Fidelities: Carmine Starnino’s This Way Out

by Chris Jennings

Excerpt from Feature Review*

Carmine Starnino. This Way Out. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2009.

I’m sceptical of the word “progress” when talking about poets and their careers. Progress implies too strong a value judgement, as though, by some objective measure, we can say that practice and the wisdom of age necessarily make for better poetry. There are too many contrary examples of canonical poets whose best work came in their early- or mid-careers to accept the proposition (Wordsworth and Lowell come immediately to mind). I like “career” much better as a verb–swift, uncontrolled action–and, even better, I like “career narrative” as the record of those twists and swerves. This Way Out is definitely a swerve in Carmine Starnino’s narrative, one that draws out a basic conflict that has been playing through Starnino’s poetry for some time. To be more precise, it’s a conflict in the poetics more than the poems: a conceptual tension between “writing about x” and “writing poetry.”

There’s a significant difference between mastering a subject and then finding the medium to express it and mastering a medium to the point that the resources it offers direct you more deeply into whatever you use them to express. The authority of the former, in poetry at least, depends on fidelity to the subject matter–i.e. the test of truth, authenticity, and honesty is applied to the knowledge (or understanding or experience) that the poetic persona transfers to a receptive reader. The authority of the latter depends on fidelity to the medium–i.e. finding ways to provoke patterns of thought or networks of perception and connection that conjure the subject before the reader and act as a catalyst to an experience of knowledge or understanding without (or at least less dependent on) the imbalance of power between “honest” poet and trusting reader. This Way Out seems to leap toward the second pole because the intermediate steps between this book and Starnino’s earlier work, which often hung close to the first pole, aren’t immediately apparent. This Way Out might not have been as successful an aesthetic leap without the sequence of smaller shifts in Credo (2000) and With English Subtitles (2004) toward a more objective voice, a corresponding increase in emotional complexity, and an increased focus on language as both subject and medium.

One of the sure signs that This Way Out concentrates on exploring the potentialities of poetry is an expanded sonic and visual range. Starnino puts far more emphasis on the ear and the eye in this book than he has in any of his earlier books. Alliteration and strong accentual rhythms run through several poems, sometimes in bursts rather than full schema, and others use end-rhyme more than has been Starnino’s practice. “Santa Maria del Popolo,” for example, has only a single end-rhyme across its 13 lines, echoing the noon bells that are its subject: “each smack of contact, each outlay // of peal, each throatful of clout and clang is a melee / moving to the brink of racket, and when the notes spray / we lower our voices, ears to the air, the erupting ave / bone-heard”[1]. The book contains a prose poem, poems that are neither stanzaic nor a single verse paragraph, poems in very long lines, and poems that hang continued lines as medial enjambments. The final sequence even braves centred margins, a practice more common to amateurs than poets on their fourth books (let alone poetry editors for magazines and publishing houses, such as Starnino himself, who will surely have seen reams of centred, Hallmark verse). Its reputation as the province of the amateur stems from a lack of sufficient rationale for its strangeness. This sequence, called “The Strangest Things” after a line in William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell[2], finds voices in odd catalysts–an “Abandoned Fence Post” or a “Hair Line Wall Crack.” These voices typically cast shadows of loneliness or sadness, usually as a result of their physical reality. “Loud TV From Next Door, Notre-Dame-de-Grace” seems, at the start, like it’s addressing the stock programming bleeding through the walls: “Go ahead, say it. / Say what you’re thinking. / How every fight / starts the same.” Life imitates art (okay, “art”) by the end as the real conflicts are closer than next door: “Hotheaded, / hair-trigger, we mistake / a short fuse / for signs of life, husband and wife.” The poems construct scenes that reflect a complex order of experience, a sophisticated emotional nuance–maybe not “wisdom” but “emotional literacy.” And in this context, the abstract, symmetrical outlines of centred poems about probing emotional responses to strange things recalls the symmetry of Rorschach blots, those strange abstract images designed to coax information on emotional functionality. It’s not a transparent connection, but it’s there, and it’s the sort of risk Starnino takes in this book that he hasn’t in the past.

(see issue for the rest of Chris Jennings’ full review of Carmine Starnino’s This Way Out.)

1. This is the “ave” of “Ave Maria” etc.–the Latin greeting pronounced “Ah-vey.”
2. “One has emotions about the strangest things.”


an Arc Feature Review [read more reviews]
Published in Arc 63: Winter 2010.
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