Episode Three of STARK WEEK finds John Cotter flying around with the moths in City of Moths, the first section of King of the Forest, the first book of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. John begins with an excerpt from City of Moths:
There are constantly packs of wolves in the city wandering around abandoned monuments and subway stations without any sense of fear or resistance. As long as you mind your own business, they too will ignore you. But should some tourist acknowledge their existence or a young girl, sensing their animal presence, make a sharp movement, they will immediately swarm the victim…
What I love about this is the way the sentence beginning with “But” sounds like a translation from some forgotten surrealist poem. “But should some tourist” is suspiciously elegant but unusual. How often do you begin a sentence with “But should”? “Acknowledge” was probably more casual and familiar in the original. Was “young girl” joven or jeune fille? And was “animal presence” some kind of common phrase back then? Is that why they’d inject themselves with monkey glands?
I’m only half kidding. One of the pleasures of Starkweather’s poetry is the way he can seemingly discover original lines by Lorca or Apollinaire by writing them into existence. Jack Spicer, one of Starkweather’s heroes, could do the same.
And like Spicer, Starkweather uses the numinous to negotiate the real, as late in City of Moths, where he writes “The IRS is after me again. I mailed them Lorca’s ‘The Ballad of Weeping’ with my W-2.” That’s a beautiful idea, but we’re caught up short when we realize the title of “Casida Del Llanto” has only been published once in English as “The Ballad of Weeping” (usually it’s “The Weeping” or “Song of Lamentation”), and that was by Spicer, who famously took liberties with the texts. So was that a Lorca poem in the envelope at all?
This idea that mailing a poem to the IRS would matter is at the heart of what The First Four Books are saying. “The problem with fiction,” he writes in Self Help Poems, is that it “is predicated on the idea that there is a real.” Poetry, on the other hand, “has no pretensions of being real, it doesn’t care if you believe, it doesn’t even believe in itself.”
But these lines don’t believe in themselves. Or do they? When Obama is elected, the poet is astounded because “it had nothing to do with politics or humanity or any of that shit, it was simply the fact that language did this.” Hope is the last word in the book, books. On the other hand:
I want to say what Nicanor Parra says after every reading: I take it all back.
Let’s propose for a moment that we can’t read without creating some kind of narrative (we can move our eyes over the words without creating a story, but that’s not reading, it’s scanning). So, to test this hypothesis, can we locate a story inside City of Moths?
If all of Starkweather’s poems are either epistles or apostrophes, Moths is both. The poems could easily be read as a series of letters to a former lover, letters never sent. “Okay,” the poet tells us early on, “for the sake of full disclosure, I’m afraid a woman has split my heart like firewood.” Their division isn’t the only cause of agony (or pleasure) in the book, but it’s profound. “Do you still live in the city we made?” he writes her. “You are a genius for leaving me.” And so the wolves in that opening passage are both the torments of the poet (could they tear him apart, as they did the girl) and the poet himself (he tore her apart). The surrealist pastiche becomes a way to rephrase loss. It’s also a method of wishing it away (“Hell is merely a series of images you can’t shake”). And it’s a needed distraction. And it’s all there is.
“I believe in scarecrows,” he writes, “They’re more convincing than people and much less frightening.” When he looks at them he thinks the word fire, the word Pascal sewed into his pocket against “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces.” Starkweather is the scarecrow and the king of scarecrows. He’s scared a woman away. He goes alone to the woods.
You can have your fucking city back. Just writing that feels like confessing a sin. Do you ever feel that guilt is our religion? I used to tell my mom, “My religion is that I love you.” Foolish boy, king of straw. Don’t tell anyone, but some of the scarecrows made a mistake and were real.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His novel Under the Small Lights is published by Miami University Press.