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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 253-256

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Book Review

Dark Sky Question


Dark Sky Question by Larissa Szporluk. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. 71 pages, paper $12.

Grazing by Ira Sadoff. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998. 72 pages, paper $12.95.

Larissa Szporluk won the Barnard New Women Poet Series contest with Dark Sky Question. "Mysterious lyric" Brenda Hillman called it in her introduction. Alice Fulton wrote "Good strange" on the back cover. Rather than join their chorus, citing Herbert and Coleridge and postmodernism as important to understanding Szporluk's intentions, I quote "Ghost Continent":

It's a lot like emptiness, the season
of dying fish, black drink,
the person you loved best, and left,
giving off light in the recession.
It would have startled the fire user,
who towered over nature,
this material you're passing through, [End Page 253]
to save a little of, like a radio.
Paddle faster. Skim across the giant
things in hiding, blow on the stick.
The deep returns a makeshift
surface, wake, blue-tarred road.
Miles from here (but you're gone)
the wrong land will be discovered.

Of contemporaries, I am reminded of Laura Jensen and her Bad Boats (Ecco Press, 1977), the last poet of note to abjure anything like language poetry yet abandon personal narrative--in her case, out of extreme self-effacement, which deprived us of another book--relying instead on the ecstatic and the surreal. Not too surprisingly, Brenda Hillman's Loose Sugar comes to mind as well: meaning in Hillman's poems is more easily intuited between the short, almost gnostic stanzas than found within them.

With a book called Dark Sky Question, it is not too surprising that Szporluk uses all the abstract nature nouns poets are always warned against. She takes these Big Empty Words and manipulates them into meaning more by suggesting the metaphorical than by creating it. For example, "Halo Formation" begins:

Wind is omen;
omen does things to the trees,
their dream of rescue fading.

"Wind" becomes "omen" by "omen" doing "things to the trees," which is of course what wind does to trees, albeit not with the sinister, anthropomorphized overtones that "omen" suggests. Once abused by the wind (in omen's guise), the trees have their dreams fade. Such elision is elegant.

In "Radiolaria"--such a wonderful title--the poet moves through bereavement, "an old attachment," by rowing back "to a time when loss/was not yet architecture," an understatement that begins to glow upon close inspection. The poem continues:

when the rocks opened up,
and the small lives within,
and within, opened up,
until their skins filled with water,
and rose to the sun realm.
Maybe she rose with them, . . .

Rarely do Szporluk's poems falter. More often, our inspection is inadequate. In "Secrets of Jove" the poet writes, "it was a place exhausted by terror/fertility barely breathing, the air/too haunted." Workshop poets might pounce on the phrase "fertility barely breathing," calling it disjointed. The phrase is daringly rescued by "the air/too haunted," which allows fertility to breathe in that "too haunted" air. [End Page 254]

How does Szporluk end a poem entitled "Libido"?

She listens to parrots,
true inner birds, never at rest,
into whose breasts the world
blows pleasure,
shaking like nests full of Indian bees--
To scream is to sing.

Szporluk subsumes the personal to give us back the sublime.

Ira Sadoff's Grazing does not give. The cover image of his sixth collection of poetry sums up the solipsism of the academy: a cow staring at its newly unveiled bovine portrait, surrounded by notetaking men. Most of the volume is taken up with ars poetica, clever I-couldn't-think-of-anything-else-to-write-about-except-writing poems: "Before and After" ("It was like a sex thing, only back and forth/between syllables...don't worry, I'm taking notes"), "On the Job" ("My labor must mean something"), "Vivaldi" ("Can you see yourself slaving, pushing papers,/slumped over a loaf of bread and stack of who knows what"), "An Improbable Delirium" ("Something tells me it's the...


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