This Way Out
The opening poems about life in tough neighbourhoods in Montreal manage to celebrate settings that can be loved for all their grunginess: “It suits me down to the ground, this place / of sodium-lit nowhereness between / Jean-Talon and St. Roch.” After an interlude of poems set in Italy, a new section opens with “Lucky Me,” a poem about a son’s conflicted relationship with his father. The poem is long but makes every word count, from the rueful title (we all say “lucky me” with a shrug) to the final revelation, that love often leads fathers to rig the old “which hand has the treat” game in favour of the child. Fathers are supposed to be givers, after all.
The last section of the book, “The Strangest Things,” shows this poet’s capacity for change. Starnino has been a master of stanzas from the start of his career – elegant forms on the page. The new poems are written in centred lines, a common enough method these days, one that gives poetry a sculptured look by grace of the word processing program. But these poems are not slapdash. The epigraph of the section is from William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisation – “One has emotions about the strangest things.” Each of Starnino’s eleven poems is obscurely related to an image that might seem inconsequential: “BALL FLOATING, LACHINE CANAL” or “CAR ALARM, ST. VIATEUR.” The prose poems in Williams’ brief work often took off from an image, opening it up with the imagination like a blue jay cracking open a sunflower seed, and Starnino follows the precedent. Part of the pleasure of such works arises from trying to trace or imagine a connection between image and poem, to explore the strangeness that erupts into life. Williams said in Kora that “the perfections revealed by a Rembrandt are equal whether it be question of a laughing Saskia or an old woman cleaning her nails.” Starnino’s muse in the centered poems is not the beautiful Saskia but the old woman cleaning her nails. Another kind of perfection. mRb