Tony Curtis’s folk

Tony Curtis was born in Dublin in 1955. He studied literature at Essex University and Trinity College Dublin. An award winning poet, Curtis has published six warmly-received collections, the most recent of which was The Well in the Rain: New & Selected Poems (Arc, 2006).
In 2003 he was awarded the Varuna House Exchange Fellowship to Australia. Curtis has been awarded the Irish National Poetry Prize. In 2008, Days Like These (with Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan) was published by Brooding Heron Press. He is a member of Aosdána. folk was published by Arc in 2011.

“The poems in Tony Curtis’s new collection are woven out of his fascination with the everyday, the quirky, the downright extraordinary, poems wrapped up in love and death, friendship and memory, madness and music – from the blind man singing in a field, to his three Cistercian uncles singing plainchant. There are folk at the heart of everything Tony Curtis writes. He is a born storyteller, and these are poems crafted by a poet with a wonderful ability to express great depth of feeling with deceptive simplicity.”
“Tony Curtis’s folk has an epigraph from Yeats: “I have spent all my life clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone”. Beginning thus, Curtis is telling us that his poems are to be read out loud and listened to, and having heard Curtis recite from his work a number of times, I would challenge anyone not to be won over by his readings. His humour and charm, and ability to turn a poem with the seemingly simplest of images, and that understanding of how words will play over the listener’s ear, are hallmarks which are pleasingly brought to the fore on the page in this hefty new collection. His greatest skill is to make readers go “yes, of course”; he reminds us of what we’ve known all along though perhaps not recognised, and reading his poems is therefore an uplifting experience. In a beautiful elegy for Michael Hartnett he describes returning to that poet’s house, looking at the garden, seeing how everything had changed, “A life cleared up and packed away”. He lingers there, describing everything in detail, before cutting in with: “I just missed him. It’s often much later than you think”.
For Curtis, ‘Folk’ is “Such a warm little word,/ full of greens and browns,/ like something woven,/ a thread into the past”. He follows that thread down various avenues, recounting family members, old friends, people he has met on his travels; as the title of the collection suggests, these stories recapture an oral folk tradition, and his work is a welcome return to, and reinvention of, that lineage in Irish poetry.”
– Michael McKimm, The Warwick Review, Vol.5, No.3
“It is good to see the new collection by Tony Curtis, folk. His poems are often condensed short stories or character studies. The frequently ironic style is demotic and, like the traditional ‘little black dress,’ understated but, by inference beautifully crafted. In the wry ‘Trespass’ he reflects “This morning reading the newspaper,/ I found myself in the business section,/ a place I had no business being;/ I, who rarely stray far beyond/ the letters or the literary pages … a place where criticism and opinion/ are merely compass, weathervane or fluff”. He goes on to realise what had attracted him, “the misfortune, the gloom,/ the bleakness of the prose —// a world stripped bare. It was like the/ opening of a Chekhov or Beckett play,/ the vulnerability of the little man …”.
Most poems are first person narratives. They are not self-referential, but reach out touchingly and strongly to other situations, mysterious and universal feelings, as in the seemingly light ‘Opus in F Minor, for five string banjo and fiddle’, which opens with a dance-like rhythm: “To make it folk,/ I’ve borrowed a tune from the fields./ I heard a blind man sing: Mamma, I’ve been lonesome too long.// To make it folk,/ I’ve added a string to the banjo/ and hammer it hard/ I move to the beat.” He goes on to describe “When Old Josie begins to sing,/ you won’t know whether to dance or cry./ and your heart will want to speak/ old hurts, old hurts.” … “Then ghost after ghost takes to the floor/ tapping their feet to the music … nobody is lonesome tonight”. The poem unravels denial of loneliness, ending “… join us in the next folk song.// You may already know it,/ It’s called:/ When you open your eyes/ to look at me, all I see is sorrow.

– Stella Stocker, Weyfarers No.111, December 2011
I’ve always wanted a good table
there in the space by the window,
there where the sun comes crawling
in the morning.
The birds and the moon
could watch me working.
A cluttered table –
you can imagine it holding
books, papers, poems,
all kinds of scribbling –
an empty coffee cup,
the lamp burning long after midnight.
A sturdy table –
the kind the hero comes in
and lays his sword upon,
or the dead body of his son,
a table strong enough
to bear sorrow,
to bear fruit,
flowers from the field,
a feather dropped
through the open window.
A poet’s table –
wide enough for the whiskey ballad,
long enough for the epic.
It must have a feel for sound.
The grain should run evenly,
a seam of gold that curves
and curves like a river of words
into the pool of a poem.
A good table –
I’d want the wood to be smooth,
pale as the undressed skin of a tree
so when the wind blows
over its bare back,
its soul will waken
to the memory of leaves and forest.
A useful table –
not a perfect table.
If it is chipped or scratched
it will remind me
of rooks and cuckoo
fox and squirrel.
But I want nothing broken,
nothing that speaks
of the axe, the chisel, or the saw.
When I come to the table
in the morning, I want to feel
like a woodsman hunting
or in the evening, a nesting bird.
What I want is to be lost
in the forest of myself.
Though I’ve searched for years
I’ve never found such a table
nor the carpenter to make it.
All I have is this: hear how it creaks.
In Praise of Grass
My father’s three brothers
were Cistercian monks
at a monastery in the hills.
We used to spend weekends there:
my mother and father
cleansing their souls
while I played in the fields.
My father’s three brothers prayed
harder than anyone I knew,
for me and the repose of the souls.
I shivered when they sang plainchant
praising God’s blessings,
their voices softer than girls’.
I see them still,
lined up like soldiers
against the dark –
the light dying,
the air colder than the cross.
I liked the bells that rang
all through the night.
I liked that everyone was up
and out with the light.
But what I liked best
was to watch the monks work.
When they cut the hay
or went to gather in the cattle,
they were like little bits of autumn
moving through the fields –
brown leaves blown by the wind.
God knows I was never any good
at prayer, and yet,
when a cloud passes along a hillside
or I look over an iron gate
into an empty field
I can still hear their voices
praising the grass, the snowdrop,
the leaf, the small miracle of rain.
A Writer’s Room
As if visitors were coming, I tidied my room.
I tore up papers, letters, abandoned scraps;
lines I had jotted down on buses and trains.
One note noted that I had gone so far into myself
I was beginning to see the light on the other side.
That must have been a bad day; everyone
knows there is no light on the other side.
I broke for tea to see how Mohamed
was getting on with wallpapering the kitchen.
It is a Laura Ashley blue; it will lift the spirits.
I returned to my room and moved things around,
piled paperbacks in different stacks,
put back what books I could on shelves,
then began reading an old copy of The Guardian.
I spent half an hour reading an article on C.K. Williams.
I love what he does with a long line,
he irons it until it’s as neat as a freshly pressed shirt.
And does the room look any better? I don’t know,
but for the first time in weeks, months even,
I can see the wood on the top of the table.
I often wonder if all this clutter
is what makes my poems so ramshackled.
And it isn’t that I don’t notice the chaos.
Every Saturday I look at ‘A Writer’s Room’
in The Guardian Review and each week
there is a photograph of a room, neat as a grave.
My room is a bombed-out bunker
and in it the poetry war goes on and on.
If C.K. Williams were writing this poem
a tramp would now pass through and take a piss in the corner
then grunt an apology when he sees me, saying sorry,
he mistook all this rubbish for an alleyway.
Three Poems from the Asylum
1.  The Naming
If you’ve punched the wall
and kicked a hole in the door.
If you’ve been up all night
singing Johnny Walker blues.
If you’ve lost interest in your friends,
and the dog’s lost interest in you.
If your lover looks frightened,
and there are voices in the dark.
If sleep is a memory,
and your life is a nightmare.
If you’ve seen a doctor,
and he’s recommended
a rest, a little time
in a psychiatric hospital.
But you can’t bear
to tell your family,
your friends
where you are going.
Can’t even bear to say
the word Asylum.
Don’t let it bring you down.
Listen …
Brendan Behan called it
The Puzzle Factory.
Pat McCabe referred to it as
The Garage.
Samuel Beckett,
who cherished asylums,
said they were The buildings
where the tears of the world are held.
For Elizabeth Bishop, lost in Rio,
asylums were always The Luna Bin.
For poor John Clare,
the peasant poet,
who spent three decades in asylums
they were always Prison.
I think of asylums as homes
for the bewildered.
On my visits, I have asked guards
what they call the place?
They say, The Snake Pit,
like some lost part of hell.
And the patients?
The Bolt Hole, The Fox Hole,
The Spaceship, The Traffic Island,
The Air Raid Shelter, The Ark,
The Bunker, The Trench,
The Safety Cage, Base,
Headquarters, The Loony Bin,
The Weekend Cottage,
The Campsite, The Caravan Park,
The Wigwam, The Dark Tower,
The Sanctuary, The Snug,
The Halfway House, The Hatch,
The Roost, The Chicken Shack.
Most of the doctors call it
The Central Mental Hospital.
Though the poet Michael Hartnett
who lived a hundred yards up the road,
always called it
The Sentimental Hospital.
A female patient
once said to me:

The Sentimental Hospital,
that’s perfect, just perfect.”
2.  The Gate
Did I ever tell you my father
made the gates to the asylum?
When they close behind me
their bronze shudder
holds an enormous sadness,
an old man’s tears.
Yesterday, being close to Christmas,
everyone was in good cheer
and the winter garden was restful –
those who’ve lost their way
seem to find great comfort in
cigarettes, pots of tea and gardening.
I read them poems about
flowers and trees:
Paula Meehan’s ‘Snowdrops’,
Robert Frost’s ‘Apple Picking’,
my own ‘Foraging’.
Then I sang
‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.
Everyone joined in on the chorus
as if they felt for every man
who fell at Gallipoli.
When I finished
a guard stepped up
and handed me a note.
They have asked me back
to do the Christmas show.
3.  Christmas Eve at the Asylum
Johnny sang ‘King of the Road’.
Mary belted out ‘The Power of Love’.
Brendan whispered ‘Waterloo Sunset’.
Elizabeth recited Kavanagh’s
‘A Christmas Childhood’.
Someone else did ‘Dirty Old Town’.
Harry played ‘Jingle Bells’
on his battered accordion.
Owen sang ‘O Holy Night’.
I tossed in a few carols,
and then we all sang
‘A Fairy Tale of New York’.
When the crisps, the lemonade
and the chocolate bars
were handed out,
everyone was smiling.
Christmas stretched
from the closed doors
through barred windows
across the grass,
all the way down the drive
to the red-hatted guards
by the locked front gates.
Yeats, January 1939
          In the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, France
While Auden sat waiting for something
to happen, Yeats lay dying in France.
The old poet, fuelled by morphine
and the will to go on,
passed his days working on last poems.
To ease his troubled soul,
he wrote ‘Cuchulain Comforted’,
its stanzas, in terza rima, evoking Dante’s
journey through the underworld.
Days later, sensing Europe
was about to burn, he wrote
his last poem, ‘The Black Tower’.
Breathless, he went on amending.
Days before the curtain fell
he changed the title of
‘His Convictions’
to the more Yeatsian
‘Under Ben Bulben’
and all the while he was imagining
the content list of this last volume,
a book he now knew
he would not live to see.
Still, with what little breath was left
he could command that
‘Long-Legged Fly’
should appear on the page before
‘A Bronze Head’,
and ‘Crazy Jane on the Mountain’
should watch (the great carnival disbanding)
‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’.
The book ending
with the poet’s death nell
‘Under Ben Bulben’,
these last poems,
(his headstones)
to be bound together
under the simplest of titles:
Last Poems and Two Plays.
I read somewhere
that when this was all done
the great man began to conjure
an imaginary content list
for another book of poems,
a book he would have written
had his stars allowed
and not aligned against him.
I sometimes like to think of this book.
I see its blue cover with a Norman tower,
an old graveyard and a mountain
laid out in gold leaf.
No title, just the name
W.B. Yeats
hand-written, inside a pyramid
with the sun coming up.
I’ve often open Yeats’ unwritten book.
See, it opens quietly with a lament
               ‘Four Elegies for Augusta Gregory’
and is followed by seven love sonnets
               ‘Speaking to George from Beyond the Mirror’
and then the ghosts arrive:
               ‘The Dead Poet Visits Old Haunts’
               ‘Ezra Talks Things Over with the Ghost of His Friend’
               ‘A Visit to Roebuck – The Winter Solstice’
               ‘A Visit to Palmerston Road – The Summer Solstice’
               ‘Dante and the Poet Visit His Sisters’
               ‘Crazy Jane and the Ghost’
               ‘Margaret at the Window Ledge’
               ‘Ethel on the Riviera’
               ‘Dorothy and Edith Walk Their Empty Lawns’
               ‘A Voice from Spiritus Mundi’
The book finishes with two long monologues
               ‘Now That I Know’
               ‘Under God’s Gaze’
Some critics ponder, was it the morphine
set Yeats wondering about this imaginary book.
I like to think he was ending where he began,
wading through the waters at the edge of poetry,
waiting for the ferryman to carry him home.
from folk (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order folk.

5 thoughts on “Tony Curtis’s folk

  1. elly

    I’m glad to be introduced to Tony Curtis. Oh I like these poems – very much. Very pleasing. The style, the tone and story-telling. (And I learned a new word from one of the blurbs – “demotic”.)

  2. Michelle Post author

    Wonderful to learn a new word, Elly! 😉

    So glad you’ve enjoyed the poems.

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