A Review of A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us by Caleb Curtiss

(New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2015)

I have long been interested in the relationship between the poem and the moment or, perhaps more precisely, the moment as it sits perched within memory. But after my sister’s sudden and unexpected passing, I felt compelled to narrow my attention further by focusing on themes of time and loss. I needed, at the very least, to make sense of an assembly of events, which I felt were not quite secure within my memory; as time slipped by and distance grew, I could no longer bear to categorize them by simple chronology. Although I have a great respect for the practitioners of nonfiction, I have no impulse to nail down my own memories through more literal storylines. I remember them as burning, imagistic moments, and this is what I find within the poems of Caleb Curtiss’ A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition.

 

Although the title doesn’t prepare us in the way that Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy or even Donald Hall’s Without does, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us is an elegy. Perhaps this is one of the ways Curtiss reminds us that we cannot prepare for loss. The chapbook opens with “Primer”:

There was an actual noise,

something I will never hear,

and then, I am told, she died.

 

This is the only

important part of the poem:

that which prepares us

 

– primer –

 

the thing dividing

what-had-been

from what-would-be

Throughout the collection, however, we are reminded that nothing can actually prepare us for death or, more specifically, grief. In “Sparrow,” the speaker finds his sister, but she appears as a dying bird:

The kind of thing that she, as a child,

would so often be moved

 

to care for. The kind of thing

I could never look at.

 

Even now, I don’t want to.

Likewise, repetition demonstrates the human inability to ready oneself for certain events. For example, “Dream” ends with the following four lines:

This time you blow by the stop sign and everything’s fine.

This time you blow by the stop sign and everything’s fine.

This time you blow by the stop sign and everything’s fine.

This time you say how tired you are.

Within the three repetitive lines, I feel the impending danger of the situation – but cannot stop it. And, just as I almost become accustomed to it, almost comfortable in it, I find myself still suddenly and painfully unready.

 

Despite my inability to prepare for the shattering hearts encountered within the chapbook, Curtiss offers friendly provisions—both for his speaker and for the reader. He takes us honestly, and he takes us slowly. For example, in “Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister,” the “I” does not even enter the 30-line poem until the second-to-last line: “I won’t pretend / to understand.” Instead, the speaker refers to both himself and his sister in the third person, beginning within the first line: “There is a girl and a boy sitting on a curb.” Similarly, Curtiss waits until the third-to-last poem of the chapbook, “Cup & Saucer,” to write:

our sister, Elisabeth,

who had been sunbathing further down the pier,

hadn’t made it to the other side

of an intersection that morning.

Curtiss eases readers into a literal detailing of the events; this is the first time Elisabeth’s name is revealed. And this distancing—even from one’s own self—is particularly intriguing within a collection titled A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us. Curtiss seems to attempt to tidy up for us, all the while providing a classification system for that which cannot be tidied. For example, the collection explores “the similarities between bus transfers and energy transfers” and measures the space between brothers via tangible measurements, such as “size and volume.”

 

I suspect our fate as human beings is to experience both grief and wonder concurrently—and to be both astonished and subdued by it. And, despite the difficult subject matter of Curtiss’ collection, this is what we find within A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us.

 

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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor for The Literary Review.

Three poems by Caleb Curtiss appear in TLR’s Winter 2011 issue, The Rogue Idea. His poem “Swans as a Scourge” is also available for immediate reading via TLR Online.