canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Carmine Starnino
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook


(After the feast of Sant’ Anna)

Ooohing over these floats - a ship, a hot-air balloon,
a windmill - is silly. To think of them as poetry
even sillier. But what else can we call the guilelessness
of a steelworker who takes his credo of nostalgia
and toys it down to an electric train, lit up and hooting
around a hilly Italian town? Or that ship? Surely
it’s an object we can pair with some immigrant’s
deep bid for bardic self-expression, the way it speaks
for the one great ark that delivered so many here.
But maybe that’s too easy a metaphor. Maybe the ship
is closer to the fear of death, the fear with which
a poem caskets away everything it wants to rescue.

As its significance in this title poem implies, the ship is a central metaphor in Credo, Carmine Starnino’s second collection of poetry. In the first two sections of the book, comprising nineteen poems, the image of a ship is evoked ten times (and appears in another poem in the book). A ship brought Starnino’s relatives - and so many other immigrants - to the “New World”; a ship is also a traditional image for poetry. 

Readers of Starnino’s The New World will be familiar with the poet’s primary material - portraits of an Italian immigrant family - and Credo includes several such poems. What’s new and important in this second collection is the motif of the ship of poetry. Credo is an intensely self-conscious book, which shouldn’t surprise: second collections often are, if only because of a young poet’s natural anxieties about ‘pulling it off’ again. Starnino has also recently become the editor of Signal Editions of Vehicule Press, and the pressure to prove himself must be significant (though I think he is the right person for the job). Starnino’s success in the book has been recognized by a Canadian Author’s Association Award. 

But more importantly, the self-consciousness of Credo is evidence of a talent centering itself: more an issue of responsibility than egotism; of piloting, not passage. (Seamus Heaney’s influence is large, though taking direction from a master captain proves a wise apprentice.) This self-consciousness is evident (as compared to The New World) in greater diversity of tone - including, importantly, the comic and ironic; in greater control over rhythm, line and stanza - more conventional structures are used; in the use of rhyme; and in the content of the poems.

Ships transport goods and people; they link one world with another (an Old with a New). This movement between worlds is the dominant theme of Credo, giving the collection considerable coherence, mythic momentum and revelatory power. These worlds can be seen as apparent binary oppositions, and the tension between them fills the sails of the ship of poetry, which, in turn, unites the two. On the one side is a yearning for spectacle, spirit, transcendence, infinity; on the other: contingency, flesh, transparency, finitude. So, on the one hand, there are the envious allusions to saints (nineteen in total), including, in “Saints”, this righteous rhetoric:

And if I never have to hear another
song sparrow or eastern bluebird it will be
too soon: I want real wonders. So you can keep

your autumn with its surfeit of colored leaves
mass-produced to impress. Give me St. Adelelm
in a storm, at night, with a one-of-a-kind candle

that stayed lit until he found refuge. Give me
the withered tree that promptly burst into leaf
when the crowd pushed St. Zenobius against it.

On the other hand, there are poems about decidedly secular objects, such as the peculiar jackknife described in “What Do You Call This?” or knots in “Rope Husbandry”; poems about Starnino’s grandparents’ utterly untranscendent slaughterhouse (“If there was tenderness, I never witnessed it. / If there was sweetness, they found it elsewhere.”); poems grounded in the dirt of the historical, like “1955”, “Italian Campaign”, “The Italian Diaspora and a Mutt”; and, at the furthest extreme, poems about vulgarity and shit, “Dirty Words” and “Writer’s Block” - “Two gnarled turds, each leaking a cloudy smear / of rust; an ocher that stains the water the way / moods darken the clarity of one’s concentration.” 

The poem, “Stop Me If I Repeat Myself”, concerns coincidental accidents: the mother breaks a mirror while altogether elsewhere the father splits his heel on the beach. The poet recognizes that it is his “duty, when / coincidences become ... suspicious, to try and draft / ... a complicity so pat / it survives your smirk.” There are three ways, then, to cross the ocean between these realms I’ve outlined: miracle - a force originating in the realm of spirit; accident - miracle’s analogous power from the counter-world of contingency; and poetry, specifically through etymology and metaphor (which miracles and accidents may be, after all).

Thus the significance of the feature work in Credo, “Cornage”, a sequence of sixteen poems that plays with and re-invigorates archaic terms, and which is the most self-conscious and sustained exploration (and extension) of the word-horde. (Unsympathetic readers may remark that Starnino has merely glossed selections from a Medieval English Dictionary, but, besides obscuring the coherence of the sequence, such a comment ignores the sheer delight at the magic of words and images, evidenced also in “Pepino’s Poem: ’Growing Up in Italy’”.) The fifth poem of “Cornage”, while not the best in the sequence, gives the clearest “explanation” of the goal of the sequence:

Words I’d like to get into a poem: eagle-stone, ezel,
cornage, buckram, scrynne, waes hail, sillyebubbe.
Think medieval, think Old English, think so archaic,
so orphaned, so disregarded, so unused they seem

each to disappear into the slow, self-searing glimmer
of their vanishing, like the faint phosphorescence
emitted by decaying matter. I want to smuggle in
this fox-fire, angle the small dole of pilfered light

to a line’s wick, then set the conjured illumination
on my desk like an oil lamp. Doeges-eage, horshwoil,
necke-verse. Some nights I feel like St. Fillian who,
it’s said, read by the glow given off by his left hand. (V)

While the dominant metaphor here is of light (which, along with sound, are the conspicuous images of “Cornage”), the ship/ocean-travel metaphor is implied in the “glimmer of... phosphorescence”. Also, these words that the poet wants to salvage are “orphaned”, “vanishing”, “unused”, and generally “old” - not a little analogous to the signs, rituals and stories of an “Old World” which Starnino also salvages in other poems of Credo. Starnino DOES get all these archaic terms into poems (over thirty are defined in the sixteen poems), many of which are full of their own self-conscious metaphoricality as glosses on aesthetic experience and the ethical significance of poetry:

XXXXXXXXXXCornage was the duty of every tenant
to alert his distant master of approaching invaders.
I have thereby stationed this poem on a tout-hill, where,
in time of danger, it will blow a horn as warning. (I)

The “etymological mission” of these poems is “to stall their own miscarriage using the accrued power / of old words, objects seemingly empty I can shake / for noise.” (VI) The poet’s obligation is “to find poetry /somewhere I would never have thought /to look....”

XXXXXEven this poem is one more example
of the usefulness in scavenging through
the day’s refuse, saving anything of value. (XVI)

“Cornage” contains a number of such dicta on poetry, including its moral, political, and cultural obligation to bear witness and warn; to conserve and re-invigorate the language; to eschew “buckramming” (bullshitting, padding or verbiage, #VI) and “sillyebubbe” (writing that is “a spiced spindrift of phrases / that pleased the mouth but ignored the stomach”, # VIII); to be tactful yet to embrace diversity (“Nothing is beneath consideration”, #XVI).

As solemn or sententious as my excerpts from “Cornage” may seem, the sequence is also highly ironic, as all poems about language and poetry are. As well, the poems successfully combine odd, archaic terms with the casualness of contemporary diction. For example, Starnino ends a glossing of “scrynne” (“a medieval marvel-coffer”) with a description of his own essential treasures: “If I could, what would I save in my miracle-crate? A lap-top, a coffee mug, the Goldberg Variations” (XIV). The most revealing ironies are the self-portraits of #’s I and XI: the righteously ascetic “bemoil” of # I (“the name / given to the young boy employed as a scarecrow / due to his unnerving scrawniness”) is also the “glimmerer” of XI:

Trust me, deception is part of the game. It’s best
to be corkscrew-eyed in your dealings, sharp-sighted,
chary and inquisitive. What with the bird-swindlers
and their ambiloquence, betwattling double-talk,

sweet-smelling unscrupulousness, who hustle expensive,
extravagantly colored birds, puffed and outrageous,
and, on closer inspection, entirely bogus: greenfinches
re-plummaged and dyed. But the worst, the absolute

worst are the glimmerers. Shy, soft-spoken young men,
so nervous they grip and wring their caps, and who,
at each doorstep, stammer a request for a single live coal
to start a fire. Invited in, they filch small valuables.

Again, in these two portraits, we see the two worlds set in ironic opposition: yet the bemoil is as useful to poetry as the glimmerer, and both get the tongue-in-cheek nod from Starnino.

A similar double portrait of the poet is found in other poems of Credo. “My Obituary” asks whether “writing” can be “self-fulfilling”: if the poet writes his future, will it transpire? On the page facing “My Obituary” is the poem “After Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath”. Starnino wrote poems on Caravaggio’s paintings in The New World, where the focus was the Ordinary’s experience of the Extraordinary. In Credo, the focus is the artist, for Caravaggio’s Goliath is a self-portrait:

XXXXXXHard to imagine
how despair can befoul a life
to such macabre punishment.
What sin so loathsome Caravaggio
needs his art to purge it? Still,
something in the boy’s grimace
spooks me: his clenched look
of guilt, of terrified complicity.
Dear Berryman, dear Lowell,
will I ever be asked to dispense
such justice? Is it my own head
I will one day grip by the hair?

It is often argued that experience relieves us of our naiveté, but perhaps art does this too (perhaps it even does a better job). Every serious artist has, I suspect, the sense that their art is ahead of them, impatiently awaiting the artist to catch up, to drag life into line and up-to-date with the art, which has always already achieved an ethical clarity and coherence usually denied experience. For the committed artist, art seems to know where it is going, and because the artist identifies his/her own destiny with that of art, art seems to have a prophetic power. 

While the artist must begin, as the truism says, with what he or she knows and strive for “self-knowledge”, that “self” is, at the very and at every moment of recognition, obliterated again before the larger picture: what the art has brought into focus, what art wants known. And so, because the gap is never closed but the artist can only attempt such closure, the self is constantly re-written and art sets out again on a new bend in a old road. 

Thus the significance of the episode about artist, teacher and sodomite, Bruno Latini, in the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno. Recognizing the pilgrim-poet, Latini withdraws from the crowd trudging through a firestorm - the punishment for sins toward Nature. After a revealing chat with Dante, Latini realizes the crowd of sinners has come round again. The whole dialectic of art’s relation to the world, self and artist is contained in this image - in one verb, “seem”:

“I would say more to you, but must not stand
forever talking, speech must have an end.
I see fresh steam is stirring from the sand,
and men I would avoid are coming. Give
me no pity. Read my Tesoro. In
my book, my treasure, I am still alive.”
Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona ... and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth than those who lose.

(Translation by Robert Lowell)

Latini is, in fact, losing the race (and always will) - he is about to be lapped. This subtlety seems lost on both Latini and the pilgrim Dante; it is hinted at by the poet Dante, writing later, recalling the past, judging coldly (including himself), as if from the perspective of completion/perfection - Art. The successful work of art is Art’s insight, not the individual artist’s (who has merely caught up for the moment), and the vision is universal and impersonal. That an audience (the reader, viewer or listener, AND the artist) can identify with the emotions or characters of an aesthetic work is a paradoxical and graceful act of the educated imagination - we are admiring aesthetic and ethical coherence: meaning.

In Credo, the yearning for miraculous spectacle, the deliberate attention to the given, the play with language and form, the careful and intuitive gardening of imagery, the need to embrace diversity and contradiction, the consciousness of mortality - all this is symptomatic of the continuous mythopoiesis of self-creation/-recognition, which provides aesthetic consummation. 

Such ironic self-consciousness signals an impressive, important maturation of the poet’s vision and craft. I opened this essay with Credo’s title poem, and I will close with a final poem, which serves a similar function. All the themes and motifs of Starnino’s work - the immigrant experience of New World and Old, religious sensibility, imagination, transcendence, mortality, the ship - are focused in the concise poem, “The Immigrants”, which also, with gentle irony, links The New World with Credo:

The Immigrants

The New World, like the afterlife, was the Old World,
but heightened: oak-shaded gardens, windows open
over endless breeze-fragrant fields. Many believed this
and spent their lives learning to weigh their hearts
against a feather, and be found true. When they died,
they died interred in their homes. A token of wood
to build a boat; cherries, some fruit for their journey.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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