For those who are interested in Canadian poetry but have yet to investigate it seriously, Carmine Starnino’s Dirty Words offers a portal into the career of one of Canada’s finest craftsmen.
Carmine Starnino, Dirty Words: Gaspereau Press, 2020
Volumes of selected poetry are double-edged propositions. On one hand, they’ve been known to consolidate reputations, pulling together a poet’s best work to extend readership. On the other, such collections tell the truth, and if a poet’s greatest hits aren’t pleasing to the ear, this is where readers will notice. Walk into any used bookstore in Canada and you’ll find examples on both ends of the spectrum. For every Irving Layton there’s a John Robert Colombo, or even late-Layton, who diluted his masterwork, A Red Carpet for the Sun, to produce several lesser versions of his selected poems in the 1970s and 1980s.
Unsurprisingly, newer generations of Canadian poets continue to make career defining statements, and the end of the 2010s brought more contenders peddling selected / collected volumes than ever before. Glancing at my bookshelf Gary Barwin, Michael Harris, Don McKay, Daphne Marlatt, Jay MillAr, A.F. Moritz, Robyn Sarah, and Phyllis Webb have all released books with a prominent spine in recent years, and that’s a random sampling dependent on my reading habits alone. Different organizational strategies are on offer in this cohort: some are niche-specific, such as the gathering of M. Travis Lane’s long poems in The Witch of the Inner Wood. Others arrange poems by era (Fred Wah’s Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems); thematically (Paul Vermeersch’s Shared Universe); or more impressionistically (bill bissett’s breth). Regardless of style or selling point, it’s impossible to ignore that one of Canada’s current literary trends is an intensifying self-canonization.
The newest addition to this section of my bookshelf is Carmine Starnino’s Dirty Words. Starnino, a Montreal-based poet, critic, and editor, has been a mainstay in Canadian letters for well over twenty years, and his selected pulls poems from five full-length books. Dirty Words is an elemental entry among its ilk, chronologically arranged with no introductory essay, no endnotes, and no new poems. The book is beautifully produced by Gaspereau Press, which bears mention since the black dust jacket, orange typeface, and stark design lend it a matter-of-fact, Johnny Cash stage wardrobe kind of feel. In sum, the presentation suggests a selected that banks on its poems—either they stand the test of time or they don’t, and the author is willing to bet on himself rather than try to re-write history.
All of which makes sense, given that Starnino’s reputation precedes him. An incisive critic, Starnino has positioned himself as a tastemaker who isn’t shy about making value judgements or sharing his poetic sensibilities. His era-defining anthology, The New Canon, made waves when it was published in 2005, and is still the most rigorous compilation of Canadian poetry published in the new century. But Starnino’s work as an editor and critic—borne of a love of the art, and picking up where essayists like Eric Ormsby and David Solway left off—has to some extent coloured the reception of everything else he’s done. This includes his poetry, which has been lauded for its “wit and nuance” (Abby Paige), “relishing puns” (George Elliott Clarke), and being “emotionally compelling” (David Godkin), but has also been judged “boring” (Jacob Bachinger), or worse, in a conspicuous review by Lynn Crosbie, “weak and gutless.” Both the Bachinger and Crosbie quotes come from articles that reference Starnino’s critical practise, illustrating how his work in multiple genres can be conflated, or at least produce bias.
So is Starnino the heavy-handed, conservative poet his naysayers accuse him of being, or does he “put his creative money where his critical mouth is” (to cite another review, by Paul Vermeersch)? The answer lies in his development as a writer, which Dirty Words is well suited to track. As one would expect, the book starts slowly, glossing Starnino’s first two collections, The New World and Credo, both of which are written in a straightforward, plainspoken style. Workman-like poems that deal with religion and domestic life dominate these books thematically, while the poet finds his emotional footing writing about family. With that said, many of the poems in The New World are tentative, and some feel incomplete, including “After Caravaggio’s “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,”” which ends just as the action is picking up. Credo is the more confident of the two books, and in some ways re-writes The New World—letting Starnino stretch out and expand his linguistic range.
Though these books bear the hallmarks of first collections, there’s still excellence to be found within. Good thing too, because every selected worth its salt needs a killer opening poem, and Dirty Words delivers with “The True Story of My Father” (taken from The New World):
There were days when I’d catch him
alone at the kitchen table, lost
inside some regret, his head
cradled in his hands like the part
of his life that was over, that had
stopped some time ago. A cigarette
smoldered beside him, its smoke
rising from the ashtray like a long
held breath, slowly released.
I would like to say that my mother
went to him then, leaned over to
whisper his name in his ear,
and he jerked up, a little startled,
staring around the room in unrecognition,
having been called back too quickly
into his life, and looked up
at my mother who smiled, running
her long fingers through his hair,
slipping them into its dark glistening.
I would like this, finally, to be
a story of love. But the truth is
my father was an unhappy man,
his head was heavy, and sometimes
he rested it in his hands.
This poem epitomizes Starnino’s early style: direct diction, a clear narrative through line, and sound patterns borrowed from everyday speech. What makes it special is the way the poet ratchets up emotion as he builds the portrait of his father: piece-by-piece he layers details (eg. tilted head, cigarette smoke, glistening hair) as if he were seeing his subject for the first time. Starnino’s description is careful, languorous – he even mimics releasing a held breath when he writes of a cigarette’s smoke “rising from the ashtray like a long held breath, slowly released.” The pause before release, accomplished with a simple comma, allows the poet to reset before evoking his mother, and then the idea of the poem “being a story of love.” Throughout, internal rhyme stitches Starnino’s thoughts together (“regret” /” cigarette,” “to him then” / “unrecognition”) until the final quatrain locks on his father directly and rhymes “man” with “hands.” This is a kind of doubling back, a second look where the poet reconsiders and decides that this is love, the love that comes from looking, from wanting to look within the poetically created presence of family.
Subtle shifts in syntax and sound are keys to appreciating “The True Story of My Father.” But by the time we reach Starnino’s third book, With English Subtitles, the way the poet handles language is an entirely different proposition. Sprung rhythms, dense swathes of assonance, and sonic flourishes abound, lending the poems in this collection a sense of play that was previously absent in the poet’s work. Dirty Words begins its selection from With English Subtitles with “Junkyard,” a meditation on detritus that serves as a metaphor for life lived. Using W.B. Yeats’s “rag and bone shop” as a jumping off point, Starnino presses forward with a series of couplets that revel in the mess of the used and used-up. When he writes of “ground freaked with patches of oil, and tree-like, / a tall stack of tires black-barked with treads,” it’s as if human innovation has been reclaimed by nature, and in the process what once moved us forward has taken root in the past.
There are many outstanding poems in With English Subtitles, from “A Brief History of Lanterns” to the spirited series of “Worst-Case Scenario Poems.” It’s the 96-line “On the Obsolescence of Caphone” that stands out the most, giving Starnino a platform to tie his love of words to the vernacular he was exposed to as a boy. Where poems from Credo that deal with inheritance (like “The True Story of My Grandparents” and “Ornithology”) often approach the subject self-consciously, “On the Obsolescence of Caphone” confidently shows and tells. Starnino’s poetic heredity is baked-in at this point, as is evident from the poem’s opening stanzas:
Last heard—with a lovely hiss on the “ph”—
August 1982 during an afternoon game of scopa
turned nasty. And now, missing alongside it,
are hundreds of slogans, shibboleths, small
depth charges of phrasing. Like an island-colony
of sea-birds screeching our own special cry,
I recall words all backwater squawk, recall
the curmudgeonly clunk and jump of their song,
a language dying out but always, someplace,
going on, surfacing in a shoe salesman’s patter
or a grocer’s chitchat, anywhere conversation’s
an inventory of old expressions marked down
to near-nothing and preserved past all value,
spoken but never found on a page.
This is heady stuff. From the snaking “s” sound of “slogans,” “shibboleths,” and “small depth charges” to the open-mouthed “e” of “island colony,” “sea-birds,” “screeching,” and “curmudgeonly” that reads like an extended scream, Starnino pays acute attention to the way he layers words. The result is a veritable sonic boom that demands to be read aloud. Of course, the poet is aware of this when he writes that the expressions he’s using are “spoken but never found on a page.” The irony of this statement is that “On the Obsolescence of Caphone” is a poem about the mutability of language that simultaneously preserves elements of the dialect that Starnino heard growing up. In places it goes further, defining and contextualizing terms that are on the verge of disappearing, and even creating a metaphor for the surprise of linguistic permutation:
English can, by trumping up a term, pay out
something more interesting than you intended
—turn a smile into a smirk, make geese clack
overhead, or declare a birch’s bole drubbed bare
by a storm—immigrant jabber can flush into
the open a new word that shivers in the surprise
and rush of its arrival, like that spurt of wine
my uncle, with a single suck on a plastic hose
threaded into a vat, would draw out, splashing,
into my glass. You capish?
The burst of wine at the end of this excerpt, siphoned using gravity, is a physical manifestation of the rich history of slang. Starnino immediately follows this up with the term “capish” to illustrate his point – a Sicilian-American colloquialism for “understand,” it’s one of the more easily recognizable referents in the poem. As “On the Obsolescence of Caphone” moves forward, it continues to unpack the “immigrant jabber” Starnino has inherited from those around him. That the piece ends with a meditation on the speaker’s identity – “I’m whatever comes across in translation” – is no accident, as it’s ultimately a portrait of the artist shaped by natural selection. Multilingual, restless, and keyed-in to regular speech as opposed to metered verse, the poem is one of Starnino’s finest efforts.
By the time of With English Subtitles (2004) and Starnino’s subsequent release, This Way Out (2009), his reputation as a poet was evolving in parallel with his renown as a critic. This was solidified when he released the excellent A Lover’s Quarrel, a book of prose that’s notable for both its inimitable style and fierce partisanship. While Dirty Words is exclusive to Starnino’s poetry, his critical practise is impossible to ignore given that he himself sees it as a key to his identity as a poet. As he explains in an interview conducted by Tim Bowling in Contemporary Verse 2:
Drummed into me from the start, by David Solway and others, was the idea that a poet needs to master critical prose. Not only is it his duty to explain the art in crisp and accessible ways—plowing his full intelligence into the act—but his very credibility depends on it. Part of what attracts me to prose is that it’s a very unforgiving medium. It can be easy for a poet to gull reviewers and juries into thinking that he or she is a great talent. But there’s no more effective method for exposing someone’s cliché-ridden thinking than to ask them to write in complete sentences. Prose almost always gives away the poseur; it’s the perfect bullshit-detector. So my identity as poet—the sense of myself as doing something honourable and non-fake—depends on producing the best criticism possible.
Rigorous critical prose, what Starnino calls a “bullshit-detector,” has become a rarity in contemporary CanLit, and there are very few poet-critics (if any) who can match his fluency in both genres. As a critic, Starnino’s arguments are passionate, infused with the intensity and keen eye of someone who’s fully invested in their art. This is something that comes across in his best poems, and brings to mind his metaphor for handling carcasses in “Our Butcher:” “Id love to break back the pages of a shank and read all day.”
In addition to contributing to Starnino’s identity as a poet, his critical faculties are an asset when it comes to disassembling a subject. Dirty Words highlights this aspect of his work, as he often challenges traditional (and even toxic) masculinity. Crack the book’s spine and you’ll find poems that explore tough talk (“Leviathan”), hunting (“The Grizzly Hunter”), the working-class (“Heavenography”), graffiti (“Doge’s Dungeon”), and even yard work (“The Manly Arts”). In “Pugnax Gives Notice,” Starnino gives the reader a bird’s eye view into the life of a gladiator who pines for normalcy after years as a forum favourite. It’s a mournful piece, as Pugnax – taken from the Latin for “fond of fighting” – runs down a list of injured friends in the barracks, “lucky returnees of the last hard hacking.” Dreaming of “fashionable clothes,” and “a wife,” Starnino’s protagonist wrestles with the idea that fighting is his only virtue, and though he wants out, he’s bound to his audience by the choices he’s made. That he would settle for “yard work, paint jobs, weekend projects” – ostensibly lesser manly virtues – shows how limited his imagination of life beyond the forum extends. In this world, there’s only room for Pugnax to flex his muscles or be flexed upon.
The list of tasks that ends “Pugnax Gives Notice” chews the scenery in Starnino’s fifth book of poetry, Leviathan. Now middle-aged, the poet has firmly settled into penning domestic lyrics haunted by leaf blowers and perfectly manicured lawns. Though these poems are meticulously crafted, the tedium of some of the household tasks leaks in. “[L]eaves / win / the front yard / but pay a price” Starnino writes in “Yardwork, Ctd,” where the stakes feel low, and the repetitive nature of the labour at hand is impossible to escape. Better are the poems where metaphor transforms the subject matter, like “Shadow Puppet,” where the “point is to make / something / from the laying on / of nothing.” This line underscores Starnino’s true poetic strength – working in language to bring about new associations.
Still, none of this will prepare the reader for the final salvo in Dirty Words. Saving the best for last, Starnino hits the reader with his masterwork, “San Pellegrino,” written from the perspective of a man musing on his dying father while looking into a glass of water. The first thing readers will notice is that the poet’s thoughts are pulled along by the repetition of words ending in “er,” giving “San Pellegrino” a distinct sonic signature. While Starnino referred to his father as his “kryptonite” during the online launch for Dirty Words, a more accurate metaphor might be a lie detector test since the poems involving Starnino Sr. come across as wholly, and unnervingly true. Mid-poem, the speaker confesses:
Failure, for my father, was a triumph of style. He was
a beautiful loser. Didn’t own a single tool: screwdriver, pliers, hammer,
whatever.When it came to the odd chore, he was a ditherer, a born quitter.
It raised my mother’s ire.
Once, on the receiving end of a blistering lecture,
he handed her the shit-smirched plunger, said: Fine, call the fucking
There’s an echo of Larry Levis’s “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” here, informing the theme of failure – to connect, to feign happiness, to communicate – that runs though the poem. This is reinforced by sound. Even in this short excerpt one can hear the hammering “er” in “screwdriver,” “pliers,” “quitter,” “ire,” “lecture,” and “plumber” that propels it forward as if the march of time were an audible property. When Starnino drops these words they explode like the “small depth charges of phrasing” described in “On the Obsolescence of Caphone” – still, at the close, time can’t be turned back. “Who doesn’t dream of a do-over, life rebooted and in working order?” the speaker intones, knowing that their father’s fate is sealed. It’s a moving conclusion to a poem that synthesizes Starnino’s strengths, exploiting the acoustic quality of language to amplify emotion.
Dirty Words is a timely reminder that its author isn’t just at home among Canada’s best critics, but that he’s also one of the country’s most exacting poets. While volumes of selected poems will no doubt continue to flood CanLit in the near future – a look into my crystal ball tells me that entries from Steven Heighton, George Murray, and Sue Sinclair are forthcoming – Starnino’s stands out for its back-to-basics approach and judicious choices. His is the kind of book you’d expect from an editor known for his rigor and attention to detail. Precision marks Starnino on and off the page, the type of skill that recently landed him in Oxford English Dictionary (where poems from Credo were chosen as exemplars for the terms “leaf-light” and “lenten-faced”). No dictionary is required to decode Dirty Words though – it’s as clean cut and satisfying as the pages it’s printed on.
by Jim Johnstone