Review – Unexpected Weather by Abi Curtis
Abi Curtis’s first anthology, published by Salt in 2009, has a cannily-chosen title. Certainly, there are all sorts of unexpected weathers in the collection – notably the titles of the two halves, Fata Morgana and Ignis Fatuus. But beyond the physical representation, I’d argue that the poems themselves are so unexpectedly fresh and cunning in composition that they’re a shock to a usually tepid British poetry scene. They could well bring in new poetry fans, and reinspire old ones.
Curtis prefaces each of the halves with descriptions of her chosen phenomena. Fata Morgana is the appearance of “inverted or distorted” images in the sky; Ignis Fatuus is a “hovering or flitting” glow that inspires fear in those that do not understand it. On reading the poems in each section, it becomes clear that Curtis is laying down a clever guide rope for her readers.
The Fata Morgana set deal with the merging of myth and present-time minutiae. A wonderful skill that Curtis puts into play is the way she fits her own poetry into the wider world of art. Sometimes, it’s as though she’s playing cat’s cradle with the very choicest skeins of the past and present. Reading her work is like shuttling back and forth across a loom of British history. Yet there is always a narrowing in her focus – she’ll swoop onto a relationship of her own and slot that into place flawlessly.
The opening poem, Lady Jane Grey (After Paul Delaroche), is a prime example. Curtis translates Delaroche’s painting onto the page in unpredictably creative ways (Jane’s collar is “a lick of foam clinging for a moment to a swan”). That done, she hints at the personal connection she and an unknown partner have to the painting. It is difficult to write about personal relationships and make the reader care, but Curtis coaxes us in. Reading her work feels as though you are being told secrets.
Later, the Ignis Fatuus poems offer a darker twist on ordinary things. Of note is The Cupboard, which evolves into an unsettling death scene between a crane fly (“startled he’s alive”) and a spider. Mandibles is a black comedy of a poem, starting “The archaeologists have been in the office again”. A combined dentistry/history theme wends its way through, beginning with over-zealous organisation (“This one’s labelled MANDIBLES”) and ending at the reimagined picture of life created by the teeth of animals.
Curtis’s subject choices are wild, creative, and often touched by magic realism. The way in which she pieces language together is admirable. One of the greatest talents a poet can have is the ability to view objects in a fresh way. Curtis does this in countless ways, from a Kenneth Grahame-esque perception of a mole as “Earth’s secretary” to a whimsically practical view of clouds as a “haberdashery of vapours”.
With seminal favourite Carol Ann Duffy writing tamer material as Poet Laureate, could Curtis become our new horror-women-and-love poet? It’s a big statement to put forward, but then Unexpected Weather comes with a big range, great heart, and a magnificent eye for detail.