Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Diversion: Poets for Winter Reading: Larissa Szporluk, Janine Oshiro

The shortest day of the year is almost upon us -- and the long nights mean extra time for deep reading. I'm savoring Mark Twain's autobiography and some long-deferred and powerful books of poetry.

TRAFFIC WITH MACBETH (Tupelo, 2011) is the best book of poems I've read this year, hands down. The epigraph from the Shakespeare play is, "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day." And Larissa Szporluk's poems seize that roughness, that painful sandpaper side, that edged blade of dislike, even hatred, and touch it all to the tongue and cheek. From a gargoyle to the Russian witch Baba Yaga to the flailing power of an octopus, Szporluk pulls the powers of the night into our living spaces and pushed the friction to light an inner fire.

Enough of this babble of metaphors -- let me show you some of her lines. Here's the opening of "Sunflower," the first poem in the collection:
Wind takes your hair
like a hooligan owl
and leaves a deep pocket
of dusk in your scalp.
What follows this includes "mutinous dust" and a comment on love.

"Traffic with Macbeth" (the poem) brings us "afraid of, afraid of / the heft / of nothing to love." And "Rogue's March" declares, "We are tied to love and hate— / same track, same train." Later, I shivered at the image of the nihilistic shepherd about to kill a lamb in "The Face That Promised Joy"; in "Rainmaker" I found "one raised brow, so chalked with loss // that it could be the bastard / of an answered prayer."

Szporluck's language springs so fresh that it has to be the product of much life, living, and wrestling. Most of the forms are simple: one-page columns of medium-length lines, sometimes in stanzas, sometimes not, but always driven by comment and conclusion, to the point of having their own miniaturized plots in place. The poem "Dunce" with its book-reading, corner-caught commentator entranced me. And knowing that this poet who is a mother of three, I inhaled with much delight "Baba Yaga," which opens with "I cooked my little children in the sun. / I threw grass on them and then they died. / I sit here and wonder what I've done."  The poem is visited by the "wise man / who tries to teach the wicked to be kind," and shivers to its end with "I was witch but still your mother."

Forget the desert island backpack; this book goes into my "next to the armchair when snowed in" stack!

I promised myself I'd introduce two books of poems here today, so the only way I can add a second is to present one as different as grass is from ocean, in writing about Janine Oshiro's PIER (Alice James Books, 2011; winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize). The forms are complex, often straddling multiple pages; their pathways refuse the alignment of direct narrative; and yet there's a hard, fully shaped reaction to life, standing behind the flicker of each. I'm hopelessly enamored of a ten-page poem here called "Next, Dust" -- if I've sorted the impacts in anything like what the poet intended, the death of one's mother or grandmother is standing within the lines, although I also thought I heard rape or perhaps just sex. The ending haunts me:
Everywhere is a potential
exit, except the door.

I drew a high wall at the skin;
at the bottom I drew a gutter.

I was eleven.
These are the words I have for it.
In the rambling shaped-prose stanzas of "Duck Hunting," I found "Come backache, come rapture, come reconfigure / sky. Come watch the show of her knees in the grass." And in "Mountain Vision," what wonder there is in the declaration, "I know what the mountain is called. His head rests in one place, his feet in another, his face a sudden cliff where birds might land and never wonder about the landscape's correspondence to a chin,"

Oshiro's poems take me far away from my own landscape, to a habitat of dance, an amputated leg, a relic ... I choose this collection for intentionally savoring the sharp discomfort of displacement and uncertainty. And I recommend it.

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