That picture’s somewhere still: First Communion, 13 girls
in lace and satin “Like a Virgin” frocks,
legs crossed man-style under frills, floral hairpieces
hanging flaccid over ears. Marrying God.
An overlit confessional, gilded chairs, Father Antony’s
embroidered bib, pew-fulls of frog-eyed
parents who’d endured years waiting for our
exorcisms. This was just before my faith fell and
I stumbled toward Hari Krishnas at the Eaton Centre
causeway and paid $20 for a tome
they would have given away; tried to find in mock-leather
what they found there, but it hid—
or snapped up free papers about “the 18,000 realms,”
and visited living room churches north on Bathurst
with congregations of passive mutes; or let the Bahai
indoctrinate me on Bloor, one afternoon,
where they fed me channah in a muralized Olive Garden
basement. I left with a cassette
and a mental image of a saviour cresting a hill
with a hankering for garlic bread.
My high school and university were poverty and violence.
A quadriplegic classmate lived in a Winnebago.
Her mother’s ex cowered in a laundry hamper with a gun
and killed her after mass. That’s all I know.
A 6-year-old child’s blanched skull
sits surprised by its naked self
on a curio encased museum shelf.
Halogen glare bleaches eggshell,
a smooth, ceramic plate forehead
and hollow eye wells. Look closer
nose to cold case, let your eyes trace
outlines like starched lace,
cheekbones hallowed out
like caves, a fused
Beneath the eyes,
lining mandible, future
teeth hibernate in alcoves,
a millimeter of mortar through
which they’ll trake. Pincer roots
of a surface tooth fork each
underling in place; they rattle
in their caverns, loose,
small still, slanted, half-plane,
as a child’s jittery
script trounces lined
pages before their handedness
As if, in-between ulna and radius,
a new toothpick plots
to usurp an infant’s arm bone,
ejecting the elder out the wrist.
As if the skull has an innervated crank,
a clock geared to mill-saw
tilling out of a self-sarcophagus.
Almosted into marble by medusa-eyed hoi polloi
The Queen’s stone jowls, eraillure of crow’s feet,
are freshly quarried—fifty years late,
her face is lithic flaked into a lustrous, toothy smile,
as electricity excites mercury vapor, she is lightboxed,
backlit, mounted every few paces in the chambers
of the London tube. Her cumulonimbus-hued
bust, the size of Easter Island moai,
is shit-grinning over diamonds, on exhibit for the great
unwashed to grub up and drool over. Jewels encased in
UV-proof acrylic vitrines, whettingly
argon sandwiched, cannot be made stonier by our
countryside-bred, dazed un-blink. We share our sheep’s
hypoxic shrug at the Lorenz curve of the earth.
We leap magpie-footed, shriek obsidian
disbelief tidings, fervent for useless, shiny things.
The Janus of the Jubilee and Olympics has her visage
pinned to the bricks and loitering in tunnels; a tattered
flag to the proclaimed, uncharted
country of herself billows above the footbridge—
the gammon display is reminiscent of styrofoam castles,
glue and sand. Mickey Mouse and the Magical Kingdom, Iraq
under Saddam. But my companion says, No,
she looks like an albino Grinch. She looks like Rip Torn
in a Swarovski choker and cotton candy wig.
A cheetah yawns on a cafeteria bench
snarls at my linoleum shoe clacks, throws shade
then shape-shifts into a lion—
its victim’s paw-prints fade from hindquarters,
a pre-teased mane extrudes from brow ridge
The unicorns are in the pool rehearsing
synchronized swimming routines. Their icicle bodies pirouette
in the steamy chlorine blue of eternal
unclean, but all we’ve got, water. They practice
five days days a week, from daybreak till sundown
My assignment’s due at the department,
the timestamp lady is packing up her travel mug and ipod.
On a stair there’s a sloth with rainbow fur,
a crumpled hand-puppet who gestures where
the office is, but it takes him 45 to shape the arrow tip--
(Poems reprinted by permission of the author)
Carmine Starnino: That poetry is made with words, not ideas, seems close to being a moral imperative for you. You always lead with sound, build up your lines and stanzas noun by careful verb. But whatever your process, you don’t seem to elevate it over form: you strive to create powerful, individual, self-contained poems. Is that an accurate reading? You want a poem perfect in all its parts?
Stevie Howell: Actually, a poem, for me, comes firstly from an idea, out of a particular hang up. Writing the poem is like drawing using a Spirograph kit, with the poem’s pattern based on the curves of that original idea. If the concept is well-encapsulated, it can dictate the shape and the register. A poem of mine, “Fear is a World,” started with the idea of trying to mentalize the emotional state of anxiety. I thought a terazanelle would work (in which a different line from each stanza inserts itself into the next).The rigidity seemed to pair well with how anxiety aims to avoid ambiguity, and the form allowed neurotic mantras to disrupt flow, as occurs with anxiety.
Some ideas I avoid. When I started writing in earnest a couple of years ago, I steered clear of certain crumby personal topics. By extension, relying too much on established forms can sometimes serve as an overly-convenient distancing tool; it can read like you’re reaching with a “grabber.” So it’s always a matter of trying to figure out what’s essential for each poem.
Do I want perfection? A while ago, I got obsessed with this video game called Castlevania, and sat there exerting one type of effort: eating pizza on my bed, dying over and over again before I got to the next level, dreaming about how to get the potion off the shelf without breaking it. I think writing poetry can get like that, if you’re too careful.
Carmine Starnino has published four volumes of poetry, including This Way Out (2009), which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. His poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Parnassus, New American Writing, The Dark Horse, Drunken Boat, Jacket and Poetry Review. His poetry has also been included in Best American Poetry 2007 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His most recent book is Lazy Bastardism: Reviews and Essays on Contemporary Poetry (2012). He lives in Montreal.
Stevie Howell’s poetry has appeared in Descant, Eighteen Bridges, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, The Walrus. She was a finalist for the 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize the 2012 Walrus Poetry Prize.
She is currently completing a full-length volume of poetry to be published fall 2014 by Ice House Press (an imprint of Goose Lane Editions). The book is called: