As if to heed Hecate’s rebuke, to show the dire glory of her art, Szporluk’s poems speak with a voice unhinged by an unyielding despair. Teeming with submerged violence and opaque anger, they swirl, futile, in the face of our helpless human finitude, “our speck of pig-universe.”
Larissa Szporluk’s most recent book of poems Traffic with Macbeth, is named for the very thing for which, in the Scottish play, the witch goddess Hecate reproves her acolytes. As the goddess has it, rather than coming to “show the glory of our art,” the weird sisters have played a mere equivocal prank on Macbeth, “a wayward son” who “loves for his own ends.” Macbeth, who seems to draw his courage from wartime necessity, has responded with eerie fatalism, in the words that form the epitaph for Szporluk’s book: “Come what come may / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”
As if to heed Hecate’s rebuke, to show the dire glory of her art, Szporluk’s poems speak with a voice unhinged by an unyielding despair. Teeming with submerged violence and opaque anger, they swirl, futile, in the face of our helpless human finitude, “our speck of pig-universe.” They habitually forfeit even notional narrative, contort imagery beyond the possible, even the imaginable, in a voice weirdly static even while wheeling through registers both slangy and arcane, through neologism and classical reference, through cynical restraint and caustic outburst.
The titles, almost always one or two words, decorous and reserved, seem to come from another place, mainly marking time as the bleakness presses on. Subjects like “Octopus,” “Fiddlehead,” or “Windmill,” which in other books would introduce demure, appreciative meditations, here become excuses to resume inveighing against the brutality of existence. “Ladybirds,” for instance, opens with:
Brilliance is a carcass
on a snow-white beach.
Envy never sleeps.
Apostrophized, ventriloquized, but never simply described, each mundane subject is in turn judged ludicrous, inadequate, and pointless, before it is cast aside.
Only the voice persists, itself seeming to talk past as much as address the reader, leaving sound as the reigning structural principle. Strange rhythms emerge, less incantatory than fevered. Very short lines dissect the meaning from tall, narrow poems, most extremely in the pointed, taut three-syllable lines of “Cold Buffet” or “Harpy.” Elsewhere, perhaps in echo of the spells of Shakespeare’s weird sisters, wry anapests or primal iambs, crossed with irresistible internal rhymes, nearly collapse their poems into sinister nursery rhymes (“Tadpole”) or warped folk songs (as in “Orrido”):
Here the blind have
sight and wish it not
to fool the light
that cheats them out
of subtle thought, …
The singsong austerity underscores the horror by distancing it, seeking to puncture any wallowing pretense or self-regard. After all, in “Nihilist,” the speaker professes to know “better than to sit around / and apprehend the thicket / through and through.”
Wedded thus to desolation, the poems eradicate anything sentimental and romantic, skeptical even of beauty, until leading eventually, as in “Mouth Honor” and “Rainmaker,” to bald doubt about the worth of the poetic endeavor. Szporluk’s language runs coldest for the most disturbing images, like the “eye of the cat-torn mouse” which “sticks to the rock like a morel, / stem and ball and all.” And in “Ceremony Turtle”, Szporluk asks, in the voice of the slaughtered reptile:
And what is structure then
but ready grave,
and what is story then
but same sham outcome?
To slay any moment that veers toward false consolations of melodrama or catharsis, Szporluk resorts without qualm even to overt ugliness. Puns and word play stand for arbitrariness, and clichés, for vacuity. It is as if defiance of death requires a ruthless defiance of life. “Mom has a gene for dropping dead, / but she won’t use it / / on her misery,” we are told in “Octopus.” Only despair can rationalize this discipline, despair at its most adamantine.
Once in a while—as when mourning mortality, or in the “Wish” to “never know / that nothing is so dark as light aimed / at a dried-out socket,” or in considering suicide—tatters of a human psyche rise to the surface, epitomized by the appearance of Orpheus’ severed head in “Tantalus Gossips.” Eurydice, bereft, rises once more from hell to retrieve it from the river—and abase herself with it. But instead of pitying her, Tantalus declares he would “rather be alone in want / than be between her legs, / beheaded.”
So relentless is the pessimism that it’s hard to discern any progression. But by the end, a gutted will to live perseveres (or perseverates), aspiring to the models of autonomic reptilian life (“Cobra”), alien mollusk wisdom (“Octopus”), mindless microbes (“Water Bears”), insensate vegetation (“Sea Lettuce”) and, at last, the monstrosity of “The Fungus.” In each, like Tantalus, the speaker chooses agonizing life over romantic death, yet also hopes for involuntary, mechanistic oblivion to supersede a human consciousness proven too painful to bear. “That’s why I get back to work / / and listen to my clock and not my mind.” (“Baba Yaga”) Traffic with Macbeth is a portrait of searing, somehow clarifying pain answered by stoic grief.
But these perplexing and ambiguous poems never cease their courtship of nihilism and despair. Although the final poem, “Vanished Harvest” does hint at numbness as a possible reprieve, the poems in totality, severed from their ostensibly various subjects, grind their images and rhetoric to powder, leaving only their grim tone and painstaking obscurity, as uniform as bone meal. A reader who succumbs to this dark forest, allowing the poems to swarm in and surround, will find much to wonder at—but what inspires them, and where do they finally arrive? Szporluk has hidden the answers so thoroughly that I can only report back with the words of King Duncan’s stunned sergeant on Macbeth’s battlefield ferocity: “[unless] they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorise another Golgotha / I cannot tell.”