Averill Curdy on What Brought Her to Poetry
Wayward: difficult to control or predict; shortened from obsolete Middle English awayward, “turned away.”
I’ve kept a diary, more or less faithfully, for over 30 years. I’ve moved the expanding shelf of filled journals between various apartments in Seattle, and then to Texas, Missouri, Michigan, and finally to Chicago. I’ve copied favorite passages from my reading, noted the rare dream, and jotted down ideas, stray images, or lines for poems; I’ve paginated and indexed them. I mourned when my favorite notebook—an Exaclair sketchbook with 100 pages of 100-gram French paper that loved ink—was discontinued. Writing in one of these was happiness, small, but durable as the cup of coffee my husband makes for me each morning. But I never so much as glance at a single one of those diaries after writing the final words on its last page.
The summer I turned 25 my mother was dying of breast cancer. Long after she died, I broke the middle joint of my thumb fielding an easy ground ball at second base during a softball game. The doctor bent my thumb backwards from the break, binding it into position so that the tendon and joint would knit themselves back together, then sent me home with some Tylenol. That night the pain reduced the little vanities and injuries, desire, and self-regard of my identity to kindling. The next day I was able to get a prescription for codeine and the cessation of that pain was an experience of delicious release from bondage. Afterwards, I was able to think of what my mother must have endured without complaint as the cancer colonized her bones and soft tissues.
One day, though, I walked into the house and found her on the sofa, rocking herself back and forth, crying. When I sat beside her, she kept saying, “I don’t want to die I don’t want to die.” What can be said in answer to such a fear? I tried anyway, my voice pursuing itself like twittering birds in the branches high above that wilderness.
When I think of what might have brought me to poetry—or tipped the balance, at least, between another life and this one—it’s the memory of my well-meant, empty noise and the effort to find what might speak truly to that moment.
As I lived within the longer shadow of my mother’s long dissolution, working at various software companies as a technical editor, poetry became the secret life inside my life. The language of poetry was sustenance as I listened to different executives at different times roll out new mission statements, repeating the clichés they loved, exhorting us in company meetings to “pick the low-hanging fruit.”
Instead I’d memorize poems, which I had begun in high school with John Donne’s “Song,” the first poem I fell in love with. I think when I’m old and tired, this poem, living in my mind, will wake me up with its impossible imperatives and uneven measures. It begins,
Go and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot. . .
What lessons did this poem imprint on me before I could even make use of them? One is that intricacy and artifice are no less passionate or authentic rhetorically than plainness and simplicity. Another resides in the swift catalog of images, a rhetorical strategy that orchestrates a series of hyperbolic impossibilities, culminating in the last stanza’s most preposterous of all: the existence of a woman both beautiful and faithful.
But many of these same images throughout the poem are associated with change: change is the devil who possessing no identity can assume any, change defines the flatteries, deceptions, and shifting allegiances of court life in Donne’s time, the desire for change is stung into life by the longing that envy stirs at another’s good fortune, and age is the change that mirrors reveal to us all. I feel the poem is less about the treachery of beautiful women, and more an expression of longing for stability, or repose, in a world of change. The figure of women’s faithlessness is suggested by what is, next to death, the most destabilizing and threatening experience for the self—love.
And while the longing is for constancy, the truth of the poem—as is true of life—is its own wayward nature, its restless turning from one thrilling image to the next.
Why am I so reluctant to consult the record contained in my old diaries?
Donne also wrote, elsewhere, “How much will I change before I am changed?” This suggests to me a paradox I feel acutely: despite living in a world defined by change, I know that there are obdurate, occluded parts of myself that resist the change I long for and am denied.
I know what I will I find in those old notebooks; simply, and often unbearably, myself. Though certain appearances have changed—my work, my winters, the city in which I live—too much else that is essential remains ineluctable. Always there are resolutions to write more and read better, as well as, for too many years, interpretations of the silences and ambiguities of various men to which I bring the subtlety and devotion (an old synonym for doom) of a medieval scholastic. Always, it seems, I am waiting for that thing that will change me.
Unlike many poets whose work I enjoy, poetry for me is neither a series of formal experiments performed on language, nor autobiography, that continual demonstration of the growth of a poet’s mind initiated by Wordsworth. What is contained in those diaries is, I realize, of a piece with my distaste for reading them, and even of using any materials of my life too plainly in my poems. It was from the prison of the self that I spoke to my mother, turning away her despair with words of comfort as bland and practiced as any executive’s; and it’s that prison that the journals, the daily occasions of life from which so much poetry is made, represent. Like Louise Bogan I would say that I have written down my life in the closest detail. But the rough and brutal facts are not there.
Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to say that poetry wasn’t the secret life inside my life, but outside of it, and the uncracked spines of the diaries what must be expressed but set aside to reach the language of poetry.
If thou beest born to strange sights /Things invisible to see. Though impossible as any one of the imperatives of Donne’s poem, what brings me to poetry is the attempt to find words commensurate to our extremity. What brings me to poetry is the desire to remain alert to a reality that is always larger than my perception of it. What brings me to poetry every day is the chance to be outside of myself.
Averill Curdy was born in the Pacific Northwest, where she worked as an arts administrator and in the software industry. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others, and her poems have appeared widely in both the United States and England. She lives in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern University. Song & Error is now available.