BY DANA CURTIS
CW BOOKS, 2011
REVIEWED BY LISA A. FLOWERS
One of the most dreamily sinister images in Dana Curtis’ Camera Stellata appears in the poem The Final Amnesia, which features an abandoned Eden drifting in space with hanged gardeners who “have decided to die/to give the roses/wings/the mint/dominion.” In the void of such lawlessness, “God’s Rapist” has begotten a miscellany of stars, planets, illegitimate black holes, and feminine “iconoclast[s] awhirl in stasis”…”each attempt to abort” drying their hair to thorns: the streams running from Christ’s crown those of Mary’s menses, or miscarriage: a kind of cosmic Handmaid’s Tale interspersed over Biblical prophecy.
Female voices cycle through the narration, some truculent and young, recalling coming-of-age visions of “blood, vomit, loud sex in asparagus fields”, some sorrowful as Russian mothers striding among bombed-out ruins as chemical fires flicker on the horizon. Flames (as in war, as in zodiac, as in mythical salamander, as in creation and regeneration of the solar system) are a recurring image here, and music is Pythagorean/of the spheres. (Cemetery opens with the Shostakovich quote, “The majority of our symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone…where do you put the tombstones? Only music can do that for them”). Ergo, Curtis’ poetry here is at times strongly reminiscent of translations of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, reading almost as if it had been composed in a foreign tongue and filtered back into an approximation of English. The effect is a language that’s both sparse and opulent, finding a home somewhere between the pared-down grandeur of HD and the epic generalities/sweep of Dylan Thomas.
She said her death lobbied to be gruesome…she won’t live anywhere she can’t imagine
This is an apt overview of Camera, whose speakers are committed not so much to transcendentalism as to exploration within the parameters of their own doom. This is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, of course (as all existentialism is), but it’s a defiant, expansive strain that’s nobody’s fool or prisoner. Just as the heroes of Norse folklore (as in mythographer and scholar Edith Hamilton’s famous account) are heroic without hope of spiritual deliverance in any truly transformative sense, Curtis’ language is never so triumphant as when it comes into collision with the end of itself (“Look/the swans hit the water like ruined wine”). The nymph Daphne’s transformation into laurel tree was not liberation from her pursuer, but merely the next best thing. Similarly, in Entropy
The woods were never an escape, but I escaped
Trapped in roots and mushrooms.
There was never any her, not
Here, no longer, a little
Longer before the film of scum eats the pool.
“I died outside the garden gate/arranged the letters because I must be gibberish” is what we hear in Elegy, which begins “Shall I compare you to nothing?” In a place where history and time have yet to begin, zero is, by definition, the only possible comparison with itself, and time’s possibilities, being new, are endless. In Towards the Uncreation, Eve, having slain the serpent, invites the exiled back into paradise:
In her arms, no garden but a
dead snake and she says…
back and reveal
the equations and constellations
Retreat opens with the startling line, “As if I’d entered one of my own pores”. Here, learning “the true, luminous nature of digestion”, we pass right on through to On Her Blindness, which ends: “The mirror is a sea/feathered glorious”…a line reminiscent of Ariel’s “and now I foam to wheat/a glitter of seas”.
The book’s title track, Camera Stellata, is as much love poem to Astarte and/or Venus as it is love poem subverted into physics:
She hates me and I hate
a horizon penetrating a blindfold…
She’s not the beauty I recall…
Pink is torn…pink trespasses the installations
A liquid event
horizon. I just might
stroke her throat.
There is pretty much everything here: sex as anatomy, anatomy as physics, the “horizon penetrating a blindfold” as event horizon itself; the wormhole as the throat that might or might not swallow the venom of After Vienna, where the Akhmatovian speaker knows “the poisonbaths have failed to make [her] immune.” But toxicity is relative to the antidotes in the myths so scattered throughout the book: if Eden’s serpent were Snow White’s stepmother with her poisoned apple, help might just as well arrive in the form of astronomy’s white dwarfs wished upon…as stars…in the Disney song. As in For Seraphim Walking Dogs, original sin might have relegated us to “running errands past the cobra farm/but for every place we’ve been/there might be an antidote.” Camera Stellata, like the proverbial butterfly dreaming it’s a man, is (to our delight) finally a luminous cosmological prayer dreaming it’s an existentialist swan song.