I first heard of American poet Tara Skurtu while on a reading tour of Romania back in 2014. The Zona Noua poets of Sibiu had nothing but good things to say. Needless to say, I looked her up, read some poems online and a few years later, had the chance to feature her in Vienna as, by a stroke of luck for me and a stroke of well-earned and deserved merit for her, she was back on this side of the Atlantic on a Fulbright. In Vienna, we walked through vineyards, talked poetry, Pinsky, manuscripts, Romania, and I wondered how long it would be before we saw a book from her. Not too long. Not too long at all.
The Amoeba Game feels as if it has been years in the making such is the composure, ease and word-perfect stanzas each page gifts you. In its simplest form, this book is a collection of memories that are struggling to get a foothold in the present day of the narrator - but these memories are far from simple. There is a sense of loss, of naivety, innocence; a question of faith in oneself, the church, or in the correctional facilities in the US. There is the lamentation of what could have been and what still might be. "...didn´t know where / we came from or where we were going." As with any good collection of poetry, there is something for the reader to latch onto and relate to. Straight away I was the child in "Indian River at Dusk" who "...named/ everyone I loved to God before falling/ asleep in my yellow room every night - / God was a word person. After two/ Hail Mary´s and an Our Father I´d be / good again." Whether a personal feeling as in this poem, or an observational understanding as in "Shame", Skurtu brings to the surface all those emotions from childhood that we have not quite been able to figure out. As kids in the eighties, we sniggered during Mass, we lied at Confession; we took the Thanks be to God at the end of the service to mean something else. In Confession, I was hit with a blast of images from my own childhood that annotated every line. "When my sister saved the Body of Christ / for after Mass and fed it to the ducks / to make them holy, I believed it just might."
"Catechism" follows in a similarly innocent yet rebellious manner: "Who wants an eternity of cloud/-to-cloud bouncing, no afternoon/ chocolate chip cookie in sight? / I´m against dying." And this, for me, is where the book starts to grow; where one light-hearted, poignant theme of guilt and admission leads us into adolescence and eventually adulthood; where death is now a reality and not just something to be against. Poems such as "Waking Verne" and "Survivor Vade Mecum" - an almost tragicomedy - with a neighbor´s "constellation of cats" under her backyard, slowly build towards the reveal that the poet might just be getting pulled back into these memories through the eyes of her niece. "For over a year my niece / believed the moon took my airplane / and wouldn´t let me go, but/ Where is my mom? she asks?" (from "Paradox"). Just as we hit the midpoint of the book, we feel we´re in for something a little bit darker.
"Tourniquet" is that poem that bridges the gap and brings us from the past to the present: a series of poems about her current home in Romania. If anything, I wasn´t ready for such a shift. I wanted a little bit more of that past; something to keep stirring memories of my own as the poems so far had done with hammer blows of splendor. If anything, I don´t think Skurtu is finished writing this book, and maybe that´s a good thing. As oftentimes with travel, with moving away from home, we get a much larger perspective of the past and what really happened. It takes time, but I´m sure this will come to light in her writing in the coming years. "I´m beginning to realize my long poem / may be the person I can´t avoid, / a snake in the blade of a lawnmower, / striped segments curling in the air / and slapping onto my thighs / a blood just like mine." (from "Long Poem, Bucharest" ) As a reader, I for one am looking forward to seeing where this particular poetic journey leads us.
This collection is the moments between the band leaving the stage and the encore.
The Amoeba Game is available from the author: www.taraskurtu.com
"Like a love letter to the world on the eve of its destruction" Stephen Murray
"These dynamic and surprising poems challenge and delight at every turn. No survival kit is complete without a little grace like this." Brendan Constantine