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Only SFPA members’ books are listed on the Books page. Here, reviews for any speculative poetry book, regardless of membership status or year of publication, are welcome. Star*Line welcomes books for possible review; see the Star*Line page for our editorial address. Reviews are listed by year of publication and alphabetically by title.
For books published in 2012:
2012, Ascraeus Press. 148 pp. e-book, $4.
Blue Sunset collects the epitaphs of more than 150 residents of the first colony on Mars—their broken dreams, their petty infidelities, their burning secrets and hidden passions. With a total of 155 poems, connected in a hypertext spiderweb detailing the relationships between the many settlers, this collection constructs a continually deepening, interpersonal weave of stories with the harsh red of Martian dust as its backdrop.
As the title suggests, each poem, each titled for its signature character, is an autobiographical epitaph of a Martian resident, describing their circumstances, their goals, and their demise. From “Curtis Long,” the mob enforcer-turned-sheriff who keeps the peace with violent vigilante justice, to “Pearl the Singer,” failed performer and successful businesswoman, to “Jackie Fontenelle,” teenager in love, the epitaphs span the gamut of human emotion and experience.
Blue Sunset relies far more on its narrative momentum than yearning poetic language. Most of the language is straightforward, conversational, straddling the line between dialogue, prose, and poetry. The beauty in the collection is found less in its turn of phrase and more in the connections between characters, their small tragedies and blossoming romances, their slice-of-life stories turned sour. The branching web of characters often serves as a sort of immediate juxtaposition: where in one poem a relationship is strong, passionate, or fulfilling, the next poem from the other partner tells a different story. Take, for example, “Gabriel Robinson,” where he discusses his relationship with fellow settler Nora:
That was Nora's big attraction for me.
She really listened to me when I talked,
Even though I could tell the caves bored her.
Sex was her idea, and we were compatible, though not passionate.
Nora, however, tells a different story, in the very next poem “Nora Gray” :
But I wanted more; he provoked a need in me
That just wasn't there before; I had to have him.
I wanted him more than I had ever wanted anything else in my life.
I gave notice on my job and left my marriage.
Such juxtapositions run throughout the collection, detailing lives as gritty as the Martian dust they reference. Most of the poem deal with character introspection, retrospective views on their own lives, providing only the occasional breathtaking glimpse of the beauty of Mars itself. One such moment happens in “Candy Cartwright” :
I came to Mars to take pretty pictures,
And never dreamed how the majesty of this dusty red desert
With its fields of green, iron-magnesium olivine
Would change my life.…
Each poem serves as a small, self-contained story—a solitary bubble floating above the blasted Martian landscape, bumping into a few others before it inevitably pops. Many poems end in a moment of abrupt retrospection, with the narrator attempting to justify their decisions or rationalize their experience, gazing back on their successes or mistakes on the red planet. Death doesn’t so much stalk the collection as blow through like a dust storm, closing the book on each small story and leading to the next. It takes the reader past over a hundred voices, from the delusional to the sad to the content, spanning the spectrum of human experience.
This collection isn’t for everyone. Those looking for intricate language or visceral imagery might want to look elsewhere. Blue Sunset is a long, slow-building human diorama of Mars, showing how going to another planet would not let people transcend the human condition, but instead force them to confront it, in all its base, irrational, brilliant entirety. As the final line of the poem “Jeremy Steadman” states:
We didn’t conquer the red planet; we became a part of it.—Alex Plummer
Bone Forge Books, 2012. 65 pp. Paperback $7.99.
The Bone Forge is an effective journeyman effort. Divided into six “chapters,” the book effectively utilizes mythology—especially Norse mythology—to drive its angst. While the book is described as presenting the “horrors of death, madness and transformation” it is definitely a dark collection, but I see it as less a book of horror poems utilizing mythology to a mythologized primal scream of anger from an author who, unlike many Americans, has too many fathers, rather than too few. Consider these lines from “Five Fathers”:
One speaks of
his fist a
Alrighty then…I think we get the picture. And imagery is something of Ingram’s strong suit; my personal taste in poetry runs far more to the imagistic, so I like Ingram’s use of imagery, especially when it echoes in some ways poetic works such as Beowulf, as in “The Calling”:
I can hear the call
bidding men to
rise and fall
on the rain-slashed
yards of heaven
Now, what sets this work aside from most other poetry of its ilk is the sophistication in rhythm which reminds me of the Poetic Edda and Beowulf, rather than a slavish adherence to the famous works’ alliteration. He does put a bit of alliteration into another of this “chapter” in “Odin Swayed”:
they watch me
globes of jellied death
milky and swollen
wet and weeping
as crumbling cliffs
of chalk stone
In between all this mythologizing and raging against Father as a god, a demon, and an archetype (in Norse mythology Odin is often called “Allfather”), Ingram has some rather standard-trope horror poems such as “Harlequin Haunt,” in which the speaker appears to be flaying some woman dressed, perhaps, in a Harley Quinn outfit. In “Nature” he shows Her red in tooth and claw:
I can feel a
rising from a
of echoes and death
The book is recommended for horror and dark mythology fans. If I have a criticism it is that the author needs to be more mindful of his line breaks, avoiding ending a line with an article or preposition. But he has style, and I look forward to what he comes up with next.
2012, Roguelikefiction, perfect-bound, $10.
Nathan D. Jerpe runs Roguelikefiction. The Boviniad, Book I, is described by the publisher as "a new verse translation of one of the most famous epic poems of post-antiquity." This book is cleverly presented as a verse translation of an epic, complete with line numbers, divisions into cantos, and all the trappings of an academic translation of any other well-known and -studied epic.
The Boviniad is an epic concerning an invasion of planet-sized cows into our universe. These cows are so huge, in fact, that people can actually tour the insides of their bodies via injected spacecraft. This book details a few of these brave tourists and adventurers, including Maybel and Mayerton Plumtree, rich and obnoxiously opulent tourists; Aubrie Moreau, a travel photographer; and Felix Cunard, a private detective and current employee of the Countess Mantissa. Felix, for the bulk of the book, seems to be the protagonist, and readers will find themselves sympathizing with his misadventures. The book also features a plot focused on Archibald Jenkins, who runs the injection team, and Doctor van der Grooven, who feels that Jenkins's calculations are incorrect, an argument which leads to disastrous launch results.
Readers will most likely be impressed at Jerpe's skill as a storywriter and his ability to hand-wave through some fairly amusing speculative situations. The plot of this story, along with its subplots, is fairly engaging and the shifts in change, character and scene keep the reader connected and interested in the book. As the beginning of an epic, the tale of this book has a lot working for it, even if at times it seems improbable or merely silly. Jerpe also manages to make subtle comments about our society in this text, critiquing the tourist industry, battles between powers when dealing with large industrial projects, and even space exploration itself. In other words, Jerpe's epic works as a mirror for the reader, analyzing and critiquing society as all good epics should.
However, most readers will be disappointed at the craft of the piece. There are many times when Jerpe's slips, metrically, to the detriment of the poem as a whole. While there are those who would argue that it is difficult to maintain iambic pentameter in a long piece, it could just as easily be argued that Jerpe chose this meter and establishes it as the tonic in the opening of the poem, so it is his responsibility as an author to maintain it, or at least make an attempt to maintain it, as opposed to letting it slip with no artistic purpose or motivation. Whereas one can easily explain away, possibly even champion, minor metrical variations as necessity or even an artistic attempts to break up the monotony of a strict meter, lines like “this doctor chooses to call home,” (20) or “in sloshing drench the land” (95), that don't even attempt to reflect the tonic, call attention to themselves and make it seem as though Jerpe was simply being lazy or uncreative.
Even lines where the meter is only slightly off often have obvious fixes that would smooth the flow of the piece. Take, for example, the lines:
For that was who it was that floated up,
the frizzled white wilderness of his hair
beneath his helm outspreading like a sponge
and at his flank a pair of assistants
Both the first and third lines of this stanza are clearly iambic, but the meter slips unnecessarily in the second and fourth, and could easily be fixed with minor variations to the lines, or simple word substitutions that would not alter the tone or the piece at all. For example, "the FRIZzled WHITE WILDerness OF his HAIR" could become "the FRIZzled WILDerNESS of HIS white HAIR," maintaining both alliteration and iambic pentameter. Minor annoyances like these read not as artistic or creative, but artistically apathetic on the part of Jerpe, as though he were more interested in the plot of his piece than the telling of it.
The other main issue with this book, of course, with this poem is that it isn't finished. While this is obvious from the title of the book, it's still frustrating to get through ninety-six pages, meet the primary characters of the piece, witness their launch into a giant cow, and then have the poem abruptly end. One can only hope that Nathan D. Jerpe is busy working on the next installment of The Boviniad. Until then, readers must be content with this promising start to what looks to be a very exciting space epic.
2012, Starburker Publications, saddle-stitched, 12 pp. Free for C5 SASE from 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB, United Kingdom, or e-mail email@example.com
This codex follows the format of its predecessors. Each page bears a short poem, followed by a description. The descriptions attempts to link lovecraftian mythology with history. I think this codex is more successful in this regard than the others. Perhaps it is because I am less familiar with Central Asia, or perhaps it is because Leng (here, L'ng) has always seemed to me as though it really could be in Central Asia. In any case, the descriptions have the ring of truth (or at least, of historicity). For example:
“Among the oldest Tibetan legends of the terrestrial land of L'ng is that of Gesar, who has aspects of a Bonist sacred king.” Or “described in Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. as gold digging ants, the curious insect-daemons of the outer darkness … pose many questions.”
According to Cox, there are two L'ngs: one in Central Asia and another in dreamland. This is in accord with Lovecraft's writing, but I am pretty sure Lovecraft never actually said that there were two. Here the dichotomy is made explicit. Cox does not repeat Brian Lumley's and August Derleth's errors in making the Mythos so matter-of-fact that it isn't even mythic anymore. No crimefighting Justice League-style struggle between technocrats and eldritch horrors. Instead, Cox mimics the tone of anthropologists describing in matter-of-fact terms something they clearly don't understand. Something which, as is plain to the cognoscenti, is anything but mundane. Here are a couple of excerpts.
Hidden in tight valleys
The last purple spiders
Spin clawing razor webs
To trap unwise dreamers
Or, from "Beast Men":
Enslaved by Moon frog-folk
Still they keep faith with the
Distant, cold, Sleeping God
Creatures crushed beneath chaos
I shouldn't write more about such a slim publication. Just remember that the price is right, you have to act fast if you want it at all, and it's a charming little foray into the narrative-as-faux-history genre, one that Lovecraft used all the time.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Barrie, ON: Tightrope Books. 102 pp. $16.95. tightropebooks.com
Sandra Kasturi’s collection Come Late to the Love of Birds is a significant achievement both in its integrated thematic construction surrounding various real and fantastic aspects of birds and in the quality of the poems therein. Inspired by a quote from J. A, Baker’s The Peregrine: “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision,” Kasturi masters form and metaphor interweaving effective use of personification and image to convey a sense of wonder. Dedicated to Ray Bradbury, Neil Armstrong and Eric “Possum Man” Stewart, these forty-one finely-crafted speculative poems slide confidently through fantasy, mythology, folklore, science fiction and horror genres: Icarus, Dr. Seuss, Ursula K. Le Guin and Bluebeard’s Grandmother. Throughout, birds provide effective metaphors for the apogee and perigee of human emotion: ecstatic flight versus road kill. “Roc,” her initial poem explains, “We are come late to the love of birds/ for we are come late to love. …Now, the sharp twinge of middle age/ and we are caught in love’s punctured balloon” (13).
Later in “The Evolution of Birds,” Kasturi’s bird’s eye view suggests that sharks have “the deep haiku of the ocean” but “birds have always had stories of us” (17). They, after all precede us, and know “our drab colours and dull teeth, our nothing lives” (17). Metaphorically birds become Makers, inspiring flight, “bending the prosaic tines of forks,” shaping rivers “with great and small wings” and puffing “the flightiness” of clouds into being. (21-22). Furthermore, as Kasturi elaborates on her admiration for birds in “One Red Thought,” a red hawk exists beyond existential angst: “slapping shoes and/ rustling, wrinkled pants,/ my city ways” (26). “There are only winged things/and not-winged things./ Only himself and the sky,/ the curve of the earth/ tilting how he wills it” (27).
In their solipsistic arrogance, Kasturi’s birds become dangerous cannibals, evolving into winged vampire Night, who seductively offers the moon, an anodyne for depression: “this collapsed nova inside you, this black thing” (29). “He has been charmed by the fairy/ tale of physics in this century, the clear/ voices from between the stars. Hush—he lays/ you, bitten, down” (29). In “Origins of Species” the persona and her lover are metaphorically swallowed by a Great Auk, becoming “gastroliths in the belly of love,/ afloat in a rocking sea” (34).
Archeopteryx to crow to hummingbird, birds all reveal something essential about human nature, our desire for divinity and our ultimate failure to achieve it, but that does not hinder the author from imagining godhood, flight to the edge of the solar system and beyond. In “The Day I Ate Jupiter,” the persona snacks on the planet: “its mouth-watering centre/ savoured layer by layer/ though time rots my body/ and withers my voice/ until only the bright kernel/ of Jupiter’s everlasting gobstopper core/remains smouldering in my throat” (40). “In Moon & Muchness” the meal continues, licking “the sour-candy-pocked moon” “to a dim luster” (43) followed by this carpe diem, an amazing weave of kitchen and cosmic: “Let us tower and fall to crumbledcake/ battlements, forge to life from god-dusted bellows,/ and spoon-feed the sun in all his pie-humbled/ runcible wit—let us be beam-struck bedfellows./We can swallow the universe in its entirety,/ its star-spackled, moon-freckled boundless absurdity” (43).
Read on. This book is too good to pass up.
—Sandra J. Lindow
2012, Starburker Publications, saddle-stitched, 12 pp. Free for C5 SASE from 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB, United Kingdom, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This is Cox’s fourth Lovecraftian poetry collection, and I think it’s one of the best. This particular book was inspired by the work of Arthur Machen. Codex Nodens contains 8 poems, each with a very brief postscript, and one piece of flash fiction—this doesn’t have a postscript, perhaps because it completely fills a page. There is a rather crude drawing on the cover of the God Nodens.
“Initiation” is just that:
Then sharp iron is pressed into your breast
Silence amidst the band
As though alone, armed with only hope and
A bean in your mouth, is this the last test?
Structurally, this is pretty typical of the poems in this chapbook. They tend to rhyme but to have no meter that I can discern. The comment at the end of this poem suggests a geographical link between the purportedly well-known worship of Nodens and the somewhat more mythical legend of King Arthur. Cox is presenting these poems, in true Lovecraftian form, as referring to a genuine mythology. He slips in links to scholarly works, historical events, some real and some fabricated, in service to this goal. As one reads on, the alternate world in which all of this is real is fleshed out. For instance, “Translation” is meant to be a French troubadour’s song, translated into English. Thus it makes the web of fabrication bilingual and geographically and temporally more diverse. Another poem links the mythology to Jack the Ripper and to Pan.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Nodens was a “real” mythological figure, worshiped in Great Britain. The link between the ruins at Lyndney and King Arthur is related to the Celtic God Nodens, not Lovecraft’s fictional Nodens (though the latter was based on the Celtic original). So is the chapbook really about the Celtic Nodens? In part yes, but the chapbook lists itself as a Lovecraftian pamphlet. Also there is this, from “Transmutations”:
A person who reverts to protoplasmic gel
Ancient hidden races, secret of the ages
One thing I like about Codex Nodens is its unification of far-ranging subjects. “No sleep, no sleep, no sleep” is a poem about World War I, yet it fits. Trench warfare had a lot in common with what the Old Ones have visited on we puny humans. The last poem, “Faerie Blood,” does have formal structure and makes good use of line repetition (the latter is not apparent in this single stanza):
When cloud castles call from on high
These days when magic’s at a drought
When sunset’s palette makes you sigh
I find these Lovecraftian chapbooks by Cardinal Cox to be charming. They push the envelope. For instance, as far as I can recall, Lovecraft never wrote about Faerie. Then again, Arthur Machen did. These poems have the flavor of the sources even when they don’t have the content I expected. This chapbook, like its predecessors, is available for a self-addressed envelope. I suspect they go quickly, so don’t hesitate to order one. I don’t understand why somebody, perhaps Cox himself, doesn’t scan these chapbooks and make PDFs, which could be distributed after the paper copies are gone. After all, they were distributed free in the first place.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2012, Popcorn Press, perfect-bound. $9.95
Given the nature of this beast(/iary) of a collection, I would venture an educated guess that each and every author is a Miskatonic graduate in excellent standing. Once you creep between the covers of this tome, you will see The Old Ones et al walk the multidimensional hallowed halls of horror.
Head Master, editor Lester Smith, has included 44 different authors (including himself), most of whom have more than one work included. This collection offers a maddening array of poems and fiction—from the humorous to the truly horrific! In addition to haiku (or Cthulhuku) as its title suggests, there are a host of other forms; there are also some with chilling rhyme screams—I mean, schemes.
Even if (or perhaps, especially if) you’re already familiar with Lovecraft’s mythos, you will find herein some most excellent companions on your multidimensional journey. If this is your first step through the Lovecraftian portal, you will definitely come away—if you survive intact—with a sense of boundless mystery and yes, with more than a touch of madness.
It’s important to note that this collection should serve as a compendium, and be required reading for all current Miskatonic students, past, present, and future. Please refrain, however, from informing the new pledges that once they move into the Miskatonic dorm tower, there will be no forwarding address.
While I have many favorites in this collection, unfortunately, I won’t be able to discuss them all. So many stole my breath, then pinned me against that starless night. When the stars emerged at last, they pierced me as with a sacrificial blade!
Even if you bring your lantern, don an overcoat, and slip into those galoshes, they won’t do you a bit of good when you enter F. J. Bergmann’s “nine-gated alien hell” (p. 8).
Just imagine walking along a shore of “crushed skulls” with Candace Phoenix in “There is no lost city” (p. 46), or going mad upon reading Sarah Terry’s prose poem, “When Even Death May Die.” (p. 47) Just in case you’re wondering about those spine-tingling calls you receive in the middle of the night, James P. Roberts’ “Phone Guy from Yuggoth” may explain them. (p. 64)
David Kopaska-Merkel’s “Sacrificed to” sheds light on another disgusting layer of Internet ooze (p. 65). Go ahead … I dare you to input that URL! Looking for an “apocalyptic tryst”? If you’re also a god, look no further than “Wanted: octopoid”, also by Kopaska-Merkel (p. 67).
Looking to sharpen your intellect? The recently departed Stephen M. Wilson’s “Mythos One Breaths” will do the trick. Then stop off at Innsmouth to visit with Chef Lucinda in his limerick, “Howard d’oeuvres.” You’ll learn about yet another culinary substitution for chicken (p. 98).
No treatise of this nature would be complete without a warning label—or a “Cthulhu for Dummies” section. Read Robert Borski’s “Complete Idiot’s”, then ponder whether Heidegger would add this to his list of Uncertainty Principles from beyond the grave (p. 99). Borski also kisses and tells in “pouty-lipped & gilled” (p. 28).
Smith’s flash fiction piece, “Faces in a Crowd” (p. 36-7), illustrates the horrifying reality of lovers vowing to be together … always. Heed the warning of this cautionary tale! If your lover goes missing while conducting research at the Miskatonic University Library, just let him (or her) go. Then again, you may never be lonely again if you decide to pursue the issue.
James S. Dorr’s “The Farmer in the Well” (p. 66) is a delightful yarn inspired by the children’s rhyme, “The Farmer in the Dell.” I don’t want to spoil it for you, so let’s just say it answers the question as to why the water tastes like chicken and the crops are doing so well.
—Terrie Leigh Relf, Miskatonic University graduate of the Occult Studies Program, circa 1901.
2012, Sam's Dot Publishing, Poetry Picture Book 40 pp. For ages 8 and up.
One of the best sources of subject matter for children’s writing—whether prose or poetry—is found in animals, since they provide children an instantly recognizable way to connect with the writing. David Kopaska-Merkel’s Edible Zoo poems follow, slightly, the leanings of Jack Prelutsky (think “Ballad of a Boneless Chicken”), but offer an even more quirky take on animal poetry. After all, what good are animals if you can’t eat them?
Take “Monkey Stew,” which begins:
We went to catch a monkey,
It's what we had to do,
We were feeling hungry
For some monkey stew!
The first poem of this short read, “Horse-radish Sandwich,” sets the tenor of the book, but it’s not really until the end of the piece that we understand the writer means a real horse and not the condiment. Fortunately, illustrations by Valerie Bodell clarify the slightly wicked undertones, as a huge-mouthed boy is set to take a big bite of horsetail sandwich.
Some of the language in the book will go over children’s heads, as in:
Oh aardvark! Culinary gem,
I like to nibble now and then,
On freeze-dried chips of aardvark dipped,
In cheesy spread with cognac sipped.
—which means that the poems are probably more of a read-aloud than a read-alone, and may take some explaining. And because the book contains references to eating what might be considered beloved pets, parents and children eight and older will probably enjoy this more than the younger crowd; then, too, boys will giggle over the idea of eating grilled lion possibly more than girls will.
2012, Knitting Guns Press, free download/donation, knittingguns.com
E-books are an ever-growing enterprise for the modern day publisher. Sadly, the full scope of this enterprise is rarely realised, with most publishers preferring to release digital clones of paper editions. The use of hypertext is a concise way to delineate between downloads and hardcopies, and with her new book Endoma, J. Rainey takes full advantage of hypertext to produce a publication that is designed in every way to only work in electronic form.
Rainey begins by building the world of Endoma, a giant habitat where the human race now dwells as a merging of technology and flesh. With an eerie blend of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, she describes characters and gives them stories to tell. In “Epicene Us” the lines between plural and singular are blurred as humans form a new consciousness that fuses the generic with the individual. “Core Concept: Overskin” puts a very strange end to the manufacturing of clothes. The air of this world is kept clean and fresh by “The Greenfingered”, and the threads of “I Am” lead us deep into identity.
All aspects of Endoma’s imaginative society can be learned and explored as a linear sequence, but with the introduction of hypertext, information, explanations and narratives can be – and probably should be – acquired with a more visceral experience. Moments such as “textspeak touchadd 1”, where the indistinct single line Why do we call it tongue touching? forms nothing more than links to other parts of the story, we begin to understand why this book is destined to never see a single leaf of paper.
Endoma is a sum of its parts, an epic poem for the cyber world that is designed to be experienced. As standalone pieces, none of the poems truly work without the hypertext leading you to some tale or explanation imbedded into the whole. The book is available as a free download from Knitting Guns Press, who encourages us to share the adventure, and share again. And we should take time to do so. With its many prompts and ambiguities within the text, I suspect Rainey has created more ways to read Endoma than I have fingers and toes.
2012, Bad Moon Books.
Earth, water, fire, and air—the four elements have permeated philosophy and the fantastic since the dawn of the human race. It’s a strange topic, as noble as it is mysterious, and a fertile ground upon which poets like to wax lyrical. With their new collection Four Elements, Charlee Jacobs, Marge Simon, Rain Graves, and Linda Addison have decided to add their views to the subject. And when four poets like these, who have a few awards and a ridiculous number of publications between them, decide to get together, then the resulting book has a lot to live up to.
With each author handling a different element, Marge Simon starts the show by landing on Earth to deliver “The Time Drifter” where locations are never as complicated as love and life. Rain Graves splashes us with Water, where “Lady of the Lake” takes control of a grim and painful life. Charlee Jacobs singes us with Fire, and the horrific Second Coming in “Feature in Red”; while Linda Addison cools us with Air before boiling us insane with “The Void in the Song of Madness”.
If you’re really looking to hit Earth with a bump, try Simon’s “All of it falls, the sky”, a poem of frustration where tensions build during a cramped coach trip, heading for a destination where there is no reprieve from the confines of the world. This one rises like a slow scream that’s destined to never get released, and the opening verse nicely sets everyone’s teeth on edge:
all of it falls the sky as I
writhe in this itchy seat
while the child behind me
kicks it steadily all the way
from Dallas to the coast
and the baby seven seats up
two hours nonstop wailing
babies inside, babies out
Accompanied by the cool artwork of Marge Simon, and the photography of Jim Jacob, Four Elements is the sum of its impressive parts. Sticking their fingers into all areas of the SpecFic pie, it seems, Jacob, Simon, Graves, and Addison have gathered a collection that not only lives up to expectation, but also lets the imagination fly within the realms of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.
2012, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hardcover $29.95. rawdogscreaming.com
This isn’t just a book of those little poems Mike calls “Gorelets.” This hardcover horror-poetry-criticism-workshop-lesson is like one of those bed-in-a bag kits. Everything you need for a cozy night, except the guy with the hatchet.
How I enjoyed getting those snippets of poems called “Gorelets” in my Hotmail inbox along with, usually, a writing lesson. Mike is the coolest creative writing teacher you wish you had, except for the fact that you went to a state college where it turned out that you had already published more than the professor … but I digress. Mike likes his gore funny but still gruesome, and these might as well be called “Gruelets” as far as I’m concerned.
In addition to the Gorelets, there are “Borelets” and “Haikruel.” Hey, the SF writers have their scifaiku, so why can’t we horror writers have our haikruel? The term merits wider usage, methinks. In addition to all this poetry, the reader also gets literary criticism of Mike’s work (I’m soooo jealous!) and a whole Horror Poetry Writing Workshop, followed by writing prompts that Mike calls “Instigations.”
I’m gonna give ya examples. So, since we’re talking teachers and students, here’s a few examples from Gorelets on the topic. From “Cheater’s Meat”:
Enough, the bio teacher says,
and after school flays the crib-
bed notes off the student’s arm […]
“Teacherruptions” begins like this:
The geologist takes his old rock
chiseler to the flunky student’s skull
and then impresses upon him
the concept of earth tectonics
the hard way […]
Mike waxes philosophical and humorous in some of the poems, as in these lines from the middle of “Ways in Which Moving is Like Death”:
Your past becomes legend far too quickly. Even the secret stuff.
You can’t take it with you. I’m referring, of course, to that thing
some jerk borrowed and never returned. Now it’s really gone.
Any poet and certainly any instructor who teaches dark fiction and poetry could use this book as a text; that’s its unique value. I’ve used some pretty good SF/F texts in genre writing classes, but as far as something that is unique for the horror writer, and particularly the horror poet, I’m gonna go with this. Seriously, as my students say. I’m running out of wordspace so I’ll end with a few of his Instigations, which are great writing prompts any way you, er, slice ’em:
—Torture a popular cartoon character or persona from children’s television.
—Have fun with carpentry accidents.
—Everyone says they’re afraid of clowns. What are clowns afraid of?
Depict their worst nightmare.
—The title of your piece is: “Flesh Butter.”
I think you get the idea. Horror course in a bag, er, a hardcover book, built to last, unlike that cheap comforter that shrank when you washed it.
And the blood and brains never did wash out!
Popcorn Press, perfect-bound, 128 pp. $9.95
There’s no confusion in what you’re getting with Kristine Ong Muslim’s collection Grim Series. That kind of flat-footed title sets it up pretty plainly, and the only question would be whether your tastes gravitate towards that kind of thing, because that’s what you get with this book of macabre poetry. It’s truth in advertising. And since many of these poems have shown up in various horror venues over the years, you can be pretty confident that if grim is your cup of tea, you’ll be liking this.
The book is divided into sections. The first section is called “Conrad,” and it's about a weird, creepy Adams-type-family situation. Conrad is the demented little creature-brother with sewn-on body parts and a hankering for roasted crow sandwiches. The roasted crow is a nice conceit. For amusement, Conrad pretends to be dead so that he can have recreational autopsies performed on him by humans. The rest of his family is kind of witchy, for whom the horrible is the mundane.
Giger’s Tracts, the second section, has a nice series of poems I especially liked, “Five Stitches Which Close the Mouth of …” the Apocalypse, the Cathedral, the Hyperspace, and the Giant Worm. The third section has some nice work regarding invisible horses. The section after that is about “Vengeful Villagers.” And so on. That’s where the title actually comes from, several series of poems within the book, each of them pretty grim.
These are agnostic, morbid, gothic horror poems. So my point is? My only real complaint with some of these poems is the same complaint I have with a large streak of our genre poetry in general, that there is a tendency towards the clever but hasty, an impatience in construction which leaves some of the topics and images ill-considered, while going for the quick punch line. I do it, too, sometimes, so I shouldn’t complain too much. But by and large Muslim’s work is solid, and I think you’ll find it entertaining.
—John Philip Johnson
2012, Raven Electrick Ink, perfect-bound, 46 pp. $7.95
Rhysling-award-winning poet Samantha Henderson is comfortable with the incomplete, the hidden, the broken and the layered. That’s what makes her poems so compelling. Effectively titled The House of Forever, her most recent collection transcends the superficial to explore the effects and convolutions of passing time. For Henderson, “Each day’s a séance,” a confrontation with ghosts, aliens, dinosaurs and steampunk “Mormon Crickets”. Each poem is redolent with insight as well as loss: “the ghosts we create because we are hungry for them”. Fantasy and Science Fiction sleep comfortably together in a bed that expands from a “Crackerbox” slum tenement in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to contain the moon, “Gamma Quad,” “Cygnus 5” and all the space interim and beyond. Henderson’s vision contains the macabre where “Veritas” (Truth) becomes a kitchenmaid’s body “dangling at the end of the Butcher Boy’s rope,/ her head at an unnatural angle,/ (Like a toucan’s beak)” She does not explain this death but rather suggests the possibly that it results from seeing too much of what folks prefer to keep hidden: gristle, excretion, putrefaction and unnatural lusts. Poets, by nature and experience, recognize the danger of looking too long beneath the comfortable, cognitive surfaces and layers of human trash, to the “Reptile Brain” in all of us, “the serpent coiled around your brainstem,”; “Beneath the rotted log, a snake is sleeping. / Between two stones, a burrow. / Like the air, you exist in layers.” However, despite our layered descent from “The Reptile House,” for Henderson, the virtues of Truth, Faith, Hope, Substance and Wisdom can still be found like an unexpected zucchini in the remnants of a “Victory Garden.” Buy this book, read it carefully (What she leaves out is just as important as what she includes), and then for the compleat experience, eat it, internalize the text; Henderson provides directions on page 38.
—Sandra J. Lindow
2012, Bag Person Press, 3149 Park Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55407. Print, 116 pages, $10.
According to the introduction of this anthology, the Lady Poetesses From Hell began at a Tea and Poetry Salon when one member brought in a poem that was “unladylike,” shocking the members with its darkness and disturbing themes. However, the members all began to realize that they, too, had similar poems, so they set up a reading at MiniCon, dressing as formal ladies would at tea, and reading their dark and disturbing, most unladylike, poems. Members of the group include Laurel Winter, Beth Hansen, Rebecca Marjesdatter, Terry A. Garey, Cathy Tenzo, K. C. O’Malley, Ruth Berman, Jane Yolen, and John Calvin Rezmerski, who channels the spirit of Grace Lord Stoke through the internet. Lady Poetesses From Hell is an anthology of their work.
The anthology is arranged not by author or theme, but in rounds, imitating a live reading by the Lady Poetesses From Hell. Poets are staggered in rotation for each round, so that no one poet gains prominence over the other. Furthermore, the spontaneous aspects of the live reading are maintained, as none of the rounds seem to have a specific theme or subject. This works to keep the poems fresh and the anthology progressing at its own unique pace; however, it also leads to inconsistencies in tone, which occasionally jar the reader in awkward ways. There is something to be said for keeping the reader on their toes, but when it comes across as affected, the effect is lost.
As with almost any anthology, the work is inconsistent. Poems that work well stand out, but many of the poems seem to be placed in the anthology simply so that every poet was represented in each round, and read as padding. Furthermore, the editors have chosen the broadest definition of speculative possible, including detailed personification, ekphrasis and erotica. While this makes for a more varied mix of poems, some readers may be disappointed at the dearth of clearly speculative work throughout the anthology. With that in mind, the introduction and general theme of the group seems to point simply “unladylike,” not necessarily “speculative” or “horror,” so erotica might well fit.
Overall, Lady Poetesses From Hell is a decent anthology showcasing the work of a fun and prolific group of authors. The wide spectrum of authors and topics ensures that there will be something to please everyone in this volume.
* * *
62 poems from what must be the most decorated group of genre poets that has ever existed: need I say more? Like the fact that it includes my favorite SF poem of all time? “Who are these people?” you might wonder. Well, they are: Eleanor Arnason, Ruth Berman, Terry A. Garey, Jane R. Hansen, Ellen Klages, Rebecca Marjesdatter, K. C. O'Malley, John Calvin Rezmerski [honorary], Grace Lord Stoke, Cathy Tenzo, Laurel Winter, and Jane Yolen. Just quoting a bit from each contributor to this tour de force would make for a long review. The contributions of each poet are so varied, and the poets so diverse, that what follows is like a one-pass visit to a smorgasbord. The book is structured as if it were a series of six readings. This group has done many collective readings, in which each poet presented a poem or two. In fact, that is what they do together, primarily. Lady Poetesses from Hell is like a transcript of six of those readings.
From “Advanced Decomposition,” by Laurel Winte:r
the fact that you
no longer have to shave your legs
is small consolation
There is humor in many of these poems, although by no means all of them. Most use humor to deal with serious issues, like death, or the death of love, or abusive relationships. Winter's poems are so funny that you almost don't notice the subject matter is often truly horrible. That may be an exaggeration. You can't help but notice, you just don't mind as much. This poem did not win the Rhysling award, but another of hers, also included in this volume, did.
From “Vampires on a Bed of Wild Rice (with just a hint of thyme),” by Rebecca Marjesdatter
They buy me appetizer plates and double-chocolate tortes,
watch with glittering eyes while I eat,
trying to remember what food is like.
Goddamn vampires, making me fat.
Marjesdatter has contributed several extremely different poems to this volume. Quoting from one is necessarily misleading. Nevertheless, that is exactly what I am doing. Again, not a Rhysling winner, but a Rhysling winner by the same author is printed in this volume.
From “Where My Ass Is,” by Terry A. Garey)
on the face of it I know better, really
but these cheeks just keep getting out of control
enticing, batting their eyelashes at the damndest times
like when I’m on a really serious subject, y’know?
and my chest, and my legs and my hair and my nose
and the rough spots on my elbows—mighod
it’s overwhelming what my body says
when I’m not listening
This poem did not win the Rhysling award, but another one by the same author, in this book, did. This poem is full of puns, and other kinds of humor. It also seems to be on a serious subject. I suppose the layers of meaning are obvious when even I can see them, but you should check it out to see how many I missed!
From “Potatoes of the Tree,” by Ruth Berman
If apples had been New World only
And potatoes everywhere in the Old
The sin would’ve been taking the fruit
Of the earth,
Adam and Eve would’ve been caught out
Stitching jackets for themselves.
God would’ve known they were lying
Berman is also a Rhysling winner, and it wasn't with this poem (see this same volume). Many of you have already seen the Rhysling-winning poems by these poets. If you have not, that's one more reason to buy this book. As for this offering, you don't see too many alternate worlds poems, and this is one of my favorites.
From “Rapture Time,” by Eleanor Arnason
Some lose their stockings
And some lose their shoes
As they leave behind humanists,
Moslems and Jews
To fly with the angels
And dance ’round the Throne;
And we’ll say “Thank God,”
When we know they are gone.
Arnason has several vastly different poems in Lady Poetesses from Hell. This is also one of the very few poems in the book that rhymes. If I recall correctly, it is also the only religious one, but I might be mistaken.
From “chevy, chased: auto erotica,” by Cathy Tenzo
i fell madly in love with you
the first time we met
but i couldn’t show you how i felt
in that crowded room
She continues in this vein through the whole poem. It's a pretty traditional sentiment, but not usually expressed in exactly this way. Which of course just makes this example that much better. In fact, one of the themes of this book is the old taking something familiar and turning it on its head trick. It is not always taking something masculine and making it feminine, although there is plenty of that. Reversal is the meat and potatoes of many kinds of humor, and the lady poetesses are experts at it. As far as I know they still perform readings, primarily at science fiction conventions in the North Central part of the United States. If you can't make a reading, or even if you can, I strongly recommend you buy this book. It will make you laugh out loud, and not just a few times.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2012, A Midsummer Night’s Press, perfect-bound, 66 pp., $14.95.
Jane Yolen is one of our venerable masters, both of fiction and poetry. She won the Rhysling award of the Science Fiction Poetry Association in 1993, as well as many other awards, some far more prestigious. Yolen was named SFPA Grand Master in 2010. It is always a pleasure to open one of her books for the first time. The Last Selchie Child is a collection of fairy tales retold as poems, 36 of them, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood, just to name four.
I lied already. The first part of the book is a group of poems about stories and storytelling. From “Story”:
You shape a tale
To fit your mind.
And so it goes,
Several poems deal with the legends of people who can be seals or seals who can be people. There is plenty of room for sorrow and betrayal in a situation like this. From “The Selchie’s Children’s Plaint”:
She leaves us then, without a word
wading into her future.
It hurts like a knife
skinning us as we watch her go.
We were the ones
who were to dive into another life.
Some of these poems look at fairytale stories from new perspectives. Instead of the omniscient narrator, we see things from the point of view of the woman, the child, the prince. This is indeed a fruitful kind of reversal, pointing out the dark underbelly or ludicrousness of the traditional versions of these stories. But sometimes the shift in perspective shows us more. “Knives” reveals more horror in Cinderella than the by-now familiar idea of what happens after the wedding. Cinderella might not have been the naïve young thing most of us thought.
I spoke to the prince in that secret tongue,
the diplomacy of courting.
he using shoes, I using glass,
and all my sisters saw was a slipper,
too long in the heel,
too short at the toe.
What else could they use but a knife?
Fair young things seem to wait so long for something to happen, in fairy tales. How long is too long? From “Tower”:
I have found
the small barred window,
where I sing each morning
to any passing prince.
Be he large or small, handsome or plain,
I will have him.
After a while, you wait your life away, and anything at all becomes enough. How much becomes plain, although unstated, in a clear-eyed reading of fairy tales? The most interesting thing about this book, for me, is that familiar fairy tales are re-imagined in several different ways in different poems. We don’t end up with simply two perspectives, but three, four, and perhaps others that we can imagine for ourselves, now that the way has been shown.
The last section of the book consists of a group of poems about “truth,” which is to say that the stories we have been told are wrong, wrong, wrong. Indeed they are! From “Women’s Stories”:
Job’s wife had her own story.
Lot’s pillar of salt cried tears
indistinguishable from her eyes.
Who invented a glass slipper
never had to dance.
It might be needless to say I think you should buy this book. But just in case, I’ll say it. You really should buy this book. You won’t be sorry.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2012, Wasteland Press, $12, wastelandpress.net
Let’s ignore the cover art for now, which looks like something from a furry convention. This book of what I will call wimmin’s lit will sear your eyeballs but you won’t be able to stop reading. Amber does something really difficult here: she bridges the gap between genre poetry and mainstream literary poetry in such a way that this book truly is a crossover title, something that is more rare than one might think.
Divided into sections called “Into the Forest,” “Bread Crumbs,” “Ghosts of Truth,” “The Sexy Wild Night,” and “Shimmer and Fade,” the book does start off like a collection of dark fairytales because, well, that’s what it is: some cautionary tales, perhaps, as if what’s going to happen to you if you wear your high heels is far, far worse than what happened to the girl in “The Red Shoes.” It’s a book of wimmen’s history, the history of fear and emotional abuse and then physical abuse just barely avoided.
And our Lost Girl triumphs in the end, for she is not to be dragged down, no, for she can rise with the full moon and be just as wild as the next werewolf. And she can find true love and not be afraid to show it her scars.
It’s so hard to pick poems to quote, since they’re all so quotable. A few, then, terrifying lines. From “You Split”:
like an atom
cocky bastard that you are
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
just so you could leave my body
burning like Japan.
From “Stupid Girl”:
He says you are sexy
but that you open yourself in all the wrong places.
Here’s the second stanza of “Yesterday He Called Her a Slut”:
As a child he followed snakes to their holes
cut them in two pieces.
watched the magic leak out.
And a few lines about a place dear to my heart, called “French Quarter After Dark”:
I will hold this moment
a Bible a rosary a sacred candle
We are two pieces of Voodoo in the rain melting.
I can’t imagine anyone who loves dark and darkly romantic poetry not liking this collection; it is creepy and disturbing but ends on a note of hope. By the same token, I cannot think that anyone who likes coming-of-age poetry and poems about womens’ experience not liking this book. I really couldn’t put it down.
Dark Regions Press, US$9.95. darkregions.com
In Lovers & Killers Mary Turzillo explores psychosexual connections between desire and death. At first glance, it’s counter-intuitive to desire someone who has murderous intent, but history is replete with killers and people who believe they love them. In “Lady Killer,” her initial poem, Turzillo explains, “Bloody Jack/ how I hate you/ somebody’s pimp somebody’s lover somebody’s son/ but also desire you/ and don’t know why/ through the sterilized wall of a sheet of paper/ I am fascinated” (9).
The thirty-seven poems in this collection examine the mindsets of killers and victims sliding through time and space, various mythologies and literary genres to William Proxmire and the “Mucusoid” creatures of Fomalhaut. True evil is only a little rationalization away from the commonplace. Her personas notably lack empathy and Turzillo speculates that “madness live[s] from age to age,/ humans but a strategy of chemicals/ that hormones should rule/ above mere human pity”(29).
Turzillo has a knack for bizarrely apt images. For instance, “Men” describes the tendency to blame the victim and concludes “it was you that drove it into a pole) and stone her to shards/ like a Buick adulteress caught / doing it with telephone poles” (35). In Lady M’s case, murderous intent comes from gender-frustrated ambition: “if I cannot be king perhaps I’ll be queen … I … shamed my noble lord/ and now, downstairs, he whets knives against stone” (12).
In “Gacy” the speaker simply deludes herself about danger because “It is hard to get a good rental in this town” (13). In other poems, the nitty-gritty of frustrated sexuality becomes obsession: “Sirens” concludes “You know you need them— … You will give what they want./ You will bloat in the tide” (34) and in “Rapture” Christ and the Enemy wrestle for eternity “Love hot for love,/ hot for its adverse,/ a world/ gone in orgasm”(72). In “Danse Macabre” the earth itself patterns the dance of creation and destruction. Nature and human nature: the spiral of sex and mortality elucidated in these evocative poems.
The thing about self-publishing is, if you don’t have an editor then you tend to stick in all kinds of stuff that should have been left out. This book is the poet’s own collected works, combining eight chapbooks from 2000 to 2011. With a few exceptions, the early poems are generally dreadful, mostly rhyme-driven quickies with see-saw iambics. The later poems show more quality, including a few that are even good from head to toe, but they are lost in the 216 pages.
Here’s “Lonely,” a typical early one: Spin a web and catch a fly / Kiss her wings and suck her dry. / My silken haven is replete / with hollow pleasures of defeat, / Heavenly angels who arrive / and come to know me, and then die. Besides the awkwardness (such as the defeat phrase) and the smash-mouth rhyming, there is a misogyny in this—and many other poems—which I find problematic. I don’t think horror writers get a pass just because of their genre.
Loads of death in here, too, which by itself is all right. The poems in this collection are gothic, mostly imitations of macabre 17th- and 18th-century rhymes, especially of a poet named Beddoes. I’m not saying it’s all bad. There are nice moments here and there, even in the early poems. For example, “Luna” ends with this: “All of the stars in the sky / want to die.” And the latter poems get better, such as “The Wolf-Man.”
I think Creech does have the chops to put out good work, but the key word there is ‘work.’ I don’t think he puts much thought in these. There is cleverness in many poems, but it tends to be superficial and to talk down to the reader. Kind of like the narrator in a spooky B-movie, but without the deliciousness. A good, experienced writers group I think might solve this, because, in writing and in life, you don’t have to go it alone.
—John Philip Johnson
2012, New York Quarterly Books, $14.95. nyqbooks.org/title/thenewarcana
John Amen is a friend to genre poetry. His e-zine, The Pedestal, is one of only a handful of non-genre outlets that regularly publishes spec work, even having Bruce Boston and Marge Simon as guest editors on a periodic basis.
That may be one of the reasons he sent us a review copy of his new book, The New Arcana, co-authored by Daniel Harris. The word ‘arcana,’ with its occult quality, suggests other reasons, too. This book is up to its gills in surrealistic imagery, and Surrealism is somewhere near the corner of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and just a stone’s throw from Myth. There is an odd, dream-like quality in the work, with a jaggedy, dense post-modern irony running throughout. There are great lines in here that any Star*Liner would love, like “I ride a vortex in Jupiter’s shadow,” but overall the book is heavily literary, and may seem too disjointed to be enjoyable for anyone not heavily trained as a literary reader.
The book is divided into five sections, each with a pastiche of drama, commentary and illustrations. A lot of it is pretty readable, whether you’re a trained poetry reader or not. For example, the book opens with a few lines about a stripper and then says this:
A hot wind whips across the eternal landscape;
archaic symbols are sold at auction north of Disneyland
to diehard antique mongers and melancholy pedants.
Pretty cool and poetic, eh? But if you want to dig deeper and not just enjoy what seems like poetic gloss, I think it paraphrases like this: The ‘archaic symbols’ are, presumably, the constructed icons we still hold in our hearts that have been demolished by deconstruction. Disneyland, one deconstructionist said, exists only in order to persuade us that everything else is real. The ‘diehard antique mongers and melancholy pedants,’ I suggest, are those people who are cherishing ancient constructs (like home, hearth, the unitary self and its maker) that the Great Flux (and its minions like Foucault) have actually consumed.
And that’s only in the first third of the first page of an hundred-and-nine-page book. So if you want to pack up your MFA and go digging, there’s plenty here to dig. One of the things that makes this book ironic is that academic talk is one of the main objects of its satirie. But I should say that even during the parts where you have to stop digging and abandon the left side of your brain for awhile, just taking in the words can be a kind of pleasant, irrational gush.
Has anyone seen my favorite identity? I’m pretty
sure I brought it with me to the pasquinade.
OK, I admit it, I’m just fishing for a compliment.
Logic does stiffen, though, doesn't it?
And curiosities become apprehensions.
Ah, pinching my nostrils and backing away,
I’ll now confess I blame my situation on my vertigo
and this black-purple bruise on my shinbone:
I’ve been kicked repeatedly by a midget with a skin disease....
If you like this kind of stuff, you’ll be swimming in happiness with this book. If not, well, maybe not so much. I’m not much for this kind of poetry, honestly. The publisher of this book, The New York Quarterly, thrives on this kind of stuff, and it’s not my first choice. I prefer narrative work (without deep absurdist strains), or stuff that I don’t have to use my years of training to read. I only spent a handful of hours with this book, and it may be the case that spending a few dozen hours with it would unlock a treasure trove of genius. I’ll leave that for others to suss out. I want you to know there are tons of great lines in here. Overall, my impression of the book is that it is a faint-hearted struggle for certainty, with shreds of mathematics and residues of religion (the arcana) amidst a bustling population, all swirling in the post-modern dream of to-know-and-not-to-know.
In any event, go see The Pedestal for one of the best e-zines going. Twelve years now. Congratulations.
—John Philip Johnson
2012, Dark Regions Press, $9.95. darkregions.com
Bruce Boston is a legend among speculative poets, well-known for his groundbreaking books and individual poems for well over twenty-five years.He earned a Grandmaster Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association with over 50 books behind him and publication in almost every science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine that accepts poetry. So, understandably, our expectations are running high when we see his latest, Notes from the Shadow City, a collaboration with Gary William Crawford, who is also no slouch when it comes to writing. Individually, both poets have the chops to produce an interesting work around the theme of a shadow city, but does something interesting happen when they work in concert?
Crawford opens the scene for us with "Few have heard of the Shadow City./ Even fewer have been there. Some say it existed thousands of years ago. / Some say it exists only in the future./ Others say it never existed at all," while Boston presents an image of the skyscrapers of this strange place, and we know it's not an architecture friendly to humanity.
Most of the experience of reading this collection is akin to a waking dream, albeit with all of the boring fat flensed by a stranger's clean blade, a scalpel the color of ink. Each poet's voice remains distinctive when reading the collection, with neither radically overpowering the other. Each has their own particular themes and strategies to address the shadows, rarely conflicting and more frequently harmonized. You welcome both voices in such a daunting cityscape, never wanting to push one or the other guide under a Shadow City bus.
Over the course of 84 pages, including Boston's illustrations, we're given a meandering visit through the different corners and landmarks of a labyrinthine city that may be a section of hell, a timeless dystopia where the geography is familiar and unfamiliar all at once. It's a one-way stop into the Shadow City. People get left there, but they don't find a way out. Boston and Crawford bring us the dismal River Magnus and the ominous Iron Woman. It's not an artless place. Poets seem to thrive there, living frantic lives among the horrors. Shadow City is a bleak zone where crime, rebellion, heartbreak and decrepit transport abound. The majority of poems are written with parsimonious but evocative economy. I wouldn't declare the Shadow City a space devoid of hope, but hope comes in small moments. Minor gestures of humanity, mimicking another life it seems almost best to forget, if you're truly stranded here.
The poems are typically a page or two, rarely more than that, but each piece is sufficient for its task: To suggest what might be known, without outwearing its welcome. In Boston's "Quotes from the Shadow City Chamber of Commerce Brochure," we find a zippy gallows humor: "The way we see it, the thicker and darker/ the shadows-the richer the shadows" and "Not responsible for lost identities." Crawford will mention figures such as messengers from Hell who "inflame my mind/ and set my eyes on fire."
In this collection, I'd particularly recommend taking a look at the more adventurous and daring pieces, including Boston's "The River Magnus Winds through the Shadow City," "The Naming of Shadows of Shadow City, "I Met a Woman in the Shadow City," and "The Shadow Thief," From Crawford, I'd recommend "The Cyber-Head in the Shadow City," "The Artistry of Punishment," "Dark Love in the Shadow City," "The Intruder Has Stolen Nothing," and "A Strange Disease."
Is this the American Inferno? The "last" word in dystropolis poetry? I
might not go that far, but Notes From The Shadow City presents a solid
text for 21st-century speculative poets to consider. For fans of
Boston or Crawford, this is a must-add.
—Bryan Thao Worra
* * *What's it called when the things around you lose their sense of reality? Is there a word for that? The irreality of the real? The netherization of normal life? Crawford and Boston have created a nice, spooky book here, of a world that has slipped into shadow. The poems have an accumulated effect, drawing you into the shadows, situating you in a place populated by shadows, a place of darkness and obscurity. A world made of the gloaming.
And, unfortunately, it looks a bit like our world, too, to the extent that our world has the tone of a horror movie. A horror movie with Kafkaesque and bizarre qualities. You won't come across a crowd of yellow daffodils in this place.
I mean, you know how zombie mythology is, in part, a comment on us as individual humans, how we've gone brain dead in our materialism and consumer culture, etc.? Well, what if a whole city, as an entity, went through that same spiritual death? Imagine that, and you will have a sense of their Shadow City. There's no brain gnoshing, no zombies in here, but imagine a city sunk into oblivion, stinking of death and cruelty and futility. Yeah, that’s it. That's the place. Shadow City.
You won’t find daffodils, but you will find leering judges who sentence people to waking nightmares; corrupt priests who scheme for power “with a cold and vicious joy”; the tendency for words to be “destroyed” and books to “become unreadable”; children’s educations that are “cloaked in shadow // and tempered with betrayal.”
Some of it is like 1984 with supernatural horrors, as in “The Iron Woman is Watching”:
“She fills your dreams / with indelible reasons / for the exaltation / of mediocrity. // The iron woman / is always watching you / in Shadow City.” One citizen does something subversive against the powers that be, and ends up in “The Psychological Experiment Station”:
There are rats everywhere.
I am trapped in this psychological
experiment station in Shadow City
where there are no doors or windows
and nothing to eat but the rats.
Most of these poems are well-crafted and effective, and some I am very enthusiastic about. Some of them, as you can get hints of in the above sample, tell the story, but sometimes get kind of prosaic and lose their poetic fizz. A few poems are, well, not as strong as others, and the book wouldn't have suffered if they'd missed the bus. The other thing that I didn't enjoy was the frequent ritual oration of the name 'Shadow City' in the poems, which was supposed to be kind of an ominous gong, but after a while, due to overuse, the gong went limp, and didn't resonate much.
But all in all I’m quite pleased with this book. I don’t have a huge appetite for horror or gothic work, but this book surpasses the norms of those conventions, and becomes a somewhat tainted pocket mirror for bits of our world. Some of this book is the ontological unmooring we face as the consequence of our philosophy, and parts of it are perhaps more permanent qualities of life. I think there is a sense in which the world is half buried in death, sunk into the perishing part of time, and that we who exist above this vanishing are rendered somewhat ghostlike by the constant disappearance of things. And from this point of view, then, the pessimism of a Shadow City would seem quite natural.
But of course, Shadow City is a trip we take, because there is no real world, except perhaps hell, where sooner or later a bright crowd of daffodils doesn’t show up. This book is a pleasant, creepy entertainment, as well as a contemplation of the dark side.
—John Philip Johnson
2012, Sam’s Dot Publications, $7. sdpbookstore.com
2012, Centennial Press, print $8; full-color .pdf $5. centennialpress.com
2012, Sam’s Dot (now Alban Lake), $10.00.
With Paranormal/Romance, containing 54 poems, only four of which were previously published, a long-time resident of the genre poetry community weighs in in a big way. And by the way, because 50 of these poems are new, they are eligible for the Rhysling award. Dumars wears many hats, ranging from the academic to the practical. She can teach you how to write or marry you. Also, she writes poetry.
Paranormal/Romance is a themed collection, but with nearly threescore poems, Dumars had the opportunity to explore the subject in many different ways. The book is organized into two parts. The first part is about exploring the Undiscovered Country; i.e., the place we go when we die. The second part is specifically about New Orleans and its mythology about death.
There is an idea, commonly expressed by fantasy writers at least, that ghosts are not really entities. Instead they are some kind of recording of any motion, or state of mind, or some other essentially static aspect of one who is no more. According to this hypothesis (I will call it that, even though it isn't testable, despite the impression to the contrary that “investigations” portray on television; that, for instance, the “Ghost Hunters” show tries to give), ghosts can't respond to us. They merely present themselves in the same way that a sunset would. We are free to interpret what and how we like. Dumars describes a sort of hybrid between this idea and the contrary one that has ghosts exhibiting some semblance of free will. From “infrared”:
But what about ghost hearts?
Confused, rooted to the spot
sensing an absence
but not remembering
exactly what is missed.
It isn't only ghosts making an appearance in this book, but gods as well. These are gods specifically responsible for dealing with humans when they are finished with this world. For instance, from “Djehuti in Las Vegas”:
your death depends upon it.
Trust me: you wouldn’t like it
if I forgot to write down your
negative confession: “I have not stolen,
I have not committed murder,” et al.
And after you have done
I must see that your answers
are carefully recorded
in the book of your heart
When religions become cosmopolitan, are their gods left behind? Or do they go along, dealing with the needs of their followers wherever they might find them?
In other poems, Dumars deals with ghosts that are real, ghosts that are both real and viewpoint characters, ghosts that are former lovers, the Day of the Dead, dead pets, mythological creatures, even the undead. From “Victorian Fantasy”:
and when she smiles,
the inch-long incisors
just a moment or two too late.
New Orleans, Vodou, above-ground cemeteries—they get their own section. Contracts with the Devil, Marie Laveau, spirits and those who can see them. New Orleans has its own chimeric death mythology, built from pieces of various traditions. In fact, it is a big part of the New Orleans tourist industry. From “Bourbon, Voodoo, Sex”:
An Indian in a ribbon shirt
with shiny braided hair
is sitting in the Cajun dance pavilion
looking at me.
He sees the Shadow Man
Dumars is in love with the paranormal. That's obvious from the attention she pays to every aspect of the unseen world. In tone, her work ranges from dour to tongue-in-cheek, though she is more often serious than silly. Some of these poems are obviously about particular people or events, and are very personal. Others explore our interactions with and thoughts about what comes after this life more dispassionately. Paranormal/Romance covers a lot of territory, but is not comprehensive. But then, how comprehensive can one be, when the subject matter is that place from which no one ever returns? I looked forward eagerly to reading Paranormal/Romance, because Dumars' work has not been as readily available as I would like. Here's hoping that will change; in the meantime, we have this book.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
* * *
Denise Dumars’ new collection of poetry has cover art by Teresa Tunaley comprised of a transformative Art Nouveau butterfly on the front and, aptly named, “Spectre”, a statue of an angel on the back. This collection is actually two books in one, Cartographie of the Undiscovered Country, comprised of 38 poems, and Traversing the Kalunga, comprised of 16 poems, each with an intriguing introduction. There is also a list of “References and Recommended Works” for those interested in beginning—or continuing—their own sorties. This section provides a list of books, television shows, periodicals, films, websites, and New Orleans ghost tours.
While the title indicates these are romance poems, or poems that romance the paranormal, there are multiple levels, or dimensions, to this tome. As Dumars shares in the introduction: “It is about a special kind of love that we have for those who are no longer with us in our plane of existence …. unless you believe, of course, that they are with us still in non-corporeal form.”
The poems in both collections inscribe a simultaneously amorphous and distinct geography. At times, it is unclear where one realm ends, the other begins, so like breath and madness. Maps are unveiled by ever-so-helpful guides (or not, as the case may be) who will accompany you on your journey, cautioning how to travel, what not to say, what to pack, and yes, urging you what to leave behind.
Dumars’ sense of humor is definitely something that comes to the fore, and I can’t read far without chuckling aloud with most of the first book’s poems. This usually occurs in the first third of the poem for some reason, while she’s setting up the scene, and while I don’t always know what’s coming, she makes me laugh nevertheless.
I have quite a few favorites in this tome, but wanted to point to a few to which I was compelled to return. “Parallel Worlds” opens with an organic-cheese-cracker-eating narrator watching a TV special about parallel worlds where a scientist says:
. . .in a parallel reality,
A dinosaur may be walking
Through your living room
The poem then reveals said dinosaur is …
not a T-Rex
From another dimension;
It’s your ex—
He’s having a bad dream.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there …
Dumars knows her characters (as well as her readers) and how to bring out the best (and possibly worst) in them—especially those not-so-endearing traits that seem to endure into the afterlife. In “EVP”, the narrator, a loving nephew, informs an EVP-recommending paranormal investigator that his kvetching-prone Aunt Shirley is unlikely to respond to a machine, since she reserved her “high-tech” praise for an “infrared nail dryer/At the beauty salon.” As the story unfolds, we discover that a cranky old man, rather than Aunt Shirley, is there and tells the nephew and PI to go away. Does Aunt Shirley have a gentleman caller?
There are other delightfully wicked poems in Book One, such as “Backhoe Pet Cemetery Gothic”, where the narrator muses about digging up pet cemeteries. Then there is an unexpected emotional shift to a poem about forgiveness, in “What is Forgiven”; this poem contains exquisite imagery, Spanish/Mexican culture, and “el vampiro,” along with “a breath of icy moisture, condensation on a margarita glass.” “Epistles” is about a dead letter office, and “Wasting Time” is about playing games with the dead.
“The Rose Maiden” is accompanied by an epigraph about “Victorian wedding day poesy”, along with an author’s note to explain the nature of this 16th- and 19th-century promise ring inscription tradition. There is even a poem about The Unsinkable Molly Brown titled “Unsinkable”; as you read on, you’ll discover it’s really about Mary Sloan, who, according to the author’s note, “was not only an heroic employee on the Titanic; her account of the disaster is also the primary source material from which most accounts of the sinking of the Titanic are formed.” “Bodhisattva of the Desert” is a poem about gratitude and one of my personal favorites.
Book Two: Traversing the Kalunga was of particular interest, as I, too, have roots in New Orleans, and am descended from a few illustrious (and not-so-illustrious) characters from its past. Even though I’ve never been there in the flesh (at least not in this incarnation), I’ve always been curious about the culture and look forward to hearing about the adventures of others.
The tone definitely shifts in this second book for me. While the humor is there, caution reigns as well. “Got a Little Guedé” resonates with chilling lyricism; as the author’s note reveals, Guedé “are a family of Vodou psychopomps that communicate with the living during Vodou rituals and occasionally appear to those who are about to die.” You’ll receive a warning “to avoid bridges” in the very first line of “On the Way to Algiers.”
Then there’s “Witch Doctors.” This poem, according to Dumars, “was partially written by the process of automatic writing, and partially by the process of bibliomancy.” Given my own experience with these practices, I am reminded yet again that we, the living, are most assuredly connected with the dead.
And some of them may be our writing partners—and muses!
—Terrie Leigh Relf
Dark Regions Press, 90 pages, US$9.95. darkregions.com
To date, Robert Frazier is one of four people to be named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. In Phantom Navigation, Frazier shows us why that honor is deserved. Science, whether it is physics, astronomy, biology, or psychology, serves as the prime meridian from which each of these 49 poems start. From that base line, Frazier’s poems wend their way from the past, through the present and into the future.
Phantom Navigation is divided into five sections entitled “Navigations”, “Dark Futures”, “The Personals”, “Frozen Moments”, and “New Dissections.” The poems in the book have appeared in such diverse venues as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Star*Line, and several others. Five of the poems are new to this volume and, as you might expect from the section titles, most of those appear in the final section of the book.
Frazier opens the collection with the title poem, and it sets the tone for what follows. The poem suggests a certain phantom-like quality to light, ideas, and love even as they are rooted in a reality that allows these nebulous qualities to be navigated. Another example of this theme can found in the poem “Attributes of Darkness”:
It’s as if it were a thing with molecular qualities
or after-effects and anti-light
a valence of evil
He deftly turns this around in the next section when he gives the reader “A Crash Course in Lemon Physics,” where he examines shades of joy and terror in the bright, texture of a lemon peel:
a skin of a lemon embodies color
the yellow of dying suns
the yolk-yellow of a farm-fresh egg
Each of the book’s sections opens with one of Robert Frazier’s collages. Like the poems, they challenge the reader to see ideas and qualities as part of the overarching, measurable reality we inhabit. Whether looking to the past where master telescope maker Alvan Clarke hopes to pass the music of the spheres on to his sons, or to the future where a man dives to the wreck of a starship and finds the image of his daughter’s love, Frazier charts a course that’s well worth following.
—David Lee Summers
2012, VirgoGray Press, perfect-bound, 26 pp. $11. virgograypress.com
When one thinks of "steampunk," images of an anachronistic Victorian England pop into mind. Men in tight-fitting frock coats with waistcoats fly through the city of London on small zeppelins. Corseted women in tea gowns sip tea while steam-powered robot servants work around them. Dockworkers haul goods with the use of artificial limbs that sweat oil, the gears in the elbows straining beneath every load. “Dieselpunk” takes the same concept but places it in the era between WWI and WWII, when diesel technology instead of steam technology ruled industry. The problem, of course, is that these are surface descriptions, ignoring the “punk” aspect of the terms, which implies an underground, rebellious aspect that is often overlooked or ignored by experimenters in the genre, leaving their works to read as stale and empty.
This is the case with David S. Pointer's chapbook, Sinister Splashplay. In attempting to jump on the steampunk bandwagon, Pointer writes poems that, on the surface, read as steampunk but carry no rebellion, critique or challenging of the status quo within them. His poems are thus all steam with no punk to give them substance or definition. Often, they merely describe a character, a musician for example, and what's happening to them without exploring their psychology or the cultural context that makes them who they are. Consider the poem “The Airship Lounge”:
goggles and gears and guitars
the steam punk band roamed
the stage like blood raiders
playing through carbon nanotube
cables power rush and rage
pulsing to a retrofuturistic public
ready to rise on sound til sun
This entire poem is mere description, often abstractly so, of a band and its audience. The reader receives little if any emotion from the piece, no understanding of the band or the audience, and thus despite the vague picture that Pointer has made, there's no depth behind it to make it successful.
Pointer seems to believe that simply saying the word “steampunk” or “dieselpunk” makes a thing so, without exploring what those terms mean and how they work as literature. Derivatives of cyberpunk, one key aspect is the approach and consideration of social themes within the larger context of the work. However, society is rarely mentioned, and when it is, it is rarely considered nor criticized. For example, the poem “Gogglers” begins with lines “The steampunk goggles/ couldn't pardon the/ ivory-covered glasses/ of global economics ...” This seems like the opening of a piece that will develop into a critique of the economy or global capitalism, but it proceeds to describe a band playing on stage for “two hundred college/radio rockaholics,” and reads as a jumbled review of a modern rock concert instead of an actual steampunk piece.
Pointer also seems to be lacking in general craft techniques overall. Imitating Robert Creeley's sharp and abrasive enjambments, Pointer often breaks on odd words—conjunctions, articles, the “to” in an infinitive—in an attempt to catch the reader off guard and add tension to the piece. This, coupled with his relatively short lines, would ideally create a clipped, aggressive rhythm in the poems, propelling them forward at a stuttering, anxious pace. However, in the case of Pointer, because the technique is used so haphazardly, with no regard for the poem or its topic, it comes across merely as an irrelevant series of weak line breaks with little purpose or artistic merit. Considering this alongside the use of abstract or vague imagery and grammatical inconsistencies, Pointers poems fail to enthuse. On top of that, the outrageous double-digit cover price makes this book something that simply isn't worth pursuing.
2012, Minor Arcana Press, perfect-bound, 60 pp. $10. minorarcanapress.com
When I first cracked open the pages of Evan J. Peterson’s newest poetry collection, Skin Job, I was worried that, with only 21 poems, it was going to be slight. I could not have been more wrong (I’ll get back to the number 21 later); the poems within these pages are heady and meaty and oozing with offal. This is augmented by the wonderfully gruesome drawings, many from the 14th century. There are several themes permeating Skin Job, including the tarot, science gone mad, and classic horror films—not the mainstream ones we all know, but the underground classics, as in the opening poem “How He Came Into The World,” which explores the obsessions which motivated director Paul Wegener to shoot Der Golem on three separate occasions as three unique films (1915, 1917, & 1920), or how David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly inspired poem “A Fly on the Lens”:
I began very neatly [the camera loves me] but then assimilation
fusion with the exoskeletal zoo If film is made of silver, what is
video? Rust? A doctor turning baboons inside out
They always turn experiments on themselves
Cue swollen violins,
In fact, the poems and artwork within these pages are strongly reminiscent of the body politics employed by the films of Cronenberg. Although many of the poems focus on specific films, there is also an overall theme of film and the industry in general as seen through the eyes of both the horror-film auteur and the poet:
All hail the miracle of 3-D! The rat’s eye vie of the housekeeper,
giblets dangling through the sewer grate. Then nipples reaching out
for you. Who cares if this one can’t act? He’s eugenic. Aryan. He’s
off to the bordello to slum it with the peasants. Then it’s cinéma
—from “I HEART UDO KIER”
Flesh for Frankenstein, directed 1973 by Paul Morrissey
There are some amazing moments of humor within, but the poems are so dark that the humor comes across more ironic than funny, which seems to be Peterson’s intent (he even shows a great grasp of the darker side of camp exploring films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Mommy Dearest).
Once I realized that the tarot also played an important role in the collection, with a few pictures of old, macabre tarot cards and references to the tarot in several poems, realization of the brilliance of the use of 21 poems in the collection dawned on me. There are 21 numbered cards in the major arcana and each poem within Skin Job represents one of these cards in order from the Fool card (“How He Came Into The World” mentioned earlier) to The Wheel of Fortune, my personal favorite poem in the collection:
All is quiet
in the sleepy little town
of your body, when—out of the blue—
a threat beyond reckoning:
Rampaging, devastating cells!
Your own body, the Enemy!
Cells that wouldn’t die! Your cavity, a Black Lagoon!
Septic! Primordial! B-movie invaders!
Nanozombies out to eat your brains!
Creeping like the Blob, a Colour Out of Space!
Horns and Tusks! Propagating like triffids!
—from “MIDNIGHT MOVIE TRAILER”
This collection is not for the faint of heart, but if you are a true horror aficionado, it is well worth the price of admission.
—Stephen M. Wilson
2012, Windrift Books, 3-1750 The Queensway, Toronto Ontario, M9C 5H5, Canada. email@example.com. E-book, 28 pp. $1.99.
Samuel Peralta’s Sonata Vampirica is a stunning collection of connected poems that tells a story of vampirism, desire, and erotic engagement. It envisions a world of ecstasy and longing, all the while emphasizing how verse itself enables profound expression of the twin experiences of erotism and death. The book constructs a single narrative across fifteen poems. The author describes these poems as “sonnets,” though there is no set number of lines or rhyme scheme across the poems. The poems constitute an extended dialogue, with speakers alternating between vampires and their victims. The approach is ambitious, and it pays off in this very compelling volume.
In the afterword, Peralta notes T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda as influences. Eliot’s desolate modern landscapes are here, as is Neruda’s rich sensory vocabulary. There are also traces of nineteenth-century decadence within the bounds of tightly controlled poetic form—think Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy—throughout Peralta’s work. Take, for example, the opening of “The Fourth Deadly Sin”:
Three days entr’acte, and the savage garden
wakens in me a restive thirst for prey;
but I can starve off the thirst a little while.
The stanza shows off Peralta’s strong command of language. “Starving off the thirst” plays on the multiple meanings of “starve,” and “restive” reminds us that slight changes in spelling reverses meanings of familiar words. We’re reminded that the desire to sate ourselves often stems from an earlier act of abstaining, and that restlessness is sometimes a form of standing still. Each of the poems here shows this close attention to language and merits this degree of unpacking to reach its deeper operations.
One of the author’s stated goals is to bring raw horror back to the romance genre. We hear this in the opening of one of the poems where a victim says, “And I rise, your poison dissipated / after days beneath your will, your hated / touch.” We see here both the intersection of sex and death, as well as the familiar tone of the horror poetry genre. Indeed, this collection has much to offer a diverse group of readers. In addition to being a set of narrative poems about vampires and victims, the sequence considers each of the seven deadly sins as embodied in a speaking vampire.
It should be no surprise that Peralta could pull off as impressive a volume as this one. He is a previous recipient of the BBC and the UK Poetry Society’s National Competition, and was ranked by Twitter users as a top poet in the Shorty Awards. Buy this book, but also get to know this poet and his work via his blog at samuelperalta.com.
2012, Lapwing Publications, 24 pages, £10.
This slim volume of speculative poetry, 12 poems in all, revolves around a woman robot named Steelyard Sue. The poet states that Sue is a “future-world everywoman, or, more accurately, everyrobot …,” which seems an accurate description. The poems are set in a post-human world, one where everything is deteriorating and rusting away, the robot Sue included. The songs/poems tell the story of Sue’s life and aspirations.
After her creation, “Blodeuwedd of the scrap yard/though they made me with iron, not flowers,” this fair metal-maiden upon seeing crows in flight longs to fly, to spread her young wings, but is grounded by her weight, her very being. As she matures, she decides to build a man, gathers the parts and puts one together, but comes up short, “I could never find the place/to install real lasting love.” Evidently she didn’t need a man to procreate, however, for in the very next poem she finds a “loose screw,” swallows it, and nine hours later out pops a little robot baby thing, “made of metal/with added springs.” Forty-eight hours after birth, it has grown big as the Eiffel Tower, and Sue states, “There’s space inside I can curl up in at night/to keep the dark rain off/and it positively drips lubricant./It’s good to its old mama.”
Sue becomes more human-like with age, even plants a garden, “with a torn tin bell/and ammo casings/a discarded cuckoo feather/and some wire.” Humane might be a better word to describe her actions, as evidenced by the poem where she saves a toad trapped in netting, “I washed it clean in pure, clear water/and returned it to the mud.”
Steelyard Sue wanders through the human ruins of her world. Records everything in her electronic memory. She repeatedly visits ruined churches, “isles and isles of preserved votive offerings,” a parking garage where signs instruct her to “go slow,” so she obeys them, “in memory, in respect, of whatever it was/those cars were placed here for.” But there are too many disturbing signs, symbols of man’s dark side, like some statues she encounters, “three-dee solids of suffering and torture./It makes you wonder about humanity.”
Closing on the end, Sue sings the blues in one poem, “My baby left me and my man done me wrong/with a vending-machine whore.” Then, in the next poem, laments “the end of days;/the end of human days, that is,” and her own being, “A woman of many parts, all man-made/and without a human soul,/not even the soft-skin touch of polished chrome.”
In the final poem of this collection, Steelyard Sue confronts her own death, “The day withers as its chill takes hold./Is this what the humans felt as they approached/their end of days?” Never quite human, but not exactly pure robot either, Sue comes across as the “everyone/everybot” J. S. Watts surely intended. Steelyard Sue is an innocent left behind in a ruined world longing to become human. She rings true.
There’s nothing mechanical about J. S. Watt’s poetry. It has heart and soul, and it sings. I finished the collection wanting to know more about Steelyard Sue, as I’m sure any reader who reads this book will.
—G. O. Clark
2012, Speculative Technologies, chapbook, $8. speculativetechnologies.org
Tendrils & Tentacles is a collection of flash fiction and prose poetry that dips its toes into sci-fi, fantasy and horror, and all the spaces in between. It is billed as a cooperative enterprise of Speculative Technologies, a writers group from Wisconsin who are, apparently, surrounded by beer and serial killers. And when a book gets that kind of billing, I defy anyone to not pick up a copy and take a peek inside.
“One of Those Days” by Jason Loch raises a smile when a servant sets about his day-to-day chores in a household with nothing day-to-day about it. “Martian Mandala” by Eli Parke is an eerie tale where Martian settlers are haunted by strange inspirations. In Miranda Raine’s “Goldfish”, backstreet surgical procedures lead to a startling discovery, while in Breanna Billman’s “Door with No Name” hidden entranceways are always hidden for a reason.
Although nothing is particularly long in this book, the shorter the piece is the stronger it seems to get, especially the pieces with a leaning towards horror. Jeanie Tomasko’s “Violet’s Saturdays”, with its sinister look at peculiar weekend routines, is a good example of this. F.J. Bergmann’s “Symbiosis” is another short-but-weighty effort, which uses an almost cheerful tone to approach the horrific. From the very first sentence, we know we’re in deep trouble:
No one knew where the stuff had come from, but its pink, fluffy fibers had filled all the air ducts with clouds of fuzz and were beginning to festoon the tunnel ceilings with rosy stratocumuli.
Make no doubt about it, Tendrils & Tentacles is a strong book. It’s unusual to find a collection with so little weakness about it, but each piece here is brushed and polished, and genuinely has something to say. These stories are intriguing and entertaining, as fulfilling as they are ambiguous; and this group of authors, in amongst the beer and serial killers, always find something to pique the interest.
* * *
Compiled by a collective of Madison, Wisconsin, poets, Tendrils and Tentacles is unexpected in a number of ways. First, we don’t expect speculative horror to come inside a spring-green cover: F. J. Bergmann’s colored-pencil drawing of a blue-eyed alien squid firing a botanical machine gun is intriguingly light-hearted, a spoof of Lovecraftian landscape. Second, the thirty-two poems by Bergmann, Benjamin Billman, Breanna Billman, Dan Dyson, Julie Fitzpatrick, Jason Loch, Eli Parke, Miranda Raine, Richard Roe, and Jeanie Tomasko have initial façades of everyday experience covering some deeply unsettling material, for readers, a mini frisson of recognition as each poem concludes.
For instance, the opening poem, Tomasko’s Victorian-era “Tea Party” begins with a child’s miniature tea set collection but ends with recognition that death’s sleep may in fact be fine-tunable with appropriate magic and medication: “belladonna berries on her aunt’s tiny tray.” Bergmann’s “Café des Artistes” imagines a dream-like synesthesia café where furniture and décor physically reflect psychological insight regarding books and authors, including: “L. Ron Hubbard’s doors are invitingly flung wide, but each is flanked by a brace of edgy security guards who scan the area continuously, fingers twitching, automatic weapons at the ready, safeties off.” Loch’s “Death and the Decree” describes the futility of fiddling with mortality: “I am Death and all things belong to me in the end,” but Raine’s chilling “Goldfish” suggests a future where “DarkMarket” biotechnology may do just that. Dysan’s “The Frog Spy” redacts the “Princess and Frog” fairy tale to become a disconcerting close encounter of the third kind.
Many, such as Billman’s “Spark,” hover at the intersection of insanity, love and death but what works best for this reader is the unexpected imagery: “trays of hare confit and jellied scorpion” or “a new highway leading straight to their airlock.” All of these well-crafted interstitial poems slide through various genres: supernatural, science fictional and fantastic with the ease of a light saber through lemon meringue. As the title suggests, overall there is an addictive, yin-yang dynamic juxtaposing realms of light-bright with icy-dark. Highly recommended.
2012, Elektrik Milk Bath Press, $17. elektrikmilkbathpress.com
Last year, when Marge Simon and Sandy DeLuca decided to meld their particular brands of artistry, many of us ducked for cover. Surely, locking these two giants of the independent press in the same room together was a dangerous idea; surely, it would lead to some world-cracking, cataclysmic event. Well, the end result of that collaboration was the majestic imagery and poetry of The Mad Hattery. And now, Simon and DeLuca have found a dark room in which to bang heads together once again, and what they discovered this time was Vampires, Zombies & Wanton Souls. But can this book live up to their first effort?
In “Zombie Symptoms”, poor Suzanne has left a trip to the doctor’s a little too late. There are laments for beauty regimes in “A Zombie’s Bad Hair Day” and “Medusa”, while ancient horrors stalk the modern world in “Angel of Death” and “To Die For”. Propping up the poems are a couple of short stories in the form of “Trick of Light” and “Confessions of a Visually Challenged Vampire”, which add a nice shift to the book’s tone and pace. But if it’s a touch of uncomfortable eroticism you’re after, then definitely check out “Mirror Image”.
“Vampire Child” is an unnerving piece that stayed with me long after I read it. Viewed through the eyes of innocence, this poem is narrated by the voice of a young girl who is happy in her family life, despite its irregularities. The things she perceives as normal can only be seen as such with the naivety of youth. But for us as adults, it’s plain to see the ignorance of childhood has blinded the girl to something deeply disturbing and sinister:
People don’t know how it is with us,
Mommy and me are best friends.
She’s warm and sweet and wonderful.
No, that’s not true. She’s cold as death,
but I don’t care, she loves me dearly.
And we are best friends, because
she knows I will keep her secrets,
like what she does after sunset, and
why she sleeps all day and never eats
regular meals, like you and me.
But that’s okay because daddy makes
my breakfast, packs my lunch for school.
I can’t say why their beds are separate,
but that’s their concern, not mine.
I can’t tell you how much they love me,
a few drops at a time.
There’s a dark rumour going around that Simon and DeLuca are planning a third collaborative outing sometime next year. One certainly hopes this is true, and that there will be more besides. There’s a twist to the recipe when these ladies get together, some spice or herb that adds a particular flavour that you can’t quite put your finger on, but would definitely miss if it were absent. With words and pictures, through quirks and intelligence, humour and horror, Vampires, Zombies & Wanton Souls is a cool reminder of why collaborations are a very good idea.
Penned in the Margins, 208 pp. £9.99. pennedinthemargins.co.uk
I should probably check my enthusiasm and not say this is a landmark anthology, but I believe it is a major one. It may in part be because it is a British anthology, of mostly recent work, and as an American who reads mostly American periodicals, I’m not familiar with a lot that’s in here. What a treasure trove to come across! Gee, the quality is solid. I mean, really good. I’m glad to find myself within the midst of such good company. If you’re like me and not too familiar with these writers, then lucky you, because I think you will enjoy this book, too.
The editor, acknowledging the ”long cultural and literary history in the science fiction genre” that the British have, states his aim with the book is to “bring that up to date by showcasing work by long-established and emerging poetic talents from across the isles.” That “bringing up to date” part is what I find so exciting. This is fresh stuff, and very accessible, written by poets who seem very conscious of what’s going on in poetry, both literary and genre.
In part, this book is “in memoriam” to Edwin Morgan, the former Scottish poet laureate, who often wrote poems of a science-fictional quality. The book is divided into four thematic sections, with a poem by Morgan to start each one: A Home in Space, Hold Hands Among the Atoms, From the Video Box, and The Ages. Each section is rich and diverse, full of surprises and good ideas. Evidently the sections are derived from Morgan’s words. The editor Jones says he hopes this book will help “readers and poets to look to the future, to reconsider those final frontiers as [Morgan] had.”
I was hoping to like the book when I looked at the title. I love rockety science fiction. I love space and stars and aliens, and I miss those days when science fiction was expansive, outward and optimistic. Did the book give me that? Well, yes, actually, to some degree, it did. There are some aliens, and the poems tend to be up. And it gave me a whole lot more. It would be wrong to expect a book from 2012 to be 1950s-retro, not and still be any good. Let me give you some rockety stuff first, and then some other samples to show you the range:
Here are the opening lines of “Draft of a Novel” by John McAuliffe:
The electric dragon of Venus, he says,
strikes through ten miles of acid cloud,
we don’t know how, so we use the word
dragon: it’s language that haunts
the spaces science has not yet solved
for volts and atmospheres.
Isn’t that delicious? Or how about this, from “Planetfall” by Andy Jackson:
I suspect it is exposure to the doppler shift
that paints my lover red the way it does.
Once, the subdued winking of the ion drive
would play about her cheeks like rouge …
Some might argue that many selections are mainstream, not genre. In “Photography” by Sue Guiney, her son asks for a camera. They have a discussion, and she agrees, but the poem concludes with her worry:
The worry that he’ll never know the wonder
of an image:
a sudden shadow, a halo in the snow,
an arrow of racing birds
as it changes from something real to something
seen only by him.
Perhaps not SF, yet isn’t this about the impact of our technology upon our souls? And, moreover, it fulfills what Steve Sneyd talks about in his opening essay, of SF consciously working with Philip K. Dick’s (revision of Hesiod’s) ideas of idios kosmos (private world) and koinos kosmos (shared world). While being on the one hand a mainstream phenomenological reality, this division between the two, it seems to me, is a perfect entrée into the realms of myth and the speculative.
The whole Video Box section is about SF movies and TV. It includes poems like “Dr. Wha” (no typo) by James Robertson. Here are the first two stanzas of what ends up to be a darling love poem, called “The Trekker’s Wife”, by Claire Askew.
He’s the stereotype alright.
Skin space-age blue
in the TV light,
a good cup of tea
like a phaser in his fist;
his glasses thick
as telescope lens.
Other men obsess
over football, cars—
with him it’s stars, comets,
a galaxy’s haze, Mars
and its orange veins
of ice, light-years,
the stifling desert of space.
Strictly speaking, fandom isn’t a science fictional phenomenon, nor is love for that matter. Both are just reality. But even the SF purist, I don't think, would mind the inclusion of so many poems that, while maybe not fitting on strict definitional grounds, are in the ballpark at least, and certainly of interest to SF poetry readers. Besides, the use of a broader definition will help attract more people to our genre. Although probably not destined to be a crossover hit, because of the ‘SF’ in the title, I think a book of this kind could become one.
There are too many good poems to go into here. I love love love “Devil at the End of Love” by Chrissy Williams. There’s a great demon lover poem called “Love Song of the Bodysnatcher” by Andy Jackson; it’s dreamy with a Twilight Zone zinger of an ending. I love tons of the poems in here. I could go on and on. This book, at almost 200 pages, is a generous helping.
Russell Jones said in his introduction, “I want to create a collage, the impression of which might give us, and future generations, a sense of the implicit concerns of our age and nations …[of] poems that burn through our history and into the future.” I think he has done that, and very well.
—John Philip Johnson
2012, Sam’s Dot Publishing, perfect-bound. $6. sdpbookstore.com
G.O. Clark’s White Shift is a welcome addition to his already impressive list of publications. This is a poet who always surprises in terms of technique but also remains consistent in terms of quality. This volume collects more than 30 poems, most of which fall squarely within the science-fiction genre. Speculative poetry has come to encompass so many different kinds of expression—fable, myth, horror, fantasy, and often just an embrace of the weird. That’s been a welcome expansion of the genre. At the same time, it is a joy to find someone playing with familiar and less-familiar SF tropes.
The poems range across different types of form, and many pieces show a subtle sense of humor. For example, “Cosmic Sales Pitch” casts the mid-twentieth-century vacuum salesman as someone handing out warranties likened to “origami folded into the shape of future.” Many of these poems might be compared to origami. These finely crafted objects contain nods to the classic SF elements upon which Clark draws. “Reflections in an Empty Mirror” considers the invisible man. “White Gloves Black Knight” invokes a simpler, 1980s vision of superheroes found in a museum. “Glow” points to the kinds of mementos of Rockwellian childhood innocence that cycle through Ray Bradbury’s classic stories.
A quick look at “Castles Made of Sand” showcases how Clark plays with form:
Clinging to the past,
he rakes the Martian sands,
for the tides of time to liquefy
his castles made of hope.
The enjambed lines in the second half of the poem emphasize the futility of the Zen-like gardener’s attempts to slow time or to shape sand. It should be no surprise that Clark is so confident a poet. He is the author of nine volumes of poetry. He has won the Asimov’s Readers’ Award for poetry and has been nominated for the Rhysling on numerous occasions. It is nice to see him back with this new collection. Let’s all enjoy this one and look forward to the next.
2012, Trementina Books, 102 pp. $13 print, $2.99 Kindle. trementinabooks.com
In his Introduction, illustrator Howard Schwartz claims that McCray’s book Why Photographers Commit Suicide “is an ingenious vision of a future in which life on Mars resembles life on Earth as we know it” as well as “a satire of life on this planet.” It is that latter point that keeps us from taking the poems too seriously, since the author more often pokes fun at all aspects of life, both here and in the “final frontier.”
McCray’s first poems offer some uniqueness of language and lovely images, such as “sheet-snapped flurries,” and “the porcupine feeling of antiseptic air” from “Imagine Mars:”
Imagine the smell of autumn in a test tube,
cloning sickly trees,
with nowhere to go,
I’d like to dwell a bit longer with McCray in this place, even when she is ready to move to the less sober. Take the beginning of “Things My Astronaut Is Afraid Of,”
• Talking about our collected net worth
• Coming in outer space
• Raindrops on roses
• And reckless zambonies
The obvious reference brings a smile, and McCray uses this technique often. But she has the ability to reach beyond the easy, and I wanted to see a few more examples of that ability. McCray herself says in the Preface to her book, “…I hope one day all disciplines of thinking, all arts and sciences, will become reconciled to each other, that geologists and oceanographers will read poems to research the mysteries of land and sea, and that poets will embark on voyages to locate sunken ships, to decipher the physics of music, to unearth the charms of a treasure map, or to explore space.”
We see her hope played out in a poem like “Children of Algebra,”
Children of algebra, you must work
through my binary lies with your questions
and your hypotheses of discontent—
all your lives adding up to fractals.
Count on your fingers—if it calms you.
But swings back to satire with “Sex in Zero Gravity:”
run your fingers like lasers,
escape velocity through my motor heart,
the acceleration thrust
of your deep-space Cadillac cruising
my jellyfish tremors …
Such swings may leave the reader feeling a little off-balance, and perhaps that is her goal. In all, the poems have some interesting “spins,” using word-play and recognizable symbols to invoke feeling. My hope is that we’ll see more of McCray’s work as she reaches beyond the planets to tangle with subject matter in a serious and sustained way.
A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2012, 60 pp. $14.95, amidsummernightspress.com
Probably the only poetry that’s harder to exerpt and still make sense of is the sonnet form, and the sonnet is what Roz Kaveney does very, very well. The book is in mostly themed sections: “From the Orpheus Sonnets,” “What’s Imagined,” “The Steampunk Sonnets,” and “Watchers Know.” This book gets my highest recommendation, and even if you think you don’t like formalist poetry, I’ll beg you to reconsider and buy this book. Although Kaveney does split her sonnets into stanzas, they keep very, very strictly to the rhyme and metrical format expected.
The Orpheus myth consumes the first part of the book. Here’s a sample, from “Orpheus in Hades,” from the first stanza:
He stood before the god of Death and Hell
and Hades looked down into Orpheus’ eyes
and suddenly the dull and leaden skies
were inside Hades’s skull, and Orpheus fell
I would argue that this is formalist writing at its best, in which rhyme and meter contribute to the emotional impact of the poetry in ways that free verse might not. This section ends with the sonnet “Hades Speaks”:
‘I took your wife’ said Hell, ‘because she died.
She died because she fled the Satyr. Chaste
and faithful to your bed. I find the taste
of faithful wives the same as those who lied
The “Steampunk Sonnets” make up my second-favorite section of the book, and that is partly because the poems have all the hallmarks of steampunk literature—women doing men’s jobs but not forgetting their manners, airships, cogs and gears, etc. Yet they never seem cliched, probably because Kaveney is just so damn good at what she does. Consider “Workers by Hand and Brain”:
At first they dug with picks, and then the great
steam drills were made. The navvies, who had carved
their way through living rock, sickened or starved
or died of bends. The bubbles percolate
Or how about “Vengeance,” another common theme of the steampunk genre:
Small zeppelins were parked outside the ball,
moored to the gaslights. Out of the shadows crept
the monocled adventuress, who stepped
up to the door and had announced to all,
by flunkeys, that she meant to punish those
who had stole her father’s patents […]
These are the sorts of poems one reads again and again, seeing something a little more each time, marveling at how easily the format reads, yet knowing how difficult it is to write a sonnet well.
The last section is quite personal, a series of poems dedicated to particular writers. I’m so glad she wrote one for Joanna Russ. Russ seemed to understand what I was going through when I read her books when I was a young college student and SF writer. In “For Joanna Russ” Kaveney says it better than I ever could:
[…] She helped make us free
to speak aloud and dance. She lived to see
women whose lives grew through and past her books
choose quite precisely whom they’d love, or fuck,
and float downstream on rafts with Jim and Huck.
Fabulous stuff. And I mean that in every sense of the word.