Love and Its Derivatives
The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind by Larissa Szporluk. 80 pgs. Alice James Books, 2003.
shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis. 144 pgs. Bloomsbury/Tin House, 2003.
In 1998 I was invited by Askold Melnyczuk, beloved former editor of this literary magazine and author of the novels What Is Told and Ambassador of the Dead, to participate in a conference of Ukrainian American writers at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. At the time, I was finishing a master’s degree in creative writing at City College of New York, writing fiction and nonfiction essays, and editing the school’s literary magazine, Promethean. I was convinced that Askold had confused me with some other Kristina Lucenko who earned a place among poets Olena Kalytiak Davis, Larissa Szporluk, and Dzvinia Orlowsky and journalist Khristina Lew. Not that I was going to tell him this. I was shy and intimidated, not brainless. I could fake substance and coolness and wit—I wrote fiction, after all. My worry soon gave way to manic enthusiasm, because over that memorable weekend I had the opportunity to hang out with and hear the work of extraordinary writers, two of whom, Szporluk and Davis, have just published new books of poetry.
Larissa Szporluk’s third book of poetry, The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind, situates us in strange, mythic provinces where Jesus, a jack-in-the-box, Pinocchio, and the Sphinx invite bewilderment, second looks, and transmogrification, where “moon-fish sing with their teeth” and “four black rabbits / enter the room, / conveying a casket.” Her short lyrics, many of them one or two long, twisty sentences (in the introduction to Szporluk’s first book, Brenda Hillman called them “brief meditations”) swell with wide-ranging, seemingly scattered metaphors: a desperate search to make sense of a fragmented universe. As soon as we enter each poem’s warped world, Szporluk’s unexpected language and syntax, shifting landscapes, and world-savvy inhabitants remind us that we cannot be sure of our footing here, or in fact, anywhere. From “Death of Magellan”:
Heaven was lost
When up and down
Valor was lost
when all that mattered
was seeking elixir
within. The nearest star
is who we were
four years ago,
who we’re not,
in terms of light,
eight years later.
These lines reveal the book’s unfixed location and sense of uneasy discovery. Uneasy, perhaps, because these discoveries are not likely to offer much assurance or certainty: with menace and trouble lurking at every line break, Szporluk’s mysterious speakers don’t struggle but rather take their lumps because they know “[l]ife is plain mean.”
Divided into four parts—“Fruit of Discord,” “Mindless Gallop,” “Pineal Body,” and “Memory Palace”—the collection’s seductive refashioning of seemingly-familiar stories and characters reminds us that meaning, or what we think we know, continuously changes and is changeable. In Part I, “Guillotine” poses questions that set the stark tenor of the book:
anything about salvation? The sand diviner
lisping in the burning wind, white eyes,
white skin, converts white grains
into explicit figments: the gag at the back
of the throat, begging the throat
not to scream, the head yanked up
by the hair, upheld for the world
to see—is it possible intelligence
still dwells there? That the grosser lips
still flutter out the rhetoric of health?
That the earth hangs on nothing?
That between us, there never was a thread?
As an admiring reader, I secretly and selfishly hope Szporluk never satisfies herself with answers, because it’s the bleak suspicion in her voice that makes her poems so poignant and exquisite.
Perceptive and matter-of-fact, accusatory and resigned, many of Szporluk’s speakers possess this same direct and blunted tone, this same manner of reportage. In Part II, a series of poems takes the wind in its myriad carnations as its inspiration: In the final poem in the series, “Matsukaze,” Szporluk writes:
All that is built falls at night.
The call goes out, everlasting.
Large father, how could you?
When it breaks, it’s no longer
a bridge, but pillars and rivets
and glue. I thought you were
a miracle. I panic like a fish,
push the needle in—the way
to grow vague, to confound
from afar, is to rain, lose face
without having a face to begin,
like the way to the top is to be
on top to begin, time the fix,
time and again—did the man
in the moon step down to save
his drowning twin? The hang
gave way as the planks went
soft. It was such a mild winter.
The speaker’s insight into the failure of things to cohere and stay fixed is mirrored by the poem’s slow descent, which feels both interior to the speaker and palpable in the lived world.
Part III takes as its common narrative thread the story of Pinocchio, though in this poetic neverland the story more closely resembles a creepy Grand Guignol nightmare than a Disney movie. In “Initiates’ Broth” Pinocchio is “A nose without end. / Dark, weak eyes / graced by the lack / of reflection. / Tongue flicking out, / mouth in a snarl.” Standing in somewhat of a contrast to what comes before it, though still true to Szporluk’s strenuous and odd poetic inclinations, throughout Part IV the word “love” and its derivatives (lover, lovemaking) surface and repeat. However, these poems point not to any lasting romance but fleeting moments of hunger and pleasure, generating “snorts of delight / as the gods take up / the virgin-offer, / or is it a weird / and beautiful gargle, / the lovemaking sound / of a deep-sea diver?” Szporluk ends this astonishing collection with “Memory Palace”:
A cloud takes a lifetime
to smother the sun. It’s finally
a crime, but it’s also a glory,
The lining sizzling gold,
the afternoon’s image
occulted. Truth is I don’t
have an art. One pulls the other
one down. I know
there’s a blue-purple hill.
I know all the girls
disappear. I don’t
break a sweat. I sit
the whole year with a bird
on my lap. The firmament
wobbles. Their deep
purple feet. Asleep, it comes
back, fast, but late—
there were poisonous leaves
and salt on the path
like an alphabet.
Gratified by the glorious anguish of its changeability, The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind bears witness to the superlative fact that “[t]hings can’t help / being what they are: the tallest house of cards, / the most seductive armor—.”
Olena Kalytiak Davis’s idiosyncratic second book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, defies propriety in form, in language, in manner. Steeped in a poetic tradition that includes forebears Browning, Hopkins, Berrigan, and Dickinson, Davis pleads their influence while creating poems that are radically new and distinctively her own. Her original and unglued voice, through which moments of sweet, loopy ecstasy intermingle with moments of spite and loss, demands (invites?) multiple readings in strange moods and rooms. These poems are like an elevated subway ride—interior and insulated yet facing the clouds and other people. In these lines from “il penseroso and l’allegro: inverted and dubbed,” a postmodern spin on Milton’s companion poems of the same titles, she writes:
Hence sordid bullshit, leave me the fuck alone,
with my milton and my dickinson
with my browning and my keats
with my quillless pen and my yeats—nothing
rhymes anymore, yet it is possible to master
to make it neat, when allroundyou is the disaster
of soul on soul gone bad, rotten or rotting
from the edges on in. Let me suffer
friendless and forlorn, let me toil and toll
that bell for me alone, I don’t need any
charity. I only need an empty space to rest in.
Hence seriousness and melancholy
who couldn’t use a little late in the millennium folly
at this latedateandtime—I’ve been furrowing my brow
too long now, I need a little rap a little weed any song
to relieve me of this form this world where men just fucking sit
A torturous desire for spiritual and poetic insight drives these lines, and the repetition and variation of same-sounding words lend music and momentum, and suggest the way meaning can pivot in an instant. Boldness and irritability of tone here is the delicious downside to moments of rapturous bliss in which her poems testify to being “a live a fire a flame in this morning / light I’m far more bright than must be right. I can hear / the defunctive music!”
Repetition, variation, and slippage, evident in these lines from “notes toward the ablation of the soul,” are hallmarks of this innovation collection. Part-list, part-chant, these are musical “notes” as well as meditations on spiritual trouble:
The soul should not be multiplied needlessly, i.e.: the dull razor
of your soul. Your straight-
back soul, your slo-pitched
soul, your soul that throws out
largesses on all sides without
counting: Full Beautiful! Full Soon!
Your soul that sounds like a string
quartet: but is really just a violin
and a viola. Your diatonic
soul. Your diacritic soul, your soul that hates
just-about-fucking-everything: id est: the one
with an eye for imperfection, the lungs
of a butterfly. The perfected soul.
The perfect animal that is your soul: wet,
gutted. The guttered soul, caught
out in the rain, your soul in gold lamé, your soul,
the crooner. Your fucked-up singing
soul. Your lame soul. Your flat soul.
The soul that is your body.
Restraint and moderation are not Davis’ watchwords; instead, she is faithful to her own intense, irreverent exuberance at the same time as she is relentlessly suspicious of the sincerity of sincerity—her own and everyone else’s. In “poem convincing you to leave your wife” she declares “my heart is cool / and black / is fool and blank / nevertheless / nevertheless / i remain, / the wife that staid and the wife that left / the wife that laughed and / the wife that slayed.” The effect of repeating that impossible transition word “nevertheless”—a word that holds together two unmanageable and incompatible conditions—is of a pause that hangs in the air, loudly announcing itself like a church bell or train whistle.
Meaning, language, love, desperation, betrayal—their possibilities and limitations—are all conspicuous players in this collection. Davis clearly relishes her spiritual predicament, her search for transcendence in that in-between, fluxy state where frightening and sublime discoveries can be made. She may sometimes invoke God, but she’s a die-hard disciple of her own faith and faithlessness. From “the unbosoming”:
I have been a day boarder, Lord. I have preferred the table to
I have proffered, Lord, and I have profited, Lord, but little, but
not. I was Bored,
Lord, I was heavy, Lord. Heavy bored. Hopeless, Lord,
hideous, Lord. Sexless.
I was in love, Lord, but not with You. The nine malic moulds,
The butcher, the baker, the under-taker. Lord, I was taken
under. I Repeat
Myself, Lord. I re-peat myself as the way back, the way back to
Lord. I have trembled. His face, Lord, and Yours. I am
unlovely, Lord, I Nam
Not precious, Lord. Spy better, Love, and You will see:
Iamnothing. I have Seen
How lovely, Lord, how lovely You are, Lord, but I refused to
kneel. I refuse
To knell Your loveliness. I refuse to kiss. And I refuse to tell. I
am unwilling, Love.
I am unwell. Unkempt. My hideous loins, Love.
Davis’s refusal to adhere to custom or correctness but rather, as Tom Sleigh writes, to “trust her own idiosyncrasy and nerve to lead her to what Frost called ‘a momentary stay against confusion,’” makes her one of the most arresting and audacious American poets around. shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities is a penetrating second book.
Kristina Lucenko lives in Amherst, NY, with her husband and daughters. She is a doctoral student in English literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her translations of two poems by Vasyl Makhno appeared in AGNI 55. (1/2004)