Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

My first attempt at poetry criticism: Carmine Starnino’s “This Way Out”

So I registered for Margaret Christakos‘s 8th “Influency” poetry salon, which is a ways outside of my comfort zone (though it’s proven to be pretty great). The routine is that we read a recent book by a prominent contemporary Canadian poet per week. At the salon, that poet is presented and discussed in a lecture by another prominent contemporary Canadian poet (who will also at some point be under our microscope), they then do a reading, and we have a Q&A. As follow-up, we’re to then write up a short review.

Last week, our focus was Carmine Starnino’s GG Award-nominated collection, “This Way Out.” I took the easy way out for me, and made it about social theory. I’m going to try not to do that so much in the future. Anyway, find my trial run below. (Note: Yes, I know I’m being a bit ridiculous. I feel a bit ridiculous. I hope to get better at not being ridiculous in the future. Pray for me).


As I mentioned in class, Starnino’s book immediately evoked memories for me from undergrad; of reading Sartre’s No Exit. In light of this imagined conversation, my reading was coloured somewhat differently than I think it might otherwise have been.

The evocations came in the form of, first, the books’ titles’ perfect and simple disagreement, and second the visual echoes in my editions’ cover designs: a slashing diagonal of text, interrupting a larger pattern of forms. But there are inversions and disagreements here too: Sartre’s coffin-liner purple, thick black, and harsh red are replaced by Starnino with two tones of soft green; Sartre’s sans-serif font couldn’t contrast more with Starnino’s leafy Rialto (named, we’re told, after a bridge in Venice (77), only one of the most subtle of the many instantiations of Starnino’s poetry’s embeddedness in places so much less abstract than Sartre’s imagined drawing room in hell); and while the slashing diagonal text, dwarfed by the larger pattern of forms, is for Sartre occasion merely for a subtitle, Starnino disagrees, and instead asserts its importance over the larger pattern by granting it the honour of hosting his title. The way out, this juxtaposition tells us, is through those things that Sartre treats as peripheral, utilitarian, squash racket-like.

Sartre’s biography is present in the work. For example, Nietzsche, among Sartre’s most famous influences, makes an appearance in Starnino’s first letter from Rome. Culminating a description of his room in the ancient city, he writes:

If, as Nietzsche said, we should try to live
always in expectation of some impossible grace
well, one couldn’t do better than this place.

Note that no sentiment would be more out of place in Sartre’s hell. I picture Starnino gripping Nietzsche by the moustache, swinging him around in two wide arcs before hammer-throwing him straight into Sartre’s face.

For another example, the woman whose body rests beside his in Montparnasse, Simone de Beauvoir’s absence is explicitly felt in “Lucky Me”:

…my mother

who always seemed to draw the short straw,
always found herself on the wrong end of every risk,

tetchy and resentful, glum, bombshell
of her courtship, now counting out the chores,

who never read Chopin, Woolf, Plath or Rich,
never summoned the Second Sex as witness

to self-deception about the life she was lent…

Her absence underlines the modesty and struggle of his mother’s pre-feminist life; to me a juxtaposition to the decadent position from which Sartre wrote his abstract anguish: Sartre, not even a woman, having at his disposal (and often disposing of) perhaps the greatest feminist thinker of the 20th Century, and writing the play’s tagline “l’enfer c’est les autre” while the poet’s mother had at her disposal only her poverty, drudgery, memories of failure, and resentment. Tell us again, Sartre, what and where hell is?

The book is infused with an authenticity that is embedded in reality; that is affirmed and redeemed through its interaction with phenomena that are more than subjective, more mutual than just death: the form of the lines on the page; the semi-transcendent poignancy of le mot juste, of place, of other people. I can think of no more direct way to repudiate the finality often given to Sartre’s conclusions in No Exit by his angsty fanboys-and-girls. So I call bullshit on Starnino’s denial of a relationship to Sartre’s play. Whether or not it was consciously engaged, it is engaged. But that doesn’t make it less as a work. Sartre’s themes of subjectivity and death and memory and regret are some of the most important in the human experience, and his explorations of them some of the most adventurous. But where Sartre becomes so absorbed in these themes that they generate for him an ethics so in awe of the mortal subject that it almost excludes practical, communicative application, quotidian conversation, the other as anything but either hostile or beside the point (a necessary precondition for taking an apologetic position on Stalinism I would think), Starnino is able to keep these important themes in his head and chew gum at the same time : recognizing the beauty and value of the smaller things (compared to death from a subjective perspective) that we do share with other people in the presence of death (see one of death’s quiet appearances in the word “lent” in the excerpt from “Lucky Me” above). He embraces familiar forms but isn’t trapped or limited by them.

The poem “Squash Rackets”—specifically pointed to as an example of not-worth-it-for-choice-of-object banality—read to me like a call for solidarity with, but also a call for self-examination with others who share a smallish (from an existential perspective) passion with him. Why did I read it that way? I suppose because within the context of the book, I’m willing to give him enough credit that he wouldn’t choose to write about something /only/ because it’s cool and he likes it (which is what Murakami seemed to suggest). And there is real meditation, and imagination, and expansiveness in his descriptions, the kind of heavy-for-being-true-at-a-more-immediate-level meaning that Starnino shows us can be carried with deceptive lightness by a relatively simple pleasure.

He’s able to do this for the simple reason that he takes the perspective of someone with a way out; there are doors to walk through, pages to be turned. And recognizing one’s stake in an inevitably social future beyond the scope of No Exit, where else but the details can one look for what might turn out to be significant?


2 Responses to “My first attempt at poetry criticism: Carmine Starnino’s “This Way Out””

  1. Hmmmm, very interesting. I’m biased against Starnino because he’s an Anne Carson hater, but maybe I’ll give him another try.

    • Dude, you would totally love this salon. And OMG I’m so sorry I haven’t gotten back to you yet. I’m almost almost done, I promise. I just need to write my overall comments.

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