The poet’s gift is to surprise the reader, to ambush him with images and ideas that had never occurred to him in quite that way before. This is Wayne Curtis does in Green Lightning . Even the title jars the sense of what is accepted in our orderly world and poses the question: Why
is the lightning green? Curtis gives the answer near the end of the book in “Trade Winds” when he describes sailing in the Caribbean--"as we cut along / the ashen sea / green lightning / In the water.” The fitness of the language becomes apparent as it calls to mind the picture of light flashing crazily in the wake of a boat.
Living along the Mirimichi and working as a river guide, poet and novelist Wayne Curtis has had a lot of time to study the flow of light and water as well as other natural phenomena. Many of the poems in this collection are picture postcards of country life and showcase both his sense of whimsy and power of observation. Sprouting beans remind him of butterflies, and he describes their growth as "green knuckles / bursting through cracks / fused by some strange power / to stand among sprouting weeds / white worms, turned downward / like plants with a change of heart." He sometimes seems to be echoing Robert Frost in these nature poems, as in “The Leaf Burn,” in which he speaks of raking leaves as "the harvest / of a thing worth nothing." Like Frost, he finds poetry in the most commonplace of objects. Also like Frost, he is far more than just a nature poet. They are both chroniclers of human nature, and their best poems are most revealing in what they leave unsaid.
Curtis writes widely about close and complex relationships, both familial and romantic. He recreates the distress of watching parents grow old and sick in “Visiting Father.” He reflects the aching loss of love, unfulfilled and full of longing after many years, in “Perception.” “I think the love gods / keep you forever young / inspiring me / even now / to fulfill / my dream / of having you / . . someday.” And, near the end of the book, he uses a breezy dramatic monologue in the form of a Christmas letter to reveal, layer by layer, the relationship between the survivors of a failed marriage.
This book is like nothing so much as a photograph album. Curtis captures moments of life with his aptly chosen words and the stories are suggested rather than told. “Oceans Limited” is a striking example, with its poignant picture of orphans standing in the rain at a train station. The children watch the occupants of the train waving to them and imagine that the strangers they pick out are actually their relatives.
“Growth” is another snapshot that captures an emotion. Anyone who has ever returned to a childhood spot after a long absence and remarked how small everything looks compared to memory will recognize the feeling that the speaker has here. Revisiting his father’s fields, he remarks how much bigger and tastier the plums used to be.
The idea of the lies inherent in memory is a theme running through many of the poems. In “Wild Strawberry Blossoms” “the wilderness speaks / more true than memory, and the Grandmother in “The Blizzard” has a reverie which is “like a dream / this memory she has glorified with time/ the one in which she wishes to return.”
The book is full of such memories, whether they belong to Curtis or to the characters through whom he speaks. Scenes from a church graveyard, an apple orchard, and various tropical locations show the range of his imagination. Curtis invites the reader to share glimpses of a world which bears the ache of longing. If they are sometimes bitter, they are also balanced with sweetness.