Empty Bowl ($20)
by John Bradley
Given that so many poets support themselves by teaching, there’s a surprising disclosure in the biographical note included in Clemens Starck’s Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems: “A Princeton dropout and former merchant seaman, he has supported his literary and intellectual interests for more than fifty years by working with his hands, mainly as a carpenter and construction foreman.” Most of these collected poems, drawn from six previously published books, spring directly from Starck’s working life, testifying to years of physical labor. They also display a seemingly effortless craftsmanship.
Work as a subject in American poetry has been and still is unusual. Philip Levine comes to mind, but after that it’s hard to think of a poet who devoted books of poetry to this topic. Starck has much to say about labor, such as in “Slab on Grade,” about pouring concrete:
What could be flatter or more nondescript
than a concrete slab?
For years people will walk on it,
hardly considering that it was put there
on a Thursday in August
by men on their knees.
The fact that physical labor and laborers are unappreciated in our nation perhaps offers one reason why we don’t see more poets writing about work. “Me and Maloney” offers another reason. At first the poem seems as if it’s about the camaraderie of workers: “And I’m left with Maloney, / who likes to drink beer after work / and tell stories. / Construction stories. Ex-wife stories.” Then the stories start to feel unsettling, “like how he clubs possums to death with a two-by-four.” The very last stanza reveals why the speaker must drink with Maloney and listen to his creepy tales:
for Maloney Construction.
When it rains we work in the rain. When it snows
we work in the snow.
I am Maloney’s right-hand man:
When he laughs, I laugh too.
Not all of Starck’s work poems are grim, however. There’s often playfulness. In “Keats and Shelley,” for example, we learn about a worker much taken with the poetry of the Romantics and their ilk. Well, perhaps there’s an element of envy too: “Tenured now / in the English Department of every university, / they’re resting on their laurels.” The speaker asks a friend, Ernie, what he thinks of the two “immortal poets”:
“Keats and Shelley?
You mean Sheets & Kelly. Used to be
a plumbing contractor
One of the main influences on Starck’s writing style can be seen in many of his poem titles: “Two Chinese Poets,” “In the Middle of the Night, Waking from a Dream of My Children, I Go Downstairs and Read Du Fu,” “The Chinese Way.” His reading of classic Chinese poetry helps explain his directness, his ability to make poems into an intimate construct of thought and emotion, always located in a time and place. In “On My Way to Work I Pass Bud’s Auto Wrecking and Think about Su Dongpo,” for example, he admits that Bud’s Auto Wrecking “is not something you’d expect to find / in a Song dynasy / landscape painting.” (179) And yet he soon sees a figure there who resembles Su Dongpo. This perception collapses in the last stanza:
Wait a minute! That’s not Su Dongpo,
it’s me—stumbling along
with my toolbox and an instruction manual,
a funny-looking, bald-headed old geezer who doesn’t
parts for a Volvo, although
you never know . . .
As for so many American poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Carolyn Kizer, and many others, classical Chinese poetry offers a class in poetics for Starck.
Cathedrals & Parking Lots shows the author writing ably on subjects other than labor—Barbara Stanwyck, the Red Sox, his cat Misha, and yes, love. But it’s the poems about the working life that reverberate long after you leave this book. A poem like “Dismantling,” about workers making a house “disappear,” (66) haunts us with its detail, simplicity, and sly humor. Here’s how it ends:
And when we have finished,
what will there be at Ninth and Van Buren?
A square of bare earth
where a house was.
Sidewalk. Foundation. Concrete stoop.
Two steps up
and you’re there.
Like that foundation and concrete stoop, the poems of Clemens Stark appear to be simple, but they’re built to endure.