Up-and-coming poet Larissa Szporluk is one fearless writer. Her debut collection, Dark Sky Question, which won the prestigious Barnard New Women Poets Prize, is about the plans men and women make, the dreams they dream, and how those carefully braided scenarios can be undone.
Szporluk explores both fate's dips and what she calls "the pieces of life that were good" in relatively short, spare poems loaded with mystery and heavily indebted to Emily Dickinson -- the queen of the brief and mysterious lyric. The book is divided into five sections, and the divisions function like a film camera moving to a new scene or the next moment in the narrator's imagination.
Each section tackles ominousness in a different way, but the poems have so many internal spins and riffs that they're far from depressing. Part one focuses on broken plans, and the poems present a back-and-forth between a man and a woman struggling to find a place in the world and a place to live and dream together in that world. Part two swerves into several poems about ghosts, including the Holy Ghost. The man in section one appears to have left, and the woman is using lots of religious imagery to express herself. Part three cautions against forgetting and presents several takes on remembrance. By part four, the skies alluded to in the collection's title become more important, and the symbolism of a "dark sky" gets more prominent. In part five, Szporluk brings back the man, the woman, and the other elements -- ghosts, wind, sin, darkness, and the world -- and struggles to make them real as opposed to merely the pieces of a dream. Szporluk is fearless from the start, not only in her choice of subject matter -- love, the ways of the world, disappointment, and faith -- but in her attempts to make her poems matter to every reader. At every turn, she tries to use language that is universal as opposed to personal, even when it's a stretch. In the book's first poem, graced with the fabulous title "Flight of the Mice," she uses a word like "our" to deliberately include the reader:
It was a small dream, like our dream,
built on the small wish to be home
once the home had been broken,
leveled by misunderstanding, by dodging,
by the loud brunt of dark, and it broke
all the plans and the ferns and the soft earth
they had known...
Szporluk lulls the reader in with the soft repetition of "small." But the lull doesn't last, as the "loud brunt of dark" breaks the "small dream." Suddenly, the speaker and her companion run "for the end of the grasses."
Here Szporluk begins to echo the Biblical take of the driving-out from the Garden of Eden. As the book continues, the Biblical resonances get louder, and the lines between the Biblical, the autobiographical, and the dream sequence blur.
"Flight of the Mice," for its part, also changes as it continues. It gets more authoritative -- almost bossy -- as it becomes larger and more layered:
No one sees what they'll need to survive.
No one sees the dream thicken and rise
like the old foundation, the pieces of life
that were good.
Though this is her first book, with words like "no one" and "survive" and phrases like "pieces of life," Szporluk is already focusing on the "world" and on the big picture, as opposed to frequently autobiographical debut volumes. By the third poem, there are echoes of the Noah's Ark story, another key Biblical episode and an additional attempt to make these poems part of a world-sized narrative:
The world could only be a ship
a hunted thing to the pale light,
a swerving single body,
broken in the act and in the echo
A Szporluk trademark is evident here: She likes to let language stay at the ultra-bizarre. She makes no attempt to explain her world-ship-body line of thought. The world is odd, and that incomprehensibility is part of its beauty.
Woman, for example, is repeatedly depicted as complex and difficult to understand. So is man, in both dreams and purported fact. In "Libido," one of the strongest poems in the book, man and woman are described as wanting the same thing. Yet amidst that wanting there remains a deep and mutual confusion, which Szporluk conveys with three disjointed opening lines, two of which are composed entirely of one-syllable words:
A hand has her hair.
Don't move, don't cry out --
The odd foliage is shining in the light.
In this jarring space, action manages to occur. The second stanza, like the first, has two fully monosyllabic lines, which create a quick and jolting motion:
With the stealth of a wheel,
He rams against her knees
from behind. She falls
With that suspense-filled "she falls," Szporluk manipulates line break for all it's worth. The woman does not actually fall down, but rather:
back into his purpose,
which is hers: to be provided for,
to find her insides altered
and grow huge.
But he runs off, done with her mouth,
leaving her dazed by the waste
of that kind of love.
Szporluk can also tell a punchy story, and that's part of what makes the poems strong. For Szporluk, and for generations of poets before her, getting kicked out of paradise offers the ingredients for lyric. What's more, negative twists of fate often produce puzzling yet magnificent lines like the last line in "Libido" -- "To scream is to sing."