The Black River Chapbook Competition Winner

A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us

Publication Date: February 2015


Winner of the Fall 2013 Black River Chapbook Competition

“My sister / is not a woman, a girl, or even / a real someone or something. / Not anymore.” The poems in A Taxonomy of the Space Between by Caleb Curtiss impress fifteen assertions, attempts, and urges toward order on the cavernous and impossible expanse that remains after the speaker’s sister “drove past a stop sign and then, / didn’t do anything ever again.” Curtiss sits right down in the abyss and dwells with the loss, the space where “not wanting a new emergency, / but also, not wanting another old emergency to return$$ we are forced to live with the aching present and the people who continue to exist within it. Probing earnestly at familial and human connection through the smudged and banged-up lens of loss and loss’s aftermath, these poems rebuild the schemas that erode under the weight of untimely death. Through a taxonomy which risks both beauty and longing in the face of irrevocable loss, Curtiss’s poems seek to reorient the world after its nature is revealed to be arbitrary and its motives unknowable.


This poem has no occasion.
I edited that out a long time ago.
It, like a body, or like a memory,
has rebuilt itself over time:

each of its component parts
have been exchanged for newer,
more efficient ones, so that now,
when I overhear someone

saying the word “coffee$$
you are drinking a cup of coffee.
Input the output, ad infinitum:
I have become so efficient,

I have even learned
to grieve formulaically,
while the function of your absence
has grown less and less

integral to my algorithm: you
aren’t even you anymore.

First published in New England Review


A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us is an elegant chronicle of grief, of the sprawling bonds between brothers and sisters, of bodies in this world, of the power of language when so artfully arranged. Caleb Curtiss is a poet among poets and in this beautiful and assured collection, he makes himself heard and how.

-Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State & Bad Feminist

Caleb Curtiss’ A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us speaks to us from the “present tense of … absence an unyielding landscape in which these radiant poems are a ceaseless controlled burn. Their narrative inquiry-“Like the sea in a storm, I did not know / how I was like a storm”- has been primed in a liminal field between grief and selfless intellect. Here is the lyric and evocative testimony of a powerful consciousness at the beginning of a remarkable career.

-Renée Ashley, author of Because I Am the Shore I Want to be the Sea & Salt

In Caleb Curtiss’ A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, the poems are stalked by sisterly ghosts, and the persona, via a series of beautifully pathetic trials and errors, emerges not only with a treasure map to a beating heart, but also the blueprints with which we can both construct, and navigate, the dreamiest of our grief. We can be classified, Curtiss tells us, if only because we “still exist somewhere.” If Linnaeus had the imaginative alchemy necessary to string earthly biology to the chimerical afterlife, Systema Naturae would have read more like Curtiss’ revelatory, faithful, and “very strange ontology.” This brilliant new taxonomy serves as an exhilarating reminder that the things most capable of haunting us, are the most haunted things themselves.

-Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost & The Morrow Plots

For many of us, death is, as Caleb Curtiss writes, ‘The kind of thing / I could never look at.’ But the best elegies also operate as memento moris-they recall other people who have died and remind us all that we will, too. Formally adventurous and sharp in its honesty, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us helps us look at-and really see-these ultimate absences.

-Kathleen Rooney, author of Robinson Alone & O, Democracy!

In his gorgeous and heartfelt elegies, Curtiss offers not just expressions of grief, but also celebrations of what lives on after the lingering loss of a loved one, a person kept beautiful and lasting by these acts of memory, fine poems as indwellings, each as powerfully shaped and permanent as any monument might hope to be.

-Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

Curtiss paints one devastating moment from every possible angle, allowing everything surrounding the event to call out the shadows and light, laying plain curiosity and vulnerability. The gorgeous language forms false equations approximating the ineffable.

-Jac Jemc, author of My Only Wife & A Different Bed Every Time

About the Author

© Justin Morgan

Caleb Curtiss

Caleb Curtiss edits poetry for Hobart, directs the Pygmalion Literary Festival, and teaches high school English in Champaign, Illinois. His poetry has appeared in journals such as The Literary Review, New England Review, PANK, Hayden's Ferry Review, DIAGRAM, Passages North, Spork, and TriQuarterly, and has been anthologized in New Poetry From The Midwest, published by New American Press.

Visit Author Page