canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The New World
by Carmine Starnino
Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 1997

Review by Geoffrey Cook

This is a very impressive debut - not just because the author is so young; indeed, it is perhaps the relative innocence of the voice, its sense of belonging (New World or no), of trust, love and awe - not to mention the religious aspect of the poetry - which secures a reader's attention; plus, of course, the felicity of much of the writing. The subjects of Carmine Starnino's The New World are his Italian immigrant family, three paintings by Caravaggio, and Biblical figures; the book also includes adaptations of modern Italian poetry.

On the one hand, these are typical subjects for a young poet: family is the realm of the familiar, historical and psychological, while art and faith are of the imaginative and mythic realms - a necessary balance of perspective. On the other hand, Starnino's eye and heart are honest enough to not reduce the collection to sentimentality, cliché or cant. Though a biographical and/or sociological reading is encouraged by the transparently autobiographical content of the poetry, the true quality of any poem or poet is determined by the measure of ideal standards, while attending to the specific imaginative patterns of a manuscript.

So while much has been said of the sequence of poems on the family in New World, it is not just the nostalgic images and narratives of a family come to the new world which is particularly interesting in these poems, but that the majority of the poems in the sequence deal with the "little brother", Anthony (The Child), and with the death of an aunt. These central subjects of the sequence provide an Alpha and Omega of family life - a birth (the young hope in the New World) and a death (the end of the direct connection to the Old World). The poems give the sequence a larger mythic structure (an imaginative coherence) - a structure necessary to the articulation of a personal vision. "Lullaby" (featuring Anthony) and "The Afterlife" (featuring the aunt) are the two best poems on these central figures, while in the other family poems, "Heritage", "The True Story of My Father" and parts of "Work", are very fine pieces.

The three poems on Caravaggio's paintings are ironic and refreshing, though a reader hears Auden in the background (Auden's infamous statement "poetry makes nothing happen" is ironically contradicted earlier in the collection). Starnino's voice is most authentic in the third poem, "After Caravaggio's "The Crucifixion of Saint Peter", where the ironic perspective - that of the soldiers who are nailing Peter to the cross - is interrupted at one point by the suggestion of Peter's transcendent vision. Starnino, that is, is not wholly at home in Auden's early crusading irony. When we turn to Starnino's poems on Christ, Peter, the Magi, and Balthazar - that is, the biblical poems not filtered through another artist's perspective -, the irony (in the realistic detail and human perspective) is compassionate and tragic, not caustic, didactic, and intellectually impatient as in Auden's critical verse.

Besides using typical subjects, Starnino employs a device common to young poets: poems written about images and the implicit narratives in photographs and paintings and other stories (the Bible). The five translations (1 poem each by 5 Italian poets) are more explicit examples of the training in art and other artists that is required of young poets and which often appears in early collections: such training educates the eye and the conceptual imagination - one readily open to narrative. And that too - the narrative element - is important and promising: narrative poetry is inherently a more self-conscious exploitation of myth, and therefore helps a poet establish a more encompassing subject, point of view and voice.

Technically, Starnino shows a very sure hand: clean, precise language with convincing and playful metaphors; effective rhythmic movements, and, though Starnino does not rhyme, the poems are usually divided into stanzas and line lengths of equal size. My bet is that Carmine Starnino's talent will develop through the practice of more technical virtuosity - in vocabulary, metaphor and particularly rhyme and metre -, and through the further exploration of the fundamental tonal tension between irony and (using the word neutrally) sentimentality, enriching the tragic and comic tones inherent in this young poet's vision.

Geoffrey Cook's poetry has been published in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Nashwaak Review", and "Descant (#104)". Originally from Nova Scotia, Geoff currently teaches English at John Abbott College outside Montreal, where he lives. He is seeking a publisher for his collection of poetry, "Postscript".







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