The world is plant and animal – it melts, it dies, it falls.
The following line reads: ‘So we make of it art’. Against the downward drag of his sense of mortality, Curtis lifts his spirits (and the reader’s) with his celebration of the aesthetic sense. As I implied earlier, this involves more than a love of painterly surfaces. It has a moral dimension, in art’s capacity to collaborate with cruelty, as shown in ‘William Orpen & Yvonne Aubicq in the Rue Dannon’. More often, Curtis depicts the positive relationship between artistic making and experience, with which painter and poet establish a place in the world. ‘Quartet for Two Painters’ provides a good example. The first part, ‘Prendergast’s Quarry’, is an elegy for Peter Prendergast, which ends:
In your last wicker bed you lie, Peter, and one by one we sprinkle our fingers of earth on you. You chose this landscape and it takes you in.
The tone is properly elegiac, a tribute to a dead friend. But the lines say more than that the painter is buried in the earth of north Wales. The language of the poem – the impasto effect I referred to earlier – depicts a landscape seen in terms of the painter’s art, so that ‘takes you in’ suggests a sense of deep belonging. In choosing the landscape, Prendergast helped to ‘make’ it, to render it as imaginative vision.
This is what Curtis’s poetry at its best does. Another fine example is ‘Lines at Barry’. Like many of Curtis’s poems, this is compact with history. Beginning ‘Morning light steely and sharp on the docks-water’, the poem describes ‘your great-grandfather’s vision’ as, an emigrant, he arrived in South Wales in 1898. The story of the poem – ‘not a unique story’ – relates the subsequent family experience to the larger history, and concludes:
Three lifetimes, two wars running to this moment – and none of this is unique, this telling, this drawing from memory of lines where, steely-silver, what we are now touches everything that made us, and is dangerous, and shines.
The surface realism of the poem contains a richly metaphorical use of the word ‘lines’. This is at once compositional – the ‘lines’ of the poem – and suggestive of other meanings, such as sight-lines and life-lines and lines in which people stand, or march. This is poet’s work, which shows an affinity to the art of certain painters. Its object is the disclosure of meaning in a depth of human experience, visible in and below history’s many dark or colourful surfaces.