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With English Subtitles

by Carmine Starnino

The poems in Carmine Starnino’s third collection are bold and original, breathing fresh perspective into familiar subjects. Starnino crafts poems that not only push the form’s envelope but stuffs that envelope with imaginative ideas.

Starnino’s language can be graceful one moment, daring the next, turning nouns into verbs to achieve unique effects. In “Yukon Postcards,” he writes, “rearing spruce-root/groined with red sprigs of bastard toadflax.” His original metaphors create startling images: grass is a “tawny stubble of syllables,” and readers are urged to listen to “the skrick of crickets italicizing a meadow.”

With English Subtitles takes more risks than Starnino’s previous collections. He includes a few examples of purely fun writing, such as his “Worst-Case Scenario Poems.” Acting as part poem, part survival guide, the sequence offers instructions on climbing out of wells and enduring sandstorms, making for a welcome break from the more thoughtful poems. Another memorable sequence literally tests the reader’s intellectual powers. “Six Riddles” feature exactly that, and each brain-tickler is a reminder that poetry collections need not be staid or conventionally “poetic.”

When the poems get more serious, the result is especially invigorating. Objects as simple as a kettle or a suitcase shine with a different light under Starnino’s pen, and personification is often used to energize something as wooden as floorboards that “sneezed beneath our boots.”

With English Subtitles only falters in a few meandering pieces that could have been edited for brevity, such as the three-page “One Month Later in Switzerland.” Quick, sharp images best complement Starnino’s skill; longer ruminations only cause the mind to wander. This collection would work well as a lesson to young poets on turning the old into new, the oft-used into the newly designed.