- Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost - 20080720 - Michael Carrino

Michael Carrino's second book of poetry, Under This Combustible Sky, is a richly-peopled collection whose denizens are portrayed in a stark light, like that of certain Hopper paintings, a light no less beautiful for its starkness and hard edges. Reading these poems, one realizes that in lives so full of defeat there are redemptions in solitude, and victories within the sacredness of the moment. 'For me,' Carrino writes in the poem "Cat, Rose, Musical Score", 'self absorbed and anxious, objects explain/ passion, obsession; how you have/ no control unless you agree/ before dancing white on white in silence--/ we are what we arrange.' This could well be a statement of the aesthetic brought to the arrangement of this book: a pure witnessing, at times, of a moment's details which speak volumes of the poem's subject in a language that is both economical and plainly spoken, yet rich in its precision.

I think of the poem "The Woman" in which a photograph of a soldier's Korean mistress is ogled and handed around the family table, a favorite conversation piece:

In the photograph from Korea, my uncle Appears nostalgic despite his youth, Despite the slim immediacy of the woman Whose name no one spoke, if anyone Ever knew her name. After he came home With a Purple Heart, he favored The disenfranchised, claimed The rich were best at rationalization And the calculated risk. He got married Sold Insurance, died at fifty-four.

In the photograph from Korea The woman's candid stare Betrayed no expectation, no answer.

The juxtaposition of the details of the soldier's drab, predictable civilian destiny and the eternalness of the photograph woman's stare and demeanor is to me breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking. Carrino writes with a control that is difficult and enviable.

Among my favorites in this collection is the stunning opening poem, "Potter's Field." Though it depicts a cemetery for the homeless, it simultaneously seems to be the dark opening from which all the lives of the other poems spring. Knowledge of our eventual demise fuels the machinery of our lives and desires, and this theme ignites and animates the book.

From "Potter's Field":

On Hart's Island there's a memorial engraved With two crosses, two open books inscribed 'alpha' and 'omega.' Inmates Bury the dead. Light duty on a fair day. There's a lane of willow, a narrow Plot of wildflowers, aster and yarrow. Near the ferry slip a dinghy, Half submerged in the shallow water's muck, Is dappled by the white dung of gulls That circle in the endless sky, glide down And drop clamshells over rock exposed by low tide, Where cormorants sun themselves, wings outstretched.

The cormorants greeting of the readers into the book somehow seems like one of Rilke's angels from the Duino Elegies, those 'almost deadly birds of the soul,' a sight simultaneous awe and disturbance. Indeed, the candid stares of all these poems are full of unsettling beauty, and traffic no easy answers. Michael Carrino's accomplishment here is hard-won and startling.