This Way Out, by Carmine Starnino
Reviewed by Jacob Bachinger
At the time of writing this review, Carmine Starnino’s latest collection of poetry, This Way Out, has been nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. As the winners will be announced in less than a month, it’s very likely that Starnino will have earned himself a GG by the time you read this. This fact alone should make my job, as reviewer, fairly easy. It would be a straight-forward matter to pen a few quick, pleasant praises re. This Way Out — after all, the book must be deserving of praise, having been given the thumbs-up by the GG committee.
But in his collection of essays and reviews, A Lover’s Quarrel, Starnino expresses his distaste for the “handshake” review, in which the reviewer refuses to be confrontational or critical; if anything, this kind of reviewer is merely a polite guest, one who “is invited into the book, looks around feigning interest, and — with a small, perfunctory handshake — slips out without having overstayed his welcome.” Instead, Starnino believes that book reviews should be “principally and overridingly, exercises in skepticism.”
To be fair to Starnino, This Way Out deserves skepticism, doubt, and a thorough reading. And, with that in mind, it’s still safe to say that there is much to be admired in this collection. Many of the poems are very good, very finely — even enviably — crafted pieces. And yet at the same time I must express some skepticism, as a significant number of the poems left me feeling some nagging dissatisfaction. Here and there the collection is plodding, here and there the collection is a little boring.
Though the poems are carefully and formally crafted, This Way Out is not a series of exercises in form, metre, rhyme and other traditional poetic tools. Rarely does form or technique call attention to itself in these poems. And if it does call attention to itself, you become aware of the way Starnino is making his poems sing. For example, in “Next Door Café,” he writes of “bad decisions” that have been “…lived / counter-clockwise, and endlessly refitted to finish up flush” and of shot glasses that “were the crags of a quandary drunkenness clung to.” In the final verse of “Deaths of the Saints,” the use of rhyme accentuates the irony of:
St. Simeon who begged for a stake through the heart,
Said thank you when, heels on his chest, they thrust it deep.
And lucky St. Fergus who passed away in his sleep.
Or in “Whistling,” he recounts a whistling lesson from his father: “A clean music — sweet, pure, first-personed — / needs good pressure.” It is a lesson Starnino obviously learned well, for he brings this “good pressure” to many of the poems in this collection.
But, such purple bits of poetry aside, even many seemingly straight-forward lines feature the same inspired play. In “Lucky Me,” he writes of his father returning home after a long shift of “driving cab, late for dinner, and likely broke,” the man’s “face flushed from the cold, coat still on,” offering his son “a quarter, a candy, a stick of Trident, / whatever he could fish up from his pockets.” The rhythm of these lines is nicely balanced, accentuated by a jaunty dash of alliteration. These are poems written with the ear in mind (or the mindful ear, if you will). In other words, Starnino knows that his job is to write poetry, not just chopped-up prose. This is a quality that makes many of the poems in This Way Out attractive.
But it’s not the only attractive quality. Starnino’s collection is also full of precise, finely wrought observations. “[M]eat is baroque,” he explains in “Our Butcher,” describing it as “crewelworked with fat and grosgrained with gristle.” In “Vita Brevis,” he remembers bringing a GQ photo to his barber, who exclaims, “What the hell kind of hairstyle is that?” In light of the barber’s slight, Starnino observes: “Self knowledge was always knowledge of what I was not.” Looking at butterflies, he imagines them as “seemingly self-xeroxed” in “The Butterflies I Dreamt In Childhood Are Here.” Examining swathed rows of alfalfa in “Virginia”, he writes that they are “pointing heavenward: raked and piled, / left out, low tech, to dry, sweeten to a good-looking gloss.” These moments of concentrated observation are a real delight — and, it seems to me, inspired. They are the sort of thing that can’t be forced and they are found all through This Way Out.
At the same time, This Way Out is not entirely satisfying. For example, “Nine From Rome,” a sequence of sonnet-letters written from the Eternal City, could be praised for the reasons given above (finely crafted lines, nicely observed imagery). But as a whole the sequence is plodding, with little thematic development from one sonnet to the next. And the epistolary quality seems a little too quaint, with each sonnet beginning, “Dear Michael,” or “Dear Norm,” or “Dear Eric,” etc. In “Delta Hotel, Saint John,” Starnino provides his take on a middle-aged businessman in a “dark Tip Top suit gone to seed,” imagining “the cradle-to-grave schlep his life has become.” However, we’ve met this guy numerous times before. Yet another Willy Loman-type, who we probably didn’t need to meet again. Some poems, like “Film Noir” or “Ducks Asleep On Grass,” though not without charm, feel half-done, like entries in a notebook that still require further fleshing out. “Film Noir” doesn’t fully communicate its core idea, and “Ducks Asleep” is simply a disconnected list metaphors. And while “Squash Rackets” is a light-hearted tribute to those “chrome lariats” of the gym, it is also a little dull, with the joke wearing thin well before the poem ends.
Finally, in the collection’s other long sequence “The Strangest Things,” all the lines are oddly centred on the page. I found this to be more than a little distracting, especially as it seems to be betray some indecision or uncertainty on Starnino’s part about what to do with these poems. After all, isn’t the trick of centering every line employed largely by desperate adolescents when writing poems for high school English classes? That aside, these are all sprightly, witty pieces in which Starnino uses various objects — a fence post, a too-loud TV, a for sale sign — as a way of thinking through various states of being. In “Ball Floating, Lachine Canal,” the ball itself, or so it seems, tells us: “I intended to rise above it all / by staying on the surface, weighing nothing. / I got nowhere.” Then there’s the Prufrock- like lament in “Roadkill, Unidentified, HWY 401”: “I’m the guy who waited too long, / and acted too late, / watched the ripeness of hope / tip toward rot.”
Altogether, there is much to be admired here in Starnino’s latest — it is certainly more than deserving of an admiring, skeptical reader. “Pugnax Gives Notice,” a wonderfully anachronistic poem about a chain-smoking gladiator, who plans on retiring and dreams of “yard work, paint jobs, weekend projects,” alone makes This Way Out worth the entry fee in.