The figure of the traveler, wind-bent and plowing bravely forward, is a useful trope for a poet whose work explores strange terrain, both inner and outer. Travel demands agility in unfamiliar places — improvisation, adaptation to the flux of experience — traits a poet must bring to bear on the blank page. In This Way Out, Carmine Starnino is a traveler, though his poems are often homebound. He discovers directions within himself, a personal, inward itinerary.
The title of the collection establishes the motif. This way out, the helpful pointer deployed at airports and train stations, tells the traveler he’s arrived, at home or a far-off destination. The implication that arrival is a kind of answer is his assurance that motion is required to advance the spirit. In a central sequence of epistolary poems titled “Nine from Rome,” Starnino describes his impressions of this most spiritual of cities. He’s determined not to fall into the insipidities of tourism or to feel the awe expected of those who gaze on the objects of antiquity. “This rubble-gawking feels like duty,” he writes. He doesn’t want to “join the droves…following in the footsteps of all those who chased the latest thing.” He and his companion, “crave a thrill too quick for art.” Still, the city has a power over him:
Picture us: hand in hand along cobbled streets
that drink the dusk neat, thousand year old cul-de-sacs
and the smell of bosk.
By the end of his stay, adamant in his world-weariness, he writes:
What I believe in now are doldrum days,
days of kicking back on one of Christendom’s rooftops.
This sequence shows Starnino at his best—his gift for fluent language and rhythm, the ability to conjure the physical within the historical, all in a pitch perfect conversational tone. Starnino knows a thing or two about the western intellectual tradition, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s not afraid to show it, though he is jocular rather than reverent. The “Nine from Rome” recall in their brilliant loquacity the 14-line poems of Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin.
But Starnino’s best poem in This Way Out requires the reader to travel only next door, where a butcher’s shop is the site of an extraordinary extended metaphor, a marbled psalm of praise to a side of beef and the butcher who makes art of it. “Our Butcher,” is a vertiginous invocation of carnality that brings to mind Chaim Soutine’s great paintings of flayed carcasses.
Striated and plush,
crewelworked with fat and grosgrained with gristle,
meat is not semblance, meat is baroque. That said,
I’d like to break back the pages of a shank and read all day.
Tales about the flex and kick, the squawk and gack
of things in pens.
The poem is Whitmanesque in its appetite. Vegetarians will view it with alarm.
Starnino’s facility with words constitutes his greatest strength, and greatest potential weakness. It makes him believe he can write a poem about anything, and this is false. There is dross in this over-long book, but its best work has the strength of one who climbs to the top of the mountain, where the fog can part on scenes no traveler can be prepared for. That’s where a poet is necessary. Carmine Starnino finds a world behind that fog.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.