With English Subtitles

By Bert Almon

A review of With English Subtitles by Carmine Starnino

Published on October 1, 2004

With English Subtitles
Carmine Starnino

Gaspereau Press
$18.95
paper
74pp
189403189-X

Carmine Starnino’s new book shows his usual mastery: he uses the couplet and other stanza forms with extraordinary ease. But he manifests an uneasiness about his very fluency, and that gives depth and pathos to the poems in With English Subtitles. Without the overt use of post-structuralist theory, he engages some crucial issues about language. Starnino cherishes the Italian vernacular, but English, literary English, is his master, so he must write subtitles for pungent speech. Derrida has suggested in a brilliant counterintuition that writing has precedence over speech. Whether that is true or not, the vernacular has always been preserved by the written word.

Starnino’s key poem, “On the Obsolescence of Caphone,” meditates on various dialect words, like the vanishing slang term of its title, which means, roughly, “boor.” The spelling “caphone” is in fact North American, as the original Italian word is cafone. The poet summons up a variety of dialect words, some used by roofers overheard speaking the Barisi dialect, others favoured by members of his family, like his Uncle Louis, who expressed contempt for the poet’s education. “Reading was making me too stonato [flabby] for chores” and therefore suspiciously feminized in a macho culture, one in which Le parole son femmine, e i fatti son machi, a traditional saying (“the word is feminine, action is male”). The writer seems to concur:

No word dipped in oak gall and soot. I want something common, tough-vowelled and fierce for the sheetrock they shoveled, and the steel they bolted with a ratatatatat, and the bricks they layed with a one-on-two-bend-scoop-swing-spread-tap-clip and the sledges they whanged! on iron

.

The language here strains through onomatopoeia and the play of consonants to turn poetry into a form of manual labour. The use of hyphens gives a sense of continuous action. No wonder this book celebrates so many objects: a suitcase, lanterns, a wine-press, a bird’s nest in a dryer duct. Seamus Heaney’s commemorations of the heft and grain of things is one of the guiding influences here. Poets sometimes long to create works which deliver objects to us – or actions. Gary Snyder built a poetic on “riprapping,” the placement of stones in a mortarless wall, something he saw an uneducated but skilful craftsman do. Starnino wants to smash his elegant language into flinders and make something with the remnants: the poet as bricoleur, a sublimated bricklayer – an honourable trade!

The irony of this collection, of which the author is well aware, is that ink can call up images and conserve even the most ephemeral oral expressions. Writing may or may not have some ontological precedence, but it has the last word. Perhaps the finest poem in the book is the last one, “Summons,” in which the expression “Word arrived today” appears once in each syllabic stanza, bringing news every time of vivid details of physical being in a pastoral setting. One mark of Starnino’s talent is his abundant use of adjectives in this poem and others: the Poundian stricture against the adjective is made to be broken by those who can. Starnino’s book includes some moving poems about marriage and its joys and discontents, as well as a superb set of love poems called “Yukon Postcards,” but the preoccupation of this collection is, as its title implies, with language. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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