It was such a nice experience this week dipping into Averill Curdy’s "Song and Error," published a couple months ago by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and finding Ovid there. It’s a pleasure to pick up a book by a contemporary poet like Curdy (or Carol Ann Duffy, whose favorite seems to be Virgil) and find someone who doesn't hesitate to invoke the Latin greats.
It's encouraging too. Here's a writer who believes that those laureled heads still have much to give to our present.
In "Ovid in America," we listen to 17th-century translator George Sandys as he meditates on life in the new world (Sandys was an early settler of Jamestown) and shares the great poet's sense of exile in a strange, unfamiliar place:
Without coppice, park, romancely glade, Or commanding vantage, Woods press on us; they fester.... I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds. Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting & my hours unsettled by some new show Of riotous & mystical imagination...
Long before strip malls and highways, America existed in a mythic state, wild and "a-broil with an awful begetting." Magnificent.
Words are so powerful, but how often do we think about that in the course of our days? We don't. We write memos and send texts, using language like a shovel or a fork. Which is why poetry matters, and why a poet like Curdy, a teacher at Northwestern University, is to be appreciated in this book, her debut collection.
Here, a little later in the same poem, is an act of creation, as Sandys hovers over his translation:
From my hands at night (my light Some oil in a dish or a rush taper smoking, Not so different from Ovid’s), flower His fantastic shapes, shadows Of an old empire’s former splendor... Belief is possible at night, solitary, firelit. Then, I can believe in Ovid’s centaurs, Or that he was met at death by a three-headed dog....
The shadow of Robert Lowell falls here, Amy Clampitt's, too. Sometimes her language is much more complex, more elusive--and if it feels too elusive at times, well, that's okay too. The beauty of the language more than compensates, as in “Anatomical Angel” :
Unfastened avidly from each ivory button Of her spine, the voluntary muscles open Viruousities of red: cinnabar
The mutagen, and carmine from cochineal Born between fog and frost....
I think I get it, but even if I don’t, does it matter? The words stay with me an hour later, an hour after that, at the end of the day, at the end of the week.
Can I say the same thing about a text or a TV show?
That's why it's poetry. That's why it matters.