Section I “The hawk circles”, provides a testing ground for the limits of endurance and requisite empathy as well as applying a journalistic accounting of life-threatening circumstances. In the very first poem, One by One, Pacifico Curtis goes inside a church and describes the iconic symbol of suffering, the crucifix: “ribs/can be counted, one/by one.” The presence of this broken, life size body initiates us into the images that follow and provide a template for the access to compassion required for further exploration of the stories she gleans from all continents where the human spirit faces challenges, survives and overcomes adversity.
Pacifico Curtis gives a world tour of events that are harrowing and personal and poignant. In Haiti, 2010 she brings us into the vision of a girl-child with bloated belly: “eyes/holding this moment/and the ones before/amputation and pain/controlled, now with/cookie in hand/she urges her surgeon/to enjoy the sweet.” She enables us to share this moment of grace and humanity amidst disease, malnutrition and catastrophic remedy. Spoken briefly in one breath of 15 short lines, this poem comes at the beginning of the book and serves as a haunting touchstone as does the initial poem of the crucifix.
The reader is always front-row-center to the unfolding life-threatening dramas and near disasters. In A Wife Contemplates The Pulley we are told: “...this hole.../twenty-stories//my husband is down there//his travel supports our family/now engineers have our lives/in their hands//they recommend beams/a structure pulley cage...” We are suspended, along with “A Wife” in the belief that: “mere ropes in a shaft can rescue men.” In poem after poem, we are taken, over and over, to the precipice and encouraged: breathe, yes, breathe. In the face of mortal danger and suffering we are challenged: how far does your humanity and empathy extend? The result is profound, stunning, moving.
In Being. A Father, Pacifico Curtis discusses her special needs son, 15 years old: “looks 10 with the mind of a 2 ½ year-old/’we do want him to live, don’t we’ asked the doctor” and with that an inward devastating precipice. Again, with courage and precision: “there is no evidence that his life is happy/he spends much of his life crying... somehow his sister and doctor make him widely joyous.” She concludes: “he’s in great pain, he has great laughter he bangs his head, he’s in a home...He has a life of his own//they give us more than we will ever give them/they know about being/they know things that we forget.” This leaves me speechless, wanting silence, needing another deep breath. And, in yet another way, challenges our humanity and instinct for compassion.
We are encouraged to embrace the flaws and not discard that which is broken in Meditation on Kintsukuroi: “The shattered bowl no longer whole/...do we take the jagged shards to make/ – not the thing that was – but with precious metals as glue,/transformed...anew.” This theme, a recurrent thread throughout the book, challenges notions of perfection, expedience and wholeness promoted in our culture of consumerism/commercialism that thrives on our insecurities and sense of deficiency, lack. Rather, the spiritual journey of transformation and generosity of spirit are explored and presented as alternatives to our cultural ideals of perfectionism and flawlessness, our tendency to discard that which falls short. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen’s wise notion: the crack is how the light gets in.
With that in mind, a Viet Nam vet who was blind and had no legs rescues a toddler from drowning in The Gift: “...launched onto his chest/creeping through low shrubs his blind eyes following the cry/to the pool’s edge the toddler he turned her head breathed”. Again, this challenges our preconceived notions of what and how to truly live, what is success and how brokenness reveals the human spirit.
The second section, Canary in rare olive, starts out with the mystical The Baritone in St. Barts where, in the sanctuary: “its quiet dark broken/by light filtered through stained/glass clerestory, a diffused scattering/of particles that hang above him...” The church is empty, the man holds a small child’s hand, he is father but can never be daddy, he is dressed exquisitely with heavy cologne, calls the child princess, their footsteps resound on cold stones: “what they do next, fragile/in this empty sanctuary, this girl, this man/and some compulsion to fill the chamber/ — disturb and shape the light –/he drops her tiny hand and opens his mouth...to the anguish/of his song, theirs...”
Grace Notes and other poems in this section tell the story of her broken family of origin, the small girl a product of an extra marital affair, not ever being accepted by her father’s nuclear family when she is a child, and her mother’s struggles to make a life for the two of them. Pacifico Curtis tells of sexual abuse by a janitor in summer camp: the child is drawn to him like a father figure which holds her fascination and somehow a reflection of her broken family.
The poem Home touchingly tells the family story from her mother’s point of view, how cooking onions and ground beef and watching TV with the child invokes a sense of home. Then, loneliness sets in when the child grows up, marries, moves away. Then, moving in with the grown child and her young family, trimming shrubs, and the familiar scent of cooking, again, resonating as home.
As a young adult, she tells the story of seeing her father, meeting his wife, and connecting with her half siblings in Convertible: “...elm trees, shaded cushioned chairs and the hammock/I occupied in my white, brown, and blue/polka dot bikini, sipping the Tom Collins/my father poured for me as I considered/family...” The alienation and awkwardness related in the scene also conveys the intimate sense of family with all the complications and tenderness implied by those relationships. She thanks her brother for taking her to the airport in his convertible, they get to know each other, he says confidently, “I teach biology”; she says nervously, “I like English...poetry and fiction”. Then ends the poem with: “I really liked having a brother that hour that open car/a sibling sudden as the summer breeze.” Part of telling stories through a lens of brokenness is searching for a sense of belonging and identity. This poem exposes the fragility of that quest.
In section III, You cry out, has an elegiac tone as in You Rode Your Horses, dedicated to an restless former lover: “Your animals of the seventies/named for constellations, idiosyncrasies,/the four winds, the occasional rock star//who restored you from city sadness, lifted you...their quirks and silent powers.” There is a vulnerability in telling his story and the time they shared together: “the haybarn smell/the rutted trails you’ve ridden/to shores we call our own.” “Rutted” resonates here with the previous leitmotifs of a flawed nature bringing us back to compassion that motivates most of the lyric in this collection.
Slightly tells of another friend and his idiosyncrasies: “I knew you slightly/before the story of tomato/seeds/rolled into newsprint.” This image speaks to me since it reminds me of something my father used to do and how it conjures up the smear of tomato pulp and seed superimposed over the newsprint; a comforting image to me but also symbolic of bloodline, seed, lineage. Such themes require bravery and truth-telling.
The pulpy red smear also resonates back to an earlier poem, Four Chambers Redacted, in which she explores her own flaw of a heart murmur, monitoring her condition and living with a heart defect: “Something to attend to because if that goes away, life might slip with it.”
Beautifully put: we can’t really live without our flaws, that put us at risk, that make us vulnerable, that make our humanity accessible.
Cheryl A. Passanisi is a nurse practitioner, poet and singer who has published poems and reviews in Tupelo Quarterly, American Journal of Poetry, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Cider Press Review. Her first book of poetry was published in June 2020 entitled: Geraniums from the Little Sophias of Unruly Wisdom published by Finishing Line Press. She lives on the San Francisco peninsula.