Speculative Poetry Book Reviews

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Star*Line>Reviews>2011

For books published in 2011:

The Assumption by Bryan D. Dietrich
2011, WordFarm, perfect-bound, 84 pages, $15. wordfarm.net

When I started reading this book my first reaction was “I can’t review this!” I don’t have much experience reviewing poetry that, though overtly SF in content, is just as overtly literary in the ways those concepts are examined. The thing is, in The Assumption, each word seems to be exactly right, its multiple meanings linked like neurons to the words and phrases around it. Since then, I have met the author and heard him read poems from another book. I had not heard of Dietrich before picking up this book, but I probably should have. He’s apparently been a fan his whole life, has written SF poetry for much of it, and has published in Asimov’s and Weird Tales, as well as mainstream venues like Poetry. Maybe I can do this.

The Assumption, like many of Dietrich’s poetry books, is not a collection of loosely connected or unconnected poems. It contains essentially three works. A poem dedicated to James Doohan; the title work (a long poem in seven parts); and a concluding poem about the end of time. Even these three poems are closely related conceptually, and one could think of them as prologue, body, and epilogue. The first part concerns physical exploration of the universe, but not for the sake of mundane knowledge. Humans travel space in search of Cause. In the second, space ships are cast aside in favor of more philosophical, spiritual exploration. And in the end, well, the end.

“The Engineer” is a series of seven sonnets that describe scientific exploration of the universe as a part of humanity’s search for its Maker. One could argue this point, but Dietrich makes an eloquent case. The vast universe of stars, nebulae, etc. we explore remotely (now) and directly (in the futuristic context of the poem). But we aren’t just seeking facts and theories to present at scientific meetings in fancy hotels in grand old cities. We want more.

Between the dust clouds calving sun to night,
behind the blazing battlements of old
auroral habiliments, dead supernova’s light

we wander. We find that

The dark is more than only, lonely, full of fear.
It’s made us seek, as Stevens said, an Engineer.

Well, I remain skeptical. I think our motives involve the search for grants, prestige, and the satisfaction of a job well done, not to mention solving the what and how questions we pose and answer in our papers. But I’ll give the search for why its due. That’s in there too.

Assumption usually refers to the crowning of a king, and may also relate to the enthroning of supernatural beings, such as gods. And that’s part of what the poem “The Assumption” is about. However, it’s mostly about our place in the universe and our struggle to determine what that is. Is there a higher power, and if so, what is it?

From part one of “The Assumption,” entitled “The Skeptic”:

they’ve seen the hindquarters of the holy
of holies, many claim messengers
came, collected their ovaries, prodded
their posteriors with pipe. Others were coddled,

And of course part two is entitled “The Crackpot”:

Indeed, about celestial visitation
they were never wrong, the old Masters. It’s just
they couldn’t tell prophecy from planet palpitation,
Yahweh from the yaw of interstellar wanderlust.
The comet that bought the Hebrews free from scarab
toasted, too, the armies of Sennacherib.

I don’t want to give anything away, and I’m sure any further analysis I could offer would be laughable in its superficiality. But The Assumption is not a long book. I recommend it. And one more thing. Look for a new book from Dietrich in 2012, one which turns Frankenstein back on itself, in verse.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Blood Curry edited by John Irvine
2011, Dark Continent Publishing, NZ$24.99. Order from editor at cooldragon@slingshot.co.nz

Food has always been a source of inspiration for writers, especially fruit with its rich metaphors of skin and flesh and seeds, and the juxtaposition of a healthyoptions diet used to explore darker themes. With Blood Curry, John Irvine shrugs off the diet entirely, cracks open a tub of real lard, and fries up a full English breakfast for the morning after a night on the booze with your friends . . . that is, if your friends just happen to be creatures of nightmare whose particular tipple is poison that has been mulled and spiced with blood.

Blood Curry is a collection of poems and flash fiction, and each piece is as gruesome as the next. “Compassion” is a jarring account of a mother’s ‘kindness’, while “Grandfather” and “It’s a Dirty Job” are disturbing in their use of supposed taboos. In “The Voodoo Man” Death is not so easy to cheat, and “The Symphony of Abaddon” puts souls on the menu as the devil grooms we poor mortals for a place in his eternal choir.

Lurking between the poems and stories are recipes from around the world for genuine dishes with one common ingredient: animal blood. In context of the book, these recipes read like something found on the menu for Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Not only will they repulse you, but also leave you strangely hungry for what’s on offer. The most gruesome dish is perhaps Tiét Canh, or Raw Blood Soup, which is made with the life juice of ducks or geese. Diners are warned that eating Tiét Canh runs the risk of contracting the H5N1 bird flu virus, which, frankly, seems the least of their worries.

An anthology so inspired by food demands the appearance of vampires somewhere along the line, and Irvine doesn’t disappoint with the likes of “You know you’re a writer when …” and “Hollywood”. Nor, indeed, could the absence of cannibals be excused, and here we’re treated to tales like “Undead” and “Five”. And to provide a little light in the darkness, Irvine scatters a few jokes here and there such as: Zero-gravity love: coming is mainly going; and: My alien penis: one is apparently too many.

My favourite piece of the collection is “The Sailor”, which is also accompanied by my favourite piece of artwork, courtesy of Marge Simon. “The Sailor” is a chilly account of a passenger waiting to be taken across the river Styx. Unfortunately for this passenger, Charon might just be hungry for more than the coin in his hand. The poem carries a sense of menace throughout, and the imagery suggests there is more here than what the eye can see and the ear can hear:

His ship glides
effortlessly,
casting no bow wave,
making no sound,
touching gently
upon the shore where
a passenger waits.

All in all, Blood Curry is a book that’s out to have fun, to disturb, to entertain and intrigue. The provocative and thoughtful artwork of Tony Karnes, Laura Givens, Jeff Beckman, Cathy Edmunds, Marge Simon, Stella Danelius and Dave Freeman does a grand job of bringing to life the imagery induced by the words. And with a final note on our wordsmith, a man who hopes to die peacefully one day without warning and with minimal leakage, John Irvine is certainly an author you want to find on your bookshelf, but most definitely not in your kitchen.

—Edward Cox

Blood Wallah and other poems by Robert Borski, illustrated by Marge Simon
2011, Dark Regions Press, PO Box 1264, Colusa, CA 95932, trade paperback, 94 pages, $9.95. darkregions.com/blood-wallah-and-other-poems-by-robertborski/

Blood Wallah is Borski's first book of verse, and it was certainly long overdue. The poems in this book represent the result of many, many years of writing. I can't think why a book of collected poems was delayed so long. Still, at first I had a problem with it.

No fan of vampire poetry I, I was dismayed to see that the first seven poems are all vampire verse. It's hard to please me with verse about sanguinophiles. With the next poem, the book switches abruptly to the subject of monsters, and we are off and running. Whether deftly reorienting a familiar fairytale or legendary monster, paying homage to a master from history, or retelling a classic children's story, Borski has the skill to make something new and make us like it. After all, vampire watermelons are surely more closely related to ordinary watermelons than they are to human vampires. Then again, from “Vampyre Patch”:

perhaps if they realized
that lycopene—the red
pigment that suffuses
the watermelon—
derives the first half
of its origin
from the Latin word
for wolf,

they'd exercise more caution.

Yet another reason to stay out of the cornfield at night.

Moving away from monsters, Borski looks at another traditional source of horror: the Christian Bible. From “All the clocks of hell”:

Not that it matters.

For despite the ardent wishes of each
confinee and the standardized clock
knell, time here is illusory

A new look at an old theme. But if Satan is your favorite embodiment of evil, don't get your hopes up. Biblical references are a very small part of this book. Most of Blood Wallah consists of masterful revisions or extensions of familiar stories. This approach to mining the literature has been popular for a couple of decades now, and why not? Looking back at childhood with adult eyes can be frightening or fun, but it is always enthralling. Did the Wicked Witch of the West wear antiperspirants? What kind of child would kick the tooth fairy when she was down?

Borski has the answers. As the tin woodman said in a love letter to Dorothy, “Rust is not an STD.” If Gepetto was unhappy with how Pinocchio turned out, what, or who, would he try his hand at next? Jack the Ripper, Willard—who doesn't transform at the gentle touch of this master poet? Geology, comic books, nothing is sacred, and that's a good thing. I personally have always had questions about Superman. Blood Wallah is an eclectic book, and definitely in a good way.

Borski brings us back to monsters on occasion, always with a twist. This is from “CSI: Transylvania”:

He claimed he'd put him in morgue drawer
#12, yet found it empty upon returning
to conduct follow-up analyses. Odder still,
there remained traces of the original
internment soil on the slab, along with
what looked to be bat droppings.

When is a golem not a golem? From “LEM”:

moments of self-awareness have been

rare of late, so long has he been usurped
from himself by chemical strictures, a living,

breathing automaton commanded only
by his desire for more crystal.

One of my favorites is “Kitchen Carcharodon.” Did you know that toasters kill more people than sharks? I tell you this just when you thought it was safe to go back in the kitchen!

Buy this book and read it. Keep it and read it again later. You won't be sorry.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Dark Dreams by Christina Sng.
2006/2011 (Smashwords, 2011) 22 pp. $0.99 digital. smashwords.com.

Christina Sng’s third collection of poetry, entitled Dark Dreams, was published in 2006. The edition I’m reviewing was created for Smashwords in eBook format in a slightly altered form, with 2 new poems taking the place of 7 others that are no longer included. All told, there are 13 poems here, all previously published in various familiar genre magazines. Three poems received Honorable Mention citations in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (editor Ellen Datlow et al) three years running, and a fourth (“Medusa in LA”) was nominated for the 2006 Rhysling Award. All of which is to say that this brief chapbook is full of successful poems.

Despite the dark content, Sng’s poetry remains pleasant to read. Some people really enjoy feeling uncomfortable or repulsed. Not me, and Sng’s poetry suits me just fine in that regard! There is a detachedness to her poetry, which allows the reader to experience the unpleasantness of the horror without being blindsided by grotesque or repulsive images or language. As the title indicates there is often a dreamlike quality of observing the weirdness of our psyches.

There is a wry humor in many of her poems:

Sleeps Takes a Vacation

Sleep surveys the wreckage and

The blood lining the pavements,
Shakes her head at the frozen stares
Beyond her touch. As usual,
After a long vacation, she has
A ton of work to catch up on.

In many poems Sng almost makes the horror seem normal !!! In the opening poem, “The Art of Weaving,” the narrator relates how she learned to weave human skin as though it were ordinary fabric; In “Seasonal Creatures” we learn of the life cycle of a myriad of grisly creatures as though they were mayflies or June bugs. This works for me, but for those who enjoy the titillation of being made to feel uncomfortable or the visceral feeling of disgust, this might fall flat.

The way that Christina Sng looks at the horror of life or fantasy situations makes it permissible to confront them without hysteria. To look at them head on and not be afraid or ashamed.

I’m looking forward to her future offerings, and if her chronicling on Twitter of where and how often she’s placing poems is any indication it bodes well indeed!

—Diane Severson

The Hedge Witch’s Upgrade by Sandra J. Lindow.
2011, Linden Leaf Press, $14 postpaid. E-mail author at lindowleaf@gmail.com or write to 1308 16th Ave East, Menomonie WI 54751.

It’s obvious that Sandra J. Lindow is a poet who likes to spend a lot time in her garden. It’s also obvious that her eyes are as sharp as her fingers are green. With her latest collection, The Hedge Witch’s Upgrade, she invites us to look beyond the grass and flowerbeds, and see the sky and the landscape around us.

In “Identity” a return to the natural world is hindered by that mysterious System we’ve all heard so much about, and “Diamond Lil in March” contains one of Mae West’s most memorable lines: I used to be Snow White—but I … drifted. With “El-Duende: Out of the Bark” the spirit of youth sings its song, while “Rain for Rent” and “The Theater for Cloud Repair” ponders the importance of rain and its varying types.

Never one to miss the chance of a good chuckle, I couldn’t help but pause at “Little Cthululu and the Theory of Opposites”. Proposing a friendship between the impish Lulu Moppet and Dread Cthulu, this one quite cheerfully beams a smile with opening verses absurd enough to make even Lovecraft stop and wonder:

Little Lulu zippitty-zipping in downtown Arkham
ran smack into Cthulhu liquescing his way to the sea,

and they took a liking to each other
based on the premise that opposites attract.

At heart, this collection is about Earth. It is about the weather and seasons, plant life and animals, soil and concrete, the view from your window, and the bigger picture from the sky. It is about the natural world and the unnatural elements that have been superimposed upon it. But The Hedge Witch’s Upgrade isn’t a parable of morality or cautionary tale; it isn’t about what we have done or what we should be doing, it’s about what is, and Lindow has found a sense of fun and wonder that should lead us all out into our gardens from time to time.

—Edward Cox

Inverted Folk by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2012, pamphlet $2; free .pdf from author at jopnquog@gmail.com

For those of you with computers and e-book readers, there’s some good news: David C. Kopaska-Merkel has just released his new mini-collection as a PDF. Inverted Folk is a brief, two-page anthology of some of the author’s favourites among the scifaiku and short poems he has had published over the past few years. And the best part is, the PDF is available on request absolutely free.

In snippet form, the collection nicely flexes its muscles through the spec-fic spectrum, and delivers the kinds of playful imagery, doubt and wonder, and left-field views we’ve come to expect from Kopaska-Merkel. Among the selected works, he pulls the carpet from under our feet by toying with the expectations of the reader:

a great eye blinks
suckered arms coil/uncoil
as he scans the menu

With his unnerving knack for minimalist storytelling, he makes us wonder what comes next, or what the hell happened in the first place:

north wind rolls dry leaves
against the barn
a few get in

And never one to shun the chance of raising a wry smile, the author also treats us to a little quirky humour:

Three transform pills left in the box
Grandma’s night to howl

If downloading books isn’t your bag, and you still prefer the touch and smell of genuine paper, then fear not. Inverted Folk is also available in pamphlet form for a mere two bucks; send to: David C. Kopaska-Merkel, 1300 Kicker Rd, Tuscaloosa, AL 35404.

Sadly, pamphlets seemed to have become a forgotten medium in this day and age, but at one time they were such a useful tool for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Kopaska-Merkel might be a name that’s more established than others, but his use of the pamphlet proves the format still has a place in this downloadable age. And maybe—just maybe—Inverted Folk will inspire a comeback.

—Edward Cox

How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend by Linda Addison, illustrated by Jill Bauman
2011, Necon E-books, Necon contemporary horror #9, 114 pages, digital edition.

The cover of How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend: bloody. Grotesque and ridiculous at the same time. Deliberately? I honestly don't know. The drawing is very well crafted. I like the black-and-white version, which appears in the book's interior, even more than the color version.

The book contains 35 short stories and poems. They occur in roughly equal numbers, which means that most of the book, in terms of pages or words, is fiction. Twenty of these 35 pieces are reprints, mostly from two previous collections. (As far as I know, those chapbooks are not available in digital form.)

The introduction is by the author, and most of it consists of a poem composed primarily of the titles of other poems and stories that appear in the book. Addison begins the introduction by confessing that she has always loved words, and that she likes turning titles into poems. I have always loved words too, and I enjoyed this poem. It is entitled “Linda to Linda,” and, despite its origin from a list of titles, it is smooth and coherent. “Linda to Linda” is not listed in the table of contents. So I guess that means there are 36 pieces in How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend.

I like the stories very much, but won't review them here. They are all supernatural horror. In this review I call it mainstream horror, to distinguish it from dark fantasy or dark science-fiction or other genre-marginal writing. I don't mean the kind of story in which the only horror element is contributed by evil humans.

Most of the poetry in this book is set squarely within the horror genre. The poems that appeal most to me are those that, in one fashion or another, break outside that classification. For instance, “Forever Dead” is a zombie's wish, definitely not your usual zombie fare. Some of these poems are not really horror at all. At least, not as I define it. “After I Ate the Apple” is a powerful mythic piece. Here's a sample:

Found magic in my hands and my hips,
found even a look could stir things up
so I stirred and stirred
making little and big things.

“In this Strange Place” is a ghost story.

I have all the time, it waits in my arms,
newborn, forgotten, silent, there is no
way to break the frozen moment,
today or tomorrow or all the days to come.

How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend consists of alternating stories and poems. In terms of words or pages the book is at least 80% fiction, even though the two kinds of pieces are almost equally numerous. Also, I like nearly all of the fiction, even though most of it is clearly mainstream horror (which is not really my cup of tea). I like some of the poetry a great deal, mostly the poems that have unique features that make them stand out. I cannot recommend buying this book primarily for the poetry, but I can recommend buying it if you like short horror fiction. Think of the poetry as the icing on the cake.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel


The Land of Bad Dreams by Kyla Lee Ward
2011, P’rea Press, AU$18.00.

The terror of nightmares is often more intense than anything experienced in real life. Whether it is from facing our greatest fear, or fleeing that nameless horror lurking in the darkness, the dread experienced in bad dreams is irrational, acute, all-encompassing—and very often absurd, even funny, especially when viewed from the comfort of the cold light of day. All these facts are gathered, dissected, and played upon by Kyla Lee Ward as she plunges us headfirst into her new collection of poetry and stories, The Land of Bad Dreams.

The book is divided into four parts; in Part One: Dreams, there’s a party where sinister games are played in “The Land of Dreams Gone Bad”. The call of a graveyard is perhaps better ignored in “Mary”, while “Herbal Tea” isn’t really as refreshing as it sounds. The short stories in Part Two: Fables, are poetic and elegant, with the likes of “The Cat’s Cortege” proving that pets aren’t just for Christmas, and “The Rat’s Repast” offering a surreal menu of dishes. Part Three: Biohazard kicks off with a haunting journey in “The Traveller” and ends with the bittersweet kiss of “The Sleep of Reason (concluded)”.

Part Four: The Feast of Mistrust is reserved for a four-chapter epic poem that sprawls across textures and imagery and primal fears. This one is a character-driven piece, worthy of more than one read as we learn of sacrifice and an ancient, nameless city. Here’s the opening verse from Chapter One: “The Fear”:

Hark the bells in the bright air!
Calling the people nigh
as mass begins, to lay their sins
before the Virgin’s shrine.
The year she lies encoffined, seven shrouds of darkened wood
but seven locks are open now to do the city good.

Along with some intriguing artwork, and an insightful interview with the author, The Land of Bad Dreams is as interesting as it is entertaining, as melancholic as it is witty. Maybe Ward wants to give us nightmares; maybe she just wants to share the things she sees in her own dreams. Either way, the works of this celebrated Australian poet deserve to travel the dark currents to far and distant lands, where they will undoubtedly haunt the nights of unwary sleepers.

—Edward Cox

The Mad Hattery, by Marge Simon and Sandy DeLuca
2011, Elektrik Milk Bath Press, $19.95

What do “blondes” keep under their hats? That’s not the beginning of a joke, by the way, it’s a genuine question. The answer, as it turns out, is a curious one. Marge Simon believes the best way to explain it to you is through the use of her poetry, while Sandy DeLuca is inclined to use the medium of art. These two “blondes” have even joined forces to produce a book that debates this great question in detail. They decided to title their collaboration The Mad Hattery, and the New Yorker Times claims the results will ‘quite take the breath away’.

Among the words and pictures of Simon and DeLuca, you might discover the spooky goings on of the “Girl in the Big Red Hat”. “Candy” might tempt you with her sugary lips and carousel eyes. Take pause before unzipping your fly for a “Redhead with a Comma Tattoo”, and don’t be fooled by “Ida’s New Hat”, it’s wisely chosen. And never, whatever you do, look back at the “Ghost of 1968”, or stare at the “Girl in a Hat from Outer Space”. You’ll probably find “Aunty M” more than a little intimidating, but that’s okay because “The Gypsy Hat” was made with love … wasn’t it?

At some point in this book, you’ll be disturbed to discover that “Miss Muffet” is acting a little off these days, and that maybe she isn’t so little anymore. She’s in the market for a new hat, but it isn’t to protect herself from those spiders who like to drop down on her. Something has gone horribly wrong for our tuffet-sitter, and even a spot of retail therapy can’t lift her spirits:

Little Miss Muffet
is gone from her tuffet,
blue eyes bright as death,
spider webs in her hair.

Mouth a-pucker,
she's at the shops,
roaming the aisles,
looking for hats
to match her brand new
black and bleeding heart.

So, what do “blondes” keep under their hats? As it happens, a book called The Mad Hattery. The poetry and artwork of Simon and DeLuca are entertaining and wonderfully matched. From the lunacy of the Mad Hatter himself, to the marmalade sandwiches of Paddington Bear, all angles and corners, both light and dark, are observed, painted, written, and rubber stamped with the kind of fun that only “blondes” can have

—Edward Cox

Shroud of Night by G. O. Clark
2011, Dark Regions Press, perfect-bound pb, 60 pp., $7.95. darkregions.com

G. O. Clark has been a fixture in the fantastic poetry community since before I joined it. His work has been published in many places, including Asimov's Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. This is his 10th book. We have never met, but I have read and enjoyed his work for decades. Shroud of Night, his latest collection, comprises a diverse assemblage of his darkest poetry. Most of these 39 poems are very short, driving their nails in with just a few lines. Few are longer than a page, but they don't need to be. Original images are hard to come by in horror poetry, but Clark delivers, again and again.

From “Cemetery Angel”:

She's just trying to
get the kinks out, a little
break time stretching, stiff from
having to hold a solemn pose
all night and day.

Some of these poems can be reminiscent of the old Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” Others have a sharper edge. Still other poems are serious and silly at the same time.

From “A Few Words About The Angels”:

They can adapt to every atmosphere,
be it air, water, or the vacuous lack thereof,
the speed of light a minor inconvenience.

From “Curses and Salutations”:

May your gravestone be made of cardboard,
your casket balsa wood, and your obituary
written by a dyslexic drunk.

It's not easy to encompass in a brief review the breadth of style and tone displayed in this book. I hope these three excerpts give you something of the flavor of the whole that they represent.

Who would've thought a poem about screams could send chills up my spine? Did you know that Hell hath a sailboat? Pray you are never conscripted for the crew! You'll meet some peculiar monsters in this book. Zombies, sure, but garden gnomes? What is their horrifying secret? There is humor here, but who said humor and horror don't go together? I think they do, and if you read this book, I believe you'll see I am right. Shroud of Night brings a lot of darkness together in a handy package. You should read it.

—David M. Kopaska-Merkel

Skeleton Leaves by Helen Marshall
2011, Kelp Queen Press, $10.

For those hermits among you who have been out of touch with the world for the past hundred years or so, Peter Pan is arguably the best known of all children’s tales. It tells the story of a boy who never grew up; his adventures in a fantastic realm called Neverland; and his friendship with a group of children that includes a girl called Wendy. Since its initial release, J. M. Barrie’s play has been novelised, sequelled, and made into more theatre productions and movies than you can shake a stick at. Now, with the release of Skeleton Leaves, Helen Marshall uses the concept of Peter Pan as a backdrop, and delves its characters into regions far more complicated than their creator dared to visit.

The book is chaptered into five long poems, each one furthering a narrative that gets deeper and bolder as it goes along. “On Peter Pan”, with its imagery of surfaces and what might lie beneath, cleverly strokes its fingers across what’s in store for the rest of the book. In “The Secret of Durable Pigments” the Lost Boys are a little wilder than the infants who fell out of their prams. With “Prophetic Sonnets” we’re truly into the ‘meat’ of the story, while in “The Refuge of Art” Wendy laments the experiences that never happened.

The central theme to Skeleton Leaves is the relationship between Wendy and Peter, and the things they did, almost did, and never did, together. There’s a storm of heartbreak and disillusion in the adult Wendy’s life as she remembers and wonders about the boy who never grew up. And in the early stages of “Aurochs and Angels”, Marshall makes it very clear that we’re in a Neverland none of us have seen before:

élan lifting her from the covers,
drowsy, as a tiny hand tap taps the window
that was so solid now made wet
as a fish with clouded breath
from his unkissed mouth.

Accompanied by the provocative artwork of Chris Roberts, Skeleton Leaves is a unique look at a classic children’s tale. By peeling back the skin of Peter Pan, Marshal reveals something sinister and darkly sensual, something more Alan Moore than J. M. Barrie. This book explores the frustrations of love and lust, the anguish of hope and loss, and the inexorable aging process, which opens everybody’s eyes a little wider in time. Here, not even the surface gleam and glitter of Tinker Bell can stop you noticing the grittier underside of the stories from your youth.

—Edward Cox

Space Poems by Marianne J. Dyson
2011, amazon.com. 24 pp. Kindle $1.69.

For those who don't know her, Marianne Dyson was a NASA flight controller (the first female one!) with a degree in physics. She has recently rejoined the SFPA after a long hiatus. She was a member in the 1990s and published poetry regularly then. She is also the author of several non-fiction books and stories focusing on space and life in space including several children's books.

First, this is a brief chapbook—just 16 poems—collecting Dyson's (mostly) space poetry dating back mostly to the early 1990s, and the majority of them were published in Star*Line (in addition to elsewhere, like Analog or Asimov's). It is self-published on the Kindle platform. This collection is enjoyable and interesting in that many of the poems are a reaction to, commentary on or simply about spacecraft or heavenly bodies (the Moon, Sagittarius A) or about the space race of that time. The Delta Cruiser, Hiten (Japanese spacecraft), Viking 2, Galileo, Apollo 12 (actually dedicated to the artist/astronaut Alan Bean) all get a poem, as do the moon and several aliens. Dyson tends to use traditional rhythm and rhyme schemes, which, while they are supremely well done, can give the poem a trivial or humorous air. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the intention here. Some of the sing-songiest poems were actually written for children, which is actually perfect. Would that I had been able to read her poems 20 years earlier!

The hero's brush disturbs the settled lust
of youthful goals, long patient human souls
who yearn with passion's palette for the day
they thrust aside the current veil of dust

—from “The Artist's Moon” (a Petrarchan sonnet, not meant for children)

While I enjoyed this chapbook thoroughly, I suspect that, given the dated feel that poems tied to such a specific period inevitably have, this collection might only be interesting to the most die-hard space fans or as a document to the history of SF/space poetry within our own ranks. You can't beat the price, though!

—Diane Severson


Surrealities by Bruce Boston.
2011, Dark Regions Press, $9.95. darkregions.com

Many years ago, on one particularly inebriated night, I asked a friend of mine what the word surreal meant. He said I should imagine a man standing before me, a man who had a fish instead of a head. It was the deepest thing I’d ever heard; at least it was until I reached sobriety and realised that he hadn’t told me anything at all, and my question remained unanswered. From that day to this, I haven’t discovered a satisfying meaning for the word surreal. However, as luck would have it, recent Stoker Award winner Bruce Boston has taken a break from writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror to ponder this very subject. And I’m hopeful.

Surrealities is Boston’s latest collection of poems and artwork from Dark Regions Press. The book kicks off with “Recording Ancient Truths” which is a road trip filled with dream-like qualities, while “A Day in the Life Of” has similes that will turn any writer green with envy. In “Comparative Religion” harsh truths are delicately painted with a wistful brush, and “Revealing Their Eyes” revisits a couple of past masters.

“Their Shades Are Legend” is an interesting piece, and one I thought long and hard over. At first it seemed I was reading something akin to an opium dream of Lovecraft’s. But on the second pass, the poem seemed to take a different form, and I wondered if I was reading about the final moments in someone’s life. Third time around, and I began seeing imagery and wordplay I hadn’t noticed before, and I now suspect the secrets “Their Shades Are Legend” keeps will only ever be known to the author. Here’s the first verse:

Laboratory archangels swirling down
the alembic of decanted youth
have concocted a stray tincture
so potent in its ergonomic wattage
that libraries and motor courts
throughout our once-great nation
will never somnambulate with
the same diabolic orientation.

Given the theme of this collection, we never stray far from the realms of the fantastic as reality is blurred to a quirked vision of the world. And it is fitting, I think, that a poetry book of and about the nature of surrealism should be accompanied by artwork which is just as widely interpretable as the words. Here, Boston shows us yet another feather in his cap by providing a series of Rorschach inkblots he created for the collection to further expand the mind of the reader.

As for my quest to find the meaning of the word surreal, I’m not sure that Boston has brought me closer to my goal than I was on that inebriated night so long ago. But maybe that’s the point of Surrealities, to delve into an art form that will never sit still, and celebrate what it has been, what it is, and what it could be. I like to think we’re being encouraged here to wag a finger in the face of simple answers, and to shrug and laugh at the very thought of definition.

—Edward Cox

The Tin Men by Kendall Evans & David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2011, Sam’s Dot Publishing, $6. sdpbookstore.com

I have heard it said that Kendall Evans and David C. Kopaska-Merkel should never be allowed in the same room together. This, I’m reliably informed, is due to a strange and mystical energy that develops between them, which creates an innate desire to collaborate. Legend has it that the resulting work would be dangerous enough to split the world in two, and to cause the sun to hide for fear of being outshone. So when I was assigned their latest collaboration, The Tin Men, for reviewing, I accepted the book in the middle of the Nevada Desert while wearing eye-protectors and thick oven mitts.

Primarily a collection of poems in the long form, The Tin Men kicks off with “The Last Astronaut” where the frontiers of space and time are explored. The theories of Freeman Dyson gain some validity in “Dyson Spheres”, and “Divergent Quanta” tells us why gin and conversations on existence don’t make the best mix while commanding a spaceship. The collaborative umbilical is momentarily severed in the individual poems “Dragon” and “The End of Captain Argoyle”, while in “The Grand Experiment” history gets shaken and stirred.

The collection’s well-deserved centrepiece is the eponymous and award-winning “The Tin Men”. Following a fleet of starships journeying across the universe, this poem focuses on the experiences of the ships themselves rather than the cryogenically frozen crew, who are probably long dead anyway. The fleet has been travelling for millennia, and is drawn with the grace of a pod of whales navigating the oceans. The mystery is heightened as little is revealed about the fleet’s original mission, and all that is left is the inexorable journey which must one day reach some kind of conclusion. The ending of the poem’s prologue certainly sets up the story nicely:

This is what the Tin Men perceive
And, though they are neither tin
Nor men,
These are their chronicles

The only real danger that exists in The Tin Men is that readers will actually have to think about what they’re reading. This is Wolfe, not Eddings; Kubrik, not Spielberg. Evans and Kopaska-Merkel endorse a sense of fun and intrigue in what they’re doing, but they never shy away from the methods with which they do it. The Tin Men is a book of riffing; it’s about two poets bouncing off each other as much as the words that get left behind. As to the meanings of their metaphors and imageries, I’m pretty sure our authors have their explanations, but will be just as interested in the interpretations of the individual.

—Edward Cox

Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader
2011, Hippocampus Press, hippocampuspress.com. perfect-bound, 206 pp. $15.

With a foreword by H. P. Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price, you know you’re going to get superlative poetry in the Lovecraftian tradition. And since I have had no luck luring Ms. Schwader to the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival, if you want to experience her work then you’re gonna have to buy this book.

As Price says, the “eldritch Numinous” is what Schwader has aimed for here, and succeeded. Pastiche? No, please don’t put your nose in the air and think that you’re looking at anything but literature here. There are, of course, humorous poems to balance the darker works, but overall Schwader gives us a rich and thoughtful look at the universe birthed by Lovecraft and built upon by others ever since.

Since ancient Egypt is one of my foremost interests, I turned first to “Out of Egypt” and was not disappointed. For those not in the know, Thoth is the Egyptian deity who is not only the scribe of the gods and creator of writing but also the keeper of order in the Egyptian universe; so I think all Lovecraftians wll get the point here:

Out of dark Egypt’s undying past,
Thoth’s word of Making is fading at last:
Ebony entropy gnaws at our dreams,
Pharaoh of Shadows whose heralds are screams.

And yes, this is a collection of mostly formalist poetry; free verse has been the dominant form of poetry in the Western world since the middle of the 20th century, so poets who can write well utilizing standard formalist tropes such as rhyme and meter and poetic forms such as sestinas are few and far between.

Another of my interests is Hindu literature, so I wonder what Ramprasad, the Indian poet who was in love with the goddess Kali, would have made of Schwader’s view of her is “Inheritrix”:

Dark Mother, yes … but mother to such spawn
As creep beneath the earth & foul the night
In guises putting sanity to flight.
Fell younglings only Pickman might have drawn,
Though balking at the wellspring of that brood:
Shub-Niggurath, Black She-Goat of the Wood.

Apropos of both these poems is the ongoing theme of melding Lovecraftian fictional deities and their milieu with deities of various world pantheons. Schwader obviously continues this tradition and does so very well, evincing an understanding of both his literary tropes and the cultural context of these pantheons. Continuing with this theme she takes on Celtic lore and modern academia’s pitiable lack of understanding of it with “Of Stonehenge and Star-Myths”:

These lands & myriad others lost to time
Spawned sorcerors unchained by hour or space
But gifted—cursed—with pure & lethal Sight
Which pierced that mercy-veil we call the night.

Schwader’s work also references other Lovecraftian authors such as Robert Bloch, Robert Chambers, Zealia Bishop, and many of the others who form the initial set of authors associated with HPL. In “A Lost Song of Carcosa,” she references Chambers’ “The King in Yellow”:

Carcosa’s final sunset dies,
& I alone send up this tune
Beyond that shore where cloud waves rise,
For Death has veiled my sister’s eyes
To mock the mist-enshrouded moons.
Carcosa’s final sunset dies.…

I particularly like the fact that this collection is separated into sections which reference a particular, theme, pantheon, character, or even the Old Gentleman of Providence himself. For example, in the section called “Lavinia,” Schwader writes about the mother of one of HPL’s most formidable characters, Wilbur Whateley. Once again, she refers to world deities, this time Greek mythology and the myth of Leda and the swan in the poem “May Eve”:

No swan wings here. The storm that took her screamed
All night like demons stooping to their prey
Somewhere beyond the sky, […]

In short, this is the book that Lovecraftians who like poetry need to have, and I would recommend it for general lovers of horror poetry as well, especially those who appreciate good formalist poetry and a sense of humor!

—Denise Dumars


Unearthly Delights by Marge Simon
2011, Sam’s Dot Publishing, $14.00. sdpbookstore.com

Marge Simon is a name well known to the readers, writers and artists within the realms of the independent press. Her writing has picked up one or two awards along the way; she’s the out-going editor of Star*Line, the journal of the SFPA; and her artwork has appeared in more magazines and books than even God can count. Marge Simon is a busy lady. So when she saves some of her much-in-demand artwork to accompany the poems of her new book, it’s time to shut up shop, draw the curtains, and tell you a little of the strange pleasures of Unearthly Delights.

There’s magic and freeform music in the air in “Jazz Sunsets”, while in “A Private Eden 2350” art quite literally imitates life (or maybe that should be the other way around). “The Native Finds Her in the Wreckage” is a story of being found when it’s perhaps better to remain lost, and if you are chilled by the portents of doom in “The Holes Through Which the Scarabs Come”, then be careful when listening to the “Language of Scorpions”.

One piece that immediately catches the eye is “A Garden of Unearthly Delights”. Not only is this poem the first of the collection, but also a glimpse into something old, dark and dangerous. A real sense of a musty house with rooms draped in cobwebs comes to mind as an inquisitive visitor is shown more than anyone should see by the flame-eyed, filthy-robed host. Filled with menace, curiosity and regret, this one is a good and creepy opener. Here’s the first verse:

I knew I'd find you here,
the residential haunt
of a dreary farmhouse
on the outskirts of Antwerp.
It had to be none other
for a medieval artisan,
Maestro of the Grotesque.

Once again, Simon proves that artwork is a powerful tool when expanding the imagery of poems. Whether they depict a portrait, a scene, or some secret act, they always further the storytelling in a subtle and non-intrusive way. Having read the collection as a whole, it’s difficult to say whether the words and pictures could live and breathe as individual entities. Hindsight won’t let me separate them. So I can only conclude that Unearthly Pleasure is exactly as it should be: a sum of parts forming a complete work from a very busy lady.

—Edward Cox

Steven Gordon review at Songs of Eretz


Vamps: A Retrospective by James S. Dorr
2011, Sam’s Dot Publishing, 84 pp., $7.00

Whether you’re a vampire or a vampire lover, this collection belongs on your person, and not buried within the vacuoles of an ancient bookcase. With forty-nine poems each showcasing Dorr’s versatility with style, tone, form, and subject matter, the Vampire Library of Congress is proud to claim Dorr as one of its own.

Marge Simon, a noted artist and poet, who has illustrated six Stoker Award-winning books et al, has brought eleven of Dorr’s poems to life with watercolor wash, watercolor pencils, and non-erasable oil pencils.

Alas, the sun will rise soon, so there isn’t sufficient time (or space) to discuss all of my favorites. Nevertheless, I will expose a few veins.… The dedication, “Blood Portrait”, lifts Max Schreck’s and Bela Lugosi’s coffin lids. A warning perhaps, to the faint of heart, as they wander through that dank and forbidding fog.

“Eight Top Vampire Hobbies” was nominated for the 2011 Rhysling Award and provides excellent advice for the vampire searching for meaningful activities. If I meet this vampire at a local nightclub, I’m definitely going to offer him an Altoid.

4. Dental hygiene.
Regular visits,
a program of flossing,
a vampire’s teeth are his
prized possession,
and don’t forget mouthwashes,
breath mints, too,
for that all-night freshness.
Vampires are sensitive
on this topic.

Vampires and other creatures of their ilk are so greatly misunderstood. Dorr, however, doesn’t hesitate to look upon and reveal the truth of “La Méduse”. Her plight? An all-consuming need to create.

She carved men in hard stone,
its marble sheen the color of her own skin,
moon-hued and shining …

Been underground for a while? Visiting from a distant planet? Well, of course you’d be looking for fashion tips. Look no further than “Elemental Vamp”.

Once, a run
beneath the ground had kept her skin
a gentle white: to cope with new sun's
cancerous glare the vamp begins
with modern fabrics—blouses, jeans,
skirts and dresses wispy thin
for comfort. Their reflective sheen
is well in fashion, while a snood,
a hat (wide-brimmed), cosmetic screens,
protect the face and throat, and floods
of cream-like moisteners smooth her hands.

Down in Birdland, Dorr shows us his social conscience chops with a jazzy-bebop- spoken-word piece, “Chinese Music” that throws down fast and furious riffs alongside Charlie Parker and other jazz & blues greats. This poem comments on social injustice.

bat-shadows shattering, driving the dark back
allinasinglebreath
as Charlie Parker played over the changes—
God! even the Shadow-Man stopped then to hear it!

For those who love amuse-bouches, Dorr offers several horrorku. His sophisticated, humorous palette? Five-star! Invited to a vampire wedding? Why not give them a gift that keeps on giving?

Honeymoon Magic
vampire kitchen gift
a large compactor with a spout—
fresh-squeezed people juice

Be sure to visit his blog at jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com

—Terrie Leigh Relf

A Woman of Mars coverA Woman of Mars by Helen Patrice
2011, PS Publishing, hardcover, £14.99, AU$25.00, US$25.00. pspublishing.co.uk

The 34 poems in this book tell the story of, and are from the point of view of, an early homesteader on Mars. The poems were written as a sort of free-verse diary by the viewpoint character.

Our story begins with the protagonist (who never names herself) a teenager on Earth. The first poem, which has no title, refers to “he” as the one who made her realize that her future lay in the stars, rather than here on Earth. “He” is presumably the boy she falls in love with and later marries. This poem introduces without explanation the two main themes of the book: her relationship with her man and, more importantly, her relationship with the planet Mars.

Only from within his eyes,
did I see clear
for the first time,
a future of steel and stars
.

At the age of 15 she goes to see a young child-cosmonaut and his spacecraft, and this is when we find out that the protagonist is Australian. Patrice uses the word “spruiker.” I rarely come across a term I don’t know, but this definitely stumped me. It is listed as “archaic Australian slang” in one online dictionary. The meaning is obvious from context, so I won’t explain it here. Read the book (or, look it up like I did). At any rate, their eyes meet, and she knows.

I had one moment of doubt—
surely I was too young at fifteen,
he too old at twenty-six.
As the hologram show glittered,
he slid through the audience,
answering questions, smiling false
to all but me.

The book has a personal tone throughout. I love this. It is easy to read this book and believe that it was all written by a young homesteader trying to make her way in a very demanding place. My chief complaint is that many of the poems are too short. That may sound odd coming from me; I’m sure a lot of what I write seems too short. This might be a case of do what I say, not what I do. There are times when brevity is not really called for. For example, the third poem deals with the protagonist’s relationship with her mother. Mother doesn’t want her daughter to leave. (Her only daughter? We don’t know, because Patrice hasn’t told us.) Of course the mother who is staying behind is upset. Our protagonist is homesteading Mars in the same way that European settlers colonized North America in the 17th century. In the same way that my grandparents traveled to New York City from Europe in steerage in the early 20th century. They never went back home to visit. Nevertheless, Mother’s reaction is unexpectedly violent. Unexpected to the reader, anyway, and it is not explained. I think the collection would be stronger for little more information here. The only other thing we have by way of explanation of the mother-daughter relationship is brief and remote. We have our protagonist’s reaction to a batch of e-mail messages she receives when orbiting Mars at the end of the journey.

I recalled the hard heat of her hands
as she beat me from her house.
We never spoke voice to voice again,
the cold trench of space separating us.

Reconciliation? No opportunity for that. And maybe I am wrong, maybe we don’t need to know more. Patrice certainly packs a punch with just a few words, and maybe the explanation I’m wishing for would be too much icing on the cake.

The vast majority of the book is about life on Mars: arrival, getting used to the differences between Mars and Earth, their sometimes dangerous efforts to make Mars feel like Home, and then the task of living there, making a whole life in a very strange place. Eventually, the colonists become Martians, no longer displaced earthlings who are all too frequently looking back to Earth. They create their own society, where meat grows on trees, where it no longer seems peculiar that you can’t go outside unprotected, but some things from old Earth are still with them.

Our first murder
was solved quickly.

We are a frontier city,
and nothing is wasted.
Victim and murderer,
both mulched down
for the good of the soil

In the end, a whole life is presented here. It is only the beginning of human life on Mars, but A Woman of Mars covers not only the life of the protagonist, but colonial Mars itself. By the end of the book Mars has changed as much as our protagonist has. Emigrating to an established colony, or being born there, is not the same as hacking almost everything you have out of barren red dirt.

I liked this book. I like Patrice’s voice; she brings a fresh perspective to a subject that science fiction writers have explored for generations. What it reminds me of most is Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I think you should buy it.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

* * *

Diane Severson Mori review


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