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One professor passes, another gets an F

Dark Sky Question
Dark Sky Question
By Larissa Szporluk

Beacon Press: 1998

Buy it now at

At the Site of Inside Out
At the Site of Inside Out
By Anna Rabinowitz

University of Massachusetts: 1997

Buy it now at

These reviews first appeared in the May 23-24, 1998 issue of the American Reporter.

Two professors, two poetry debuts – and two very different results.

Professor Larissa Szporluk of Bowling Green has given us "Dark Sky Question," a fun, bouncing collection of little word plays that, while uneven, succeeds more often than not.

"At the Site of Inside Out," by Professor Anna Rabinowitz of The New School, on the other hand, is a heavy, morose and dark set of works that bogs down in its lack of imagination and wearisome literalness.

It's actually debatable whether Rabinowitz is even writing verse here. Poetry – no matter how avant-garde, modern or post-modern – is still supposedly based on the twin premises of structure and rhythm, neither of which is present in any recognizable form in Rabinowitz's book.

Inspired by her laudable efforts to learn about her Jewish family's fate during the Holocaust, "At the Site of Inside Out" reads as if Rabinowitz kept a journal during her travels in Europe and then simply inserted random line breaks and handed it off to her publisher.

All of which might be excusable if the results were noteworthy – in other words, if Rabinowitz were a particularly gifted writer. While she is technically proficient – there aren't any glaring grammatical errors – Rabinowitz has little knack for description and less yet for impressionism.

But really, one's own powers of descriptive prose quickly seem incapable of describing Rabinowitz's writing. To illustrate, consider the opening four lines and closing two lines from a poem picked at random but perfectly representative, "Anthem":

Let us praise appropriate images – tadpoles that father assemblage in the flea markets of the city's debris.
Let us praise cast-off elements – weeds of hair curled on the barbershop floor, the glitter, the rust of bottle caps, the green vessels, the brown.
Let us praise Styrofoam cups, chipped plates, the crush of cardboard cartons, yellowed newsprint descended nude into public squares.
Let us praise emulsions – cold creams, make-up bases, shaving foams – and the jars, the aerosol props in which they formulated their aesthetic of truth.


Because they are connected to origins, because they codify our movement,
Because they are context and collage, icon and diehard, push and pull, conceived and holding on.

And on and on the book goes like this for, what, 70 pages?

Perhaps the blurbs on the back cover should have been enough to warn of the horror inside.

A Molly Peacock gushes over Rabinowitz's "debut of intense invention, with language at a height and experience at a depth that the whole art suddenly appears as a plinth on the plain of American letters." When one is reduced to touting a book with the kind of mindless gibberish that beats the very meaning out of words, that's a certain kind of endorsement all its own – and probably not the one the publishers intended.

Szporluk is more modest in her aims – no grand visions here, no odes or opuses, but small little vignettes, little impressions of life.

As poetry should, Szporluk's has a nice rhythm to it, an innate if informal meter that lends her writing a certain cadence:

It's a lot like emptiness, the season
of dying fish, black drink
the person you loved best, and left,
giving off light in the recession

Or this passage from "Agnosia":

A far star is making leaves
Someday they might brush this place,
their ordinary fire
tittering around us.
The porches are locked at dusk.
A piece could be out there.

Not all of it works; it would be surprising if it did. But it's fun, it's playful; her writing flirts with you, makes you want to read more. What else could you ask?