The latest issue of Bat City Review is in stores. Edited by graduate students from the UT Austin program, the magazine features beautiful artwork and high-quality fiction. But the reason I bought it, and the reason I recommend it, is the outstanding quality of the poetry.
Larissa Szporluk

Larissa Szporluk is a poet whose work I find consistently engaging. She does not reinvent the poem, she simply writes it: loopy, unmerciful sentences that do not spare us the world’s complications. But there is a logic and order to her work, a tether, a cohesion that I find refreshing—it is an emotional center, a presence: what we used to call “voice” before that term became so un-hip. Here is Szporluk’s poem from Bat City Review:
The bulls are loose in heaven
and boy your eye go dizzy
down in that earth cave
black fuzz in your nose
kangaroo on your stick
you peck through the canopy
bulls are on the prowl now
sweet mucus broth
flickers in the bush steal girl
bag-carrying girl

river beckons grabs necklace
sister tall aquatic bird
beats the world double
gouge the mountain scratch the
bulls are fuming
tossing through the lavender
turn them into women
satan moses chimp
you grin from ear-to-ear
emotion is the sausage
of that long ordeal
               —Larissa Szporluk
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Betsy Wheeler has three poems in the magazine. One of them stylistically echoes Christopher Smart, dangerously negotiating through love as explorer and explored, bold and sexy and inventive:
     How Very Lewis and Clark of Me
But for I am a slinky little voyager.
But for I am built like a keelboat: with critical eyes, a transcontinental gaze.
But for men chase my fame, want my fame in their king-size.
But for my long ears clouded by white curls.
But for my expedition.
But for baying around slackwater and liftlocks.
But for I reconnoiter the hill peak.
But for the creaking of love trees.
But for I find you I will lay down my arms.
I will lay down my arms and be.
               —Betsy Wheeler
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Among the other poets featured in the issue: Mary Jo Bang, Maurice Manning, Joshua A. Ware, Denise Duhamel, Ron Mohring, Andrea Scarpino and Matthew Zapruder. Hats off to the editors for putting together this eclectic, exciting journal.

Originally Published: June 21st, 2008

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. June 22, 2008
     Don Share

    You can also read "Ladybirds" by Larissa Szporluk in the February 2008 issue of Poetry - click right here.

  2. June 22, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    D.A. and Don - I've read "Animal-Man" and "Ladybirds" several times, and I find them annoyingly hermetic. If you have a chance or feel like it, perhaps you could clue me in? What am I missing? These poems remind me of those childhood grab-bag skits - you know, where you get a paper bag of items, and you have to make a skit using the items. These poems are like grab bags of words that never made it into the skit stage. D.A., I liked your concrete concept poem better than these. At least it interacted with the world. I can't see how anyone would want to read these poems more than once, and they're completely unmemorable.

  3. June 22, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I think I'm just going to limit my comments from now on to "hoo boy."

  4. June 22, 2008

    If a poem seems "hermetic", which means sealed off and separate, I think it's usually the reader who is creating the seal. Just sayin'.

  5. June 23, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Who is your "reader"?
    According to D.A. Powell, there is a logic and order to her [Larissa Szporluk] work, a tether, a cohesion that I find refreshing–it is an emotional center, a presence: what we used to call “voice” before that term became so un-hip.” Yet “Animal Man” is not conventionally logical, narrative, or grammatical, which means it is hermetic to many readers. I bet it’s easier for DA Powell to make a general statement about her work than it is to explain to a baffled reader how to experience this particular poem. Visual art critics long ago helped viewers learn how to see a Pollack, or a Rothko, etc. Why can’t we do the same for poetry readers?
    “Animal Man” is highly allusive and playful. It seems to reverse, fragment, toy, and reinvent the Minatour myth. Perhaps the poet intends the title and fuming bulls to function as a red-herring, a nod to a specific myth so to entangle us in the mythos-making power of language and in the mythos-wrecking power of poetry--the “emotion is the sausage/of that long ordeal”
    As you can see, to try and fix the poem’s meaning reduces it, prevents it from oscillating. How, then, does one go about helping readers experience poems such as these? Does each reader need a dissertation adviser?

  6. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I might be missing something (or not missing something) but I don't see how Szporluk's work is "hermetic" to anyone who's been paying attention to the last forty years of American poetry.

  7. June 23, 2008

    Maybe it's just because it's early in the morning, but I really can't figure out what you're saying... I wasn't complaining about the poem or D.A. Powell, I was just talking about Mary's comment. Anyway, I don't think anyone needs a critic to explain how to read anything or look at anything. That seems a little weird. I learned how to see Pollack and Rothko just fine on my own. But I don't even know what "how to see" really means, so I don't even know why I just said that. I'm confused.

  8. June 23, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Matt and Michael,
    By "see," I meant appreciate, interact, or respond to a visual work of art. Matt, or "anyone who's been paying attention to the last forty years of American poetry," might not need a critic's help in doing that with Larissa S.'s poem, but other readers might. What's wrong with asking for it?
    I didn't think Matt was complaining about the poem or D.A. Powell. I thought you were complaining about a reader asking for an explanation, which I thought was a perfectly valid query.

  9. June 23, 2008
     Don Share

    Sounds like you don't like these two poems, Mary - which is absolutely fine, of course. All I can say is that one reader's "annoyingly hermetic" is another's possible pleasure.
    One thing I wonder about though, now that you've brought it up, is memorability as a criterion for a poem's being thought good. A necessary or sufficient quality? I'd love to hear more & in detail...

  10. June 23, 2008

    Ah, well, I just don't think Mary was really asking for an explanation. I think she was asking a rhetorical question to make a point about non-mainstream poetry, and I was expressing frustration with this attitude.

  11. June 23, 2008

    This is certainly NOT a criticism of either poem or of Bat City but, Matt, can you really call these poems, or this publication, non-mainstream?
    Emily, I suggest to students that they read poems like these as direct encounters with language, and to assume they mean what they say. I suggest they not search for hidden meaning, at least not at first. Of course I use the Pollock/De Kooning analogy, which helps, and I also talk about video montage, which we've all seen in music videos a forever now--this might in fact be more a propos than strictly abstract painting because after all, words do have meanings in a way that paint as paint does not. And music video tends to be allusive without being necessarily logical or conventionally narrative.

  12. June 23, 2008
     Emily Warn

    I can see how you'd interpret her comment in that way. Thanks for pointing that out, Emily

  13. June 23, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Matt, I'm sincerely asking. I'd like to know what everyone sees/hears that I don't see/hear.
    I don't mean to pick on Szporluk. I find this poem annoyingly hermetic, too.
    So where's the pleasure in being spun loopily around till you're dizzy ("boy your eye go dizzy") in a poem like a "long ordeal"?

  14. June 23, 2008

    Uh oh: some folks seem to be saying mainstream (which equals comprehensible?? - that's dubious) is good and hermetic is bad... and vice versa. The categories aren't working, and that's demonstrated by the fact that Mary's great description of being spun loopily sounds like the roller-coaster-ride kind of pleasure some folks love, some can't stand. Anyway, here's a different test case: Emily Dickinson, mainstream but not during her lifetime, hermetic but annoying... not so much?

  15. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I think, Mary, the pleasure at least partly involves not begging the question. You seem to have your mind made up about these poems. I'd caution you, however, not to confuse your aesthetic response to the poem with a determination of its, like, objective value, or whatever. Seriously, have you spent any time with Ashbery? Or even Berryman? Hermeticism is part of the point of a certain strain of contemporary American poetry -- both in order to ask whether hermeticism extends farther than we'd like to think, into the domain of ordinary language, & to revel in other effects of language besides its communicative potential. To some extent the poems are about themselves. If you don't like them, fine: "Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness." But please don't pretend that's a judgment about the work.
    Don, I've wondered the same thing -- I love, say, Lauterbach, but I'm damned if I can keep a poem of hers in mind once I've set the thing down. Some of Ashbery's work strikes me the same way -- only by teaching Self-Portrait a dozen times have I finally got individual poems from that volume straight. Which is to say, I think a great deal of contemporary poetry is aggressively & deliberately unmemorable -- anti-memorable even. One doesn't walk around reciting Ashbery to oneself (unless one is Harold Bloom, I suppose).

  16. June 23, 2008

    Mary: Okay, if you say you were sincere, I believe you.
    Daisy: I was just trying to characterize Mary's view of them. My opinion of them doesn't enter into it. By the way, if I were a teacher I would give the same suggestions you do. In fact I should have just said something like that in the first place instead of trying to be pithy.

  17. June 23, 2008

    Don asked if memorability was a sufficient criterion in judging a poem's worth and no one tackled it. I think the Szporluk poem brought out some questions that surround poetry that have come up in the discussions on Etheridge Knight and working class poets. In thinking about and discussing movies, conversations we've had, basketball games and even our own life, it seems like memoriability is one of the major factors. It might not be the determing factor, but it is the factor that any particular thing needs to be in the conversation.
    How one determines memorability is like everything else up in the air, but at least a poem's memorability is unabashedly subjetive and not dependent on clarity or lack of clarity or even on whether it is decipherable at all.

  18. June 23, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Looks like that link I gave doesn't work, so here it is again:
    The poem is about itself, then? OK, I can relate to that. My mind isn't made up about anything. Can't see where I'm making grand judgments.
    I first read Ashbery around 1980. Since then, when an Ashbery crosses my path, I read it once, and that's enough. De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, the colorists, the cubists, the fauvists, the impressionists - I've studied and enjoyed them all.
    I've never found Dickinson's poems annoying or hermetic. Lines of hers float through my mind from time to time - wrecked solitary here - lines I never tried to memorize, embedded in my memory nonetheless. Why would anyone want to write an unmemorable poem? Fast-food Coney-Island throwaway culture? Or do we frame the poem and hang it on the wall like a painting, to experience the word-splattered canvas as we pass by?

  19. June 23, 2008
     Don Share

    Roethke (too mainstream?):
    "It's the shifting of the thought that's important, often - the rightness (or wrongness!) of the imaginative jump. Many modern poets still are content only with the logical progression, or with metaphors - often beautiful, elaborate, fresh - but these consisting of little more than a listing of appositives. In the richest poetry even the juxtaposition of objects should be pleasurable..."

  20. June 23, 2008

    "to experience the word-splattered canvas as we pass by"
    Mary, I couldn't have said it better myself. That's exactly the way I like to think of reading.

  21. June 24, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I don't intend this as a dig at anyone, but this conversation always reminds me that we should often stop to ponder one of my favorite passages in Adorno (keeping in mind, as I try to do, that as with Nietzsche, the temptation is always to take his words as applying to other people):
    "Only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar. Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate."

  22. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Is the issue Mary raises related to how accessible these poems are?
    If so, what make you all of Helen Vendler's " 'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world." (Notwithstanding that we've done a number of other things to appear foolish in the eyes of the world. You know what she means...)
    And Geoffrey Hill's saying that "public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not."
    You'll forgive me for trotting these out yet again??

  23. June 24, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I'm inclined to forgive you for just about anything, Don. Let it be known, that when I first saw the subject "Bat City Review" and the author D.A. Powell, I was eager to read on. I wanted to like these poems! But when they seemed to scrape my mind like a rusty nail, I wanted to understand them. Since my sincerity has been questioned, I should probably add that I am still being sincere. Perhaps liking and understanding are not the reason for these poems to exist. I am enjoying these quotes, thanks for them. Here, I've got a quote, too - and this, I believe, is mostly why I write -
    Translated by Milton Ehre in Literary Imagination
    Instead of a Preface
    In the terrible years of Yezhov’s terror I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once someone somehow “recognized” me. Then a woman standing behind me, lips blue from cold, who of course never had heard my name, woke from the stupor we all were in and whispered in my ear (we all spoke in whispers there):
    “Could you describe this?”
    “Yes” was my answer.
    Then something like a smile slid across what was once her face.

  24. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Mary: thank you. Juxtaposing Akhmatova here makes perfect sense to me. And for the record, I have great respect for you and what you're saying. (As well as for Literary Imagination, which I once briefly edited!)

  25. June 25, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Shucks, Don! Thank you. Yes, I know you were at LI, together with the dazzling editorial team of Hacker and Shepherd. Anyhow, this quote just crossed my path, so thought I'd post it.
    "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns ... instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink." (George Orwell)

  26. June 25, 2008

    I just wanted to commend Mary's bravery for voicing her opinion.
    I think about the memorability issue in relation to a poem's length, and the tendency toward gabbiness on the part of many contemporary poets. I like the gabbiness, but also want momemorabiility. (Don't know if that's a sanctified word.) And yes I've heard that one had to have memorized something like 10,000 lines of poetry to be admitted into higher education in ancient Greece, but that was a long time ago.

  27. June 25, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    I left a link to this essay over on Señor Don's blog, but thought others might find in it a useful conceptual tool–Jerome McGann's distinction between the oppositional and the accommodating:
    I for one feel meekly grateful that I get to live in a world where I don't have to choose between these ostentatively dual poetries.
    My late Russian teacher had us memorize well over 10,000 lines; it's interesting to see what has stuck. Auden stays, and Frost. Most of the stuff in translation is long gone, though. And many silly verses I admired as a teenager seem embedded in there for good, I fear, though fortunately drowned out by the innumerable fragments of Dickinson.
    Don, was it you who recently quoted Eric Griffiths?–"What was learned by rote is remembered by heart."

  28. June 26, 2008
     Don Share

    I happen to know that Unreliable's late Russian teacher was Joseph Brodsky, so her modifier's an adjective not a noun. And yes I did quote Eric Griffiths, a marvelous critic who also edited the handy compilation, Dante in English - Dante, of course, being a good test case for the memorable, along with those Unrl. fondly mentions.

  29. June 27, 2008
     Michael Theune

    When I encounter a poem like "Animal-Man," one of the first things I do is try to find the turns, the major shifts in the poem's rhetorical progress. In "Animal-Man," the major turn seems to be somewhere around the third-to-last line. There, the poem seems to turn from a lot of language about some pretty raw sexuality (some oral sex, perhaps, in the second stanza; some sexual images elsewhere) that MAY indicate a move into maturity ("turn them into women"--although I think this line also may be very ironic, and/or very frightening in the simplistic way it views the power of sex) to then what amounts to (at best) a joke (after all, "you grin from ear to ear") about the status of the supposed feelings (the connectivity, the tenderness, the humanity) that supposedly emerge from such encounters--these feelings are not magical, the mystical "real" quantity of sex, says the poem; rather, they are made like sausage from the ordeal of sex.
    The old saying has it that the two things you don't want to see made are laws and sausages. Szporluk's poem suggests (among the many other things it may or may not be doing) that you also don't want to see where/how feelings get made--it ain't pretty.
    Now, whether or not the poem is really good is a whole other issue, but locating the turn, I think, helps a lot in beginning to get an initial grasp of what this poem is suggesting and doing.

  30. June 29, 2008
     Steve S

    I'll leave the discussion hermetically sealed poems to others, but as a great admirer of Larissa Szporluk's poetry, I'd suggest the following two poems as something in a different (and my favorite) vein of hers: (originally in Bat City Review #1, interestingly) (full disclosure: I had the privilege of publishing this one originally, though I am no longer affiliated with that journal)

  31. June 29, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    "Perhaps liking and understanding are not the reason for these poems to exist." [Mary]
    I like this. Because some people (mostly adolescents, admittedly) do like to spin (right round baby right round) for no other purpose than gettin' dizzy.
    "Szporluk's poem suggests (among the many other things it may or may not be doing) that you also don't want to see where/how feelings get made--it ain't pretty." [Michael]
    I like this too. Though I had read "turn them into women" as the poet's subverting the classical god-rapes-mortal myths: less lusty god/desses take pity on fleeing victims and defend their virtue from swans, bulls, or showers of gold by turning them into trees, stones, or echoes.