Friday, October 29, 2010
This Way Out, Carmine Starnino, Gaspereau Press, 2009, $18.95, paper.
In a recent interview Carmine Starnino said early on in his career he worried he was writing the kinds of poems he “hated reading”. Better to write what you like to read than to write what merely gains ready acceptance or comes easily. This may partly explain the shift over time from the simpler, conversational style of his earliest book The New World, published in 1997, to Credo, Starnino’s first attempt to move towards “new registers” and a more “lexically alert” style of poetry. Eventually, those efforts would culminate in a wonderful collection of poems, With English Subtitles, and his more recent book This Way Out, both winners of the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry (the latter also nominated for a 2009 GG) and both a kind of self-imposed test of the tough criteria by which Starnino has measured other people’s poems: meaningful audio effects, vivid, adventurous imagery enriched by rhythmic play and syntactic variety. Witness the opening of his oft-cited “Our Butcher”:
I could bone up, be the right man for that one-man job,
hang by its hocks a rabbit shucked from the jacket
of its black-bristled fur and still talking in twitches.
As well, I might grasp the particular way he swings
a cleaver, brings it down on a neck like a primitive.
More to the point, I’d learn to move the beak of my blade
into the fragrance of a flank, or browse apart a chest’s
cardiac leafage, my apron a blotchwork of blood.
The colloquial diction makes a good beginning, as do the strong verb choices and predicate shapes, e.g. “bone up”, “hang by its hocks”, and in particular that wonderfully kinaesthetic phrase “talking in twitches”. I like, too, the clever way the word “swings” performs a kind of linguistic double duty at the end of line 4 – suggesting the swing of the rabbit hanging from its hook, while re-enacting the downward motion of the butcher’s arm through the imaginary air of the stanza break. To a virtuoso balance of mono and polysyllabics (“Striated and plush/crewelworked with fat”) and hard Anglo Saxon “screw lids/on sheep tripe and calf brain” Starnino adds an inventive, self-mocking playfulness. Not content merely to “browse apart a chest’s cardiac leafage”, he would “love to break back the pages of a shank and read all day.”
It is a remarkable performance. It is a performance that also gives me pause. Setting aside its minor faults (the alliteration is a little over done it seems to me and tends to clunk up the rhythm) the poem’s principal strength, its tight, coherent construction, is also its final weakness. I wanted to feel the rhythm and syntax eventually open up, become a bit freer; instead the poem feels boxed in, constricted as it tumbles forward on its uninterrupted path to the finish. As a result, the poem and others have the feel of a writing exercise, suggesting a writer looking for ways to end his poem rather than to complete it.
Head and Heart
Starnino makes a more interesting personal appeal in “Nine from Rome”, nine well-crafted sonnets containing some of his most open and expressive poetry. Through these poems we also begin to discover that our great satisfaction with Starnino’s book rests less upon his near unimpeachable ear for language than it does upon resolution of the tension between the book’s technical virtuosity and its feeling.
A skyline, half-hazed, of aerials and satellite dishes
gratifies me, a clock-free, in situ serenity
born from harder days, which aren’t these days,
these are days of no forwarding address and no one to meet,
days of bearings not taken and heels dug in,
days of unpoemed emotions I’m too tranquil to recollect-
days off, in other words, less said, more meant... (30)
Here, the poem’s steadiness, achieved in part through repetition and mid-line and end-of-line pauses, allows it and the reader to breathe a little more. As a result we pay closer attention to the sentiments being expressed and gain a stronger appreciation for Starnino’s feelings about life in a foreign capital. His excitement for Rome is distinct from the excitement of other travellers who, “randy for antique” as Larkin once put it, plunder church architecture. Starnino will have none of that:
Honestly? This rubble-gawking feels like duty,
and ancient history an abstraction sleeping off
its particulars. I like food markets better: awnings
with their two cultures, sun and shade; grocers
who give fresh evidence for everything... (25)
Disinclined to stare down ancient Rome for its secrets, the poet and his partner instead “wallow in the wasteful happiness of travel misspent.” Here, great views are not something you point a camera at, but “something to walk toward until we get there”, the rich detail of an Italian market “too minor for epics”, low-slung Italian shoes “a thrill too quick for art”:
Here oblivion is driven out by cheap editions
and good knock-offs, lo-fi gewgaws and ziggurats of baubles,
down at hem skirts and misdemeanoured hats,
ribbon-tied letters complete with old bureau.
Centuries are turned on like a tap, then caught in dusty bottles,
ink-dark, shelved beside potted cuttings two for a euro. (27)
Look again at lines 2 and 3 in “Dear David” and see how Starnino uses the full range of vowel sounds and consonants to capture that topsy-turvy feel of a Roman market place. No-one, in my view, does it better.
Whither the elusive self?
The steady vocal pitch and control that we see in “Our Butcher” is a characteristic of Starnino's poetry and is never far from most of the poems in this book. Gradually, though, a different voice from the one we’re used to emerges, a slightly more self-conscious, fitful voice that will reach its nadir in Section 3 of the book. There, Starnino fleshes out the frustrations and emotional crisis of a speaker that contrasts markedly with the measured, contemplative mind we were introduced to early on. It’s a troubled presence, fractious, needy. “Look at me when I talk to you”, the speaker abruptly barks at the end of one poem. “You know full well” what I want, he replies to his interlocutor at the end of another. “Phony that’s how I feel”:
I’m a nuisance even to myself
who once felt unexpressed,
and now wish
I could think about something else
besides how I give myself away
as I grow old...(71)
At the risk of offering too psychological an interpretation the speaker seems to be articulating an act of healing here, torn between re-asserting his ego and stripping away things peripheral to his true self. “Lie low/Shed everything/ for the lesson/ of seeing it go. And so/and so.” At the same time, self-loathing, easily overdone in the wake of Robert Lowell, is leavened in these later poems by lighter, sardonic observations about the way the poet’s mind and the minds of others seem to work, supported by an undercurrent of regret and sorrow.
So, a very good book of poems. But here's the problem. If we’re honest about what we’re really looking for in a new book of poems we realize it’s something most poets are hard pressed to give us. The miraculous by its very nature is in short supply after all. Even a single poem, one that just for a moment stills the heart, or conjoins an image and thought for us to ponder long after we’ve put the poem down, will rescue a book from oblivion and, in admittedly rare instances, place the poet’s lasting iconic signature on the air. That's our hope anyway.
Starnino has yet to perform the miraculous. This Way Out is a book of poems in search of the larger “identifying presence” the poet places such store by in the work of others. Conspicuous in the absence of a complete and coherent self to provide vision or direction it is impossible for it to be anything more than a very good book of poems. What’s encouraging, though, is its development from the technical virtuosity of its early poems into something more fully and deliberately human by the end, what Starnino calls in the book’s final poem “a work-in progress”. Whatever its limitations, ultimately this is what defines its success. Cast in a tone of edgy, unsettling self-denigration, the “work” remains emotionally compelling and open ended in a way that Starnino’s earlier works are not - all of which should have readers looking forward to, and anticipating more from, his next iteration of poems.
My apologies to those who've looked forward to weekly offerings of the blog. A change of location and vocation (yesterday, speeches; today, magazines) has log-jammed my day. As a result, Speaking of Poems will now appear twice monthly, with the occasional, unscheduled interjection. dk
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