Book Review

Ann Curran, Me First, Lummox Press, 2013

Reviewed by Nancy Scott

I have to admit that I was predisposed to liking this book. As managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, I had published “Domenic’s Dictionary," a version of which is included in the book. This fresh, offbeat poem is exactly what we like to publish, so I was curious to see how Curran had pulled together a whole book. What a delight!

I only had to tour the Table of Contents to realize that I had stumbled upon something unusual: every one of the eighty-five poems begins with “Me and….” Within this format we are whisked along from childhood adventures (“Me and Diane Yeagley”) to politics (“Me and the Republican I live with”) to travels (“Me and Turkey”), but especially to interviews with an array of public and not-so-public figures like Maxine Kumin, Andy Warhol, and Jack Klugman, and an ax killer,  to name a few.

Curran’s long, successful career as a journalist gave her access to some of the unique material in the book, but every aspect of her life becomes fodder for her plain language narratives, notable for their frankness, rich humor, and eye for details. For example, do you know what she and Leonardo Da Vinci have in common? We share the love of early and late light. Or the advice from Maxine Kumin, a U.S. Poet Laureate? For God sake, read poems. They write poems, but don’t read poems. Or that Nancy Marchand, the mobster’s mother in the Sopranos, was a graduate of Carnegie Tech and Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, confided in Curran, The history of my stupidity would fill thirty volumes? Still the two find commonality“You’re a Catholic?” “Yes”  “You’re a Catholic?” “Yes.”

Interspersed among the public poems are ones that address her Catholic upbringing. In “Me and the Buhl Planetarium” she says, I am stunned to prayer by Saturn and its rings./ The Foucault pendulum hypnotizes all/ as it moves back and forth, across the pit floor. But it’s also a setting that …ejects me from my white, Catholic orbit./ I gain a black buddy with gorgeous green eyes…and...A Jewish guy who wants to date me.

In “Me and My First Bishop,” Curran pulls no punches when she describes how the bishop reviewed her report card—You got an ‘A’/ in logic and you’re a woman./ He thought that was rather funny./ I didn’t get the joke at all. Again, inMe and Jesus Christ,”Curran admits, I was so afraid of his church/ I confessed adultery believing/ it was pretending to be an adult. In “Me and the Catholic Bishops,” the bishops are selling their mansions. Why? Curran asks and then answers her question. Penance for the pedophile priests’ sins.

Curran comes to her material in various ways, e.g. face-to-face interviews with the evasive Holly Hunter or with Herb Simon, a founding father of artificial intelligence, or through a phone interview with Seamus Heaney, which she describes this way:

Me: Perched on my bed beside the only phone that hooks up to my tape recorder.
He: “beside the waters of Dublin Bay,” already bootless and knee-deep in poet talk.

Not all of her wide-ranging connections are with people we are likely to have heard of. On a bus trip in “Me and Maureen,” she chats with an elderly traveler when they stop at a buffet, which Curran describes as being two blocks long, and talk about everything from divorce to incontinence; in the home of Pittsburgh scions, who hobnob with politicians from both parties, the wife insists they are just regular people, even with two extra homes and a yacht; and, at the YMCA, Curran swims with ‘the Fish Lady,’ who also uses the Y as her personal laundromat.

Curran is skilled at gleaning the poetic from an interview, the humor from a mishap and, in chance meetings or near meetings, from what she reads into a nod or a sneer. When she imagines what the conversation might have been if it had really happened, she melds fact and fiction so deftly that the reader simply suspends all judgment. Curran wants the reader to accept exactly what is on the page, no more, no less.

Toward the end of the book I found the poems more reflective. In the midst of spring beauty in “Me and Chatham Village,” she ponders death and in “Me and that Old Lady in the Mirror,” she expresses her annoyance with the ravages of aging. To cap the book off, in the final poem after visiting his Vermont home, Curran muses about the influence Frost has had on her writing. It took me a lifetime to grow into a poet, she says. And we are so glad that she did.

Me and the Fish Lady

share the YMCA sauna. She drapes
her clothes all over the benches.
I look for a space big enough
to stretch my towel and my body.
She comes by bus from Carrick
with two carry-ons stuffed with clothes
and makes a laundromat of the Y.
She needs no quarters to wash
her duds.  She rub-a-dub-dubs them
with soap in the shower stall,
rinses, then wrings them out
in the tiny machine that squeezes
the juice out of wet bathing suits.
Huge bras and undies, shirts, sweaters,
tights, multiple hiker socks
splurt out their wetness.
Pools of water spread across the floor.
I slosh through in my flip-flops.
The cleaning lady, who speaks
a combo of Serbo-Croatian and English,
sputters her anger in both languages.
The Y, meanwhile, has made a huge
poster of the fish lady that hangs
with a certain dignity in the foyer.
She poses in goggles, flippers, layers
and layers of clothes. All dressed up
for her six hours of doggie-paddling
back and forth, back and forth, back and forth
in her lane like the serious lap swimmers.

Nancy Scott is an artist and author of five books of poetry, as well as the managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets' Cooperative in New Jersey. Raised in Illinois, Nancy has had ties to Wisconsin from summer camp to college to lakefront property, which her family owned until recently and which has been the focus of numerous poems.