The Amoeba Game   by Tara Skurtu   Eyewear Publishing , 84 pages, November 10, 2017

The Amoeba Game

by Tara Skurtu

Eyewear Publishing, 84 pages, November 10, 2017

reviewed by Valerie Duff-Strautmann

The Amoeba Game is a first book of poems by Tara Skurtu, an American poet with Romanian roots. Skurtu presses to find the shifting locus of identity, examining layers of stories that create who we are. With humor and chutzpah, she reflects in the places she hopes exist—a town of possibility where her father says "almost everyone is a Skurtu." Skurtu imagines a town of audacity, like her dad who faces a cop who pulls him over:


Step out of the car, Mr. Skrewtoo.

Looking the cop in the eye, Dad said,

That's not how you pronounce it.

My name is Mr. Skrew You.  


In the first part of the book, the reader is introduced to a Floridian family running on their nerve, a family of fighters and biters. They challenge the law and often must submit to it (in poems such as "Visiting Amber in Lowell Correctional").

Some of the grit and tenacity of the family that emerges from these poems is shaped by the constant influx of mixed messages, and by growing up Catholic in the warped wilds of America.  "Shame" begins: "Overnight, someone has epoxied a bright pink dildo/onto the Virgin Mary outside the Sacred Heart Church." Skurtu heightens the tensions between propriety and profanity, between distance and intimacy, as she continues to narrate:


It's Sunday. From the cafe window I watch a woman

cover her son's eyes and make a Sign on the Cross


as they head past the statue's outstretched arms,

up the steps. A stranger at a neighboring table says,


Worse than the time some asshole in Hopkinton stole

the plastic baby Jesus right out of the manger.


While Skurtu works to achieve a balance that insists these worlds coexist, she recognizes that she has no control over them: "I can't keep anyone safe" ("Indian River at Dusk").

The poetry's magic comes from the parallel reality Skurtu creates in spite of her family's hard life—her constant examination often comes with comfort and conflict. In a poem titled "Paradox," she muses, "for over a year my niece/believed the moon took my airplane/and wouldn't let me go." Such alternate universes are foils for the real in Skurtu's poems. In "Paradox," the niece next asks the speaker for her mom, thrown "in prison again":  "'Where is my mom?' she asks" and Skurtu speculates, "Toss a plane into a black hole/and see where it lands." The people who populate these poems engage in what Skurtu calls an amoeba game, a game recalled in the title poem by the most mundane details, the most ordinary of activities—frying an egg in the kitchen: "Perhaps/it was the flapping of the egg's/wavy edges against the steel pan,/or the amorphousness of its innards/outside the carriage of its brown shell."  In the game, she remembers, one child becomes an amoeba and leads other children who morph and follow, blindly: "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." It's that word pretending that surfaces again and again in the action of her poems, as the amoeba game is played often, boundaries blur and limbs are "undulating/wayward into dusk." It's in the pretense of her grandmother, who stands over a casket in "Waking Verne": "Gramma leaned over/his face, kissed his lips. Wake up, Verne/Why won't you wake up?" And in the tattoo transformations the "you" makes in "Coming and Going":  "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."

Sometimes one has to envision something beyond this world, Skurtu insists, and mid-way through her book, we dive further into the imagination in the section titled "Skurtu, Romania." Skurtu held a Fulbright, living and teaching in Romania for two years; the poems of this section shift distinctly into a world different from her childhood, her "body, a strange passenger/surrounded by walls/of books in a language//I don't understand" ("Limit"). Her eyes are wide open, even as she barrels forward in this new language and life. The "you" she addresses shifts in this section as well. The "you" speaks a different dialect, from a different clan:


This is the park of my childhood,

you tell me in the back of a taxi,


pointing at the green blurring

through the triangular glass.


Love no far, poetry no far,

says the taxi driver two weeks from now.


Fingered into the sidewalk

in a Union Square on the other side


of the world, I loe you. ("Derivatives")


The "Skurtu, Romania" section encompasses the slips and expansion of language, and its long poem, "Derivatives," evaluates the work she's done throughout: "I press the nib, I push out words..." Skurtu acknowledges the act of poetry, the act of speaking to another through the creation of world and word. The Amoeba Game becomes a book about relationships that help the author reflect on artistic craft. In "Postscript, Vermeer," Skurtu writes, "She's reading a letter, been stuck/on the first third of the page//for more than three hundred years." Skurtu can imagine herself as the woman in the picture, creating her life on the page, and in this case she is both the writer and the reader of the letter: "She's waiting for the words//of the person we don't know./Her person. Like anybody's person," an acknowledgment that the person is at once real and unreal, both self and the creation of one's identity:


I'm beginning to realize my long poem

may be a person I can't avoid,


a snake in the blade of a lawn mower,

striped segments curling in the air


and slapping onto my thighs

a blood just like mine.

            ("Long Poem, Bucharest")


Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, The Critical Flame, and The Boston Globe. She recently held fellowships at the VCCA and Writers’ Room of Boston. Her book of poems is To the New World (Salmon Poetry), and she is Poetry Editor of Salamander Magazine.