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Journeyman's Wages
by Clemens Starck
Story Line Press
Three Oaks Farm
Brownsville, OR 97237
1995, paper, $10.95
reviewed by Eileen Walsh Duncan

The poems of Clemens Starck are refreshing and wonderful to read. There is no excess of language and no academic posturing; these poems are crafted with a subtlety of form and precision that are the hallmarks of fine architecture. Although the poems are on a variety of subjects, most often about carpentry and construction, they frequently offer insight into art, meaning, and the nature of everyday existence. This is not a small undertaking, and lesser poets can fall into oblique language when grappling with the mysterious. As this theme resurfaced from different angles, through different perspectives, and along different grades, I became even more impressed with the way Starck renders thoughts into poetry. I particularly admire how adeptly he combines the more profound and mundane aspects of existence:
If the soul took shape
it might look like that--a cloud of white blossoms
throbbing with bees...
In the rank grass,
daffodils flaunt their yellow message.
Six fat robins
skitter across the pasture.
It makes no sense.

Eddie Rodriguez is dying. You know
that you are dying too,
and still there is spring
and fixing cars.

The simple language of Starck's poetry moves along in the current of a powerful intellect. These are not simple poems. The tone and rhythms remind me of Chinese verse as well as William Stafford; the illumination of the ordinary is in the tradition of Whitman. Original, moving insights are provided with a finely balanced dose of irony:
Firs on the hillside:
mist drifts through them like smoke.
White mist, black trees...
Headlights sweep the wet pavement.
Waiting at home
my son--he's ten, he wants to know
what we're here for.
Black firs. White mist.
Loose tools rattle in the back of the truck.
In twenty miles I ought to be able
to figure out something.

I really enjoy poetry that surprises me. Clemens Starck does this well; I'm never sure what turn the next sentence will take:
I idly pick up a handsaw,
inspecting the blade for true.
This saw has a life, it uses my hands
for its own purpose.

One thing I puzzled over is the arrangement of poems in the book. The first section's poems are set in construction and carpentry scenes, yet I couldn't figure out why the remaining poems were divided into separate sections. But that's really more of an editorial decision, and it's likely that every editor could offer a different idea on how to organize a group of poems. (I am not even sure whether poems are things that can be organized. Perhaps they can only be roughly herded onto the same ream of paper and left to their own devices.)
Another remarkable skill is the barely noticeable craft with which Starck can build a fine image. As I read, I don't notice the crafting techniques that make the image. But as the effect resonates, I can go back and see the workmanship:
Fumbling for consciousness,
half-disbelieving the clock--how remote
it all seems now,
the lure of literature, and the singular hope
that words will clarify my life.

Astonishingly, this book was rejected 59 times before finding a publisher. After publication, it won the Oregon Book Award. This collection is not for poets only; it's a worthwhile and engaging read for any reader.


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