Coteau Books - November 30, 2006 - 12 Comments
Running in Darkness by Robert Currie
Reviewed by Kris Brandhagen
Although it is a collection of poems that awakens in its subject matter, it is through Currie’s humble approach to the details that this book of poetry rapidly evolves. Robert Currie’s Running in Darkness is a life story comprised of three sections that span the distance between conception and age sixty. Evocative and at times sentimental, Currie’s new book is complex yet optimistic.
In the opening poem, “One Winter Night,” a grain elevator agent “huddles / against his wife on a thirty-nine inch bed, / frost clinging to its metal frame” (1) and the persona of the collection is conceived. I can imagine my own late uncle, a grain elevator agent, clutching my aunt and listening to the wind as it attempted to tear the roof off one of the shacks. The imagery here is palpable, the cold real, and the human need revealed.
The first appearance of the narrator:
In His Place
Wanting to talk, wanting a place in their conversation, I sit with my cookie and milk at the kitchen table, between them, my mother and the neighbour from three doors down, the two of them breathless with words streaming while jasmine tea cools in china cups from the sideboard, and knock knock, I whisper, the neighbour pausing to look, my mother shaking her head, no, go on, you were saying, but knock knock, I try again, my mother reaching with her right hand, vermillion nails floating toward me, dipping, and her hand falls on my lips, gentle as the petals of roses. Razor who, I say, the hand pressing tighter, squeezing, stopping my mouth. I look down at my glass of milk, lift it, turn it upside down on the table, milk gushing, submerging the patterns of pink impatiens in the plastic tablecloth, a white flood spreading, my mother and the lady from three doors down leaping from their seats, but silent at last, lifting the tablecloth by its edges — too late: the milk a river pouring into my lap. Razor hand if you want to talk, I say, I stare down at my dress pants, soaked, my good shoes, awash in a puddle of milk, while I begin to quake, shattered by tears I didn’t expect and cannot stop.
Currie embraces all of the best aspects of the prose-poem from vivid imagery and rambling sentences to a circularity that underlines the statement “Razor hand if you want to talk.” Placed as the introduction to the persona as a child, this prose-poem has an excellent rounded and run-on quality that mimics a child’s stream of thought. Currie plays with form throughout this book, giving an indication of his mastery of the structural aspects of poetry.
Annie, a grade behind me in school,
as sure as September sent by her father,
ten dollar bill in the sleeve of her blouse,
shuffled to our back door, one hand clenched.
Before her hesitant knock, I’d spend hours
searching for bent pages to straighten, erasing pencil
smudges like bruises, taping gashes, my textbooks
restored, looking undamaged, almost untouched,
and sold for less than they’d bring
from any other kid on the block.
As if somehow that would satisfy her father
And keep him from his daughter’s bed.
As is the case here, it is impossible to quote parts of some of Currie’s poems. It is part of his style to allow the reader to think that the poem is a snapshot while he unfolds the action before delivering an eloquent and well planned blow to the reader’s guts as they realize that anything that has occurred to the textbooks likely happens in Annie’s bedroom. He lets the reader think that he is capturing a moment in time between, for instance, having his uncle slap him for staring at his toothless lips: “‘Stay there’ he said, ‘or I’ll cut off your cock’” (“Uncle Andrew” 13) and having a fantasy about his English literature teacher:
The last button undone, she pulls the blouse open,
shrugs her shoulders, milky skin, a trace of pink,
the blouse falls away, breathless white satin,
a lace margin stretches stunningly, her hands
behind her back, she bends slightly at the waist,
the satin bra drops.
(“The Last Time” 24)
The second part of the book, “Beginning Again,” opens with marriage, the speaker and his wife driving to a cabin for their honeymoon in the poem “Starting Out Together” (41) —appropriately, everything in the poem “shakes,” “quakes,” and “aches.” Every poem in this section is a new plot advancement approached with the same exquisite tenderness with which childhood is addressed in “Beginning.” Changes occur: marriage, children, teaching, leading into “Closing Time” in which the persona takes his young son with him to the cabin to drain the water pipes just before the first freeze of winter:
I lay [the hose] on the bank, remove the foot-valve, watch the water gush, its sibilant rush the only sound in the chill night – my son is gone, I wheel around, nothing moving, stumble down to the lake, not a wave, moon and stars like frost motes on black water, I scrabble up the rocks, running in darkness, call his name, willing my voice calm, mustn't frighten him or me, up the porch steps, snap on cabin lights, every room empty, I dash outside… …I suck in my breath to howl his name, The backhouse door slaps shut, and here he comes… …this is how it happens.
And we have the reference for the title of the book in all of its vulnerability.
The last part of the book — “Ending” — darkens, and deals with aging, grandchildren, the deaths of the speaker’s mother and some of his friends.
Not a Nice DayIt's noon, and I've finished my forty laps, I'm doing stretches at the edge of the pool -- my right leg's always ready to cramp — when I look down at my calf and notice my swimsuit, its colour washed out, fabric transparent. I plunge under the water – oh, my balding head, chest hair turning grey, but the hair on my balls shines curly and black, the crack of my ass on public display. Seizing a deep breath, I swim to the ladder, hang there, a noose of ripples around my neck. I wait and wait for the deck to clear. Then burst from the pool, grab a paddleboard from the rack, hold it over my crotch, zip by the lifeguard at ease on her stool, switch the board around to cover my butt and rush for the shower room, glancing over my shoulder. Nobody looking, "Have a nice day." It's the other guard, slim and shapely and coming toward me, oh man, my privates exposed, my face aflame. She's the young one we all like to flirt with and she doesn't notice a thing.
Robert Currie’s Running in Darkness is obviously the work of a seasoned poet. In reading this book I have been tossed back into my own prairie upbringing, into memories of my own: flicking of matches onto dry fields, idiosyncratic relatives, first glimpse of religion, and fantasies of teachers. If I were puzzling over badly placed line breaks and evasive images, none of this sinking into reverie would have happened.
Weaknesses? Well, I have come to the conclusion that this book is autobiographical—at least for the most part. Any suspension of disbelief I had is tried by a poem called “This Fire” (66), which mentions Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, and further destroyed where there is a poem about Currie’s son dedicated “for Ryan” followed closely by a poem about his daughter leaving home, dedicated “for Bronwen.” I mention this simply because it may be a hiccup to readers, like myself, who are picking up this book as the first Currie they’ve read. Perhaps Currie wants his reader to be mumbling to themselves, “Is this about him?” At any rate, it is distracting to the work itself, and I think it would only be minor changes to have indicated somewhere contextually near the beginning of the book whether it is autobiographical or not. Having said that, I find that it doesn’t matter that I doubt Currie’s ability—or anyone’s ability for that matter–to accurately retell his life; poetry is a non-fiction genre already, and I don’t believe that accuracy to his own (or anybody else’s) life story is his mission in this work.
Running in Darkness is a book of many strengths, one of the greatest being Currie’s humility. He is so wonderfully honest and modest, compelled to write about the sore spots, the turning points in life when we as people experience the greatest fear, anxiety, and shame. Yet, there is pride, and there is elation along with the sorrow and an incredible humour between these covers.