As Reviewed By:
Telling the World
Invisible Ink by George Starbuck. Edited by Kathryn Starbuck and Elizabeth Meese. The University of Alabama Press, 2002. 82 pp. $24.95.
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Deep as Manhattan's earth the billion-dollar
A tendency toward cleverness and a fondness for the choice demotic phrase would later mark him as a practitioner of light verse, but in Bone Thoughts the ludic urge was mostly reined in. Instead, a lyric impulse and a free descriptive style balance what was an emerging tendency toward satire. It was a subtle melding of the public and the personal that would not quite survive in his later work. The Eisenhower-era 'Technologies', for instance--inspired by a brief affair with Anne Sexton--comes across as Marvellian pastiche, but its light ironies are countermanded by a brooding and powerful rhythm. (The central section was excised in a later edition.)
On Commonwealth, on Marlborough,
In Bone Thoughts, Starbuck created an individual and politically aware sensibility during a period now remembered chiefly for its conformity and paranoia. Ginsberg and Lowell may have achieved the same thing with greater acclaim, but Starbuck did it with a certain panache. He had a bookish and youthful detachment, not to mention a distinctive sense of humour, that were to elude those rising statesmen. The early screed "If Saturday" tackles the threat of nuclear annihilation: the risk of bathos that accompanied such an attempt, at the height of the Cold War, was formidable. Nevertheless, the poem succeeds. Setting the scene with an elliptical version of pastoral, Starbuck "shifts the direction of the images, sliding one image into another, so that several levels open up simultaneously." (Dudley Fitts, Introduction to Bone Thoughts):
Two easy voices and a boat from now,
The imagery lapses into newsreel cliché:
But the tension continues to build, and the poem dips into a cornucopia of fears that are no less real for being ubiquitous on film and in photographs.
Down in the valley, dust rain will be falling
An interview between Starbuck and Dudley Fitts accompanies the Caedmon recording of
Bone Thoughts. The speech patterns peculiar to his generation are audible: slyly insouciant, take-it-or-leave-it, yet respectful to a fault. (This was not, after all, the decade of Brando and Elvis so much as that of Foster Dulles and McCarthy; youth was cowed by age.) In the interview, Starbuck attests to a desire to write longer, dramatic narratives, and to put satire behind him. "The great danger, unless you happen to be Hart Crane or William Blake, is to find yourself always speaking in your own voice, or some distortion of it, telling the world, telling the world, telling the world."
Sometimes I feel like a fodderless cannon
By the time of Desperate Measures (1978), the dry squib seems to have become Starbuck's stock-in-trade. Indeed, he gives the impression of someone stringing for the irreverent National Lampoon from the upper reaches of Parnassus, or more pointedly, from Washington D.C. "The Passion of G. Gordon Giddy," for instance, while amusingly replicating the foul-mouthed cynicism of the Watergate protagonists ("Are you guys lawyers or a bunch of titmice?") suffers the fate of most satire and comes to be dominated by its object. Infinitely better is Starbuck's apology for poetry, the rather obscure "Tuolomnee." The odd clerihew is also effective:
The strategy of verbal play looks to have become an irresistible habit of sorts, albeit one being indulged to a high and cerebral standard. Whether this came about because of the patent awfulness of the 70s or in reaction to certain stylistic excesses among his contemporaries, it would be hard to say. Whatever its source, it was a tendency that Starbuck had no hesitation in defending:
I have committed whimsy. There. So be it.
The poems in Visible Ink, written over a number of years, carry Starbuck's inventiveness to new heights. In addition to his preoccupations with religiosity, war, politics and ordinary speech, an increased interest in pure form is apparent. Like his French counterparts in the OULIPO movement, (and, like many of them, trained in mathematics) Starbuck thrived on formal constraints. A number of these pieces he calls SLABS, Standard Length and Breadth Sonnets. Although some work better than others, their overall idiosyncracy is endearing:
At times, this cleverness can be cloyingly obscure, the sense of a meaning just around the corner. At others, as in "Reading The Facts About Frost In The Norton Anthology", the message is loud and clear:
"Lover's quarrel" Hah.
Visible Ink addresses the absurdities of gun culture ("They've took my Mach-10 Special. / They've took Dad's Remingtons"), the Washington elite ("You notice them at check-in. Power. Dough. / Securing the cachet of their dispatches / With miniature touch-tone satchel latches. / Riding the tiger, going with the flow.") to refrigerator magnets and the peculiar shapes to be found in photographs:
White on green. If a microphotographer froze
In an obvious sense, Starbuck's ingenuity and virtuoso idiosyncracies serve to conceal, or obliquely reveal, a deeply engaged political consciousness. It is possible that the style of his jeremiads is a reaction to the double-speak and absurdity that characterized the public discourse during the Vietnam war and that Starbuck, wanting to tell the world where it had gone wrong, chose a private idiom in which to reply. Visible Ink is an engaging, funny, and challenging testament to a remarkable poet's quiet career.