||A Review of: With English Subtitles
by Asa Boxer
Read Starnino's A Lover's Quarrel and chew on it awhile; Starnino's
style is all taste and sprezzatura. His explanations are so absolutely
accessible and lucid that one cannot but give credit to the sharpness
of his reasoning. His subtle way with distinctions is remarkable:
"An influence exists," Starnino explains, "as a
called-forth effect; it is born in contact with a mind, but has no
existence as an independent intention. And this is precisely why
it's wrong to treat evidence of indebtedness as evidence of living
under enemy control." The precision of these two sentences,
and Starnino's clear-headedness, is what sets him apart as a literary
heavy-weight. This vigorous cogency is on display with each book
and each poet under review, whether it's Christopher Dewdney, Richard
Outram, Christian Bk, Charles Bruce (a fine discovery), Susan
Musgrave, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, A.M. Klein, or David McGimpsey.
Pick any essay, and you'll find yourself face to face with a highly
refined brand of logic with which there is just no arguing.
If there's no arguing, is Starnino being disingenuous-begging to
argue, yet leaving no room for debate? Not quite! As he himself
says about his reviews: "You can choose to refuse anything in
them. Good reviewing, at any rate, doesn't demand consent, but
provokes us to productive thought." I agree with the principle
of launching a re-evaluation of the Canadian canon. I think it
over-hopeful, however, to presume that anyone inside or outside
Canada cares enough about the result. I agree with Starnino's
complaint that one of the main problems with Canadian poetry is its
obtuse preoccupation with its own reflection. Instead of actually
feeling comfortable in Canadian gear, many of our poets have acquired
the cloying habit of pointing uncomfortably to their toques. Yet
I'm beginning to think that the provincial size of the country may
be more responsible than anything else for perpetuating the myth
that Canada is a country lacking in talent.
If nothing else, Starnino's own poetry helps put the lie to that
myth. And in the spirit of A Lover's Quarrel, I would like to turn
some tough love on Starnino's third book of poems, With English
Subtitles, which is indeed a "phenomenon of language"
that was deservedly awarded the 2004 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry.
As with his essays, the craftsmanship of these poems is remarkable.
"The Kettle", "Scarecrow", "The Suitcase",
and "Money" are brutal descriptions of their title subjects,
with a fine edge to them. "Beauty," Aristotle said,
"consists in magnitude and order" and With English Subtitles
is itself an orderly book of Aristotelian magnitude. Overall, it
is an autumnal work about things old, aged, lost, and found. Alongside
the splendid centre-piece, "On the Obsolescence of Caphone"
(from whose lines the title of the book is drawn), there are three
series of poems that lend the book its distinctive personality;
"Worst-Case Scenario Poems", a run of mordant, crisply-written
survival tips; "Six Riddles", where the book flexes its
muscles; and "Yukon Postcards", where Starnino reaches
out emotionally to the reader. On a poem to poem flip-through, this
book is a lively dinner-party of language: sophisticated, captivating,
smart; at times a little too tipsy; at times a little too clever.
Let's examine some stanzas from "Money", Starnino's poem
about a coin exhibit at the British Museum:
Their misshapeness strikes the table in tiny splashes,
like still cooling splatters of silver: stater and shekel,
mina and obol. Persia's bullion had a lion and bull.
Athens an owl. Messana a hare, a jar for Terone, Melos
a pomegranate. Call it museum money, written off
and not expected back-some Ozymandian loose change,
or a bit of dodo boodle, bygone swag, has been loot,
history's tithe to itself. And God knows after all this
gazing at glass maybe even you mull the quaintness
of things kept too long. But not so fast: This old currency
returns us to first principles, to a time when poverty
had heft, when debt was assigned its correct weight,
spilled metal coldcocking its solid clink against metal,
when taxes, rents and sundry dues were made real
by the real coins that paid for them, knurled and oblong,
dented and pinched, coins that called out your cost
when spoken on scales and so relentlessly palpable
they held their ground as outlaw selves of your reflective tact,
giving the middle finger to poetic truth. They belong
to days before dollars dipped, when it was futile to speculate
on the facts: ingots were unillusionary, would mean
what you spent, and prosperity, like perdition,properly
shouldered its burden, like those last Roman senators
forced to carry their assets in carts. Know what truth was?
These efficient tercets are compelling because of the metrical
rhythms (punctuated by internal rhyme and repetition) that run the
words along, as well as the concise rhythms of thought that keep
the mind clear as it swings from idea to idea: "to a time when
poverty/ had heft, when debt was assigned its correct weight,/
spilled metal coldcocking its solid clink against metal,/ when
taxes, rents and sundry dues were made real/ by the real coins that
paid for them". These lines are among the best in the book;
not only do they tease the palate with a powerful convergence of
sound and sense, but they arouse human feeling as they address those
notions that lie at the heart of one's sense of dignity-what one
has to show for it all, money as the sign and measure of one's toil.
Due to the poem's emphasis on labour, the second and third stanzas
seem terribly out of place: too much smirking, winking, and riddling.
Another problem is that when I get to "Know what truth was?",
I'm expecting the idea that follows to contain itself in the same
rigorous form as what has preceded. Instead we get the following:
Truth was the unapproximating mix of gold and silver
smelted and cast into bars, the alloy hammered flat,
blanks cut with shears, stacked, then hammered again
Surely, especially when it comes to formulating some truth, the
idea here would be to use the concise rhythm patterns already
established to tweak out an epigramatic line or two as tight as
"they held their ground as outlaw selves of your reflective
tact." Instead, we get three lines conveying a sense of labour
rather than truth. (This could, of course, be construed to be at
the core of the poem's strength. But something the mind can easily
grasp may go a great deal further.) The last two stanzas take up
the vigorous pace again and the poem slams to a powerful close:
into circular shape. Now that's genuine, that's proof.
The heat and hiss, the loud crack of tools. When what you earned
was itself evidence of a life lived in labour, the stubble-
to-beard truth of busting your butt-a few, of course,
added bronze to phony the weight, but being neither metaphor
nor symbol, its quality could be checked by a chisel cut.
Starnino's masterpiece is "On the Obsolescence of Caphone",
a 24-quatrain work, which cannot be reproduced here in full for
reasons of space. It will be instructive, however, to sample a few
lines that seem wincingly aware of their author's most unfortunate
flaw: "Le parole son femmine, e i fatti// son maschi-words are
female and actions male,/ and they thought me femminiello, a bit
faggoty/ in my careful, English talk". Well, I'm not sure
"faggoty" is quite the word for what is most disquieting
about some of Starnino's new poems-"careful" or precious
would be closer to what I'm getting at. The verbs in this collection
sometimes bring the work to a frustratingly dead halt, resulting
in an almost still-life arrangement of words. By de-emphasising
action, Starnino risks crafting poems that are not vehicles for
emotion, or explorations of human experience; instead, they're left
to stand stewing in their own wit. It is telling that the poet's
best lines are those that call for a violation of his style. A sense
of frustration gets into the lines and excites the form. Here is
more from "On the Obsolescence of Caphone":
No word dipped in oak-gall and soot. I want
a homemade vocabulary, tough-vowelled and fierce
for the sheetrock they shoveled, and the steel
they bolted with a ratatatatatat, and the bricks
they troweled with a one-on-two-bend-and-scoop-
spread-tap-settle, and the sledges they whanged! on iron.
For the meals they couldn't cook, but the rabbits
they'd gut after knocking their heads with a cut of wood.
or, toward the end of the poem,
Today, instead, I want my language
bashed to flinders and I will rummage among
its bits and scraps, its dwindlings and debris,
toting up the reusable versus the gone for good.
The verbs here (except want) are action verbs (unlike think, feel,
hear, understand, etc.); they are active and in the simple past,
like troweled, and bashed. Compare with the opening stanza to
Not blackberries, cherries. Not picked,
packed in sugar. Jam jar wrung tight,
left outside forty days. Sugar goes soggy
from sunlight's glassed-in excitation
The whole stanza is in the passive form! Where's the fun in that?
Of course, "sunlight's glassed-in excitation" is a brilliant
thought, but it isn't given any agency in the sentence: the excitation
is, as it were, syntactically benched. Given the context, the passive
may seem thematically appropriate, but this deadening of movement
effects too much of the book.
I do not wish to be misunderstood here; each of these poems is a
gem of technical virtuosity. But there is more to beauty, of course,
than form. Too much discipline makes a thing tight in the pejorative
sense. I like to think that the best poems express an emotional
commitment. There must be a record of one's invested struggle, as
in the first poem of the lovely "Yukon Postcards":
Each day is a winterward hardening.
Willow leaves browned to a suede sheen.
Ochreous ferns, rust frail. Frayed bark.
The meadow's aromatic asceticism.
Hedges flecked with frost-charred bric-a-brac
and russet-tinged curios of vegetation.
Acreages brittle in their disappearing berths.
Roadsides darkened by the sputtering
of yellow-wicked shrubs. Before my heart
slows with the fossil ardour of autumn,
the spruce's knothole is aperture enough
to send one last green thought to you.
Notice how this poem participates in the general frozenness of the
other poems in this collection, but that one's impression of the
autumnal immobility resonates intellectually as well as excites
emotionally. How crushing the thought that each day could be a
"winterward hardening"; how stillness-suggesting such
verbless phrases as, "Ochreous ferns, rust frail" and
"The meadow's aromatic asceticism." The monkish muteness
here is no longer a means of offsetting wit; it is being used to
convey feeling-and thus fends off an impression of contrivedness.
Between the feeling of "Yukon Postcards" and the action
of "On the Obsolescence of Caphone", With English Subtitles
already sports the technology that says Starnino is batting with
the canonical big boys. What I hope to find in his next collection
is more of the juice that fires his criticism.. . .