Dirty Words: Selected Poems 1997-2016. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
I recommend this book. But I recommend that you quickly shuck off the dust jacket that celebrates Carmine Starnino’s “muscular ratcheting of language,” since it risks pre-emptively pigeonholing these poems as bro-y (broetry?!) when, much more often than not, their rhythms and descriptions are as tender as they are tenuous. (Plus the matte black cover underneath, adorned with silver ampersands and dollar signs—the symbols we sub in for words like a#@*&!%—is gorgeous.) I also recommend that you quell your expectations of something bawdy, something nefarious, suggested by the title Dirty Words; in alignment with the poem “Dirty Words,” from Starnino’s second collection, Credo, you’re more likely to encounter “Words with a goat-stench to them,” and the “effluvia / of ripe figs . . . shitting seed into the ground.” These poems are full of dust and blood and grime and other stuff you wipe off your hands. They muck more than they fuck. Their visceral captures of quotidian subjects—family, physical labour, city life—feel familiar (think Heaney meets Kleinzahler, Levine meets Armitage, some Dobyns, some Kroetsch), but Starnino’s language is so particular and particulate that his descriptions and intimations are consistently singular. And it’s not just how he gets into the grit of everyday life: this selection highlights, above all else, Starnino’s remarkable ability to masterfully exit a poem. Many of the last lines snatched my breath—like diving into cold water while powdered with gyprock or stepping into crisp night air from the clatter and hiss of a machinist’s. Even his dirtiest poems aim to refresh when they plunge, slip, or drift into silence.
A “selected” that progresses linearly, as this one does, grants the reader a compact overview of a poet’s development. In the case of Dirty Words, what vaults to the fore is Starnino’s shift in his approach to form. There is a notable transition from book to book toward a more propulsive play with rhymes embedded mid-line, as well as with the frequency and proximity of alliteration and consonance. However, in the selections from all five of his collections, Starnino’s fastidious lineation, no matter the original publication date, consistently impressed me. Even the book’s earliest inclusions feature lively enjambments and startling moments of compression. In the sliver of poems included from 1997’s The New World, his first collection, Starnino deftly disrupts his sentences to capture momentary floods of emotion or to amplify a description. In “On the Day Lab Tests Confirmed Our Aunt’s Tumour as Cancerous,” for instance, the sister’s fidgeting blooms into the uncle’s wailing over the course of a single sentence that overflows from one couplet to the next: “Only my sister, brushing together breadcrumbs / with her fingers, seemed unmoved when my uncle / burst into loud, uncontrollable sobbing.” And near the end of “The Last of the Magi,” enjambment intensifies the speaker’s grief in a world that feels slight, vestigial, almost empty:
and now I do not know what to call this sadness:
a sky that scarcely holds enough of a moon
to give me a shadow, the scent of candles
the moment they go out.
Later selections are notably more crammed with internal rhymes and drastic clusters of assonance, though Starnino still uses line breaks to great effect; there’s an exuberance in his middle and later collections that comes from the tongue-twisterish quality he favours as he threads the world together. Sometimes, it’s maybe a little too much, like in the poem “Squash Rackets” from 2009’s This Way Out—“Now a short shot, now a tight drop, and now a low / bounce caught by the lip and tipped past the T-line”—but the subject matter (a three-page ecstatic Christopher Smart-style praise of, you guessed it, squash rackets) may be more at fault than Starnino’s deft craftsmanship. Other times, his concentrated melodies are a total thrill. Take this remarkable section of the tenth part of his long poem “Yukon Postcards” from 2004’s With English Subtitles:
. . . If description is an act of love
I record for you fern-roofed orchestras
of white mountain heather with their tiny
woodwind flowers, rearing spruce-root
groined with red sprigs of bastard toadflax,
and, higher up, moss-meshed hummocks
where every open weft is wildflowered.
The love-drunk landscape in the poem overflows with flora, and so do the lines. Starnino interplays lean couplets, which create a scaffolding that mimics the rocky structures of the mountainside itself, with rhythms as springy as Hopkins’. There is excess here in both sound and image, like clusters of notes hanging grape-like off staves.
The poems where Starnino merges his technical skill with personal subject matter leave the deepest impressions, which is why, though catchy, the title Dirty Words perhaps mischaracterizes the book’s greatest gifts. In particular, two of the many poems across his oeuvre that reckon with the legacy of his father—“Lucky Me” and “San Pellegrino”—are some of the most moving events in language I have ever read. “Lucky Me” juxtaposes fond recollections with recognitions that pang in hindsight; the poem centres on the speaker’s childhood memories of his father coming home from driving cabs—or, in retrospect, gambling the night away—and presenting him with “two fists, knuckles up, ready to be rapped.” Every time he chose a hand, the speaker remembers, he “always guessed right” and won a treat. The conceit of the poem resides in the tension between the father-as-hero who always made sure his son would win at their little game by loading both hands with “a quarter, a candy, a stick of Trident,” and the emotionally unavailable father-as-husband who “was a smirking Peter Pan, / rigged on the stage-wire of his own self-love.” The dyadic thinking in the poem—one hand or the other, the charismatic dad versus the rogue-like spouse, the past versus the present—is amplified by a couplet structure that persists until the very end, when couplets give way to the beauty of the two-handed certainty of the speaker’s childhood non-decision—the game he was guaranteed to win—and a single line hovers:
a luck that drained the years of the wife it touched,
left her sitting with pursed lips and crossed arms,
a luck that began at three, with a man with no luck,
who—wit of the debtor, humour of the cleaned out—
knelt before his son with two sweet, perfect bets.
As the speaker puts it earlier on, “luck’s real work, at times, is shutting illusions off.” So too the work of the poem: in hindsight, a bitterness emerges around the father’s conduct, but that bitterness only serves to increase the sweetness of the speaker’s memories.
Whereas “Lucky Me” builds out around a remembered ritual, Starnino’s speaker in “San Pellegrino,” the final poem in Dirty Words, accumulates vignettes from his father’s life right up to the present moment in which his father is dying of cancer. The speaker, staring at a glass of carbonated water, watches the bubbles tick upward, but the effervescence provides no comfort. He lets his mind wander through description after description—of his father’s idiosyncrasies (like the way he “grilled his steaks // to the finest shoe-leather”), his triumphs, and his failures (the latter categories merge together: “Failure, for my father, was a triumph of style. He was // a beautiful loser”)—before returning to the act of staring into the glass. In a way, the sparkling water becomes a crutch, something to lean on when the memories become too overwhelming:
Not that affection was out of character. He was just hard to decipher.
We hugged once and, for a tender second, I thought he’d say something further.
He didn’t, afraid perhaps it would seal the matter.
Beautiful, how water
glows in glass as dark draws closer. One way or another, we all fail each other.
But I let that almost-moment be a marker that there was a there, there.
Poignantly, the poem does not resolve. The father, a man constantly beaten down but never finished, a champion of resilience who skated on thin ice most of his adult life, now awaits a drink of water from his son to “slake his morphine thirst” in a final predicament he can’t escape. And that sense of irresolution, of the weathered anti-hero sputtering to an untimely halt, goads the speaker to demand more of the mystery of life with stubborn frankness. By extension, that’s how Starnino’s selected poems ends:
. . . But to say nothing lasts forever is not an answer.
I need something better,
and will sit here, staring deeper and farther
into this glass of water until that point everything becomes clearer.
“San Pellegrino” is an outlier. It sprawls more than the majority of Starnino’s poems, and the lines are end stopped with notable frequency. There’s something hearteningly new going on: he’s reckoning with a new form and an exponential sense of uncertainty. Whether that form was singularly catalyzed by grief remains to be seen, but it’s not often that a selected poems leaves us in such suspension, with so much potential energy. Dirty Words may well turn out to be part retrospective, part starting point: the moment Starnino leapt into a new approach.