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Saving Anything of Value, on Carmine Starnino
The last lines of “Cornage” – the sixteen-part sequence of carefully-turned triple quatrains with which Carmine Starninocloses his 2000 collection Credo – frame the cultural work of a poem as an act of salvage, rag-picking language for splashes of unexpected colour (he has just rediscovered the resonances of the word “vermeil”):
Even this poem is one more example
of the usefulness in scavenging through
the day’s refuse, saving anything of value.
Starnino’s characteristic line, often an artfully balanced pentameter or (as if to register a little Gallic influence) hexameter, suggests at this point in the sequence a posture of measured resignation. The task he sets for himself isn’t so much to “purify the dialect of the tribe” (as T. S. Eliot once parsed and repurposed Mallarmé), although he might still aspire to breed lilacs out of a nearly dead land, a poetic labour that involves recovery more than rescue – to reanimate what he perceives, even in himself, as contemporary staleness with a mix of archival and ethnopoetic rummaging. The poet doesn’t so much conserve as curate, mindfully intervening in whatever lexical felicities cross his attention by unpacking etymologies and re-stitching phonemic meshes. (In part five, he lists the “[w]ords I’d like to get into a poem: eagle-stone, ezel, / cornage, buckram, scrynne, waes hail, sillyebubbe,” and proceeds to write poems that use most of them.) The idea is to “smuggle in / this fox-fire,” an audible and tangible vitality he feels missing from poetry. But the vatic intensity he craves is often either contained or held at bay in these poems by cautious and even anxious craft, a technical command I have to confess is also what I admire most in Starnino’s writing. He can be affronting – “gnarled turds” is quite a phrase – but it’s not shock that works best in these poems so much as their gently nuanced fabric of echoes and hums; notice above, for instance, how “usefulness” morphs and reduces into “refuse” or “scavenging” into “saving,” or how liquids and vowels from both words fuse in “value.” These words don’t so much flare up as entwine and accrete. I can call that meshwork anxious because I’m taking a cue from Starnino’s “Credo,” which remarks almost as an article of faith “the fear with which / a poem caskets away everything it wants to rescue.” Cultural and poetic rescue, as I said, seems closer here to recovery, a salvage rather than a saving.
What is it, then, that these poems do? What’s their function, their “usefulness,” in a contemporary cultural context, a Canadian context (if that’s not too much to demand of them)? Starnino already takes up the procedural challenge at the outset of “Cornage,” where he casts his ear back to a patriarchal medieval world to explain his reasons – as a poetics, in fact – for his choice of title:
Cornage 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.
He offers the recovered word as a moment of civic engagement, as cultural “duty”; more than that, the poem comes to act as a warning, as a ward – as portent, as monster (check the etymology, the Latin monstrum). But what exactly is the danger the poem confronts? A linguistic entropy? A verbal decrepitude? A lack of monumentality or durability, of poetic heft? I hear the problem Starnino wants to address, and I hear his trepidation. But I’m not sure how ultimately dire, even to a poet, this situation might be. And I am not sure that building a poetic casket out of that fear is the best way to go here.
I’m looking back on these poems because I have been reading “An Interview with Carmine Starnino” from the most recent issue of CV2. Writing poetry, he says,
is a critical as well as creative act, and value judgements are part of any good poet’s skill-set. Just as a literary culture is the sum of all our actions, a good poem is the sum of ruthless decisions toward every word in a draft.
In the unflinching self-awareness of the poems in Credo, most of them written a good fifteen years ago, I hear prefigured this interlace of critical and poetic sensibilities. I admire an editorial ruthlessness in composition, evident in the deliberateness of Starnino’s formalism. But I have to say that I don’t accept his over-simplification of aesthetic value judgment, as if there were merely right and wrong, soft and hard choices to be made. (And frankly, I don’t think the best of his poems accept this over-simplification either; they’re much better than that.) Starnino sees a risk, even danger, in critical candour, and he defends his cohort of poet-critics – he mentions Michael Lista and Jason Guriel, among others – as deserving “our respectful attention,” which they do. But I’m not sure that candour – as opposed to acuity, perhaps – is what’s especially missing in recent poetry and recent reviews, Canadian or otherwise: the rigour of poetic attention has always been a sticking point for committed readers of poetry. The issue for me has to be not whether a poet pays attention, but defining the nature and practice of that attention, of that respect. Saving “anything of value” needs to be made precise, carefully, and the diffuseness of that “anything” replaced with a materially substantive sense of what such value might be, and especially of what cultural and linguistic apparatus is producing that sense of value, of values. To this end, the poet’s task, it seems to me, doesn’t need to devolve into a parochial cosmopolitianism – ferreting out “the best” of what is thought and said in Canada and pushing it onto a fictional world stage – nor into a diffusely Canadian cultural nationalism, so much as to situate and to address, rigorously, the audible and tangible mediations between self and world that a poem – a good poem – wants to gather.