by Sampson Starkweather
Birds, LLC 2013
Reviewed by Mark Gurarie
Six Short Reviews of The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather
1. The Context is Not the Context
It is an act of sheer audacity. It is a provocation and an embrace, at once deadly serious and playful, a self-canonization without self-aggrandizement, an offering not as much to other poets, or to poetry, but to the mythologies we all carry: the mythologies we see in the mirror. In one volume, Sampson Starkweather gives us The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather: four bolts of lightning from the same cumulonimbus, a poetry that is electric and that acknowledges the electric condition. “I was so absorbed with my war,” he writes, “I didn’t even notice the storm.” And without a doubt, there is a war going on: between competing tendencies and competing diction; between desires to truly communicate—to express “love,” to enact “elegy”— and the painful acknowledgement that this task might be fruitless; between wanting to be relevant to the contemporary condition while speaking to tradition.
Underlying all of this remains a lyric voice that is neither unmoored nor paralyzed by the sense of possibility. For surely, as Starkweather puts it in the last of the four books, Self Help Poems, “[w]hen you have no choice, there’s nothing to do but wade around in those unknowns like a child in a kiddy pool, unafraid of what is contained.” What we have here then is a voice that is sometimes “at war with the sea”— with memory and with emotion— while elsewhere sort of trapped in reflexivity and the direct address: “I’m trying to tell you something but the writing keeps getting in the way.”
2. Spicer, Lorca and King of the Forest
Much like Jack Spicer’s Dear Lorca series interrogates poetry itself, urging us “to make poems out of real objects,” King of the Forest–”Book I”–is an instruction manual dressed as an epistolary, and it is similarly preoccupied with the limitations of language. Arranged as four series of poems, King of the Forest features a recurring mode of address to a “you” that is either someone specific, or the reader, or someone else contained in the canon of poets and poetry. Most likely, it is some combination of all of these. In “The Photograph,” the second series, Starkweather seems to reply to Spicer: “Love as a message is impossible. Love as a nail driven into heartwood pine is real. We live in the real.” It is a move that simultaneously undercuts and elevates the work: If poetry is meant to be (at least in part) some sort of translation of emotion and memory, and if language is its unreliable drag, then poetry is in the curious position of being only possible because it is, on some level, impossible.
What is quite striking, too, about King of the Forest, is that it also resides on the dichotomy of the city and the country, building a kind of city of words (“a city above the city”) while self-consciously charging nature in an almost high romantic manner. The second poem of the first series, “City of Moths” begins
I know you need the city but we all have our forests. A place for things to grow or fail…to go unnoticed. A place for things to fall. I am speaking of the heart.
Later, in “Dreams,” wherein the poems are split rather ingeniously into “dreams” and their “interpretations” (itself another echo of Spicer, whose “Homage to Creeley/ Explanatory Notes” adopts a similar meta-approach), this dichotomy plays itself out. “It occurs to me that I need to scream… But I can’t shout like this here in the city—I need to be in the woods alone,” Starkweather writes, explaining this as “[h]is capacity for pain forms a new city… Actually, the city is made of embraceable wolves, but how do you expect him to say that?” This interplay between texts, too, seems to cut the core of the anxiety of this lyric voice, while also gesturing towards the artifice of the poetic artform, and therefore the artifice of the nature versus city dialectic.
In an even more decidedly self-conscious and self-reflexive way, memory and a kind of sentimental approach bubble up prominently in the final series, “The End of the Sea,” where: “He wrote a book called King of the Forest about a boy born in the forest, whose mother was blind/ and whose father had a hollow leg. A book of howling.” The way that “hollow leg” and “howling” seem to mirror one another imperfectly might just cut to the core of this collection, and perhaps, the project as a whole.
3. LA LA LA and a Horny Internet
If any of the four books truly engages with a contemporary, internet-mediated angst, it is LA LA LA. In a continuous stream of short lines, Starkweather finds space to create a kind of sexualized, technological poetics:
everything is a game
the pesky not-world
I want poems
to be like 80s video games
which builds towards
that never come
are you wet yet
Here we have a frame (or screen) in which there is a tension between existing IRL and the text driven world of the URL. It may well be that the “horizons” here are computer screens, and this a gesture towards the way in which technologies do as much to separate us as bring us together. It is this condition that creates the deadpan anxiety in these lines:
I won’t be leaving my house
for a while
I wish I could be a part
of some party
what I really wish
is to be alone
without feeling alone
Encapsulated in just a few lines is the essence of the contemporary, alienated way of life. Still, rather like the internet itself, these moments of gravitas are juxtaposed with levity and a kind of phallic, linguistic humor:
would have been better
if the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man
with John Ashbery’s junk
there comes a time
when we all must cross
And ultimately, LA LA LA itself crosses streams: balancing longing and loneliness, the world of poetry and that of pop culture. One could expect it to be the voice of the hapless independent thinker stuck in the drudgery of the cubical (“the CEO of alone”). Certainly, here we find another attempt to reclaim the sanitized, corporate speak that we inevitably encounter, a futile attempt at re-appropriating the vacuous and superficial in a world where “all God’s children/ are brats/ products of/ product placement.” The immediacy and distinctly 21st century aesthetic that to various degrees exists in all of the poems of The First Four Books seems particularly foregrounded here.
4. The Waters and the Graves
With The Waters, one of the tasks Starkweather enacts elegy through the act of translating, or, as he puts it, the “transcontemporation” of Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s Trilce. Certainly, the act of translating a dead poet is a kind of communication with the dead, and, by extension, to read is to be haunted by the author. Here, the elegy is fraught with an awareness of the limitations of memory and of language: “the thing between us.” This can certainly be seen in “XXI:”
How can a “last breath” be a cliché?
He died in December, December died a little too,
its mediocre ad-copy, its well of infinite sadness.
And who’s buying it—December, its pyramid
scheme of belief. “They’ve filled the well with sand”
I deremember him. In the film Grizzly Man,
a man is eaten by a bear. Metaphors are no
match for bears. December is both bear
and metaphor. I’d like to make a rug of regret,
reverse my inner-mink coat.
Trapped in the world of words unmatched to their task, in the “scheme of belief” where “Metaphors are no/ match for bears,” even death can become a “cliché.” When faced with the difficult task of elegy, when reckoning not only with words, but actual loss, poetry becomes little more than “mediocre ad-copy” leading to the somehow hollowed out words: “infinite sadness.”
Deliberately, I think, it is never clear who is being memorialized: in turns it is a drowned uncle, in others fallen soldiers, childhood, virginity and innocence. “LII” opens “Because in every story something is lost/ and found, I know this is a poem—junkyard of the just gone,” describing a space tied as much to the ephemeral as the permanent. Here, as elsewhere, there is a fitful, sometimes painful laughter directed at the grave, where “all that is left is a JPEG/ named BLOWNTOSMITHEREENS,” and even the most bittersweet memory “holds/ no water.” Out of coffins, then, the poems seem to build a space where—as it is put in “LXXV”—“the dead are not dead,” where “Bang, bang, you’re all alive.”
5. A Perfect Misunderstanding of Self Help Poems
By ironically playing off of the notion that one can read a book and be somehow “cured,” Starkweather’s Self Help Poems creates a matrix from which he can truly engage with a larger sense of language’s capability, of what it can do and what it does. Describing the elation surrounding John McCain’s concession speech, for example, he writes: “I achieved absolute belief, and it had nothing to do with politics or humanity or any of that shit, it was simply the fact that language did this.” Many of the prose poems that comprise this series seem to be reckoning with a mass culture in which advertising slogans have much further reach than poetry. “It’s a marketing strategy like anything else… What does a poetics of shame even mean? A manifesto of failure,” he writes, later following up, “If only our poems could have a mascot, like a talking gecko with an English accent.” I like the way this work rebrands commercialized speech, in a sense, self-consciously knocking down the artifice of poetry. Slyly, too, this gesture tends to produce the opposite: “The perfect way to say hope and despair at the same time.”
Perhaps reflecting the actual experience of someone perusing the Self Help section, a deeper rooted anxiety is at play, a desire for actual meaning to bust through a language incapable of transmitting it. The most interesting tendency, as the poems build on themselves, is the way that death emerges as a kind of final limit, the concept that charges the work as a whole. This is neatly encapsulated in one of the shorter prose poems:
It’s like when you said a field of poppies and I thought you said field of opposites. That’s what a death is—a perfect misunderstanding.
As seems to be the case throughout Starkweather’s work, it is in the extent to which words fail in their task that they find room to succeed. In this spirit, then, Self Help Poems works as a kind of continuation of the project inaugurated in King of the Forest. Where it may address larger themes, where it might attempt to raise the dead, it cannot circumvent the world it creates for itself. Indeed, these conflicting tendencies are what make the work so vital, for “Maybe away from the edge of any abyss, there is nothing to write about.”
6. The Context is the Context
In the last analysis, and contrary to what you have seen so far, it is probably impossible to consider any individual book of The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather without the others. Then again, one might be able to say the same thing about a serious consideration of any poet’s works. The poems talk to each other, echo one another, sometimes even wear the same tattered clothing. What unifies them here is a consistent, powerful lyric voice and an almost romantic notion of the poet as both hero and anti-hero. “In the myth I made, I was of course, the King,” he writes in King of the Forest. But the poet in the woods that sometimes appears in these books is the same one that is attached to his city: if not a Lorca in New York, then his literary descendent. The dichotomy here is a construct in itself: everyone has a city inside them; everyone emerges from a forest.
So what we have here is as much a library as an individual volume: a reckoning with death that is imbued with light and life, and a rebuke of what is possible with language that is charged with its possibilities. In Self Help Poems this bait and switch appears with blunt self-consciousness: “I’m not going to say anything transcendent sounding about how maybe the beast is me. That’s not my style.” Plain spoken, contemporary, charged with its own indefinable energy, The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather rests heavy on my bookshelf. Like any poetry—perhaps like all of it—it is an amalgamation of madness, clarity and ambition, addressed to those of us who, though we may not admit it, “believe in words. Their power. Weight. Like some kind of nerd.” And we are those nerds, adjusting our black framed glasses while weighing the book with the scale inside of us and waiting for it, once again, to rain.