This Way Out (Gaspereau; 2009) is Carmine Starnino’s fourth collection of poetry. The immediacy of my reading/review of Peter Richardson’s Sympathy For The Couriers was a fun experience, so I’m doing the same here. Part of that immediacy and fun echoes from the poems themselves, so it’s a natural reaction. Here’s all twenty-eight poems in order of their appearance.
NEXT DOOR CAFÉ
Reading the first five and nine-tenths lines created a feeling identical to that of the speaker’s opener: “We were bored.” The lassitude and caroming plural pronoun confusion, the directionless “dark” finally explodes with the appearance of “bison”. It’s fascinating that light has to be stolen or coerced or bargained for (“cadged”, with a play on “cage”). I see this as a criticism on the sanctity and necessity, the given of Grace (yes, the capitalization has ironic purpose) for epiphany. How is joy, or at least relief, achieved? Who knows? But more to the point, who cares? This reminds me of the joke: “I’m happy, but I don’t know why” (said with honest perplexity). The rest of the poem has the speaker still involved in the lives of the habitués of darkness, but at a self-possessed, creative remove. Here, then, it’s no surprise technically (though a delightful surprise in musical shift) to experience the onrush of concrete nouns: shot glasses, whisky, tables, cellphone, lighter, cigarette, stools. Even adjectives and directives become tactile: lamped, cue. The “uh” disgust of “Sun-up found a few run aground, up shouldered hulls” marks a further distancing between observer and observed, the latter becoming more desultory and piteous not by the line, but by the phrase. There’s a pithy, affecting use of ship/ship passage metaphor in the poem’s last lines: hulls, keels, slewing, with “smashed” (in the second-to-last line) the unfortunate, but inevitable, conclusion to another word (poem’s line two) which then takes on ominous overtones, and which challenges the reader with a missed foreshadowing.
A funny allegory on critic as gleeful slaughterhouse hack which takes a gentler turn (never divorced from bloodiness) towards the love of assessment and handling. Poetry as a living thing, “risen again”. (I like the “again”, the glory of initial creation.) Also, the butcher as careful practitioner: note the multiple uses of many adjectives, verbs, nouns.
A subtle poem, still easy to confound after multiple readings. The “key”, the two people (probably lovers, but possibly friends at opposite ends of the risk/security spectrum). The door is given anthropomorphic cachet, and it doesn’t much work for me, though the brief lines and suggestiveness of the pair salvages what could have been a dry idea.
I’m familiar with “Early Truffaut”, but not “late Rosselini”, though the previous lament for desired affiliation -- rather, genuine entrenchment -- makes clear the “chasing”. Poems steeped in local detail run the risk of alienating readers unfamiliar with the territory, but Starnino uses landmarks and cultural esotericism to service emotional vividness, movement, and recognition. Reading this poem after anything in the first section of Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking is to make plain the emotionless, plodding transcription of endless historical detail in the latter volume, detail technically mangled and ideologically driven. Long after boring “walkabouts” have worn out their treads, threads, and treatises, poems like “Vita Brevis” will still be around to delight anyone who treasures authorial vulnerability, idiosyncrasy, colour, and mood.
A hilarious encapsulation of the cupidita eterna, both canine and human. “Nearly put me off sleep for good”, the opener, takes on additional meaning after the rounded final one and one-half lines. “Dogged” is funny, and I also voiced the two syllable version, also appropriate.
I usually skip sentence and line beginners that repeat and fill the entire poem, but Starnino’s strategy of run-on typeset prose works to affirm the clouds’ evanescent omniprevalence, “stuck between going and gone”. ”Atmospheric farting around” is a riot, an alternative version to Wordsworth’s “trailing clouds of glory”. There’s a storm hidden in many, however. The insistence of “working-class” perhaps hopes to mimic grim, shoulder-to-wheel feats in certain poetry schools. Or am I wrong in seeing (among other such projects) Christian Bok’s seven year Sisyphean Eunoia behind this? The clouds’ perishability, their self-elevated confusion -- the parallels are many and witty. (“Working-class clouds are above it all, regard the hydraulics that give them their height as a right.”)
THIS WAY OUT
The title poem is a fond neighbourhood reminiscence. Set in nine stanzas, each of seven lines (for God’s Earth adornments? That old futzer makes a few humorous appearances mid-go), “This Way Out” is an amused, mocking moniker for progress and sure-footed direction. “Parc Ex//God said, and up sprang side streets of shoebox/flats (plus rats), chain-link fences, plain-/penny bricks, and paint-splashed garages.” Yes, God created light, four-legged critters, and those endlessly fascinating and mischievous bipeds, but shouldn’t He also take a bow for rats and dilapidated buildings? No? What a grandiose vision, then, of God. And (since we’re made in His image) of us. The H-bomb and four-corner imperialism is related to grandiosity. But perhaps I digress.
Detail is vivid; movement is quickened through compression, and even the sonic repetitions are quick (“sticks: Parc Ex”, “ice. A good price”, “a room, a roof,”, “this. What bliss.”), to amplify the emotion the assonance evokes. A few quibbles. The excellent “where balding towels and pink panties/drip dry together” is weakened with its completion, “like arranged marriages”. The other half of the metaphor was suggestively , absently, powerful before I came to those three words. And for a poem soaked in the everyday, the specific, the awe-fed unique, the generic “my paper”, “plonk/and beer”, “double-/parked cars”, “spice smells” chloroformed the senses a tad. I wanted the paper, the wine, the beer, the car, the spices, named. “The price paid for a new story//of creation” is delightful, a double play on God and the building itself.
NINE FROM ROME
A set of nine variously strung sonnets, each letter to a different friend, the sequence proceeds, with oscillations, from immersion in image and detail to contemplation, and finally, spiritual stocktaking and confident conclusion. Notice how the first in the sequence (to Michael) calls up Nietzsche’s famous “try[ing] to live/always in expectation of some impossible grace”, and how the intelligent-negative approach of the author relaxes into it by sequence end. “[T]ired of antiquities” (to Norm) mirrors the speaker’s having “had enough” of his tiresome past, or perhaps more accurately, his tired rehashing of it. The “gods that fill the hand” and “a thrill too quick for art” further deride the social pressure to mine the past, while counteracting the habit by praising the present, the felt, the non-referential, culminating in the last enty’s “unpoemed emotions”. There are other notable passages. When the lovers, on a walk, come to the proverbial fork in the road, they don’t take the one less traveled, but neither, instead opting for descent into “the uriney gloom”. What a tart, clever, brilliant response to that tired Frostian chestnut, the final lines enshrined, to which thousands of New Age sheep whose experience with poetry consists of anthologies edited by Wayne Dyer, swoon. (I would have thought this letter would have been addressed to David.) "You're next, jaws of wall hiss at me. I shrug.” (this one to David). Yes. And the triple scythe-swipe of the previous sentence inters the very idea. The second-to-last word of the last poem (to Mary) is key to the entire sequence (not given away here). It’s not ambiguous in notion. Only in specific unfolding.
PUGNAX GIVES NOTICE
When was the last time you read a poem set in the Roman Colosseum, a vivid character study by turns humorous and pensive? I love the first line -- “He’s done with it, the tridents and tigers,”-- for several reasons. I’m partial to poems that enter the ring already sticky with emotion. Garcia Lorca’s duende, the ecstatic dance a hair this side of death, often begins with a sense of a story, or movement in full swing, the poem (in this case) being a fragment of something else unable to contain the outsized emotion. The reader (at least this one) is disoriented, but agreeably so. What kind of a poem uses “tridents” in the first line? I love that word. It brings back memories of watching cartoons at seven years of age, some villain (usually Satan, as I recall) prodding the fork onto some beleaguered soul. And there’s a cartoonish association to fights in any ring (video games, anyone?) which the humour (“the chintzy palm branch prizes”) feeds, though, as the poem develops, that two-dimensional cut-out warrior becomes a “rounder’ figure, to borrow Forster’s term. Age brings fatigue, but also an understated wisdom, as Pugnax would rather “dawdle at the baths, tame his nights with tea,/be spellbound by the smell of soap, find a wife”. A play on nights/knights, an internal rhyme that helps the spell. The preceding quote is also a charming irony, a reversal of the heroic staple where the woman stays at home with her safe and dainty pleasures -- tea, soap -- while her man slays dragons or gladiators. Full circle, Mr. Mom, finding his feminine side -- whatever the cliché, the point is that Pugnax has grown. And the shocking juxtaposition of new experiences -- baths, tea, soap, and then wife -- recalls the gorgeous passage in Robert Lowell’s “The Old Flame” (“a new landlord,/a new wife, a new broom!”). I’ve read that passage to quite a few people. Many get the charm, but to them it’s hokey. To me, it’s heartbreaking (in the context of the complete poem). “Pugnax Gives Notice” approaches that great New England reminiscence.
SANTA MARIA DEL POPOLO
A sort of vignette next to Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower”, more mellow in mood. Musically resounding and metrically intricate, and I’m guessing most will understand the reason for the monorhymes.
FLEA MARKET ECLOGUE
This felt like an exercise. An interesting one, but not necessary. Even if it’s a “true story”, or based on one, I didn’t feel either of the two had an immediacy, either individually, or between them. I love a good eclogue -- MacNeice’s immediately come to mind -- and perhaps because of past associations, prefer the rhetoric heightened exponentially while not sacrificing believability.
W/out beeing puhdantik, uh revulooshunairee taik onn uh die eeng topik, w/out yr avredge tweed-n-pype pooh-poohing, lol! Ann leeve thoze Etruskanz alone, Fartists!
DELTA HOTEL, SAINT JOHN
Lots of movement here. Images are deftly merged with psychology, so it’s easy to miss the metaphorical skewering and multiple definitions on a first go-round: “stalls”, “Tip Top suit gone to seed”, “knotted”, “bluffing”, “business cards”.
Section Two of This Way Out begins with a reverie on father, and like the prize in either hand, the outcome of the choice is a formative joy as well as a later warning (“shutting illusions off”). This is fearlessly intelligent family reminiscence, and the metaphysical gold that results is worth the hard excavation and pressure-washing. I’m also impressed that “Trident” makes another appearance (line three); I’m hoping I’ll hit the trifecta on a submarine poem in the last half of the book.
TALE OF THE WEDDING RING
Precious, the fantasy conjures Irving Layton’s “A Song about Woman”. The latter’s “ ‘she is perfect, my lovely daughter!’ “ is a tone-strong contrast to “Tale Of The Wedding Ring” ‘s last-line Billy Joel cliché.
Atmosphere without particulars lacks bite. I wanted more of the mysterious “we” to be fleshed out, a la Len Gasparini’s similarly placed “Empire Theatre”. “Film Noir” has many dramatic, even charming, possibilities which were missed.
The Wordsworth epigram leads to a symbolic whistling lesson -- the hard beginnings of transposed listening to voice and composition. You don’t need a pedantic explanation of onomatopoeia to appreciate “My whistling’s more like whiffling”.
A sensually linked revelry, the symbolism of the title making the substitutions obvious. Some nicely turned phrases touching one another, and combining in unusual ways, like sampling small portions of a gourmet smorgasbord. I won’t quote here since the pleasures are diminished by separation.
FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT
Ha! The defenselessness of a napper, especially so in the presence of a ruthlessly, unsentimentally observant poet. Deployed in (more or less) non-traditional hexameter, the end rhymes mimic the tonal shifts nicely. Note the assonantal chiming of the separated first and eighth line “mind” and “sky” which act as a lovely pause before the surprising (humorously in the first/second lines; darkly in the eighth/ninth lines) unfolding. Really, a wonderful contrast between pregnancy and moribund fate. Unflinching, marrying sex and death. Bravissimo!
There is simply too much going on here for a mini-review. How’s that for a cop-out? Actually, I don’t want to give much away here, even by suggestion. A tour de force, compressed with consummate skill, actions calling to painfully parallelled thoughts, images crisp with overtones. This is the best in the book. I hope it’s repeatedly anthologized.
TO THE COUPLE IN APARTMENT 949
“It’s no laughing matter”, but the poem is. A bracing exploration of that common experience of the noisy neighbours. Some funny references -- folkloric, plaque-inscribed, superstitious -- in the last stanza.
DEATHS OF THE SAINTS
Strong rhythms. This is a joy to read aloud, the rollicking peaks-and-valleys trade acting as counterpoint to the horrific historical record.
Reverberating motion from line one to line sixty-two, a fiesta of sound and sense and imagination. Even more impressive to me since I hate squash (but love racquetball -- though I now have a new appreciation for that dead-ass squash ball: “small, hot, beating in bird-panic”). Game and match to Starnino on this one.
DUCKS ASLEEP ON GRASS
Can’t say too much or else this review will self-dest --
The rolling “b”s act as foreboding pulse. Another joy to read out loud.
A subtle, clever analogy on the conceiving, gestation, marketing, and ultimate discovery -- “the wind drags everything to pick up its scent” -- of a book of poems, disguised as an appropriate “making hay” experience. Wryly humorous and wistful.
The death-bed scene is usually the kiss of death as a subject for poetry, inviting mawkish soldering by the poet/bedside sitter to his or her fading beloved. Starnino, wisely, as is frequently the case in This Way Out, opts instead for concrete substitution. The last recognition is painful (in experience, not poetic crafting), a psychic tattoo.
THE BUTTERFLIES I DREAMT IN CHILDHOOD ARE HERE
A worthy submission into the tradition-drenched study on the evanescence of beauty. Its fourteen lines might tempt one to stamp “sonnet” on it, and it’s true that the beginning of stanza three ushers in an effective turn, but it’s quickly shifted towards its dominant subject and mood. Besides, a more surprising turn exists at line seven, and I like that it’s structured as the stanza’s second line, increasing the jolt. No, I thought the poem led to a regular five-five-five line outlay, and the missing last line makes sense after “child’s eyes closed”.
THE STRANGEST THINGS
Preliminary comments on This Way Out’s third and final section, the eleven-poem sequence “The Strangest Things” (the title a phrase from W.C. Williams’ Kora In Hell), before dealing with the poem in a more global sense.
The individual poems in the sequence frame the overriding emotion in their titles -- “Puddle, Corner Jean Talon And Outremont”, “Roadkill, Unidentified, Hwy 401”, i.e. --, and place names serve to show the speaker coming across the object or sense impression accidentally, which then triggers that emotion.
Starnino departs severely from metaphor and image in “The Strangest Things”. “Weeping Willow, Parc Angrignon”, especially, is bogged down in abstractions and interiority. Cliches follow one another (“things taking a turn for the worse./I look myself hard in the eye”). Perhaps this is a knowing strategy to emphasize the similar emotional flatness of the speaker, but elsewhere I’ve stated that aesthetic effectiveness lessens, as well, when the temperature is set at low-and-steady. (Contrast similar moods in Lowell’s “A Severed Head”: “panted with calm inertia”.) That said, there are some tight, defiant surprises among the weeds: “What to make of a diminished thing/is anybody’s guess./I have enough/to be going on with/without needing to put on airs” from “Smell Of Something Bad, Kitchen” jabs Frost once again, this time dismissing “The Oven-Bird” ‘s stance (yes, I realize that canonical sonnet can be read many ways) of simultaneously grieving over, fetishizing, and making a strength of declining poetic powers and/or years. “Get up, stretch, take the air, my friends tell me./No thanks” (“Weeping Willow, Parc Angrignon”) further snuffs the emotional evasion. And particulars increase, with alacrity. Blasts such as “Hotheaded/hair-trigger", from “Loud TV From Next Door, Notre-Dame-de-Grace”, explain (though never apologize for) previous flat funk. I also like the ending of “For Sale Sign, Wilson Street, Notre-Dame-de-Grace”: “There was nothing more to be said/and we didn’t”. A perfect way to end that particular sub-poem. (Frost would have liked that: “Any fool can get into a poem, but it takes a poet to get out of one.”)
Much anguish and ink has been spilled over the confessional poem. I won’t add much to those poetics here except to note the obvious: it’s a dangerous tack, especially now, when the brilliant and seminal efforts of Lowell (misidentified as confessional) have led to a half-century (and still going strong, or weak, as it were) of self-indulgent embroidering. Starnino escapes the “look at me” nausea, but not, completely, the difficulties in emotional and aesthetic transposition necessary for a successful confession. And the sequence’s finale, “Hairline Wall Crack, Study, Parc Ex Flat”, puzzles me. Emotionally static, linguistically unadventurous, narratively unnecessary (after the aforementioned “nothing more to be said”. I interpreted that individually, as well), structurally confusing, it’s a limp ending to an otherwise stellar book.
Starnino’s always been concerned, and effective, with structured sound and emotional accuracy and depth. But in This Way Out, he’s further developed narrative and ideational skills. A force, now, on multiple poetic fronts, I hope for, and expect, further organic integration.