Speculative Poetry Book Reviews

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Star*Line>Reviews>2009

For books published in 2009:

In the Void by Michael Collings
2009, Borgo Press (a division of Wildside Press), trade paperback, $13.99

The definition of speculative fiction has lain upon shifting sands for some while now. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away it was crammed into the confines of an academic pigeonhole. In recent times the questions of speculative fiction have become longer and less specific. SpecFic has grown into an umbrella, beneath which the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror shelter; and with In the Void, Michael Collings presents a collection of poetry that has something for anyone hiding from the rain.

There are 87 poems in all, grouped into their respective genres. “Sasquatch” gives us a sighting of our shaggy friend and a message that some mysteries are best left unsolved. There are four chapters of entertainment in “The Boneyard of Old Ezra Snow”, which reads like an old Western ballad, and “Far Across the Galaxy” is the archaeological discovery of the deadly and extinct human race. “I Wander the Cosmos, Inventing It” ponders the intents and purposes of Creation, while “The Passing of Arthur: An Epyllion”, “Roc” and “Medusa” take us nicely into the realm of myth and legend.

In his foreword, Orson Scott Card poses the question: Why isn’t Michael Collings a rock star? There are moments during In the Void, especially within the horror and science fiction segments, where this is a very good point. Some of the verses in “The Wandering Undead”, for example, provide the type of lyrics that it is easy to imagine Ozzy Osbourne warbling on an early Black Sabbath album. “Renascence” has that robotic rhythm so often employed by Gary Numan, while “The Grave” reads like the story of a character from a musical yet to be written.

There is also a playfulness to Collings’s poems. This is evident in “A Short Poem on a Bubo Virginianis Escaping with a Torn Wing from a Lycanthrope’s Bloody Jaws”, which is so short it will make you pause, frown, and then smile. In “The Program” a computer operator is having problems that at first seem all too familiar, but quickly spiral into something much bigger and darker. This one is a smart parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, and Collings has fun transposing his own words onto the mainframe of the original:

Once upon a workshift dreary, while I programmed, bleak and bleary,
Stationed at the hard-drive terminal just inside my cubicle door,
While I plodded, nearly napping, there rose a fearful, whirring clacking,
A sound like demons gleefully wracking, racking as in the days of yore;
“It’s just a glitch,” I softly muttered, “just a glitch in the memory core;
Only that, and nothing more.”

With nods to literary influences like Poe, Frank Herbert and Brian Aldiss, Collings has covered all the bases of fantasy, science fiction and horror. There’s even something for the scholars and academics among you, most notably with the poem “The Last Pastoral”, which is treated to a Klingon translation, accompanied by the author’s notes. In the Void is a well-rounded collection that doesn’t put on any airs and graces, and Collings has found a good balance between the thoughtful and the entertaining.

—Edward Cox
* * *

In his introduction to In The Void, Orson Scott Card asks, “Why isn’t Michael Collings a rock star?” It’s a good question, whether one takes it literally or metaphorically, as in “why isn’t Michael Collings more famous, like, say, a poet laureate?” That’s a good question too, and you’ll wonder yourself when you read this new collection of speculative poetry by one of it’s best writers.

One of the fascinating things about this collection is its ability to spin references well-known to readers of poetry into something new, creating sfnal forms of what most consider mainstream poetry (as if Emily Dickinson or some of the others he riffs upon could ever truly be “mainstream” to those who really understand them). For example, in “The Last Pastoral” he takes a familiar situation from Christopher Marlowe and turns it into an astronaut’s lament:

And truth in
every shepherd’s tongue.
      I took
him. When we woke, he looked
at me. He stood there naked, bare
and skinny, silent. He bled stale air

into the lock and stared at me.
And cried, damn him! He cried. To see
his face like the ruined earth
gashed with lines, giving birth
to death....

These are no shepherds walking arm in arm in some bucolic British countryside. These are warriors on a spacecraft, doing what they can to grab a moment of pleasure out of all the hell they’ve gone through. This poem placed in both the Nebula and Rhysling awards when it was first published, and has the distinction of being one of only a few pastoral poems that has been translated into Klingon!

Collings riffs on one of our favorite contemporary SF poets, W. Gregory Stewart, in “The Program,” based on Stewart’s “Robo-Ben” as well as echoing Poe’s “The Raven“:

And then I saw the program shifting, each backlit column clearly lifting
External data, clearly sifting through the sentient options. Nor,
With that content, terminating its random matches, random matings
Of gene with gene, recalibrating tissue textures that I wore—
Recalculating planes and tissues in the body that I wore—
Changing forms … and something more.

Hopefully that stanza will pique the reader’s interest enough to buy the book and find out what’s really going on here!

“When the Conquerors Came,” although a science-fiction poem, spoke to me of actual conquests in history, and their effect on the indigenous inhabitants’ belief systems. Consider the second and third stanzas:

With alien form and alien mind
They twisted life across
Their ways. We pined,
Rebelled, and lost—
And cursed in vain the conquered gods of old.

Our remnant tribes dispersed by night
To mingle memories and tales—
The legends grew in might,
Drew cries and hails,
Re-built in vain our conquered gods of old.

Upon reading the first three stanzas my mind immediately went to the Roman conquest of Gaul, but it could easily be read as what happened when fill-in-the-blank conquered fill-in-the-blank. This is an excellent poem to trot out when someone wonders whether SF poetry is “relevant” to real-life situations.

On the lighter side, there’s “It’s Long Past Tune-Up Time Again.” Here’s a sample:

He opened
up the skull, clucked once, and peered inside—even

invited me to watch if I cared to
(I declined, read month-old magazines

in his waiting room instead). “Well,”
he announced an hour later, to me and to the

waiting room in general, “That should do it.“

I also wonder whether successive generations will even “get” the automotive references, especially Mike the Mechanic’s metaphors:

[...]“take it out on the freeway

every now and then, blow the dust from those
dark corners, and don’t forget that the more it sets

idle, the rougher it runs.”[...]

There are scifaiku for fans of that form, but on to the fantasy part of the book.

I liked “A Visitation of Grace,” which appears to be from a dragon (dragonoid?) point of view, as it reminded me of the Chinese dragon patron of writers, often represented as a dragon reading a book. And of course, there is “Medusa,” done primarily with alliteration as the primary engine of imagery. Then there is “Sabrina,” which demonstrates the beauty of imagery done right, evinced here in the second stanza:

In angelite, in crystalline celestite born
    of Tethys, rivers’ mother, delicate
In blue of froth and foam, Sabrina’s songs adorn
    bank and leaf-strewn bed, ever rustling.

Well, of course, I couldn’t wait to get to the horror section. “The Dweller on the Edge of Day” seemed to promise a Lovecraftian point of view, and I was not disapppointed. Here are stanzas two and three:

Afraid of night, of sunlight slit
Into portal dreams that prey
On stuttered, sullen speech;

Afraid of day, too numb to pit
Rampant light against the sway
Of midnight’s selfish reach;

Probably my favorite poem of this section, and maybe my favorite overall, was “Black Crocuses,” so here is a sample:

[...]shriveled petals, old
beyond knowing, curse wintered skies

from stony ground unhallowed,
unconsecrated. They unfurl
blackness beneath scattered, shallow
ashes spurned by winds that swirl

beyond the wall as if propelled
by the dark one who lies unBuried,
perhaps unDead,[...]

Collings’ work in this collection will be especially appreciated by fans of formalist verse and, again, as Card has suggested, much of it really needs to be put to music. I can see any of these poems being performed with music at an SF/F/H convention, and indeed hope to at some point. What I really like about this collection is the sense that it serves multiple purposes and would appeal to multiple audiences, sfnal of course, but also academic. What Card and I agree on as well is that Collings deserves a wider audience, and it is my hope that this collection brings his work to new readers.

—Denise Dumars

Intrinsic Night by J. E. Stanley and Joshua Gage
Sam’s Dot, 2009, 70 pp. $6. samsdotpublishing.com

Cinquains seem to me to be a sort of Western-tradition version of haiku or tanka. They fit well with the English language, which is largely iambic. I know Joshua Gage as a horrorku master, and his seminar on horror films and haiku was one of the best of all the programs I attended at the 2013 Haiku North America Conference. I look forward to reading more of J.E. Stanley’s work now as well. This book gets my highest recommendation. I have purposely not stated which poet wrote which poem mentioned.

This book is divided thematically. The sections are titled “Foreign Shores,” “Songs from the Witch’s Garden,” “Memento Mori,” “The Waters of Eden,” “Interludes and Reflections,” and “Nocturnes.” There is humor and horror, reflection and love, everyday life and what may come after. It is very hard to give snapshots of cinquains just as it is impossible to give excerpts of haiku, so I hope I will be forgiven if I give examples in their entirety here, but there are longer poems in the book as well as cinquains. For example, the title poem from “Songs from the Witch’s Garden” appeals to my interests:

Cherry,
Monk’s Hood. His Highness feels tired.
Nightshade, Hemlock, Yew. Sleep
helps it all go
away.

In “A View From Alcatraz,” the future of San Francisco is predicted:

In time,
San Francisco’s
skyline will fade away.
This island, these bars, will become
the world.

Those of us who have seen San Francisco go from a collection of vibrant ethnic and diverse neighborhoods to a concrete collection of wealthy, identically botoxed men and women in camelhair coats can certainly relate to this poem.

Many of our readers will like this one, titled “Kitsune,” which is a shapeshifting Japanese fox spirit:

Incense
fills the chamber.
She slips her kimono
from her shoulders, her tail as white
as breath.

Like haiku, these are small bits of images, razor-sharp views of the world, macrocosm and microcosm. There’s something here for everyone.

—Denise Dumars

Masque of Dreams by Bruce Boston
2009, Wildside Press, 297 pp. $13.99, bruceboston.com/MasqueofDreams.html

We all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but how many of us have purchased a novel because of its shiny artwork? I certainly have my hand in the air. However grandly a cover might represent a book, it does not guarantee the quality of the work behind it. And just as important as looks is the sound of a book. Writers should work hard to ensure their tales carry titles that are both meaningful and attention-grabbing. Bruce Boston, the author of The Guardener’s Tale and North Left of Earth, understands the importance of presentation and titles. His new collection of short stories and poems, Masque of Dreams, has a cover that is intriguing; and, inside, each piece bears a name that demands attention.

“The Blue Pomegranate” is an interesting piece. It uses the imagery of fruit and rind and sweet centres to represent self-awareness and discovery, but also warns that somewhere on the journey between ignorance and knowledge there is a whole forest of madness to avoid. Continuing the theme of inherent dangers in knowledge, “The Sizing of Curses” is a nice and short meditation on the burden of power. In “Tale of the Dread Correspondent”, those who blame aimlessly might just find the finger of accusation eventually points at them; and “A Word before the Ice Wars” reads like a history in brief, a prologue, perhaps, for a tale yet to be told.

Boston continues certain topics in this collection to form a couple of mini-series. This is certainly true of his “Mutant Rain Forest” trilogy, which comprises two poems and a novelette collaboration with Robert Frazier, and asks the question: just how Darwinian can modern civilisation be? Boston raises more questions with his “Existentialist” poems, which are a big fat brain of thought. More Foucault than Sartre, the big ask here is: has anyone ever truly been able to define their own essence?

My favourite poem is not only the first in Masque of Dreams, but also a collaborative piece with Brandon Totman. “Travelling to Your Heart” has a depth to its interpretation. On one level, it is a writer’s poem concerned for a readership and the search for the knowledge of what readers truly want. It also suggests a moment of self-awareness, of an author’s struggle to understand the never-ending learning curve of the writing craft. But with the line “I desire your heart, dear reader” we begin to question for whom this poem is intended. Who is the “reader”? A loved one? A lost one? Either way, “Travelling to Your Heart” creates mystery from imagery, which, intended or not, will draw in any reader from the start:

I can’t decide whether your heart
is the copper apple resting atop
the first mountain to defy gravity
or the emerald eye that glitters
in the tombed Pharaoh’s crown.

It should be remembered that this is a collection of short stories as well as poetry. Two of the shorter pieces grabbed my attention, and they are well worth a mention here. “Interview With a Gentleman Farmer” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It is a smart, Pythonesque tale that carries shades of Kafka’s absurdity and a touch of Will Self’s satire. As an Englishman, I felt this story was almost pointing a finger at me in a friendly jibe, and I chuckled right back from start to finish. Some jokes are never lost in translation, however deep.

“Some Concrete Notions about Demons” reads like a manifesto on the conjuring, treatment, recognition and handling of demons. But this manifesto is a revised version of archaic law, an updated edition for the modern world. It recognises the traditions of demonology, but also carries an underlying lesson for fiction and authors alike. A comment, perhaps, that imagination in demon-use has spiralled down into a mass market underworld where originality has come to mean popularity.

With titles like “Confessions of a Body Thief” and “Scenario for a Muse Cycle So Far Off Broadway There Are Tide Pools in the Wings”, Boston has ensured this collection is nothing short of intriguing. The cover art encourages readers to wonder who might have worn an ornate mask to a masquerade where the guests have names like stories you’d like to know better. And beyond the looks and titles of Masque of Dreams there is a voice that is smooth and silky.

—Edward Cox

Strange Vegetables by G. O. Clark
Dark Regions Press, perfect-bound pb, 53 pp., $7.95, darkregions.com

Dark Regions Press has been publishing poetry chapbooks since the early ’90s at least. The early ones, all out of print, had black-and-white covers, but they included remarkable work from some of the best science fiction, fantasy, horror poets then writing. I don't remember whether G. O. Clark was in that lineup, but I would not be surprised. Like Dark Regions, he has been around for a while. This new offering, Strange Vegetables, bears a nice colorful cover. The produce inside is black and white of course, but crisp and tasty.

Strange Vegetables contains 31 poems, many previously published in various periodicals. I published one in Dreams and Nightmares. The cover is an amusing tribute to “American Gothic.” Interior art; that's a bit of lagniappe. Oh, and I didn't know Clark could draw. He is pretty good. Alas, he doesn't draw for the small press as far as I know, except here.

Clark frequently uses a deadpan style when describing far out situations, as in the title poem, and also in the poem “Unusual employment opportunities.”

Balloon artist needed for the Annual Miskatonic Faire. Must have own equipment, be open-minded, and agree to sign waiver.

The style is well suited to dry humor, and the poems almost feel like that even when they really aren't funny. For example, “As if we could change anything.”

As if Frankenstein could find a
        happy balance
between the sum of his parts.

Clark never seems to run out of this kind of zinger. Poems range from the silly, to serious with and without puns, to sharp as knives. Whether making an analogy between the life of a snail and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (“In the shadow of Aricebo”), or comparing the movement of galaxies to human interactions (“Shiner”), Clark's observations are right on the money.

Most of these poems are science fiction, sensu stricto. Even when looking at concepts invented by H. P. Lovecraft or Mary Shelley, Clark tends to look at them with a precise and naturalistic eye. I love this cross-genre use of the authorial lens. Whether you pick up a pair of sciencefiction spectacles or another it makes no difference. Previously neglected aspects of old works are examined or displayed. For me, this only adds to the beauty that was already there. Then again, most of these poems are science fiction, but not all. “Naked angel” includes these lines:

My body is of
two minds, one pulsing
with the blood of unreason,
the other, thoughts impure.

There is more, much more: a tale of a considerate and most unusual hourly companion, a steampunk robot, artificial poets, religious dystopias, excommunicated deities, imprisoned rulers, monsters, and so on. I think I let slip that I like this book. Enough said.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Tales from the Holograph Woods: Speculative Poems by Eileen Kernaghan
Wattle and Daub Books, perfect-bound, C$12.95. wattleanddaubbooks.ca

I first encountered Kernaghan's work when she submitted a beautiful story called “Dragon-Rain” to an anthology (Magic) that my daughter Morgan and I published in 1995. The story is the last one in the book and, if I remember correctly, it received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I wonder if she sent me this book to review on the strength of that prior connection.

Be that as it may, I was delighted to receive it. Tales from the Holograph Woods is a slim volume containing 42 poems in four groups: “The Dark Gardens of the Zodiac,” “A Dance in Four Dimensions,” “Spells and Ancient Gramaries,” and “Out of the Midnight Forest.” There are also two framing poems that are not included in any of the four groups. The Acknowledgments page is ambiguous, but appears to imply that all of these poems have been previously published elsewhere, including one in Dreams and Nightmares, long ago.

The first poem, “The Dream,“ sets a tone of reverence, carries a weight of myth, and is meant to be read slowly, or so it strikes me. It's an appropriate beginning for a book full of such poems. The next poem, “Re-Incarnate,” includes the phrase “the dark garden of the zodiac,“ from which the first section of the book takes its title. It's funny, but the last four lines of this poem appeared overleaf from the main part. And I kind of think the poem is stronger if you stop at the bottom of the page. I really like this part of the next poem, “In Turing's Garden”:

                In dim undergrowth
the stirring
of vast ambiguous animals

And isn't that exactly the kind of thing we will face when we apply the Turing Test to things we encounter off world or in the lab? I'm really not sure what dark gardens of the zodiac are, because several of the poems in this section are unequivocally science-fiction poems. Then again, they do have a mythic feel. Science, myth, and magic are commingled by Kernaghan in many of these poems. Another example, from “Deus ex Machina”:

                This is the final garden,
the place of logical exhaustion
where time narrows to the last trickle
in a dried-out bed.

Here, she uses a literary term to link the writing process to the cosmos in terms both mathematical (elsewhere in the poem) and mystical, leaving us to wonder whether she is really writing about gardens out in the universe or gardens inside our heads. Or possibly descibing a relationship between mental and physical worlds.

In the next section of the book, “A Dance in Four Dimensions,” most of the poems have some explicit reference to dance, although the references are used differently. Dimensions more than four could express the different aspects of dance presented within this suite of poems. Some of the poems also refer fairly explicitly to dimensionality. From “The Idea of Order in a Chinese Landscape”:

                The Emperor of China
kneeling at the still pivot of the universe
designs one small pavilion
to hang halfway between the earth and heaven

My favorite in this section is “Broken Syllables,” in which translations of remnants of ancient Sumerian poems are used to express the inexorable effect of time on human endeavor. Yet the fragments retain their own beauty and power; illustrating another aspect of dimensionality.

Part three of the book isn't really about spells, or at least it is not mostly about spells. It could just as well be said to be about dream, because almost every poem in this section refers to dream or is about a dream. A few of them mention spells or actually are about spells, but to my mind the title of the section is the most opaque of the four.

                I feel on my throat
your insubstantial touch,
your chill sweet breath.

would seem a reference to a dream even if the poem didn't say so two lines later. (“The Poet-Chansonnier's Song” from “Wild Talent”).

By contrast, in “Out of the Midnight Forest,” if the poems don't all refer to midnight, or forests, or both, they all have a darkness about them that is reminiscent of midnight and midnight doings. Anyway, the names of the four sections of this book are taken from lines in the contained poems. By now it's clear they don't necessarily encapsulate the meaning of all poems found therein. Please don't mistake all my wondering about why this was titled as it was and why that was not titled in a different way as intended criticism. This is a wonderful book and I think you need to read it. After you do, it will probably stick with you. From “Wild Things”:

                out of the midnight forest
they follow you home like shadow
they live in your walls and rafters
in forgotten backs of cupboards
you know their shapes
                but will not name them.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

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