China Basin
Clemens Starck
Story Line Press, $13.95, 64 pages

China Basin is a stretch of San Francisco waterfront that before redevelopment was an industrial and warehouse district whose air wafted with roasting coffee and steamed crab laced with PCBs, asbestos, pitch, and lead paint. Clemens Starck’s third book of poems begins here, with him working on "a stretch / of elevated freeway," a member of "the falsework crew," erecting "scaffolding, / or shoring, / made up of heavy steel pipe frames. Each frame / weighs a ton." After explaining more of the job, he lays out his tools, which includes "a couple of 35-ton truck cranes," then raises the reader’s vision to a higher level. "It’s called ‘falsework’ because / it all disappears--- / it’s temporary…underpinning / for the roadbed itself."

Commenting on the paintings of Paul Cezanne, the art critic John Berger wrote: "When he painted a road, the roadmakers were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act." Starck, who left his student days at Princeton after two years, has spent his life working on land and sea, scribing his own gestures, "as though he were fitting them together, joining them, and as if this being joined constituted their reality," Berger goes on to say.
The American work poem, which Starck exemplifies, bends back to the days when slaves, toiling in endless fields of cotton, composed and sung verses in order to stay sane. Later, a Civil War nurse named Walt Whitman changed bandages and wrote poems praising the eros of manual labor, with freedom in mind. In 1916, Carl Sandburg’s poem "Chicago" was published, describing that city as a "Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler." Starck follows echoes this with

Gandy dancing. Tamping ballast
under railroad ties,
broken rock and gravel, jacking up
low spots on the track…

Starck also adds something usually lacking in this genre: humor. In "Studying Russian On Company Time," he suggests: "Pretend your textbook’s a sandwich, and start eating it." One of a series of poems on the former Soviet Union, it takes a serious turn, following the German tanks that encircled Stalingrad, as "an example of the perfective aspect / of the Russian verb." Juxtaposing history with "words / that bounce off your teeth," he assures himself that "Soon / you shall speak perfect Russian-- / so flawlessly, / so fluently, / not even your comrades / will understand."

Now in his mid-60s, the poet resides with his wife in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range, where he writes in the spirit of what the Japanese call wabi, the bare bones of integrity. "And if you ask why Buddhists don’t kill flies," he says, "Figure it out for yourself!"

The Oregonian 2002