Saturday, December 6, 2014



The Shape of a Box by Grace Curtis
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2014)

The witty intelligence in this collection is ever more pleasing because it sneaks up on you.  Grace Curtis’ The Shape of a Box is storytelling without being spoonfed narrative, containing enough gaps, shades, and/or shades that deepen the tale due to our imaginative involvement.  In fact, I even found this ars poetica within the poem “Stories We Tell of Ourselves”:

“Some stories 
hinge on supporting characters but more so
on ourselves.”

The collection is also strengthened by its poems’ interconnections—at times a  circling back structure that references matters raised by other poems.  Fortunately, such poems do not depend on the reader having had to read those other poems so that the poems can be enjoyed individually.  For example, the compelling “the story as a package” presents a nursing attendant caring for an old woman and coveting the old woman’s ring.  The nursing attendant hides the ring in one of the dresses in the closet, thinking that she could collect that ring after the woman’s death.  But when the woman dies five years later, the woman ended up buried in that same dress.  Later, when the old woman’s will is read, it is revealed the woman had left the ring to the nursing attendant “for all her years of service.  The attendant kept the empty burgundy ring box.”  Ooomph.

And a ring would show up to great effect two poems later in the book:

trinkets as containers of myth

     I dreamed bandits found not a diamond ring, but rather, a box of trinkets. They tied me to a chair and held each memento before my eyes. If the story was good enough, the item was placed back into the box.  If not, it was smashed and burned. One by one the trinkets were destroyed until I became a better storyteller. Each item became a character; its flaws, a place. A map along a lifeline emerged, the trinkets illuminated as personal myth. Some things we keep because we dare not let them go, because we’re not sure, or because we can spin a damn good story around them.

A similar linkage occurs elsewhere with poems presenting Michael Anthony, the staff member from the 1955 TV show The Millionaire who would go about knocking on people’s doors to present the occupant with a million-dollar check.  The links are effective in manifesting the sense that there’s often a whole bunch of things happening that’s not obvious and are behind the scenes.  And perhaps that’s one of the major “themes” of the book, deftly evoked too by this deceptively haunting poem (deceptive in the sense that I didn’t expect to be thinking about it days and days after I first read it):

the package as appropriation

     If Susan Sontag was correct when she wrote “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” then I stuffed thousands of objects into vacancy.  Surprise would be a package containing that which evolved from among the pictures I used as stand-ins for trinkets. I am good at one thing: not being good at most things. This is a truth I can sink my teeth into. My father looked a little like Michael Anthony. For all I know he may have been the spitting image of John Beresford Tipton, Jr. because in over 200 episodes, no one ever saw anything of Tipton but his arm and hand. Both Tipton and my father wore suits most of the time.

     At Christmas we would gather around the couch my father and mother reupholstered numerous times throughout our childhood. My dad would organize us, set the timer on the camera, come back to take his place, and then, proceed to appropriate us all—the real kids, the foster kids, and him and mom. We’d smile (of course we did) even if the mysterious substance of anger flowed through the body of every last person in the photo. Year after year, the only thing that changed was the couch.

The title The Shape of a Box raises the matter of the surface of a packaging, whether it be our bodies (e.g., our face) hiding tension or anger, or a psychological constraint, or what a dress pocket makes invisible as it contains.  Curtis develops this theme in imaginative and inviting ways.

She even presents the packaging as metaphor.  Displaying the collection’s underlying strength of wit, here is the poem “Weeding” below in its entirety.  I don’t need to say anything about it—it’s easy to get.  But that it’s easy doesn’t dilute the deep enjoyment it elicits; it’s the kind of poem you’ll remember months later with a chuckle.  That is a gift.


During sex this morning,
I thought about needing
to pull the milk thistles
from around the pink
petunias, the prickly
stalks awkward beside
the filmy petals.
I wondered if they come
with the mulch each year,
those willful weeds
that thrive on disdain.
I thought about how
I’d get the old
Sears Hardware bucket,
gloves and kneeling pad,
find a spot
among them, and begin
to gently pull, my hand
low on the stem.
I thought about placing
each weed into the pail,
filling it up to the top,
the summer blooms spared,
and the, how good I’d feel
when it was done.


Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry.  Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp.  Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form.  More information at 

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