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.
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".