The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather
by Sampson Starkweather
Birds, LLC, 2013; 328 pp
Reviewed by Robert Torres
This volume allows the reader to track Starkweather's evolution from playful young deconstructionist to high-caliber prose poet. The four books track Starkweather's examination of the bounds of prose poetry, deconstructionism, and fractured narrative. His poems are all personal and always pull away just before telling the story outright, a deconstructionist habit born from the theory that a poem cannot tell itself exactly the way it wants to be told, leaving instead vivid images of domestic items and pop-culture icons. Starkweather succeeds in this volume to create a language of his own word-images which, in turn, actualize their own story, "permanent season/ of elegy/ here comes/ a thousand doves/ apparently we/ need love/ coo," ("La La La," 113).
"King of the Forest," book one, is a four-part prose-poem gallery skirting the edge of lucid narrative. Starkweather, while lacking at this stage the prosodic exactitude of his later work, makes up for this with full-color, far-flung snapshots of rabid wolves, basketball games, Mediterranean travel, and dream interpretations more surreal than the dreams themselves. These poems vascillate between diary and epistolary, averaging out to a sad, guilty man in a confessional. "More than ever we are surrounded by moths. They light/ on the ceiling, silent and still. They have no concern/ with the living," begins page 47, exemplifying the precision of Starkweather's best images.
"La La La," book two, reads and looks like an unremitting cataract of images collaged together in tightly enjambed lines. It's daunting on the surface—each poem assuming the same river-like form—until read aloud, when the river begins to sing. It is an ellegy for realism, an announcement of the death of the poet's faith in realism. Page 116 admits "Everything is more beautiful/ out of context," a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deep within "La La La," Starkweather sends a postmodern torpedo straight into transcendentalism: " . . . tiny birds/ stuck inside JFK airport/ chirping like a ringtone." These poems are rife with pull-quotes and name-drops of poets—and websites—you know.
"The Waters," book three, is Starkweather's "transcontemporation" of César Vallejo's Trilce, following the forms and motifs of Vallejo's work but twisting some turns of phrase back onto themselves and plugging in pieces of his own personal narrative. Starkweather exhibits a highly-evolved syntax and a style as modernist as it is postmodern, incorporating deconstructionist techniques like the repetition of fruit, "Manzanita. Manzanita." (164) a la Robert Hass and Gertrude Stein—also a pun on Vallejo's Tricle II, "Mañana. Mañana." Vallejo's fans will delight is seeing the modernist master get his own tricks played on him; Starkweather's fans will enjoy watching this next chapter of his narrative unfold. " . . . Who saves us/ from so many hushes and screams/ so many waves/ of why? Who shakes free the trembling rivers of moths?" summons an image born back in "King of the Forest."
"Self Help Poems," book four, is the culmination of Starkweather's excercises through his previous works. It returns to the paragraph-by-paragraph form of "King of the Forest," but moves faster and with greater purpose. It calls forth symbols from the earlier books and puts them to greater use. These poems are more obviously personal but more expansive, moving through skies, deserts, and late-night television. "I saw Mickey Rourke on Charlie Rose last night. He was/ being held back by his naivety that art is about artistry." Starkweather announces on page 255, begging readers to question what Mickey Rourke has to teach about art at all. These poems are daydreams and nightmares of a poet planted in a cubicle somewhere in New York, blooming in all directions, striking a beautiful balance between storytelling and sound-play. One of Starkweather's most telling lines lives here: " . . . What does/ a poetics of shame even mean? A manifesto of failure."