Often, when I'm reading reviews of contemporary Canadian writing in literary magazines, periodicals, or newspapers, I notice that almost every poet, short-story writer, and novelist is regarded as important. Indeed, hyperbolic praise abounds to such a degree that it's no longer possible to put any real faith in literary criticism. Due to the increased institutionalization of creative writing, we now have a professional networking system in place that breeds indiscriminate and irresponsible applause: established authors heap plaudits on their workshop graduates (often because the latter accept and emulate the former's practices), while the graduates return the favour by kissing in print the hem of the mentors' reputable garments. And inevitably, these established writers and their disciples play the same game of amiable tit-for-tat with their own peers. Just look at the astonishing plethora of orgiastic blurbs on the back-covers of what can only be described as minor works!
This preamble is designed to put Carmine Starnino's young career into some sort of reasonable context. In brief, Starnino, from his desk in Montreal, has already established a reputation as one of the most forthright and incisive poetry critics working in Canada's literary press. Whatever one thinks of his judgements, there can be little doubt that he judges the work in front of him and not the reputation of the poet or the debased laurels wreathing the book's uncracked spine. Starnino is widely read and serious about craft, and his reviews exhibit a sharp, if sometimes wordy, understanding of what constitutes a good poem.
For this reason, I will not insult him by exaggerating the quality and importance of his own first collection. The New World immediately places Starnino in the forefront of young Canadian poets, but since that is not necessarily high praise, I'll go one step further and say that The New World is a cut above many collections published by older poets with much larger reputations. Again, that is not an excessive comment, since our country (and others, for that matter) produces a vast crop of poetry books each year, only a few of which are truly memorable. Such is the nature of the poetic beast: the art is so demanding that even the best poets worry that their skill will be gone the next time they pick up a pen.
Based on the poems in his first book, Starnino need not fret too much, but he stumbles just enough along the way to add a few worry-lines to the forehead of the Muse.
The New World contains thirty-five poems and is a mere fifty-one pages long. A testament to Starnino's economic and forceful use of language, the book accomplishes more in a short space than most collections do in over a hundred pages. Unafraid of emotion or intellect, grounded in a reverence for ancestry and art, and buoyed by a kind of serious wonder at the joy of existence, Starnino is a poet who will not make cheap plays for attention or try to reflect his concerns forever back on himself. Even when he writes about his family, which he often does, it is always with a marvellous combination of intimacy and artistic detachment. For example, notice how "On the Day the Lab Tests Confirmed our Aunt's Tumor as Cancerous" seems to operate both inside and outside the drama of the poem:
Only my sister, brushing together breadcrumbs
with her fingers, seemed unmoved when my uncle
burst into loud, uncontrollable sobbing. My father,
eyes glistening, turned from the table, while my mother
sat forward and gripped my uncle's hand,
I couldn't hear from where I stood at the sink, suddenly aware
of the cold water I had left running behind me,
the glass forgotten beneath the open tap.
This is one of a series of poems based on the aunt's illness and eventual death, as well as on the uncle's grief, and it illustrates clearly Starnino's emotional closeness to his material. But more important than that, the poem reveals something consistent in the poet's working method. Almost all of the poems in The New World exhibit the same careful structure, controlled tone, and quiet, understated imagery that resonates meaning far beyond its surface simplicity. Take, for instance, the final image in the poem I just quoted. The glass is vividly there; we can see it, we can share the narrator's sudden amazement at it, but only indirectly do we make the connection of that image with the dramatic centre of the poem, the water parallelling the uncle's grief, the glass as insignificant as skin under the cold fact of tears.
Again and again, Starnino focuses on these small images to underline larger themes. In fact, the book's opening poem, "Heritage", is nothing more than a loving list of intimate details drawn from the narrator's memories of his grandparents. But what a vivid and effective list it is, the images gaining momentum as they move towards the final reference back to the narrator. Here are the first few lines of the poem:
This is my grandmother testing the hot iron with a spittled finger.
This is the hiss. This is the stroke that seized my grandfather
working alone in the fields. This is my grandmother
who found him as she was carrying two pails out to the barn.
The poem next moves through the grandfather's second stroke, his death and funeral, and finally to the conclusion that brings the whole history back to the narrator's direct perspective:
This is my grandmother hours before she died, complaining
about the heavy, festering scent of apples. This is the fever
that, one morning, kept me in bed. This is the washcloth my mother
dipped in a basin of cold water and placed across my forehead.
And this, this is the lullaby she sang that would not let me sleep.
Apart from the obvious point that the poem itself is structured as a lullaby, the last line perfectly sets up what the poet's concerns will be throughout the book. For Starnino, family is both a source of wonder and heartache, and he writes about his relatives with a compassion that rarely crosses the line into sentimentality. Only the seven poems dedicated to a younger sibling fail to rise off the page, or rather, there are about five too many of them. Here, more than in any other section of the book, Starnino loses grasp of his economic and subtly imagistic style, and moves towards the prosaic. The flatness of the opening to "August" is just one example:
Anthony now spends his afternoons
running around the yard
flailing his arms
in what seems
an earnest bid for flight.
By the time the poet reaches the end of the series, Anthony seems less like a small human developing towards his own future and more like a prize begonia watered by the poet's fascination. It's understandable, given Starnino's depth of feeling, that he'd be captivated by Anthony's every discovery, but the reader, catching a whiff of Little Lord Fauntleroy, reserves the right to be less enthusiastic.
These criticisms aside, The New World's best family poems are excellent indeed, and they constitute the strongest work in the collection. "The True Story of My Father" is alone worth the price of the book, while "Picking the Last Tomatoes with My Uncle", "Drawing a Breath", "Poetry Makes Nothing Happen", "Work", "The New World", "Ghost", and a few others are almost equally good. In these poems, Starnino is most directly involved with his material, but always in a way that affords him a wistful distance; he records not only how time eats away our most vivid moments, but also how a residue of connection is left behind, from which we gather the courage to go on.
The remaining original poems in the collection (there is a series of "adaptations" from Italian poets, which I'll comment on shortly), while less successful, nevertheless provide some memorable moments.
"After Caravaggio's `The Crucifixion of St. Peter' ", one of three poems based on the Italian master's paintings, relays the story on the canvas with a colloquial matter-of-factness that powerfully captures, without exaggeration, the inherent humanity of the scene. The poem is reminiscent, technically and thematically, of Earle Birney's classic, "El Greco: Espolio". And while Starnino's effort is not quite as compelling, it nevertheless manages to bring a startling vividness to the Caravaggio painting, and achieves a rare poetic goal, to honour famous art with some degree of respectable artistry.
Starnino closes The New World with four poems that rise out of a contemplation of Biblical characters. The most effective of these is "The Last of the Magi", an intriguing dramatic monologue beautifully suffused with the weight of history and our individual involvement in it. Here's the complete poem:
I look up into the night, lit by an expectation
too bright in my heart to ignore, and wait
for a star to strike this sky again. I was called
and I followed. I make no claim to greatness.
Only that there was a time when I sat here
and the darkness above me flared, and I gazed
into its great fire; that there was a time
when I felt a hand on my shoulder, urging me
to a dry stable, an oil lamp burning, a mother
nursing a child. But that was a lifetime ago,
and now I do not know what to call this sadness:
a sky that scarcely holds enough of a moon
to give me a shadow, the scent of candles
the moment they go out. My name is Balthazar.
The ghost of Tennyson's restless Ulysses haunts this poem, though Starnino's Balthazar is sadder and more defeated. Still, like all good poets, Starnino wears his influences just lightly enough that they are assimilated into the cadences of his own voice, leaving only faint but nonetheless resonant echoes of a tradition.
Before this Biblical closure, The New World offers us a delightful bonus of five short poems "adapted from the Italian". It's not clear whether the poet, eschewing the usual term "translated", is making a commentary on the arbitrariness of shifting poems from one language to another, or whether he's suggesting that his versions play fast-and-loose with the originals. But either way, the results are highly enjoyable. My favourite is Umberto Saba's "The Goat", which wonderfully reveals the basic link between humans and other animals. It ends, simply: "In the groan of a solitary goat/ I heard the lament of every other pain/ every other life."
In general, it's easy to see what Starnino admires in the work of these Italian poets. With them, he shares a fondness for direct utterance and the clear, telling image. As well, he invests his most successful poems with the same weight of longing, loss, and wonder.
The New World is an impressive debut, but it is not without flaws. Like many of today's poets, Starnino seems mistrustful of linguistic extravagance, despite the fact that he quotes some lines from Whitman in his book's dedication. In contemporary Canadian poetry, the notion that craft equals economy (i.e., a stripped-down spareness) seems to have limited the verbal risk-taking that so often provides wonderful poems. It is hard to imagine, for example, what contemporary critics, editors, and workshop leaders would make of a young poet writing with the exuberance of a Dylan Thomas or a Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don't mean to malign Starnino by making him rub shoulders with greatness, but it would be refreshing if more poets let their linguistic hair down just a bit, and risked taking a few wrong steps in order to accomplish a rare and sudden bound forward. On the evidence of his best poems, Starnino certainly has the talent to submit his voice to a little more recklessness.
It is only fair, however, to judge a poet on what he has already given us, and in The New World, Starnino has been more than generous. He writes with feeling and skill, and his poems are often startlingly vivid evocations of significant human dramas. There is little doubt that, in the years to come, Carmine Starnino will write many touching and graceful poems.
Tim Bowling's latest collection of poems is Dying Scarlet (Nightwood Editions). He lives in Edmonton and is currently completing his first novel.