Elizabeth Alexander chose “Visiting Amber at Lowell Correctional” for an honorable mention when she came to judge UMass Boston’s Academy of American Poets Prize in 2008. Of course she didn’t know Tara Skurtu, but none of us on the creative writing faculty did either—surprising, since I liked to think we could identify every student on campus passionate about poetry. Lloyd Schwartz contacted her immediately, and rushed her to join his advanced poetry workshop. Skurtu won two other Academy of American Poets prizes, earned her MFA in poetry at BU, and traveled to Romania on several grants, including two Fulbrights. The result is The Amoeba Game, published this fall by the distinguished British press, Eyewear Publishing. It’s a book textured with Boston grit and hometown Florida sand, then tempered, like a blade, in Romanian fire.
“Indian River at Dusk” introduces Skurtu’s territory as she lands a fish, “black and white and breathing/in my hand.” Distractedly losing Dad’s car keys, she both confesses and doesn’t: “I walked him to the spot/and pointed. I made up a lie…” To the girl, words are vital; “God was a word person” is both a witty take on the Gospel’s first verse and insight into a clever child’s way of understanding it. The poem opens into the present, with a truer confession: while trying to “write about this…..For over a year I made myself/guiltless, couldn’t preserve the thing I caught/or get the syntax right.” The poem becomes meta-poem, the past the present, the familiar whirlpooled into “…currents. I can’t keep anyone safe.” The poem may begin as “The Fish,” but ends closer to “In the Waiting Room.”
I find the heart of the book in Skurtu’s long sequence, “Derivatives.” In this poem of love and discovery, she braids the freshness of life in Romania with love’s small, meaningful details; in the market she’s calmed by
Crenellated pyramids of cabbage,
spring green and veined, each head
stabilizing at least several other heads
like a network of humming, healthy
minds, and the waxy squeak of one
pulled apart from the rest.
These dazzling images are juxtaposed with moments of tenderness, as when the Lermontov pin her lover never takes off “…leapt/ from your lapel and landed face down” after an embrace in a hotel lobby. “…His copper nose//wobbled like a top between/my suitcase and us. You said,// He did it because of the emotion//. We made sure he wasn’t damaged…” The poem zings between Pushkin and pop, languages foreign and domestic, a Union Square in Bucharest and the one in Somerville where “… I loe you” is “Fingered into the sidewalk” on “the other side//of the world.” Skurtu’s “fingered” points to both transgression and caress, and “loe” is simultaneously charming, ironic, and realistic in its acknowledgemnt of love’s imperfections.
Skurtu, as a love poet, doesn’t limit herself to the erotic. In poems charged with affection for her family and Florida childhood, especially in poems about her sister, she limns the complexities and griefs of love along with its grace. The title poem describes a game she played as a Brownie, where “one girl at a time would become/an amoeba and lead the rest.” The group moves “like a thousand blind legs/treading through molasses.”
…Swaying our shoulders
left to right, we’d giggle through mouths
we weren’t supposed to have, pretending
we had no eyes and didn’t know where
we came from or where we were going.
Not a bad way to write a poem, or move through life, “undulating” with others “wayward into dusk”—“we…/we…/we…,” all the way home.