Wednesday, June 17, 2015

RIP-tides: on the poetry of Steven Curry and Nell Altizer


When you hear the midnight shutter
Rattle against an autumn wind,
Make haste to rise and throw it wide,
And, lovely, let the darkness in.

--Steven Curry, "The Man Who Heard the World,"
from Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple, 1997

                                            Each foot I put unearths

a thin place and green fear I will recall
earth long after it ends, keep remembering
water on rankled stone, whippoorwills, owls,
the lumber and listing color of howled
flesh, cow eyes, dung, how the peregrine's wing
sickles the stinkhorn mushrooms where we dwell.

--Nell Altizer, from Thin Place sonnet sequence, 1999

Three former colleagues have died since this Spring semester ended. Bob McHenry had just retired; Steve Curry and Nell Altizer, had retired some years ago. Steve and Nell were both poets and teachers of poetry, so their deaths have sent me back to their books to hear their voices again. They join Norman Hindley in the chronicle of recent poet deaths on O`ahu. Both had strongly spiritual sides. Steve was a Jungian whose dream life features prominently in his poems, along with quotations from Rumi. Nell--who wrote of an Irish tern, "The great Cloud of Unknowing on the prowl"--was involved with the mystery and mysticism that the lyric poem offers. Little in her life seemed closed except these beautiful poems, collected in The Man Who Died en Route, published in 1989 by the University of Massachusetts Press (selected by Amy Clampitt) and in Thin Place, a chapbook of 15 sonnets published by Tinfish Press in 1999. Steve left behind two books published by Anoai Press in Honolulu, namely Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple (1997) and Dancing the Waves and Other Poems (1998).

Steve was in the Marriott Hotel room in Washington, DC with Rob Wilson when I interviewed for a job at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa in 1989. He was the one who picked me up at the airport when I arrived on August 1, 1990 to assume my position as assistant professor. I later came to think of that long ride to faculty housing as a tour of Hawai`i's "dark side." Steve himself had a dark side, sometimes awkwardly combined with his wit, and so--when I mentioned that my parents had bought me Amelia Earhardt luggage (of all things! didn't they know what happened to her over the Pacific!) for my trip, he took me to the lookout at Diamond Head where her plane had been spotted, soon before she disappeared in the South Pacific. His wit is evident in the inscription in Dancing the Waves, where he writes "For Susan -- Another who dances the waves / (in her own peculiar fashion) / Best wishes, / Steve Curry." For a year or two, early on, he'd taken a small group of us junior faculty nearly every weekend to Makapu`u to boogie board. Those were hardly learners' waves, but Makapu`u was Steve's favorite spot on the island, even though he'd lost most of his teeth to someone's surfboard there. It remains mine, too, though I've not been in the water there since the ocean nearly swallowed me in the late 90s. His darkness can be found in "Sometimes":

When sometime, despite the fine insulation
Of these walls, I can hear myself in the other room;

When sometimes I can no longer lie,
And then find there's nothing left to say;

And when sometimes my own masks
Leave even me unconvinced;

Sometimes I try to climb out of now
And sleep, like the rock-horse child
Urgently rides in a dream to serious places.

But as one who loves rain and the painful
Beauty of the many-colored earth, I
Long to awaken, although sometimes it
Takes days to fight my way back through slumber. (Waxing, 86)

The pathos of the first three sections gives way to an awkwardly written final four lines. Awkward perhaps because they represent such difficulty, that of knowing that he is asleep to himself, but wanting--and likely not wanting--to awaken from that place.

In "Fool, Said My Muse," Nell (who knew her Sidney) writes a passionate sequence of sonnets to an adulterous lover, one that attacks him and also the masculine tradition of the sonnet ("William," she calls out Wordsworth, "old nut, what do you know of fret? / or convent rooms, or, for that matter, nuns?"). But her own version of the "hard lie" comes in sonnet 5, where she turns her attack on herself for not seeing the disconnect between her and her lover:

And you, my dear friend, sitting on the fence
of a dilapidated marriage, write
to me of the transparencies of peace. Fight-
ing the hard lie, fighting the ten-year wrench
of word from deed, calling your wife pigwench,
mouth upside down, you say we must not bite
each time we kiss. Love is a sheer (not recondite)
vocabulary, you say. Priests, poets kiss peace. Hence,

Nell, this kiss of war, opaque, not see-through,
mucked, will strike the night out with its bitter wish
that rather the man would grab his sword than shoes
and fuck appearances. God, do we just appear?
What is apparent and transparent? This:
the guileless, flimsy, obvious, and clear.  (TMWDeR, 27)

This ugly war between lovers becomes a gorgeous poem, one that gestures past the human drama, the sexual war, to the larger question: "God, do we just appear?" The "obvious, and clear" of a dying relationship is also its inverse property, a way of seeing through the world as "obvious, and clear."

Poetry was Nell's refuge. The sonnet sequence continues its passionate, turbulent way, until the pause in sonnet 8, which signals poetry's utter significance to this poet. Late in her career, she taught a course on formalist poetry and had her students perform their sestinas, their villanelles, their sonnets. She was completely wedded to form: "Mad, I'm not. Some-

times. Not now. The sestet is serene.
Beyond the troubling two-rhyme, the frame settles
into the composition of three plums.
Cities of refuge, possible as rain,
appear above the traffic. Language is
the House of Being, the sane say. And the poem comes. (30)

The sequence ends after loss. The poet picks up her daughter's homework from the table and is suddenly thrown into grief over her lover, now gone. She describes his body as "resolute as ironwood, limber" and then ushers in the pathetic fallacy of storm. But this is not any storm, it's a storm whose locus is Hawai`i:

The trades are out of line over the entire
island tonight. Koa trunks and fallen jacaranda
uproot the volcanic earth between. An edgy
weather muddies the ground from the remembered
to the real. And the squall-lined wind of desire
blows out of its six-inch pot the Tree of Knowledge. (32)

Her shifts between the remembered and the real, the actual and emotional weather are swift, and they bite (as the apple off that Tree was bitten). Only her keen sense of form, her devotion to working the poem into form, salves her inner squalls, for a time.

If this is loss, then anger at violent death threatens to upend the poem; in her clearest rage, Nell approaches Hart Crane's high octane verbal agility. Her poem, "This Day in Paradise," is about the murder of a young girl, Maile Gilbert, in 1985; the girl was kidnapped, taken to a remote location on O`ahu, and killed viciously. You can find some details of this murder here. Nell begins, again, from Biblical symbology: "The snake is cool and green, purled with desire," then finds its location in the West Virginia of her childhood. Her use of detail is nearly desperate, holding off memories of an encounter with a "tramp" in the woods, one whose "nails [are] on my shoulder." She goes home, punished (in the woods, at home, or both, I'm not sure), and curses the God of her youth. And then she turns her attention to the dead child: this attention is at once loving and keenly aware of the violence wrought by man on girl:

O holy and minute particulars,
this opening, wet earth, lochia, located,
placenta, placed, I say, our world, not shat,
its blue, uncut umbilical of stars!--
twisting and twisting out of the northeasterly
air over the deltas, over the lowered savannas,
over the slow, sidewinding slough of the surf
at Mokole'ia where his young and white and strapping
fingers bind her throat, filled with his semen,
yelling for her father yelling for her father,
seeing in the southern sky, child-wide and
yelling for her father, that half-cocked crux,
one star yanked up and sucking blackness as far away
as the hand of salvation from her forehead.

This poem is about rape, about murder, and about the failure of religion (Father) and family (father) to save an innocent girl. It is also (dare I say) an amazing piece of writing. There are lines where nearly every word is separated by a comma from the next, spat forth by this surrogate mother-poet. And there is the repetition of "yelling . . . yelling . . . yelling . . . " until the poem itself begins to scream, the poet-child helpless against the forces of the patriarchy she disdains and fears.

Both Nell and Steve were Euro-American poets who moved to Hawai`i as adults; they were part of an unmarked diaspora that ended in their being marked as white poets. Nell said to me once in a car driving through Kāne`ohe, where she lived at the time, as I do now, that she had never felt welcomed by other poets in Hawai`i. One of our local students was startled to hear Nell repeat that sentiment in the middle of an honors thesis conversation. I'm not sure Nell would have felt at home anywhere, but Hawai`i was her particular challenge. Steve seemed more of the place; he spent his weekends boogie boarding and body surfing, other days flying kites in the park. He married a local woman after his first marriage fell apart. But, in "Sufi Anger in the Late 20th Century," his own sense of dislocation cuts through:

Sometimes it's just too difficult living in a place
where the trees do not have the decency to shed
their leaves and where the birds nest in every season.

So why, especially on a warm night with a batik moon,
full and streaked with cloud, when even the insects are still,
and the ocean at rest laps languidly at every shore,

Why is this night, of all nights, the night you choose
to call me, like a nightmare, offering me a hole to fall into?
Oh, my Soul, or is it fearing your silence, I've called you? (DTW, 45)

Nature is echo chamber, as the headnote from Rumi tells us, "I've been knocking from the inside," writes the poet who came before telephones. But it was also, for Steve, a place so beautiful as to be indescribable: "There is no way to describe the crystalline water / On a sunlit Makapu`u morning" (25), which comes after a poem of directions on how to body surf the Makapu`u shorebreak. From the earlier book: "It's a perfect day at Makapu`u." That book has a photograph of Makapu`u on the cover. Many of Steve's poems tell more than they ought, show less. But he moves inevitably from the real shore break at Makapu`u to a sensation of transcending the moments he so often finds painful. There's Rumi, there's tai chi, and there's the ocean. The ocean at Makapu`u seems to win every time.

I remember Nell's description of Diamond Head / Leahi as resembling a dreadnaught. Her reference to the "cities of refuge" in her "Fool" poem was also about the Pu`uhonua, or Hawaiian place of refuge. Ever the keen eye and ear. But her real work was about sudden widowhood, love affairs, God, and--in later poems--about Ireland'; as I noted, she didn't seem to find this sense of place in Hawai`i, either as poet or as person. Her poems were more about relationships than about places, even if those relationships took "place." Most of all, her poems speak of and to loss. The West Virginia of her childhood was never Wordsworthian. And she brought that trauma to Hawai`i with her, wrote it out in her poems. If, as one of our visiting writers put it, "you write and write and write about pain and then wake up the next morning and it's still there," Nell tried to write it out. That she didn't write much over a long career speaks to the pain of confronting trauma, as well as to the difficulty of writing.

One of the best times I ever had in a classroom was when Nell came in the early 90s to a grad class I was teaching and improvised a reading of Susan Howe's Singularities with me and the students. It was then I realized she was one of the best readers of poetry I had ever encountered (and I audited a class with Harold Bloom in college). She was passionate about poetry, about her students, she was passionate as a friend and passionate as an adversary. She could be utterly exhausting. We all loved her for it, even if and when we pulled away. Steve also loved poetry. He didn't come out of Nell's Renaissance and British Romantic tradition so much as that of Gary Snyder and the Beats. He'd often stop in the hall to ask me what the status of his Tinfish subscription was (when we still published a journal). I never knew, but always said I'd look it up. From what I've heard from his former students, including Father Robert Phelps, a retired priest who was also my student, Steve was a great teacher before his illnesses (and there were many) got in the way.

Finally, some thoughts on having colleagues. My department, which had over 80 full-time faculty members when I arrived in 1990, now has fewer than 40, with more retirements coming soon. My department, which was nearly all-white when I arrived, is not all-white now. That took battles that cost many of us friends. My department, which was mostly male when I arrived, is not now. That also took battles that began before I arrived. Nell and Steve played ambivalent roles in these battles; sometimes I agreed with them, often I did not. God knows over the years I've burned some bridges and had them burned in front of me. But what seems clear in losing Nell and Steve and Bob McHenry is that the high drama of departmental battles, no matter how necessary they are when they happen, needs later to be let go. There's something more final than a bad department meeting. Perhaps these deaths will offer an opening to us. In the elegy, after all, loss becomes gain, even if it's just poem. But a poem can also be a life.


Altizer, Nell. The Man Who Died en Route. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

--. Thin Place. Kāne'ohe: Tinfish Press, 1999.

Curry, Steven. Dancing the Waves and Other Poems. Honolulu: Anoai Press, 1998.

--. Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple. Honolulu: Anoai Press, 1997.

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