New Shadows by Jon Curley
(Ohio: Dos Madres Press, 2009)
Between Maxims and Proposals
The influential French thinker, Michel Foucault, elaborated on the concept of the "heterotopia" in an unpublished lecture he delivered in 1967, “Des Espace Autres/Of Other Spaces.” For Foucault the heterotopia existed as a type of alternative space within society, as a site of resistance and otherness, holding out for the possibility of alternative thought. In this age of instant gratification and media-hype it is reassuring to encounter pockets of resistance, the concrete realisation of heterotopic space, in and through the productions of the small poetry press. It is surely a good thing to see publishers with such courage in their convictions to launch small, quality publications which provide a forum for new voices to be heard. One such press is Dos Madres, based in Ohio, who, in Jon Curley’s New Shadows, provides us with a heterotopic space for which we should be grateful.
In a poem like “Repetition/Variation: Theory Set For Language and Music” Curley provides the reader with an abstract meditation which constitutes a very playful, self-aware reflection on the interaction of nature and technology, words and reality. It conceives of the poem as a type of sound studio. And yet, despite its abstraction, and cerebral nature, it delights in the concrete sounds it creates, the full resources of words and language it exploits, as the most traditional of poetries might. In “Suffering is Other People” and “12. 08. New England,” we see Curley experiment with poetic form in a truly American fashion as he explores the spaces between words as they move across the page in a way that is as vital as anything that exists in them between them as concrete carriers of meaning and understanding. “Maxims and Proposals” continues such playfulness and exploration in a manner that is self aware, and in a way which creates moments of frisson and unexpected collision.
Despite such abstract playfulness, Curley can be concrete, definite, and more traditional when he desires to be. “Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's Gift” consists of a description of a reality concretely and clearly depicted. The Gaelic-speaking poet, from the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry in south-west Ireland, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, many years ago gifted Curley with a personal poem, tied up with a piece of string—on the provision that this discreet parcel remain forever unopened and the poem unread. Despite the definiteness of the situation described by Curley, he manages to achieve in his finely balanced closing lines, a much more abstract wish or strain of thought: “I praise these words unread, speaking to themselves,/forever freeing me from the world unwritten/and that fate too finely scripted.” The poem is sinewy, delivering fresh lines which flow effortlessly—such disguised artfulness, a graceful courtesy. “Poem for Roberto Bolano (1953 - 2003),” in this reader’s view, is one of the strongest in the collection. Once again, a very fluid form provides a perfect vessel for the poet’s words. The poem’s concrete images (a red shirt, a jade jacket and glasses) reveal an intimate and personal interaction between the real reader Curley and the ghost author Bolano, and the poem achieves the sense of a strong speaking voice behind the experiences articulated in the poem, and flowing through its words, lines, and form. One of the poem’s strengths is its achievement of a very contemporary, relaxed idiom combined with a natural cadence:
roberto, you’re close
like a good neighbour
each day I’ll visit
do you read me? good
In a homage to another fine, minimalist, Zen-like, meditative poet, “For Fanny Howe 4.20. 07,” Curley paints an abstract painting from the juxtaposition of the oddest of elements, and yet somehow he manages to make sense: sieves, the death’s head, cuticles, parachutes. Yet, through such concrete terms he manages to map out obscurer interior zones. For such clear articulation of dark, often unchartered territory, the daring reader will be grateful, and will no doubt return to this volume again and again over time, as a type of homecoming to self.
Derek Coyle lectures in English Literature and Irish Studies at Carlow College. He has a research interest in poetry and the sacred. His reviews and poems have appeared in a variety of magazines, including The SHOp, Ceide, The Texas Review, and The Furrow.