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”.

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