Caleb Curtiss opens A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us with a division, a line between two realities: “This is the only / important part of the poem: that / which prepares us // —primer— // the thing dividing / what-had-been / from what-would-be…” Taxonomy is the science of classification, of identification, of natural relationships. Curtiss defines space itself as kind of line between categories, and shows us how natural relationships can be changed by unnatural means. Dealing with the death of his sister, he jumps back and forth over the line. In “Time Capsule,” for instance, Curtiss seeks to deemphasize the self in favor of simpler, utilitarian forms: “I stopped listening, not wanting a new emergency, / but also, not wanting another old emergency to return…I just wanted to be transferred: made into a sack / of bone meal, a pail of sand: to have purpose…” For Curtiss, the fundamental contradiction of memory—that we both belong to a material world and inhabit a non-material reality—resides at the center of the self’s complications.
Taxonomy is a book about grief, and our attempts to give form to its shapelessness, its variableness; we can talk about it directly or talk around it, but it nonetheless resists our efforts at control. In “Dream,” Curtiss replays the precise event leading to his sister’s death—a car crash—over and over, imagining the details he could not experience: “This time I’m sitting shotgun, / listening as you tell yourself that you are tired. / This time you say how tired you are. This time the radio is on / and you’re singing along.” In “Cup & Saucer,” grief takes its form indirectly, as the speaker informs his brother about their sister’s death:
Of course, when I’m finished,
there isn’t anything worth saying
and so we’re left with what we’re always left with:
the line that separates then and now,
the line that threads together our moments,
passing through us as it goes.
In the title poem, which closes the collection, the speaker seeks to cabin and contain it all through a taxonomy of material and emotional time and space:
Shortly after I was born, my great-grandfather visited me in the hospital. At that point, my brain was a mass of unpaved passageways, my body a collection of cells which have all since been replaced with new cells. A few months later, he died, and his body didn’t matter anymore.
In doing so, Curtiss both embraces and indicts the logic of the natural sciences—drawing a line between (and connecting) matter and what matters—and the methods we use to cope, which are simultaneously necessary and not enough.