Friday, January 31, 2020

Carmine Starnino's Leviathan

Carmine Starnino’s Leviathan explores familiar ground for the poet, that of paternal identity. Here, it’s not only the father that’s studied, but also the father’s son, also a father. Other men – strangers – fill a few pages, perhaps also fathers. An easy synopsis would indicate that the poet is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his forebears while co-raising his own children. But that surface narrative’s been ploughed through so often and thoroughly, another chapter could be akin to showing up in Barkerville in 2019 with pick and pan, expecting to find more than a flake or two of gold.

“San Pellegrino” is the cornerstone poem of Leviathan. Nearing four pages, an unusually long effort in the Starnino corpus, the narrator-poet commences in perhaps the blandest opening line of verse you’ll chance upon in a while: “I sit here facing a glass of water. I have a family: a son, baby daughter.” But over the breach of that first line, the poem explodes: “Life’s harder. Harder, and sadder. My father/has stage IV lung cancer.” Again, though, here the reader may pause, fearing another in an endless line of poems about parents with terminal illnesses. (Entire books have been fashioned thusly, making one wish that an inanimate object could suffer the same fate before sputtering to page fourteen.) Starnino doesn’t bury himself in a lugubrious elegy, however. Though the ostensible focus is on his father – (“Epic snorer, inveterate jaywalker, and, when he lost his temper,/a spanker.”) – the poem’s more a study of the narrator’s ontological polarities: Apollo vs Dionysus. The father embodies the latter, and the speaker’s seeming distance, even antipathy, towards the elder’s actions are belied by a loving anguish not far from the surface. The speaker, by the bare fact of writing such an elaborately detailed poem, counters with reason, but the two states can never be fully integrated, which explains the lack of resolution in the closing lines: “[I] will sit here, staring deeper and farther/into this glass of water until that point everything becomes clearer.” The speaker is still caught in reason’s attempt to make order, to provide a final explanation, but, ultimately, he’s too intelligent to think it possible. In an ironic twist, then, it’s Dionysus that prevails, after all, despite the father’s many indiscretions and faults.

Elsewhere, the same dichotomy is teased into a conflicted admiration for disordered vitality. “The Factory Lifer” is a dispassionate study of a “Piss-eyed/nicotine wreck/perving over secretaries.” No one, perhaps, but a fellow traveler in that world is going to commend one who, after being glanced at, would “draw a thumb/across his throat”, but fascination remains for the outsized energy, the pure ‘fuck you’ attitude, the fate that awaits a man whose upbringing, genes, work opportunities, and lack of natural reflection dooms him to a life of depraved alienation. By contrast, Starnino’s images and descriptions are coldly, exactly rendered. The poem’s a minor gem.

Quite a few poems concentrate on the speaker’s love for his children, the most successful being the collection’s opener, “Shadow Puppet”: “The point is to make/something/from the laying on//of nothing”. The narrator’s lawn also receives metaphorical attention in several poems, the best, “The Manly Arts”, being a humorous and well-executed ars poetica: “getting high/on the scent of order it exhaled”.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Richard Harrison’s On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood

Philosophy and nostalgia make a disastrous combo. In On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood, the volume that unbelievably – even in the context of other bizarre winners of major poetry awards in Canada throughout the years – scored Richard Harrison a Gov Gen victory, the narrator has the demeanor and voice of one who nonchalantly and inoffensively sidles alongside you in a long line-up and proceeds to spill his guts about his past, unaware or (worse) unconcerned that you’ve pegged him as a verbose bore, however sincere, within the first twenty seconds.

These poems are interminable. Length is relative. Most entries are only one to two full pages, but the narrative development is static, the details bland, the images disperse, the conclusions obvious. It all makes you pray the line-up in front of you starts moving again, or for the self-immersed rambler to catch the eye of a more promising sounding board. Three poems in, the reader is confronted by “Gone”, possibly the worst published poem I’ve read this century. It has a plethora of faults, including, but not limited to: bald prose (“When the groom’s mother died on the way to the wedding in San Diego,/it became a wedding from an American novel.”); cliches (“Everything fell into place”); ugly syntax and ugly common phrasing (“setting the whole thing up”); hysterical, false similes (“a song stuck in your head is/your mind reaching for poetry like a drowning mouth reaching for air”); and false spiritual wisdom combined with poor grammar (“you never know how beautiful air, or light, or life are until you must gasp.”).

There are brief passages of skill and verve here and there, lightning flashes that, even in their surprise, throw into dramatic relief the depth of the surrounding darkness: “She had looked for sweets/the colours of childhood comfort/and instead received bad-bread green and disinfectant yellow,/and a kind of teal that almost glowed/like a seabird in an oil spill.” from “Colour Code”. While waiting twelve poems till the next flash, you’ll get the quality of, “sleeping with your mouth open/the way the open mouth is pretty/on someone caught thinking/the nothing they are thinking/between their thoughts.” I don’t know, perhaps the latter is supposed to gain something from the downstairs line indents (which I can’t reproduce here), but then we’re elevating poems into successes completely dependent upon their spatial positioning, that fraudulent line of assertion from Olson and his many acolytes.

The back bio tells us that Mr. Harrison has been a creative writing instructor since 1995.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Robin Richardson's Sit How You Want

I suppose comparisons of Robin Richardson’s poems to those of Sharon Olds are inevitable. Both writers concentrate on the dance, denouements, and death of sex, but whereas Olds’ take on the subject is elemental, Richardson more frequently details desire and its fallout within relationships. In Sit How You Want, her latest collection, Richardson has thrown a welcome ingredient into the high boil of sexual strife: hard-won, terse, frequently acidic philosophical summations or epiphanies. “Eventuality” links natural and human-made disaster with the troubling aftermath of sex – “nukes/in North Korea aimed like loaded cocks. What offspring!” – but the concluding two lines bring the historical or speculative considerations back home: “Now we’re naked on the pullout, losing interest./We’re no better than the rest.” “Without a Roof” moves from extreme vulnerability (“open/on the operating table, so impeccably pink/pearl you could drape me on a hotel heiress”) to sexual distancing (“He disapproves:/the carefree sovereignty of solitude”) to transformative assertion (“There’s freedom/in what no one knows”).

Even in the short quotes above, Richardson’s heady lyrical scoring delights. She manages, deftly, the difficult trick of creating sustained music through quickly shifting tonal registers and narrative fractures.

More mature than her also excellent Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis, Sit How You Want is top shelf reading, contemporary as a power line, traditional as a post-coital Rothman’s. And nowhere in the volume does she succumb to the “fashionable cleverness in sex”, Dudley Fitts’ criticism of a topic most writers either approach with jokes, or avoid altogether like a neon-flashing landmine.

Friday, January 10, 2020

David Zieroth’s the bridge from day to night

Elsewhere I’ve noted that many of our elder poets resemble boxers who’ve stayed on for one (or more than one) fight too many. The poems keep on a-comin’, but their punches lack strength and accuracy. David Zieroth – a poet who’s written some charming, quirky fantasies and honest anecdotes encapsulating some fine and subtle spiritual dimensions in minute-to-minute mundane action – has recently put forth the bridge from day to night, and it’s a sad book to contemplate for its gloomy self-regard. This is especially troubling since the tone is set against the beauty of Vancouver’s North Shore, emphasizing the speaker’s uneasiness with chaos and mutability. This results in one of any poet’s great sins – retreat from engagement with the sensed world. Zieroth often shows his impatience with the outside world by avoiding it altogether, acting instead as caught fly in a weak cauchemar-web. “first thought” quickly devolves to “all of my thoughts” to “the many limbs of the forest” to “each day the thoughts erect a wall/and tell me not to look/back into the tangled garden”.

Five poems in a row, near the volume’s close, are particularly lugubrious. “grief” details, clinically, the emotion’s effect on the body: “muscles in our organs/draw away from contact with skin/and contract so blood drains/out of toes and fingers foreign/in the face of sorrow”. The language, here, is as dead as the bodily processes it describes. “grief” concludes with, “our wonderer worries that nothing/better might ever be”. I had the same thought about this collection at around page 21.