Telling the World

As Reviewed By: J. K. Halligan

Invisible Ink by George Starbuck. Edited by Kathryn Starbuck and Elizabeth Meese. The University of Alabama Press, 2002. 82 pp. $24.95.

The late George Starbuck (1931 – 1996) did not live to see his final work gathered into a collection. It was left to his widow to assemble the poems in Visible Ink, an appealingly quirky series of ruminations and divagations on subjects ranging from the invasion of Grenada to the deployment of refrigerator door magnets. To the last, Starbuck’s trademark craftsmanship and wit are on display. Structure, technique, a conspicuous lack of ego and a prepossessing deftness of touch characterize everything this poet set his hand to.

[private]Emerging from the cultural ferment of 1950s Boston, Starbuck made his debut withBone Thoughts (1960), winner of the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize, much to the envy of Sylvia Plath–as her diary records. Starbuck enjoyed a turn in the limelight at a young age (the book went into several printings) before settling down to a life of teaching and the demands of family life. Apart from sporadic appearances in magazines and six published collections, his was a low profile career.
Neither as strident nor as discursively prolix as many of his contemporaries, Starbuck addressed issues of the day (McCarthy, the Bomb, Vietnam, Watergate) with an understated wit allied to a formal elegance:

Deep as Manhattan’s earth the billion-dollar
roots of our affluence pull back their saps.

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,
the gull beaks of magnolia
were straining upward like the flocks
harnessed by kings in storybooks
who lusted for the moon. Six days
we mooned into each others’eyes
mythologies of dune and dawn–
naked to the Atlantic sun,
loving and loving, to and fro
on Commonwealth, on Marlborough,
our whole half-hours. And where our bloods
crested, we saw the bruise-red buds
tear loose the white, impeded shapes
of cries. And when our whitest hopes
tore at the wind with wings, it seemed
only a loony dream we dreamed,
such heavy machination of
cars and motels confronted love
on Commonwealth, on Marlborough.
They do the trick with rockets now–
with methodologies of steel–
with industry or not at all.
But so, sweet love, do these white trees
that dare play out their lunacies
for all they are, for all they know
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,
this soon the easy Limited of wind
at distant crossings laying dismal sounds,
the sun comes to your level like a friend.
Dying a friend, it looks away, unhurried
as a man of time…

The imagery lapses into newsreel cliché:

The roads
will have their fill awhile of flesh in motion,
mindlessly nerved to murder as it dies.

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
and leaning masts above suburban dwellings
claw empty pictures from the breeding air.
And you, with your lines dry, inherit all.
Row to the shore. The bomb, the bomb, the bastards.
Tell it, the two of you, say until morning.
Say till the world re-takes its age-old shapes,
lifting again the green receiving branches
eight easy minutes from the sun. The roads
will have their fill awhile of flesh in motion,
mindlessly nerved to murder as it dies.
Nations convulsing, their great thought gone static,
try your mere voices; try small work of hands.
One must begin by helping one; and you,
best-armed of pioneers, most learned savage,
granted a day’s north wind, inherit all.

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.”

A prediction that was to come true in subsequent volumes, all of which bear the mark of a latter day Jeremiah turned light-versifier. This light-ness, however, carried burdens that in other writers can now appear portentous. An early opponent of Vietnam, Starbuck dropped all pretense of naturalism after Bone Thoughts, and drew upon strengths that Plath dismissed as light verse: laconic wit, rhythmic ingenuity, arresting diction and rhyme. There was also the zany humour.

The poem “Of Late”, addressed to the then Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara, is a rare instance in which Starbuck’s humour failed him. Searing understatement takes its place, driven by a grim occasion: the suicide of a Quaker who had been demonstrating outside the Pentagon. Other targets included Thom Gunn, who had complained in the Yale Review about the parlous state of poetic theory in the USA: “It is not even a civil war.”

Sometimes I feel like a fodderless cannon
On one of those Midwestern courthouse lawns,
Fiercely contested for by boys of ten and
Topped by a brevet general in bronze.
(“The Well-Trained English Critic Surveys the American Scene”)

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:

Rabindranath Tagore
Made flowers bloom where there was none before.
“It’s my green thumb,” he said, “and with my tan thumb
I do stuff like the Indian National Anthem.”

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.
I have not followed wisdom as I see it.
You avalanche me sermons and I make
Rhymes for the sake of rhymes.
This sinner, Lord, of his lamented crimes.

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.
Little domestic
Eichmann in puttees
claiming he simply
had a taste for spats.

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
This lipid at that angle. In those throes.
Or it’s a satellite image. Something Castro’s
Hidden in sheds. Or it’s a Mies van der Rohe’s
Planet at last…
(“Like Dotted Swiss”)

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.[/private]

About JKHalligan

J. K. Halligan is the author of Blossom Street and other poems (2001), available online through Amazon UK. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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