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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.

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The cheap contrarian tactics that permeate Michael Lista’s recent National Post blog entry, “The good in bad reviews,” do more to provoke acrimony than to invite the kind of genuine disagreement he appears, in the piece, to crave. To his credit, he has succeeded in provoking me, as a committed reader of poetry (and as someone who worked for a number of years as an associate editor, responsible for book reviews, at a scholarly journal, Canadian Literature), to reconsider what I think a well-crafted review needs to do. “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it,” he writes, an assertion that sounds as inherently laudable and reasonable as it is slippery. (I’ll come to what I think are some of the buried complexities in such claims in a moment.) He certainly has, well, not so much initiated a conversation as needled me – and, I’m assuming, many other readers – into reactive self-critique: no one, after all, likes to be called out as uninformed or misguided, which is what his short editorial frequently does. (I’m pussyfooting: what I mean is, when Lista declares “Enough of this bulls–t,” I can’t imagine anybody wanting to admit to themselves that they might be knee-deep in complicity.  —Or would they? The rhetorical feint in such “straight-talking” faux-bluntness presumes, after all, that a reader won’t be inclined to push back, but prefers to be led, and to be told directly: that he or she likely won’t have the temerity to call bulls–t on Lista’s bulls–t.) Straight up, his review of reviewing made me mad, which is why I have taken a few days to reconsider what I actually do think, so I won’t feel like I’m being pulled, in my own small way, into a non-starter of a debate I’m somehow predestined to lose, and that, really, I don’t want or need to have.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to think about, to re-consider and to re-view, here. But I won’t have Lista’s article setting the terms or trajectories of that discussion: he’s wrong, and wrong-headed, and his text should serve as no more than a point of departure, and as an entry into a wider cultural conversation from which, on the evidence of invectives such as this, he has effectively excluded himself.
            Lista’s piece is occasioned by the re-posting on the CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website of an essay by Jan Zwicky on “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which originally appeared in the fall 2003 issue (no. 144) of The Malahat Review. (Both Zach Wells and Carmine Starnino offered rather mean-spirited rebuttals to this essay some years ago, doing what Starnino calls “speaking truth to stupidity” but which, from my vantage point, only comes off as misconceived and unconvincing harangue. Lista has now joined their sidelined and fading fray, as its new epigone.) It’s Zwicky’s thinking I really want to engage now, because her essay deserves the sort of careful and considered attention that she invites from herself, poetically, as a reviewer and as a reader of the work of others. But first, I feel like I have to get this Lista business out of the way. The key failing of his meta-review, and what I believe in the end got my dander up, is a lack of strength in the writing. Lista’s approach and prose style are consistent throughout; for instance, he gets up a head of steam when he takes on Zwicky’s opening mention of Byron’s lament that “the critics killed Keats”:
Cue the violins, folks. The essay, woozy with Romantic anemia, begins by paraphrasing Byron’s idiotic diagnosis that “the critics killed Keats” (Keats died of an infection of the tubercle bacillus, TB), and along its way manages to summon every black-beret cliché about the poetic temperament, so that by its conclusion we can all but smell Chatterton’s extinguished candle. And beneath those black berets are the empty heads of red herrings and straw men.
 The flippant evocation of “folks” and the pointless correction of Byronic hyperbole with smug fact-mongering point up his attempt to produce a kind of audience solidarity in elitism, the sort of bluster I mentioned above that appears designed to silence rebuttal. More significantly, Lista seems to mistake his own meanness and invective for candour and critical acuity. “Call me old-fashioned,” he opines, “but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work.” I don’t think this is discovery, nor that the writing evinces even the sort of Leavisite clarity it purports to desire. His version of the Keatsian collision of beauty and truth – a collision that, with considerable philosophical heft, informs much of Zwicky’s poetry, it turns out – doesn’t convince me; Lista’s “truth” needs to be put in scare-quotes, because it presents a narrowness of vision – the hypostasis of a very particular Anglo-American positivism, I’d say – as truth itself, and elides the varieties of aesthetic experience, experiences, in a misdirected yen for what reductively offers itself up as fact, but turns out to be deeply and thoroughly socially and culturally coded: masculinist, old-fashioned and contrived. Zwicky, in the essay confronted in Lista’s piece, laments that “we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility.” It’s hard not to see this brief National Post rant as a case in point. (Zwicky has since published a response to Lista, well worth reading.)
            So, as I said, I’m using that text as a point of departure rather than as a substantive interlocutor, and I’m happy to leave it behind now. I can’t hope to be critically thorough enough in a blog entry such as this one, but I want to take up three issues arising out of Jan Zwicky’s take (pace her title) on the ethics of positive engagement, of poetic listening. They’re biggish abstractions – truth, gender and community – but they connect in specific and situated ways in what I understand as her poetics. That conceptual ecology also partakes in some of the work being done in and around the CWILA site, as members of and adherents to this loose, emergent collective start to reconsider and reframe – to review – what constitutes a listening community.
            Okay: truth.  And, notably, truth with a down-case t. It might appear on first pass as if I might be trying to ally Zwicky – and that’s my Zwicky, the Zwicky I read, not the real Jan; the poems not the person – with a more relative conception of truth, of truths plural: that cultural and social and biological differences produce a multiplicity, and that it is dangerous and ethically fraught to lay claim to any sort of unified or holistic truth. But, postmodern relativisms are very un-Zwicky; she has, from the outset of her writing career, consistently sought out, not merely alterity, but  “Absence,/ Clear, still space where truth might echo” (Wittgenstein Elegies23). Writing wants honesty, clarity, truth. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a call for a mere rhetoric of candour, for sounding like you’re being direct. Zwicky might not agree, and my reading of her is certainly coloured by her reading of Robert Bringhurst, but I hear Parmenides in these early lines as much as a mystical version of Wittgenstein: that truth has no negative.  This Parmenidean ontology isn’t anodyne, but instrumental: ex-istence as outward making, as productive, or – in a refabricated and ancient Greek-ish sense – as poetic, poieitic. Absence (and I’m starting to sound like E. M. Forster now) is not non-existence, but opening, an acoustic space (note the “echo”) into which attention – particularly poetic attention – can enter. Representation and semiosis – and this is Zwicky’s understanding of metaphor, I think – become compiled soundings, resonances. This all might seem a bit murky the way I’m articulating it, but it’s important to acknowledge Zwicky’s insistence on the laser-like precision of metaphor, its absolutely non-Romantic quality. There is nothing woozy or anemic about her work, ever. At least, there is a precision to which she aspires.
            That exactitude, moreover, is not dialectical – not an excrescence of negation – but responsible. That is, it tends to engage its objects, whether textual or material, with both responsiveness and respect. Such responsibility is what I take to be the ethical dimension of reviewing, of the art of reviewing.  The conversation, the call-and-response into which the poem or the review enters, is not characterized for her by antithesis – not by “answering” in the Old English sense of and-swerian or rebuttal  – so much as by a flexible and porous mode of address, not merely talking to but talking with. This coexistence, which is not passive but interested, seems to me to open up a means to talk about gender that doesn’t immediately lapse into antithetical binaries (and so to offer me some sense of why I want to participate in work such as that being done by CWILA, which seeks practically to redress gender inequity in literary reviewing). Gender tends by us all to be understood antithetically, femininity as the negation or contrary of the masculine. But the sort of strength, the virility, that Zwicky wants to offer poetically against narrow negations – to offer as truth – refuses that binary in favour of outward gesture, of the act of opening as constitutive of another, better sense of what gender might be, might become. Like many readers, one of my favourite and much-revisited Zwicky poems is “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, a meditation on musical meaning, on rural Saskatchewan farmland, and on Johannes Brahms’s passion for Clara Schumann.  It confronts the erotics of absence, and frames the vital inclinations of one human being for another as the stuff of gender. What I mean is, with its inherently relational declaratives –That we shall not forget to honour brown / its reedy clarities” – the poem constitutes a mutuality of difference (reductively put, woman to writing man writing to woman) both as honorific and as corresponsive. The promissory syntax – this poem is highly illocutionary, a largely self-constituting speech act – opens into a layered verbal ecology, which I have noted thematically but which can also be seen here acoustically, in the network of phonemic echoes (listen to the rs in the lines I’ve just cited) and structurally, as a form of hailing or prayer. Tellingly, the poem provisionally ends with a beginning, with a gesture outward from the verbal to the intentional: “That a letter might honestly / begin, Dear beloved.” If the poem itself can be understood as a (Brahms-like?) love-letter, still held in abeyance, still virtual and absent, it also prays for, and effectively derives, strength – honesty, clarity, truth – from the relational work of saying itself into existence. Gender, constituted in the  beloved, is an opening to mutuality, a beginning.
            That’s all a bit abstract, I suppose, but it does suggest something about why Zwicky, in her discussion of reviewing, tends to separate the aesthetic and the political: hers is an aesthetics of engendering rather than a gender-politics. But I also think that a case can be made for a politicizing of that aesthetic, insofar as the thoroughly lyric language pushes, I’d say, toward a form of community: not an anodyne, flattened out gathering of allegiances, but community in difference, community as difference, as a sharing of what we don’t exactly hold in common, a set of convergences and of divergences. I seem to be tarrying with negatives here, a hazard no doubt of trying to write about alterities.  It might be best to understand this promise of community, this community-to-come, as shared listening: listening not as deference or as passive reception but as co-participation in the human. Which, it turns out, is how Zwicky seems to understand the art of the review:
The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go.
I don’t agree completely; I don’t accept that the ego disappears in listening, so much as that it collaborates with its others, that it remakes itself amid their echoes. But Zwicky’s gesture, at responsive and responsible sharing, sets that conversation in motion.