken from ‘Preparations’ are particularly charmed with resolutions of momentous, pacing, funereal sadness.

We turn our backs on a sky that goes on forever.

(Return to the Headland)

…our dead friends and fathers,

            on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.

(Poem for John Tripp)

Under the sun, the prodigal sky,

            there are no healing waters.

(My Father in Pembrokeshire)

Of the forty poems from the eponymous collection, ‘From the Fortunate Isles’, many are observational, many are elegiac.  The title poem is languid and ambling and warmly reveals an encounter with street vendors and performers in the Canary Islands.  Against a theatrical drop of a menacing and rough Atlantic sea, Curtis experiences a hiatus and a temptation to ‘let loose of it all’.  The title of the poem, an allusion to a classical myth about idyllic islands reserved for favoured or blessed mortals, is slightly ambiguous: it is a simple reference to geography; it is hyperbolic in Curtis’ appreciation of holiday paradise; it is an acknowledgement to the artists and writers that both the poet and the collection mourns.

Elegies to the landscape painters Peter Prendergast and John Knapp-Fisher, to the poets Dannie Abse and Dylan Thomas, to the memory of his father, to personal friends, usher in the reflective mood and, once more, the theme of legacy:

if my ashes were emptied out here.

(Wanting Choughs)

Start strongly and finish strongly; the final poem of the book, ‘Seamus on the Tube’, does exactly that.  Reading Heaney’s poem ‘The Railway Children’ amongst a train filled with commuters ‘looking away, not looking away’, the narrator of the poem becomes mesmorised by their own escaped nostalgia.  Although it is written in second person narrative, it seems safe to assume the poem is autobiographical and consequently, safe to assume, from the final words of the final poem, that Curtis is content with all that he has built; serene in his legacy.

Reaching Warren Street, you’ve read it

            Four or five times, absorbed the innocent wisdom

            And sense of the thing.  Those people opposite

            See a crazy old man mouthing words, appearing to sing.

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