Map of Dreams

61 pages,
ISBN: 1550650823

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Good Measure at Sea
by Carmine Starnino

James Dickey called it "the X-factor": the ingredient, impossible to schematize into a poem, whose ineffable presence transforms language from competent artfulness into the charged, listen-to-this-isn't-it-wonderful quality of good poetry. Technique and craftsmanship are, of course, part of it. Yet the X-factor is something beyond phrase and cadence, syllable and line. It's an amalgam of all that; and yet, not quite, because it can survive when one of those elements falter in a poem. I begin this way, because to talk about Ricardo Sternberg's two collections of poetry (his debut, The Invention of Honey, and his recent follow-up, Map of Dreams), it is necessary to first call attention to the high stylistic polish and indefatigable inventiveness that set the books apart from the usual crowd of lacklustre publications. But the fact is, everywhere I turn in their pages I am reminded of the X-factor pitch at which poems need to be written in order to be unforgettable. Here's a short one, from The Invention of Honey, called "Buffalo":

I have wrestled a buffalo
into this poem
the least I could do
for an endangered species.

I have given him a tree
for shade, a stream
to slake his thirst.

A hulk of night stranded
on my gold-green pasture
he shakes stars from his fur,
paws thunder into the ground.

The reader is to blame
who brings red into the poem.

"Buffalo" is cunningly constructed. The surprise and inevitability of that final couplet (notice the sheer horsepower Sternberg is able to finesse out of a rickshaw word like "red") is due to the poem's shrewd manipulation of detail: we don't expect them, yet the poem prepares us for those last lines from the very start. What makes the poem satisfying, however, and not merely ingenious or clever, is the speaker's voice: a slightly elevated, aurally rich speech simultaneously marked by a disarming transparency. This paradoxically formal-casual language eludes definition (think X-factor). It's something that seems entirely Sternberg's-there's certainly nothing in this country to compare with it-and I'm amazed at the uncanny things it allows him to do. The most beguiling acts of prestidigitation in The Invention of Honey occur when he uses this voice to help whet his insatiable appetite for fables, as in "The Angel & the Mermaid":

An angel fell
in love
with a mermaid.

A creature of no imagination
the mermaid
rejected the possibility
such a being could exist,
and when he hovered over her,
so white against the blue,
would turn to her sisters
and ask
how is it that foam
has taken flight?

The angel grew sullen,
gained weight,
began to molt.

He was moved
further and further back
in the choir,
but still his lament
pierces the melody
bringing a dark cloud
to the eye of god.

To write a love-story between an angel and a mermaid, and make the tale dramatic, affecting, and entirely credible-all in twenty-three lines!-is a baffling achievement. It shouldn't work. But Sternberg's voice, with its mix of refined diction and colloquial fluency, somehow ratifies the poem's premise, transforming the rather contrived idea (which in anybody else's hands would have remained inescapably so) into something authentic and real. Talent can only carry poets so far; it takes, instead, a rare imagination to outstrip the artificiality of this kind of material. And indeed, of the many gifts that recommend The Invention of Honey the most invaluable is Sternberg's capacity for what the American poet Robert Morgan calls "good measure". "Giving good measure," Morgan writes, "means that we always deliver more than is expected, more than is required by our contract with the reader. It is the unexpected abundance that delights most, the bonus that could not have been foreseen."
And "good measure" is exactly what Sternberg continues to offer in his second book, a narrative of linked, untitled poems called Map of Dreams. If The Invention of Honey hewed close to the contours of a recognizable world, it was only to have those ordinary walls buckle against the pressure of extraordinary occurrences. The world of Map of Dreams is even more inveigling; one that's been breached by fable and myth, where characters are constantly swept away by fantastic visions. The story begins with Eamon, a young boy who, at work in the fields, often sees an "island, floating, half hidden/ in the salt spray haze of dawn." This vision, which, in the poem, is set against the ox "dragging/ the plow through intractable earth", alters Eamon's perception of the labour: "Clumps of soil, uprooted as they moved,/ were foam churned by his passing." But one day Eamon, unsatisfied with just dreaming about it, goes off to find a real ship that will take him to that island.
Map of Dreams is, then, the story of this voyage, and the different ways in which, as with Eamon's vision, reality finds itself subsumed by imagination. Some of that magic also seeps into the poetry. In fact, think of Map of Dreams as a cross between "Buffalo" and "The Angel & the Mermaid". The plot is provisional and mercurial, willing to overturn its direction in surprising ways. Sternberg uses the story's protean quality to go beyond the extensive, and often clichéd body of seafaring legends he borrows from, and refashions a compelling, original, and often outrageous adventure. A "rum-drunk" captain decides to do away with the "tedious search/ for angles and stars" and instead "sail by power of dreams", leaving the ship to drift; the narrator comes in the end to the moving realization that "The island I searched for/ is not there. Or has moved./ Or exists only in a space/ circumscribed by sleep." It's Sternberg's voice that makes all this possible:

She was carved in Hamburg
and given there the bright
blue eyes, the golden hair
and what the cook calls
when prey to mid-night funk,
her equivocal Teutonic grace,
for oblivious to all entreaties,
she remains the steadfast one,
one eye fixed on the horizon.

Half her face is charcoal,
burned when lightning struck
in a storm off the Canaries;
others say no, not an accident:
torched on purpose by a misfit
who tried to woo her from the quay
when the ship docked at Calais.

The same holds for the tear.
They say it is but paint
carelessly dripped in Hamburg;
others swear that streak
appeared years later and at sea:
grief for Pedro whom, in fear
of the plague, we threw overboard.

Our glory is her hair
that frames her face in tight
gold curls then moves
to the intricacies of braids
only to be set loose at last
and flow back towards the ship
as if grandly swept by wind or wave.

This poem, quoted in its entirety, is one of two masterpieces in this book. (The other, a will written by "Diogo, son of Juan/ and of Catarina Queluz", I'll leave to readers to discover for themselves.) The figurehead yields to interpretation but retains its mystery; Sternberg's associative leaps never overshoot their target. There's no doubt that the tension in Sternberg's voice-the relaxed tone nesting in language of almost Yeatsian gravity and self-importance-is what facilitates this. It allows Sternberg to heighten the sense of myth-making while simultaneously resisting the temptation to load it with surplus intensity. Yet the "good measure" of Map of Dreams isn't just the speculative daring of the poems, but Sternberg's willingness to nudge that speculation into emotional territory he often found inhospitable in his first book (probably because of its severity). This time, the poems weather loss, mortality, and death:

A pig-iron disposition
annealed to a silver soul,
the boatswain kept to himself
except when a full moon
sat on his shoulder
and His Royal Gruffness
became suddenly blessed
by the gift of palaver.

Then it was the mermaids
adrift in our moonlight wake,
begged to be brought aboard
there to sit, shivering,
arms around each other,
asking of the sailor
that he tell once more
the tale of Fergus
whom they had drowned.

And once he was done,
that he tell it again,
the grief in his growl
soaking each word,
until daybreak neared
and, singly, they slipped
overboard, to mingle their tears
in the salt of the sea.

Reading this, also presented in its entirety, we notice that the wryness remains ("His Royal Gruffness"), but Sternberg has now brought a greater solemnity into the ambit of his poetry. Map of Dreams feels more sombre-and, consequently, a touch less playful. That could be dangerous because any slippage in playfulness might mean a slippage in variety and scope. After all, it's Sternberg's playfulness that keeps the phrasing in The Invention of Honey alert and venturesome. This time the poetry's slower emotional pace parses out its ebullience, and the resulting compression lifts the writing to a remarkable level of achievement: "the silk sheen of this sea,/ its blue susurrus."; "Whether it was real and firm land/ kept hidden by special ordinance / or else some illusion of clouds/ brooding on the surface of the sea"; "As if observing Sunday,/ the ocean today has crossed/ its arms and gone to sleep"; "the marmoset/ who brought in its fist/ the crushed fragrance of the tropics."; or this:

Blessed be the life force
teeming in these waters,
from that leviathan rising,
high as a church spire
to the krill that feed it.

Blessed be the fish
in their prodigious multiplicity:
pike, carp, perch and catfish,
bluefish, herring, mackerel, cod,
the striped bass, the tile fish,
black drum, haddock and rockling,
the turbot, the brill, the halibut,
the sole, horse mackerel, the hake.
Blessed be the prodigal salmon
(both Atlantic and Pacific)
the salmon-trout, bonito,
barracuda, clownfish, monkfish,
the cardinal fish, the angelfish...

While this is only the first two stanzas (the poem continues the same way for another three) it's an excellent example of the sort of thing Sternberg can finagle out of the English language. The ingenuity of it-orchestrating fish names (fish names!) into a complex patterning of cadences-is sublime. But what I react to in the above passage, and why I bring it up as possibly one more example of the meditative quality that textures the poems in Map of Dreams, is its proximity to prayer. What gives the poem power isn't just the way Sternberg's alert ear galvanizes such an unlikely inventory into music, but the religious ache that sponsors the effort. While one can't discount the sheer zoological joy in deploying such language, the poem's cornucopia of sea-life isn't so much the result of a verbal surfeit as a spiritual one-to name (and, by naming, praise) the rich multiplicity of the world. Seen this way, the poem's incantatory rhythm also carries the power of a hymn.
I don't want to take this kind of thinking too far and lose touch with why one really reads Sternberg's poems: they are robustly enjoyable. Sternberg, as if recognizing the fundamental X-factor pleasures of his gift, takes this aspect very seriously. His poems stand or fall on the basis of their charisma, their irresistibility, their utterly seductive verbal facility. He works hard to rouse our interest. His ingratiating manner, mind you, isn't insincere. No, he wants to win our attention in order to reward it. Indeed, if we are to understand "good measure" as being a poem's "unexpected abundance", then its corollary, for the writer, seems to be the fear of disappointing. This cuts across the grain of much current thinking, which encourages poets to think of themselves as aggressors: using language to "disturb" readers or frustrate their expectations. Yet there is nothing exclusionary about Sternberg's aesthetic. Everything has been groomed to delight us.

Carmine Starnino is the author of The New World (Signal Editions).


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