Review by Jinny Webber
A FEW THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE WEASEL
by David Starkey
PO Box 92
Canada NOR 1C
2010, 67 pp., $14.95
This latest collection from David Starkey, currently the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, California, offers a wide-ranging and often darkly humorous perspective. Each of the four sections—“Will,” “Form,” “War,” and “Eternity”–begins with a philosophical Q&A which opens all sorts of questions and leaves you with a wry smile. Here’s a poet who’s ambitious and yet playful, who gets at essential truths from a variety of angles and emotions. His writing is sharp and clear and often catches you by surprise.
Starkey is a master of the ironic vision, complex and fresh. For example, “Jamestown” begins, “O America, let us celebrate/your miserable beginnings: this feeble fort” with damp lean-tos where “the alien men and few tattered/ women faced winter and typhoid fever,/dysentery and sloth,” their hopes of easy wealth disappointed. Here “on the banks of a foul, salty/ river,” after a telling “yet,” John Smith intuits “the meager necessities of empire.” He senses beyond “that forest of tupelo and wild marsh grass” lies a land ripe for the taking [Starkey uses a harsher word], and he, who had “beheaded Turks/and skewered pirates, who thought he’d never/ be o’erwrought again, was strangely stirred.’” Were I Garrison Keillor, I’d have read this one on The Writer’s Almanac, prophetic and moving as it is.
Keillor instead reads “A Very Rich Old Woman” and “The Murder Suspect, Moments Before He Is Confronted By Police,” two dramatic monologues, the first uttered posthumously. These poems arouse empathy for difficult characters through, in the woman’s case, her unstinting honesty; in the suspect’s, a desperate humanity. A striking monologue, “My Life as a Shang Shih” is spoken by a voice from the Henan Kingdom, 1220 BCE. Who knew that Chinese priests once told fortunes with tortoise shells? Who would expect such a fellow feeling with this ancient speaker? (But then, who knew that weasels conceive at the mouth and give birth through the ears, as the title poem informs us?)
Portraits abound, from dance hall girls in “Waiting for a Train, 1929” to “The Detective Novelist” to a woman in line at the Dairy Queen in “The Venus of Willendorf, Ottumwa, Idaho.” We grant that the poet saw this woman and we can easily imagine the novelist who’s never fired a gun: “His first wife left, called him a fake./ However the second gets it:/ Art and Life keep poor company. These poems resemble miniature novels and pack a huge wallop. So too a scattered group of snapshot poems, one actually called “Snapshot: Fort Worth, Texas”; another, “Hanging Out With Bosnians,” the gritty descriptions ending with sardonic twists.
Starkey’s poems about art cover an impressive range. In “Hitler’s Art,” “He learned/the knack of when to lift the brush and when/to let the pigments blend. He couldn’t, however/draw a human face to save his life.” The poem ends with a contrast to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, “written the year after the first war,” about the time Hitler was “beginning to sketch swastikas in earnest”: “And I begin to understand/ the difference between architecture/and art, between exactitude and–say it–soul.”
A close and clever observer of art, Starkey describes “The Women of Lucas Cranach the Elder” in fourteen dry lines separated by asterisks. “David–after Donatello’s bronze” defines his “sweetest victory” over the “bearded giant’” which allows him perfect freedom to “strip down to nothing but your leather/ boots and suave wreathed hair and pose” without ridicule. I especially like “The More Angels Shall I Paint,” after a quotation from Edward Burne-Jones. In the materialistic scientific world where “eggheads can map the entire sequence/of chemical pairs that form the DNA/ of a human being–that former miracle,” what is left for faith but “to do what it does best,/ of course: invent and ornament. We must/ take up our brushes and render every last/ cherubim and seraphim and archangel,/ every warbling member of the heavenly choir.”
The first section of the book, “Will,” includes the most personal poems. The ending of “My Parents’ Bedroom” is chilling, the speaker’s father aiming a pistol at him, thinking him an intruder and “ready, he later said, to fire.” “Spring Flowers” and “Yelling”—the first poignant, the second funny—relate to his first marriage; “Shelley in Santa Barbara” and “Promises, Promises,” to his present one. “Promises, Promises” is of the laugh-out-loud variety, where garbled spam email (“Enlarge/ you’re banana length! Don’t loose your passion/ to bad potence!”) is pitted against domestic daily realities.
A Few Things You Should Know About The Weasel is a book to read and reread, full of insights and a marvelous clear vision, liberating in its unflinching and eloquent gaze.