Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Starving Romantic by Vincent James Perrone. (11:11 Press)
The cover art for Vincent James Perrone’s poetry collection, Starving Romantic, is arresting. It’s a painting of someone shoving their fingers into a bloodied mouth. There’s a pink tint of blood on the teeth as the tips of the fingers disappear in, presumably searching the wound. When I was reading this book, my wife had to leave the room. When I set it on the table afterwards, she’d flip it over. It’s not that this image is grotesque or gory, but it’s hitting a specific—and authentic—nerve. In the end, it is the most fitting artwork to showcase Perrone’s poems.
Starving Romantic is underscored with melancholy. It feels like the speaker of these poems is on the brink of something—like a big discovery or a breakthrough in their own self-image—and just by talking their way through all the emotions and desires will inevitably lead them to the conclusion they’re desperately seeking. In the end, we’re left with a glass half-empty/half-full situation. Are we the pessimist who assumes their goal wasn’t achieved? Or are we the optimist who believes it all works out for them? It’s up to us to decide.
And this is my favorite kind of poetry: the kind that poses a question, and the way we answer shows more about us than it does the poems.
The collection is broken into three sections: The first, “Arrangements,” focuses on depression. The second, “Bloom,” is desire, with a distinct underlying feeling of hope. The third, “Memory Revisions,” takes a turn and focuses on the past. Where did the speaker come from and how did their past help shape their perception of the world? Because it delves into their history, it also acts as a form of acceptance, good or bad, of how they are currently.
The language Perrone uses in Starving Romantic is so rich and engaging I want to present some examples. These aren’t the full poems, but selected stanzas.
from “Late Funeral”
hands on my shoulder blade
sharp with youth.
salt and oranges.
our lures tangled
in green waves.
Like a heart-rate monitor.
It all comes in waves.
This poem places us at the end of a wide dock with a child and his grandfather. They’re fishing, and the child remembers the small things his grandfather did while fishing for bass. There’s a moment when the boy is told, “Fish don’t feel pain.” The boy doesn’t believe him and “… hooked a bass / straight through its purple lip.” It’s an interesting take, how the boy decides to catch a fish even though he believes it feels all the pain that goes along with a hook spearing the lip. This shows the kid realizes that the world is going to lie to him, but that won’t stop him from living his life. He accepts the reality and moves forward.
from “Our Garden”
I wouldn’t eat anything
that came out of this ground.
A shovel juts from dirt—
claims the land
in the name of an idea
that never quite bloomed.
And though the squirrels
and insects enjoy it—
I still fear one day you’ll ask
why we never planted anything.
This reads like it’s from the perspective of a couple who are setting up their first garden. They’re young and the possibility of starting a family is on the horizon, and while it’s something they both want, he can’t bring himself to follow through with it. He’s the soil that would grow a kid, but he doesn’t trust his abilities to create something that will thrive. The tragic element of this poem is the allusion that he never told his partner his fears and apprehensions. This is something he’s expecting to hear after the fact. Because he’s had to silently suffer makes the whole scene heart-wrenching.
Like the cover art, the poems found in Starving Romantic are hard to make eye contact with. They’re a reflection of the human condition and it’s like mainlining a hard kind of empathy. We get a healthy dose of Perrone’s view on the world and, at the end of this collection, the world is a little sharper, a little bleaker, and a hell of a lot more real.