A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us by Caleb Curtiss

A Brother's Grief & the Made Thing

reviewed by Matthew DeMarco

Perhaps because of a topical similarity, the first comparison that entered my mind when reading Caleb Curtiss's A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) was a connection with the writer Gregory Orr. Both poets have explored the grief associated with the loss of a sibling. But, deeper still, Orr writes, in the introduction to Poetry as Survival, about the two conseqeuences that follow the translation of an experienced existential crisis into a personal lyric: “First, we have shifted the crisis to a bearable distance from us: removed it to the symbolic but vivid world of language. Second, we have actively made and shaped this model of our situation rather than passively endured it as lived experience.”

Midway through
Taxonomy, in “Poem With You Drinking a Cup of Coffee,” I find deep resonance, and conflict, with these assertions. The piece opens, “This poem has no occasion./I edited that out a long time ago.” As the speaker proceeds through the following three stanzas, he portrays the tension that emerges from creating a “made” thing out of “passively endured...lived experience.” While this is the essence of most personal lyric, the lyric that emerges here forms a meta-commentary on the unreality, perhaps even the futility, of the personal lyric that attempts to contain the disorder and grief which necessitates its existence. There is something deeply disquieting that settles over the verse:

I have even learned
to grieve formulaically,

while the function of your absence
has grown less and less

integral to my algorithm: you
aren't even you anymore.

While the survival function of translating crisis into personal lyric pervades the speaker's actions as a poet, the speaker is knowledgable, and self-aware, of the disparity between any lyric he could produce and the absence created by a lost person. But just as the pruning and streamlining of the poem has resulted in an ever-distanced “you,” so does this at the same time mirror the very real absence of the “you” over time.

And the personal lyric that does live in this book, that is made without this same level of meta-commentary, is certainly enviable for its elegance as well as its formal innovation and ingenuity. Poems range from the smoky, repetitious “Still” to the self-annotated, essay-like prose of the titular poem. In some poems, Curtiss makes use of several series of open parentheses nestled inside each other, one after the next, that never close. As in this section from the conclusion of “Moth”:

            (you want to hold it
like a bead again (a pearl strung alongside a hundred others
                                                                      (you want to hold it
like it's anything but a sip of whiskey
                                             suspended in the vacuum between
                                                       your tongue
                   and your velum as you imagine the shape of a bullet
                          (a bead (a moth

waiting to be swallowed

(a body
                                waiting to propel itself
                      into nothing
                                                   (a presence that will burn

                      (long after it's passed

As “Moth” follows the materially transformative shape of the moth/bullet/drop of liquor/bead, myriad explanation and commentary winds up nestled inside of each new turn in the lyric. The effect is one of a quest deeper into the marrow of the stuff, but from which there is no sense of final conclusion, only further digging unaccompanied by a solid floor. Multiple realities live within such a poem that elude straightforward narrative, as they do in the various vignettes of “Dream,” the reflection of “Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister” (including its own shifting perspective) upon “Self-Portrait Without My Dead Sister,” and in the concluding, titular poem, “A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us.”

The book's craftedness, elegance, uncanniness, and haunting lyricism earned Curtiss the Fall 2013 Black River Chapbook award. And within these captivating turns of language, the book's greatest strength lies in Curtiss's ability as a writer to maintain an unflinchingly raw vulnerability.
A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us is a devastating read. The verse leaves a lasting impression far beyond the page, as in the concluding section of the six-part poem “Elegy”:

I will remember a phone,
waking up

on a couch,

hearing the direct current
of our father's no pass through
a receiver,

and register again and again
in in my temporal lobe
like a prayer I could not answer.

Like I remember
how you once filled up an entire
sand pale with mollusk shells,

how they shimmered
like toenails in the afternoon sun,
how you threw

a handful of them into the air
like coins: a memory
half-lost in the twisting

synapses of a moment past:
the presence of your absence
tangible for a moment

and then not, lost
but not done,
waiting like I waited for you

behind a stack of rocks—waited
so I could startle you, let you hate me
for a moment:

my laughter
washing away in the sound
of the waves

rising once more:
reciting in perpetuity
a necessary erosion.