March 2013

Adam Ford


Song & Error by Averill Curdy

Song & Error is Averill Curdy's first collection of poetry, collecting many of her previously (and widely) published poems and serving as a significant waypoint in her successful career to date, which has encompassed publication in journals such as Poetry and The Paris Review, co-editorship of The Longman Anthology of Poetry, a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.

The collection comprises twenty-two poems, most of which are free verse lyrics, odes and narratives, with an occasional foray into slightly more abstract approaches. Twenty of the poems are relatively short, mostly coming in at one or two pages with the occasional four-plus-pager, but two longer poems, "Ovid in America" and "Chimera" serve partly as centrepieces of the collection and partly as its thematic rudder.

These two longer poems of the collection respectively concern the lives of George Sandys, the 17th-Century English translator of Ovid's Metamorphoses who was involved in the establishment of the colony of Virginia, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the sixteenth-century Spanish author of Naufragios ("Shipwrecks"), an account of his experiences as one of four survivors of an expedition to Florida that saw him wander through present-day Florida, Texas and Mexico for almost ten years.

The theme in question is that of travel and exploration, of intervention and incursion into worlds outside our own, and how that incursion can change us. Both Sandys and Cabeza da Vaca are used as examples of how out of place European sensibilities were when explorers and colonists encountered the "New World," and how they were themselves dramatically changed by those encounters -- nominally for the worse, though this is not exactly clear: both men seem to experience spiritual awakening as a result of the tragedies they endure.

Of the two poems, "Ovid in America" is the stronger, fashioned as it is with a more overt narrative and the framework of three letters from Sandys to a friend back home in London. It is a poem rich in compelling imagery in which its narrator documents the difficulties and strangenesses that early American settlers encountered, from strange animals and attacks from indigenes to disease and an inhospitable environment.

...Bodies stung into postures,
Penitence, Weariness, Surprise & cardinal
In red caps, red garlands of red roses
Wrapped around white throats, white
As bacon fat.

It's a somewhat dense, but nevertheless moving poem, haunting and sad, filled with death and damnation.

"Chimera," while just as rich in imagery, lacks the formal structure of "Ovid," but this lack of coherence helps to evoke the sense of what you might imagine it would be like to wander for years through the Americas in the early years of European colonisation, starved and desperate as you watch your compatriots die slowly or violently at the same time as you encounter environments and cultures wholly alien to you.

Whether time is the ripening of fruit  the dying of fish
& the position of stars            or all
the king's clocks ringing his will upon the quarter hour
hunger is the self's severe eternal god

As Curdy has Cabeza da Vaca opine, "How much can I change before I am changed?"

Song & Error also features other historical identities, including Thomas Jefferson, Henry James, John Ruskin, and seventeenth-century Jesuit geologist Athanasius Kirchner. This focus on historical events lends Song & Error a somewhat antiquarian flavour, a flavour that is emphasised by Curdy's ornate and intricate vocabulary, dotted with effulgences, dolor, odalisques, perfidy, and luxurious turns of phrase ("...On these sidewalks / With the linden's melon scent twined / Around an untuned engine's blue carbon / Monoxide and Wednesday's trash, / I've looked for an authentic eloquence").

To her credit it doesn't feel like Curdy is dabbling in fifty-cent words for their own sake. Their use is exact and sparing, just enough to give her writing an indicative tone that demonstrates her poetic leanings toward the classical.

Occasionally something does jar, though. Her reference to Buddhist monks in the ekphrastic "Autopsied Angel," sits oddly within a poem about the work of an eighteenth-century French painter, and I thought I detected a little tautology in "Sparrow Trapped in the Airport" (the phrase "gold-vermeiled," given that the delightful word "vermeiled" means "gilded," results in something being described as "gold-gilded").

There also doesn't feel like there's enough actual Ovid in "Ovid in America": while Curdy does name-check Io, Daphne, Cerberus, and centaurs, and make reference to Sandys translation work and ownership of volumes of Ovid, it feels as though Ovid's translator would make more overt reference to the poet's work than occurs here.

Complementing Curdy's historically themed pieces, the themes of exploration, travel and change are also considered from a modern perspective in poems about airports, the daily commute and tourism, as well as meditations on death: that of Curdy's own mother in the title poem, or of death row prison inmates in "To the Voice of the Retired Warden of Huntsville Prison (Texas Death Chamber)."

There is more tension in the poems with a contemporary setting than there is in her historical pieces. When she uses antiquarian language to speak on behalf of historical personages there is a contextual appropriateness to that choice. In modern settings such language sets Curdy apart from what she is writing about.

By choosing not to use everyday language to describe the everyday things she writes about, Curdy creates a certain distance between herself and her subjects. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- such a remove can permit more detailed and careful observation, and when such language is read, the care and thought that it requires and hopefully inspires in the reader can allow for a slower, more exacting absorption of the poems.

A defining character of Curdy's poetry is her ability to compose a striking image or compelling turn of phrase, like the "lentil-brown" sparrow hopping around the airport under "...lights too high / too bright for any real illumination" or the box of vegetables sent through the mail (" orthodox, minareted mix of shallots and onions, / And a squash's dark, chiton-pleated lantern...").

Sometimes there's more than one stand-out image in a poem, like the lizard whose "...elbows / Jut like epaulettes...") and the author's own arm shedding "... Its thousand thousand scales, my fused bones / Lightening, fraying, to feathers, / To fingers...") in "The Lizard," or the many striking phrases and images in "Chimera":

                                    He may be nothing more
than a hide rigid with gore & soil to be
scoured pounded abused by caustics and by iron


To suffer even this much
demands devotion  & the ingenuity of the wasp
which deposits eggs in the walking nursery of a spider

At times, though, it can feel like these poems have been assembled around a core composed of said compelling images or phrases in order to deliver -- or merely house -- those images and phrases without sharing their strength or compulsion. The moment in "The Fair Incognito" that sees Ruskin

                                    ...lying beside his
wife's monstrous body baring that
coarse nest smelling, too plainly, of

Is superb, as is the description of a cabinet filled with stuffed hummingbirds:

                        ...Arsenic-pounced and dangled
from wires, they flashed sapphire, beryl,
anthracites, and twin spurs of red --
                        as though in flight, a motion re-
                        collected in tranquillity.

The rest of the poem, however, while good, just doesn't leap out in the same way.

Song & Error is a worthy debut collection that rewards multiple readings. It's a rich mixture of poems that revel in their language and ideas, their combination of real and imagined, of present day and history, that, while sometimes dense, sometimes obscure, sometimes confounding, nevertheless present enough striking images, precisely fashioned phrases and intriguing words to fully stock a wunderkammer of their own.

Song & Error by Averill Curdy
Farrar, Straus Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374286011
112 pages

Adam Ford is the author of the poetry collections The Third Fruit is a Bird and Not Quite the Man for the Job, and the novel Man Bites Dog. He lives in South-Eastern Australia. His website is