Review by Donna Vorreyer
Tara Skurtu’s The Amoeba Game is a collection about moments and memory and how they collide, mutate and transform. An amoeba is a type of cell or organism which has the ability to alter its shape, and in The Amoeba Game, Tara Skurtu makes time into an amoeba, changing its shape by reaching out to the past and the future across continents and years. The book, organized in sections, applies a constantly shifting lens to relationships, recovery, and ancestral landscapes.
In the first section called “The Amoeba Game,” Skurtu explores the dynamics of relationships and personal philosophy, the tones of the poems teetering between joy and pain, often with realistic narratives ending in some sort of lyric revelation. In an early poem “Indian River at Dusk,” the speaker throws her father’s keys into the water after catching a fish and, despite pointing out the spot, cannot recapture them. This seems like just a childhood story until the last stanza:
For over a year, I made myself
guiltless; couldn’t preserve the thing I caught
or get the syntax right. I didn’t know about
currents. I can’t keep anyone safe.
Here the poem relates a simple, and seemingly banal event (catching a fish) and a childish prank (throwing keys into the water). But beyond the narrative, the poem delves into spiritual realms of confession, guilt and absolution, arriving at a conclusion that resonates both literally within the circumstances of the poem and figuratively within larger spiritual and emotional contexts. In this way, the poet makes every story amorphous and mercurial –nothing is ever just what it seems.
Several poems in this section mention a sister—in one, visiting her in a correctional facility brings a memory of her as a child, bold and wholly original:
With one hand she holds a wriggling lizard,
with the other she hinged its jaws open
then closed onto the lobe of her ear.
and in another, a description of wild years ending with the lovely metaphor of a tattoo:
You covered up that cross-eyed skull with a big blue rose.
Now it looks like one of those trick Magic Eye images—
all you have to do is squint and relax your gaze,
and the past surfaces just so.
These poems pull the past and future against one another, beyond just the observations of the author herself. The sister has one tattoo changed into another, thus the sister herself has likely changed, and the speaker as well. This constant shifting of perspective and perception create a tension that both winds up and releases for the reader.
There is also illness here, grief and loss, the speaker confronting her own mortality in a world that will not remain still. In “Survivor Vade Mecum,” she reminds herself “you are a living, breathing organism with all your fingers and both feet…” and in “Discovery: Negative Return,” we learn that “Some days the doctor says you have to napalm/the napalm, but this morning he says undetectable,…” These poems celebrate both corporeal and figurative amoebic bodies, medical crises sandwiched with the explosion of the spaceship Discovery and a cat flattened on the roadway. Here, no body, whether human, animal or machine, can stay the same shape for long.
The third section called “Skurtu, Romania” marries these ideas of memory and loss as the speaker spends time in her ancestral country, a stranger to the language while still intimately bound to its landscape. The centerpiece of the third section is the long, sectioned lyric poem “Derivatives” which chronicles both the time in this new country and also the arc of a relationship, building bridges between known and unknown worlds through image and music. It would be difficult to excerpt this long poem in a meaningful way, but also characteristic of this section is the poem “Spoiled.”
In this poem, the dichotomy of living itself is deftly and simply observed, and even the title serves up two meanings. Here, the restless lover leaves the apartment for the market, returns with a “perfect apple, put it in my palm./So small, so red. I can’t wait to eat it/alone.” The speaker shuts herself in the kitchen to watch the news and enjoy the apple which is not as perfect as she thought—“flesh mealy, a mouthful/of sweet mashed potatoes I spit/into the garbage.” Spoiled. Damaged. Yet the speaker revels in the other small delights of the morning—the world’s largest loaf of bread being sliced on the television news, the downstairs neighbor singing Blondie, the lover showering “down the hall, scrubbing the sweat/of our morning from your skin.” Spoiled. Indulged. Skurtu’s gift for images and narrative, on display in this whole section, are shown in this poem’s spiral structure of image and movement which wraps the reader in an indulgent comfort that mirrors the content.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Catechism” which shifts the shape of doctrine into one person’s deeply personal yet completely relatable version of the afterlife. In the first stanza, the speaker asks, “Who wants an eternity of cloud-/to-cloud bouncing, no afternoon/chocolae chip cookie in sight?/I’m against dying.” Then in the third, “I raise my hand, ask Sister John/the Baptist, Can you eat cookies/in Heaven? Turns out, you can’t/even bake them.” The poem ends with the speaker’s vision of the ideal funeral: “Let me be scattered illegally/into the Charles as a riverboat/emerges from the shadows of/the Salt-and-Pepper Bridge.//Let there be a birthday party/on that boat, my hungry selves/swirling in the wind while the song/is sung and the cake is cut.”
This poem is the beating heart of this book as Skurtu considers how to move forward while looking back, how to approach the inexplicable unknown. A collection that considers so many aspects of a life could be viewed as disjointed or choppy. But with The Amoeba Game, Skurtu avoids that pitfall, reminding us that, no matter what type of order we try to enforce, we are at best shifting cells, reaching out, pulling back, trying our best to shape ourselves a world.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.
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