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For books published in 2014:
Martian Lit Books, martianlit.com. 60 pp. $10 Print, $5 digital.
Laura Madeline Wiseman’s collection American Galactic explores an Earth teeming with Martians behind every corner. Almost every one of the more than 40 poems mentions, examines, or depicts the activities of the small green aliens against a backdrop of typical American society. Rather than drift with the Martians between the stars and planets, Wiseman instead depicts them as stumbling into our backyard, full of questions.
Most of the poems begin with an epigraph, the majority a quotation from a renowned SF author, famous scientist, or other piece of art involving Mars, with Wells and Hubbard leading the pack for number of mentions. The poems feature stylistic variation, with most freeverse, varying in stanza length, with a prose poem or two thrown in for spice.
The red planet and its green inhabitants loom large throughout the collection, the mention of that closest remaining frontier sparking ruminations on Earth as seen in its rust-colored shadow. From their appearances at Girl Scout camps to wedding planners to quaint museum pieces, the Martians serve as an alien viewpoint on its all with alien black eyes. The presence of the Martians uncovered a deep unease about humanity’s own place in the solar system, as revealed in this gem from “Creed: The Mission:”
Build flying saucers. Take naps. Live
debt free. Wear comfortable shoes.
Believe in versions of the truth.
Breathe. Hold hands. Hug. Recycle.
Hope that if there are Martians,
they wouldn’t be interested in you.
Almost every poem juxtaposes everyday life with the extraterrestrial, involving the Martians in some way. They range from unusual pets to uneasy invader to metaphors casting light on humanity’s foibles. They may stand in for nonconformity, for incomprehension, or for uneasy sensuality, as shown in this piece of “Stranger Still:”
The Martian says nothing,
for a promise.
The Martian folds
the heart in my hand,
then enters my bedroom.
The Martians serve as a lens through which American, or broader human, culture is critiqued and explored. The Martians are uncertain about war in the collection, whose mostly narrative poems change the rules from one set of stanzas to the next. In some they are confused by war depicted in movies (“Enemy Mine”) and in others they cheer for women boxers, betting tickets in hand and weapons at their sides (“Posturing”). Mars sometimes stands forth as the Roman warrior god, praised with alien poisons and quick-drawn laser pistols; in others, the red landscape is quiescent, a dead but longed-for home.
But underneath the Martian trappings and Martian tourists and Martians in the hedgerows, Wiseman’s collection is underscored by an intense yearning for the red planet just beyond our own, a planet whose nearness has captured the imagination of humanity for centuries. This emotion is captured most vividly at the end of “Deciding to Build the Spaceship:”
Three weeks later,
the Martians sat me down under a mural
of our orbit of stars. I said, Please, take me
with you. The Martians shook their heads.
Although Martians exist throughout the collection, their red planet homeland sees mostly mentions and has few appearances on the poetic stage itself. Mars remains largely out of reach throughout the collection, even for those who call it home.
Holy Cow! Press. 80 pp. $16 print, $8.56 Kindle.
The Bloody Tide by Jane Yolen is a book of politically related poems, of which about half have a fantastical or genre element to them. She sent me a copy of the book and put yellow Post-It Notes to guide me to the poems more relevant to Star*Line. She is so helpful; I mean that sincerely. These genial poems, flagged or not, mark a political point of view of simple kindliness, and she’s writing them because she’s trying to help.
The title might ring a bell for some of you because it’s a paraphrase of Yeats’s lines “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” lines that, for this cat anyway, are carved deep into my brain. They’re from his poem, “The Second Coming,” arguably one of the pinnacles of visionary work in the English language; the Poet as Prophet; a poem that is both mystical as well as political.
Inside her book, Yolen paraphrases that poem in one of hers, “Listening to the News Reminds Me of Yeats.” In it, she rigs up her own complaints alongside his observations (e.g., “There is no rough justice slouching / towards Bethlehem or the Arab states, / or for that matter the courtrooms of Texas”). I think it’s a mistake to hitch yourself to Yeats like that, because it compels the reader to do a comparison, and honestly, any of us are going to look glib and pale next to masterpieces of that magnitude. It makes regular poems look like nostrums trying to cop the stage.
But clearly, admiration for Yeats prompts her, as well as a deep, abiding urge that seems to be behind all the poems: the need to help. I don’t mean help as in scolding evil-doers into doing good, for poets know they have no gift to set such things right. But help as in using our powers to console, to add perspective and thought to the world, and to help people find some emotional closure. She is clearly trying to help with every poem, whether she is tsk-tsking over a dreadful event or entertaining us with some flight of fancy.
What else can you do with political poems besides that? I used to be very political, and even tried to write political poems, but I have always found them impossible. For the life of me, I can’t do one and keep any hint of grace or beauty in it. A couple of years ago, I met Carolyn Forché, the high priest of political poetry, and I bought her anthology of other people’s political poems, Against Forgetting. There are many good poems in it, but it is a very large volume, and it didn’t need to be. Yeats aside, most of the time, there’s something about politics that scares off art.
I’m sorry I’m beating around the bush so much. I thought Yolen’s poems in here were fine. In a typical example, “In a Row: Viewing the Newtown Photograph,” about one of our nation’s kinder-slaughters, she says of the children, “Like a dibbuk, memory inhabits them. / Ever after, the sound of pattering rain / slamming into the thirsty ground, / will sound like the echo of gunshot.” For me, the “memory inhabits them” is a terrific line, but “the thirsty ground,” eh, not so much. There were numerous poems I found wholly enjoyable; others were kind of like “the thirsty ground.” The poems that work the best are the ones that are only marginally political; the newsy ones written off the headlines mostly don’t work for me, though they sometimes had some good lines.
So, here’s my advice to you: Approach these poems as conversational elegance from a thoughtful neighbor, and you will not be disappointed. The back cover of her book says she has published 340 books in her life. 340 books! Can you imagine? Most of us have hardly 340 poems, let alone that many books. Seriously! How is that possible? You pretty much have to be writing the whole time, I think, and just break off your stream of consciousness into small, book-sized chunks.
So the unevenness I’m talking about is probably a result of such proliferation. None of us, to my knowledge, has a stream of consciousness that flows only in brilliance. In contrast, the internet tells me that Mr. Yeats produced only 407 poems in his life, plus a handful of prose books.
I have to say this: I did enjoy many of the poems, enough to recommend the book, but I was especially honored that one of the more famous writers in the English language took the time to stick yellow post-it notes on her book for me. I will probably never take them off.
I’ll leave you with a sample poem. It’s not my favorite (which was probably “St. Patrick and the Snakes”), but it tallies in my likable column, and it’s pretty representative of the lot. If you like it, you will like the book. This poem, of course, holds one of her helpful, yellow flags.
Black Dog Times
The world will end when the old woman finishes her porcupine quill blanket, though her black dog unpricks it whenever her back is turned.
What can you do in these black dog times?
When the world is close to done,
And only the dog’s teeth stand between us
And the ending? What can you do?
Choose to be born, stand up, pick the quills,
See through the mist, through the dark.
Sew yourself a robe, not a shroud.
Age gracefully. Take your medicine.
Have a colonoscopy. Do not complain.
Pick up your skirts, bend your aching knees,
—John Philip Johnson
written image, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Herb Kauderer started submitting short poems to my magazine, Dreams and Nightmares, a long time ago—I think back in the mid-1980s. Most of the poems I regarded as mainstream, not speculative, but I published some over the years. Then we lost track of each other and quite recently he sent me a copy of his new book, The Book of Answers. Answer poems are responses to other poems or bodies of poetic work and it is a well-established kind of poem. Many of these poems are responses to mainstream poems, but Herb is the kind of guy who can stitch back and forth across that seam between speculative poetry and the more widely respected kind with an easy grace. So, in between responses to poems by William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, are responses to John Grey, David Livingstone Clink, Carolyn Clink, Mary Turzillo, Geoff Landis, me, and more.
As I understand them, answer poems are supposed to use tools employed by other poets to respond to the content of one or more of their poems. Or some approximation thereof.
“persistence” (haiku for John Grey)
thirsty bones bleached pale
protrude from the desert floor
still seeking water
This poem does not actually bring to mind the style of the kind of poems by John Grey with which I am most familiar. On the other hand, the content does seem to echo John Grey's proclivities rather strongly. And I do like the poem.
After "Signs You're in Trouble" (for Mary Turzillo) is a list poem and includes these lines:
6) The DVR has somehow become filled with home movies of your childhood.
7) You do not appear in any of the home movies.
8) Your child plays on an imaginary computer & prefers it to you.
This poem works for me as an answer to Mary Turzillo's poetry. I have a weakness for list poems, and I think this is a very entertaining one. I especially like the imaginary computer. I made quite a few of those when I was young, using paper and pencil. This poem fulfills all the requirements of answer poetry, probably the most important of which is that the poem stand on its own.
In the opposite of entropy (for Carolyn Clink), Kauderer again brings it all together:
& the persistence of vision
This looks like a Clink poem, at least to me. But it highlights the main point of answer poems: they have a lot more impact if the reader is familiar with the source. In general, I am not. So the secondary goal of anyone writing an answer poem is that it be a good poem on its own. You should be able to enjoy it even if you don't know anything about the writing of the person whose work is being answered. Being unfamiliar with many of the source poems, I am well-suited to evaluate that aspect of this chapbook. For me, most of these poems work well as poems, and not just as answers. The answers to speculative poems are themselves speculative, so this collection also works as a speculative poetry collection. Roughly half of the poems are speculative.
As an aside, Herb's first poetry chapbook, Olives, was distributed primarily by me. I discovered recently that I have two or three copies left. Herb and I settled accounts about this decades ago, but if you send $4 to the Science Fiction Poetry Association, I'll send you a copy of the chapbook.
—David C Kopaska-Merkel
Hippocampus Press, hippocampuspress.com, 134 pp. $15 trade paperback.
Wade German is a master of weird formal verse. Only Ann K. Schwader consistently produces work that's comparable. If you like one of these poets, you will like the other. Dreams from a Black Nebula is, as far as I know, the only major collection of German's work. Sonnets comprise the bulk of this offering, but other forms, such as sestinas, are well represented. There are actually so many sonnets in the book that I found myself compelled, while reading it, to write sonnets myself. Any of you who know my work know that doesn't happen very often!
Dreams from a Black Nebula is divided thematically into five parts. These are Phantasmagorical Realms, Hypnagogic Terrain, In Spectral Provinces, Songs from the Nameless Hermitage, and Anomalies.
Here is the second part of the sonnet “In Carsultyal.” A common theme in German's work is this: that supernatural beings, especially those connected with Earth's distant past, will return, to humanity's cost. This is an important theme in all literature belonging to the tradition of Lovecraft, Derleth, and Howard.
The night winds rise, and shrieking eerily,
Phantasmal things that hail from other planes
Descend on silent shrines, deserted fanes;
While rising like a bloody scimitar,
The devil moon gleams ancient sorcery
In black skies swarming with their spawn of stars.
Here is the second part of the sonnet “Barbarian.” Of course, humanity doesn't need a lot of encouragement in the realm of violent destruction. In general, German belongs to the school that holds true awfulness comes from inimical beings with fantastic powers. However, we are occasionally reminded that we don't really need their help.
Black vultures circle on their blade-like wings
As we collect our trophies from the dead
And stack colossal cairns of severed heads
Of which tonight our battlescribes will sing—
And valor, victory, triumphant death,
The charnel breeze that is our old god’s breath
An aspect of nearly all of the poems in Dreams from a Black Nebula, which I find ads to the pleasure of reading them, is that horrific events are all described with a beautiful formal structure.
Many of German's poems are melancholy, rather than horrific. Some things are lost and cannot be redeemed. This too is part of weird poetry. From “Supernatural Refugees”:
We are the shadows
who are unable to become fully spectral,
the summoned spirits
who produce no ectoplasm.
We are poltergeists who
have no energy to stack furniture
in bizarrely balanced columns
or raise whirlwinds in livingrooms.
The poems in this book are mood pieces, for the most part. Because of this, the book is not really meant to be read in a single sitting. Few of us feel like reading five score mood pieces one right after the other. But when you are in the mood, or want to be, this is the book to pick up. When the days get shorter and the nights get windier, and alarmingly familiar voices call down the chimney, you will be glad you bought this book.
My only criticism is that some of the sonnets describe doleful scenes that don't stand out from one another. These are all very good poems taken in isolation, but some of them are telling different versions of the same stories. Four out of five stars.
—David C Kopaska-Merkel
Raw Dog Screaming Press, rawdogscreaming.com/books/hideous-immaculate/. 93 pp., $11.95 trade paperback.
Embrace the Hideous Immaculate is Chad Hensley's first book of poetry. Hensley is a fan of adjectives, which he uses to add depth and texture to his lines. Unfortunately, because his language choice is so obvious, they do little to develop the line and instead clutter his imagery, often pushing it into the realm of cliché. For example, his poem “Nocturne,”
Her eyes are fetid black whirlpools
Continually churning, bottomless.
Her breath is thick, stagnant air
Choking the living.
Her lips are livid tendrils
Longing to entwine warm flesh.
Her tongue is a bloated leech
Her heart is an open grave
Greedily gathering the dead.
These sorts of images—“black, bottomless whirlpools,” “thick, stagnant air,” “warm flesh,” etc.—are classic clichés of horror writing, and add nothing new to the genre. There is no surprise here, no fresh language to excite and titillate the reader’s imagination, and the poem as a whole suffers for it.
Beyond that, Hensley seems to wallow in some fairly classic tropes of the horror genre, adding little to them to make them novel or interesting. For example, there are many poems of strangers caught in a small town who wind up dead or missing in the morning. Take, for example, the poem “Silent Brood,” in which
The night tongues
Form festered shapes,
Warm flesh safely sleeping.
Morning finds only
another missing body
has turned up on the road.
While it can be argued that minimalism can heighten horror, forcing the reader to imagine something infinitely more terrifying than the author can conjure with words, in this case the minimalism serves to alienate the reader. We are once again given a series of clichés (“warm flesh” yet again) followed by a vague experience in poorly crafted language. This is not horror, but obfuscation.
Hensley also likes to write poems that attempt to paint national and international tragedies as horrific. For example, in “A View of Videodrome Godflesh,” Hensley uses a documentary on the Jonestown Massacre to set the stage for the horror. In the final stanza, his speaker explains
From the corner of my room
I can see the television.
Every day I watch
Waiting for the movie
To start again
So I can see
How I fucked up the first time.
The idea that this young speaker somehow identifies with Jim Jones and wants to learn from his example is meant to be terrifying, but we are given such scant details of this speakers life in the most abstract and ordinary of terms throughout the poem that when this revelation comes, it’s less of a moment of horror and more of a shrug for the reader. Hensley seems to be more exploiting Jonestown, as well as domestic violence, to create an excuse for his speaker as opposed to making the actions and thoughts of his speaker horrific.
There are also many poems where the speaker is transformed into some night beast or similar creature. For example, in “Laugh of the Night Ocean,” the speaker begins “On wooden planks/At the edge of a rotting pier/Watching undulating darkness/Usher in the tides.” The poem ends with these lines:
From nocturnal waters
Tendriled shadows emerge
Entwining the soft, warm
Flesh of my body.
Pale, succulent skin
Melts in quivering ecstasy.
My phosphorous liquescence
Oozes into the receding waves,
Carrying me home.
Again, readers are given vague abstractions and clichés (“warm flesh” yet again) that are meant to titillate and terrify us, but only serve to alienate us. Hensley repeats various horror tropes in his poems, but does nothing to add to these tropes or make them read as fresh or new, and the reader is left with stale poetry that simply regurgitates stagnant horror scenarios.
Embrace the Hideous Immaculate attempts to be a collection of horror poetry. However, because the poems are so poorly crafted and simply repeat classic horror ideas without adding anything original to them, the book ceases to be horrific. There is little here that readers of horror or genre poetry will get enjoyment from.
2014, Fanboy Comics. 96 pp. Paperback $11.99. fanboycomics.net/index.php/publishing/fearworms
Fearworms is a collection of narrative poems by Robert Payne Cabeen. Cabeen is known for being a talented artist, and it shows in this collection. Not only did he author the book, but he also illustrated it, and the images are slick and professional, clearly showing skill and adding to the tone of the poetry itself. Overall, Fearworms was a well-produced and silly romp through various horror genres.
The poems, overall, are rhymed, metered narrative pieces that are not horrific themselves, but play with horror tropes in a light, humorous way. If a poet like Robert Service wrote his ballads about cannibal clowns or zombie mother-in-laws, they would read like Cabeen. However, despite the occasional cartoonish illustration or the silliness of the plots, there are plenty of body parts and fluids throughout this collection to keep the gore factor high—Rugerro Deodato and Meir Zarchi would be pleased.
For the most part, the poems were rhythmic and kept nicely to their forms without sounding forced. Occasionally there was a poorly metered line or a weak line break for the sake of rhyme, but in general the poems worked. Many of them seemed to be song lyrics, with bridges and choruses, which helped with the lyrical qualities. Others were clearly grounded in song-based forms, like the ballad, and had that folksy quality to them. This worked to deliver the gruesome content.
Despite the fact that they were formed well, many of the individual lines, however, did not stand up to scrutiny and took away from the poems themselves. Too often they were overburdened with weak adjectives or weak similes for the sake of maintaining the rhythm of the poem. What was executed well, craft-wise, was unsupported by the content of the lines. And while this clearly wasn’t meant to be a serious collection of horror poetry, the weakness of the descriptions took away from the horror of the poems even more.
Furthermore, the narratives of many of these poems left a bit to be desired. Many of the characters seemed to be a little TSTL, and made some poor life decisions for the sake of propelling the poem forward. While this is often a part of the horror genre, combined with the weak descriptions, it made the poems seem that much more cliché.
While it is difficult to see Fearworms as serious horror poetry, it is not a horrible book by any means. It very much is like a horror B-movie—clear form, weak delivery, but enough blood and guts to give the audience exactly what they’re looking for. If readers go into it expecting silliness and fun with the internal squishy bits of people, they’ll have a blast.
Starburker Publications, saddle-stitched pamphlet. Free for C5 SASE from 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB, United Kingdom, or email@example.com. Inspired by the National Space Centre exhibition Space Fact and Fiction.
This chapbook has the same format as the numerous Cthulhu Mythos themed booklets that Cardinal Cox has written recently. In contrast to those books, most of the poems here owe their genesis to golden age science-fiction books and movies, with some real life space science and politics thrown in. The usual bottom-of-the-page notes explain where some poems came from, and dedicate others to notable SF fans. The poems vary from rhymed and metered to other forms and even free verse. This works, I think, as the chapbook's space theme ties them together.
I particularly like the (to me) new insight of “Orbital Observatory”
Because the Universe has grown
Those distant vistas are smaller
Than the space we inhabit
If we could look far enough, would we see a tiny post-Bang blaze? Another science poem, “Space Suit,” also appeals to me. An excerpt:
The fish first onto land
Had a pool dried?
Did it chase an arthropod?
These by no means represent the range of this pamphlet, but do, I hope, indicate its quality. Get it before it's too late!
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Dark Renaissance Books, darkrenaissancebooks.com. 60 pp. $10 print.
G.O. Clark’s dark collection Gravedigger’s Dance abounds with both familiar apparitions and original phantoms, exploring visceral and immediate moments of horror. Containing 42 poems, the chapbooks lingers over foreboding scenes and brooding vignettes, homing in on the shocked moment of recognition where the mundane becomes horrifying, or the dark even darker. The poems vary in form but largely eschew any scheme; most are a page or under in length.
Gravediggers’ Dance is thick with brooding darkness and ruminations on the darker aspects of man, nature, and the supernatural. Horror icons are shoved blinking into the lights of the modern world, but the stark illumination does little to banish their dread. Dracula and his brides, in the poem “The Party Crasher’s Scenario,” become no less horrific for arriving at a billionaire’s home in a carriage, but rather they emphasize the banality of an endless thirsty existence. The personification of Death, too, retains his aura of fear when he abandons both his black cloak and anthropomorphic form in “The Fog” for more modern fare:
In the fog,
Death takes on
any shape he so desires—
tree, hurricane fence,
cement wall, 18-wheeler,
Nature’s sinister overtones take hold later in the collection, the creeping advance of relentless life given free reign to explore potential macabre overtones. A variety of plant-based monstrosities appear in the collection, but in the poem “Green Revolution,” all of nature strikes at once:
were the first to revolt,
reaching out their limbs
to snap power lines.…
then joined in,
growing cornstalk tall
beneath the harvest moon
Overall, Gravediggers’ Dance strives more for tone and image than narrative. Some poems confront the reader with an unsettling, evocative image, illuminating two or three dark facets of a strange shape before moving on, while others prefer a more creeping horror, letting details and metaphors build an increasingly disturbing image.
This collection will appeal to anyone looking for an array of dark poetry that is up-front about its content, reveling in celebratory necropolises, murderous trees, and vampires stalking from mansion to mansion. Those looking for narrative poetry may wish to look elsewhere, but Gravediggers’ Dance manages to build a certain identity of its own, a dark and twisted reflection of humanity’s darker thoughts and nightmares.
Red Bird Chapbooks, redbirdchapbooks.com. 32 pp. single signature with hand-sewn binding, $12.
E. Kristin Anderson’s collection A Guide for the Practical Abductee explores the hidden side of the modern world, weaving the speculative and supernatural into everyday life. Containing seventeen poems, the chapbook revels in juxtaposing the vivid sensory detail of a snow-filled winter evening or a darkened New York street with the looming shape of Sasquatch or a weary unicorn. The poems vary in form, but each drives home a narrative, a story in miniature told through images and smells and the unseen.
The chapbook’s language feels clean and straightforward while inviting appreciation of underlying subtlety. Each poem is like a still pool of water with strong current waiting beneath the surface. A sentient gargoyle’s contemplations on the minutiae of his surroundings burns around the edges with questions of identity and self-destruction, as in “A Voice at Notre Dame Cathedral,” while the wistful lament of a ship trapped in the Bermuda triangle in the poem “Bermuda” evokes resignation and mystery.
The chapbook’s poems focus on the natural human response to the speculative—the emotions that follow the initial fear or amazement and arrive in more complex places: regret, loss, longing, or a deeper and more personal wonder. Take this gem from “Upon Discovering Crop Circles in Iowa,” where a farmer reacts to the title phenomenon:
This close to harvest perhaps I should be concerned
about profit. But tonight I've found the telescope
in my son's old bedroom. The news crew is gone;
now it's just me, the night sky, the hairs standing
on my arms as that little voice whispers, Believe.
Many of the poems follow a similar narrative framework, with varied forms and execution but ending on a single strong line that throws the rest of the poem into relief; a distillation of imagery and emotion in one powerful moment.
The poem’s speculative magic often personifies objects, such as the above-mentioned ship and gargoyle, and in one memorable instance a unicorn, which provides an alien-tinted view of New York in this visceral passage from “Unicorn in Central Park:”
I am just another creature with feet touching
wet pavement. Myth is a line blurred
between starlet and waitress,
between horse and cart.
The speculative and the modern interact and find each other wanting, circling warily throughout the chapbook to uncertain results. Ouija boards battle with movies for attention while ghosts reflect in computer screens. The collection’s length doesn’t allow for a full exploration of these themes, but it disturbs the still surface of that pool enough to send ripples towards the edges.
A Guide for the Practical Abductee will appeal to anyone looking for comprehensible, competent, and well-written poetry about the intersection between the supernatural and the human, the speculative and the modern. As noted above, however, the chapbook is short. Those looking for the maximum amount of poetry for their price, or a thorough poetical treatise from a longer work, might be better looking elsewhere. Those who do read the collection, though, should find the voices, the themes, and the tone lingering past the chapbook’s end.
* * *
A person might be tempted, both from the title of Anderson’s poetry chapbook and the subject matter: ghosts and unicorns, crop circles and the Bermuda Triangle, sasquatch and other cryptozoic critters, to think this is a genre poetry book: SF poetry, fantasy poetry. But for the most part, I found Anderson’s writing rose above such neat pigeonholing. Her poetry is tight, well-crafted with nice lyrical elements, internal rhyme and interesting language.
In each of the 17 poems, Anderson writes from the persona of someone, or something, intimately involved with the subject matter at hand: a dead girl in “Ouija Board” or a unicorn in “Unicorn in Central Park.” Sometimes the perspective is a bit hard to decipher, as in “Bermuda,” although that’s not necessarily a criticism. Here are the opening lines from “Bermuda.”
This is where Columbus saw the light
floating in the distance,
a lantern, faint.
Anchored here, I know the Earth will forget me.
And the last lines from the same poem:
Here is where I’ll greet
our makers, a dot on a satellite
you’ll never locate,
my breath the same as the salt
stuck in this air forever.
These lines have an ethereal quality. While that can sometimes be a negative characteristic, especially when taken to an extreme where some writers try to sound poetic by being light and lofty, that’s not the case here. In Anderson’s hand it works beautifully and sets the tone of the poem well.
In another of my favorites, also concerning the Bermuda Triangle, Anderson again gets the tone just right. Here are a couple middle stanzas from “Flight 19 Hits the Triangle (Blue):”
I’m not aging. The crew neither.
We just spiral, somehow, and she
is somewhere with petite feet planted.
She is blue, blue dresses, blue gloves,
blue eyes in the little blue house
that we were meant to buy.
In “A Voice at the Notre Dame Cathedral,” Anderson dons the persona of a gargoyle perpetually hanging from its perch and uses vivid imagery and rhyme:
On the days when it rains I let it fall into me,
slip through my mouth like a prayer.
This building is a church, and the fire in each cradle
lit by every patron hits my stone bones.
Poems from A Guide for the Practical Abductee have been published by both genre (Asimov’s Science Fiction) and non-genre (Cordite, [PANK]) journals. As I wrote in the beginning, Anderson’s poetry transcends classification. If I do have (and I guess I do) a criticism, it’s that some of her poems, while artfully written, lack a certain “punch.” Not every poem can “take off the top of your head,” to paraphrase Dickinson, but my preference is for poems that have something more than technical brilliance but also have that punch that makes you say, “Yeah, that’s it!” or simply stop you in your tracks. Some of Anderson’s poems do that for me: “Flight 19 …” as I mentioned above. “Animal Control Answers a Jackalope Emergency” is another. From the title, I expected a humorous piece, but Anderson delivered a quite serious and “punchy” poem there.
This is Anderson’s second book and well worth a look-at and read. The chapbook itself is handsomely constructed. You can find her blog at EKristinAnderson.com.
Mythic Delirium Books; .amazon.com/Hungry-Constellations-Mike-Allen/dp/0988912422/.
140 pp. $13.46 trade paperback, $3.99 Kindle.
Rowdy, Red-Tinged Tapestry
The poems in Mike Allen’s latest book, Hungry Constellations, make a rowdy, red-tinged tapestry, representing twenty years of work from one of the major creative forces in this genre. These poems are physical, expansive, and revolutionary. They are grand and dystopic. They seethe with the conflict of opposites. Allen likes the destructive side of creation as much as the emergent side. He likes dying gods, because they need to be revived or transformed. He writes about stars and legends and human beings contending with the monster-filled and glorious cosmos. He does it all with a relentless, energetic style, full of thought and invention.
Given the nature of this work, of course this review is favorable. But first, I want to make a disclaimer. When I discovered SF poetry, around 2009, I felt like I’d found my tribe. And although I am at heart a Silver Age SF’r who loves robots and rockets, of all the amazing genre poetry I was stuffing myself on, I found the fantasy work at Goblin Fruit and Mythic Delirium to be the freshest and most exciting. So much so, I flew to Boston in 2011, for Readercon, where I hoped to meet Mike Allen, as well as Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick.
Well, the women were in London, but I met Mike and we hit it off. I told him what a fan I was, etc., and he said he liked the poem I was workshopping in his group. He later asked me to send it to him, and then published it in MD. It was kind of a brutal piece, very dark, and I’m not sure how many other human beings actually liked the poem, but I was glad to find someone on the same aesthetic wavelength. Brutal, if you don’t know, is often included in his poetry.
So, I’m just telling you that I am predisposed to like this book, which, in fact, I do, very much. The book, his sixth collection, is a selection of past work along with new poems, edited by Dominik Parisien, with an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar. It gets its name from the powerful and remarkable long sequence, “Hungry Constellations” (currently a Rhysling-nominee), a sequence of ten poems which conveys the heart of his work, and casts a retrospective light on the previous twenty years. Here’s how that sequence opens:
Like the giants who boil under the land,
whose broken baby teeth form mountains,
or their sisters who seethe unbearable heat
in crevasses beneath the sea,
stars burn with appetite,
huge and slow,
diffused and directed through the legends
that pin them in place.
So, there’s the mythic: the ‘constellations’ pinned in place, i.e., the comprehension systems we humans have cobbled together. As he presents them, they are fused with contradiction, existing both external to us and yet at the same time directed by us to some degree. This paradox is, in Allen’s world, the dynamo that is seething at the core of our understanding. We may pin our myths in place, but they burn with appetite. They are hungry constellations. And what do you think they are hungry for?
No wonder the guy turned to poetry, with these kinds of paradigms storming in his brain. This poet is riven. The delirium part of this mythic equation is caused precisely by the contradictions, the lack of foundation we have as we try to create our foundations. These shackled opposites are also a great kind of driving energy to create art with. Here’s what I believe is an example of him falling into that delirium, earlier in his career, from “Death of the Father” (2003):
The poems starts with a few lines setting the scene, of a figure walking inside the bones of a former god, which is pretty cool, and then Allen hits real authority with these lines, “my footsteps hissing in the mud / of your combusted flesh,/ and [I] marvel / how the mountains must have shook / with your death throes,” and he stays there for a moment, sidestepping the advancement of the theme, focusing on “how the columns of your temples / must have toppled, / cities of marble and granite / capsizing,” which is truly awesome, and here I would say he’s actually losing the walls and finding that delirium rush, continuing with “fissures swallowing / the geometric groves,/ all your worshipers / following you to the last, / into oblivion.”
And now that he’s back on the familiar ground of killing off gods, the delirium abates. “I, the seed of fire / my mother planted in you—” and from there he finishes the poem off with the details of the crime.
What else but the grand and dystopic could express those huge shackled opposites? Of course things get brutal, these conflicts exist on a cosmic scale. The body count gets kind of high. And the strength of the definer sometimes reaches hubris, as in “Defacing the Moon” (1997), where, “Soon your own face will rise / from the moon’s far side, / awaken and stare down the sun.” I’m guessing he was in his twenties when he wrote that one.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying he is in a slack-jawed oracle mode when what I’m calling the ‘delirious’ words appear; they could be highly polished and multi-revised. But I’m saying at the core, the inspiration and the impetus of the words are in that somewhat featureless zone where we have a need to define, and where the truth is somewhat open to suggestion from us.
Here’s another example, from another moon poem, “Retracing the Moon” (2008), where the delirium starts from the git-go, in the first line, “Hung in the sky, scratched to blank—.” That blank is the issue, it’s “only a template.” A decade after staring down the sun, the speaker cups the moon in his hands, lifts it, and is about to press his fingers in its “silver skin,” when he asks himself “Who am I to cook the clay of dreams?” What a great way to put it. Then the speaker says this:
I will forge you in no image,
round canvas for the wizards
to project all their craters,
seas and histories;
for the lovers to draw desire,
cast lures to pull their own tides;
for the atheist to worship,
prostrate before mindless rock,
while believers dissect and analyze:
filling their centrifuge
with reflected light,
spinning to distill God’s face.
Wow. To “forge in no image” is to concretize what I’m calling the delirious. And then the tight embrace of the multi-contradictions of the last lines—I think that’s major league stuff. It is an adamant agnosticism, hostile to the presumption of settling, and it firmly takes a place in the post-modern project of definition and justification that’s been going on for the last few decades. As a Catholic myself, I believe that such a position is inherently unstable, so I look forward to clocking the progress of his thought in the decades to come, but what great poetry in the meantime.
I mentioned Mike briefly in an earlier review this year, describing the “whitewater of his visionary sprawl,” and I should mention here that the sprawl can cut both ways. Sometimes, before or after the epiphany of delirium, he can get kind of prosy, repeating points for emphasis that don’t need it, or losing precision by getting chatty or making a big, honking metaphor grab. And sometimes he is too adamantly insisting on contradiction when a resolution seems to be waiting in the wings.
But it’s hard to complain about that, because those are minor elements, and besides, the guy has published more whole books than most people have published poems, and he writes all day for a newspaper, so, golly, with that kind of output, any normal person would have gone insane long ago, and lost all precision. I mean, have you ever tried to write 50, 60 hours a week? It dilutes the brain to the point of a rubbery gruel, and I’m not kidding.
But Mike holds it together, and there are 140 pages of high-quality stuff in this volume, well worth reading. And even if you aren’t a fan, I urge you to reconsider, for I was a recent outsider to this clan, and from that outsider perspective, Mike Allen’s work was one of the things I saw that gave grace and importance to a genre that sometimes loomed too close to limericks. He says, in “The Problem with Science Fiction Poetry” (2008), our genre finds “ever cuter ways / to rewrap your worn out childhood toys.” Yikes! Hits kind of close to the bone for this Silver Age SF’er. Still, though, gotta say, rockets and robots will be part of everyday life in the centuries to come, long after post-modern tapestry hits the history books.
But in the meantime, I highly recommend this book for lots of reasons. And, as far as the question, What are the constellations hungry for?, here’s what the poem says:
… these incendiary orbs
hunger for our observation, our admiration,
the power of the human eye to enliven what’s devoid.
With ardor they devour the scripts we dream for them,
What a precise perch, what a razor-sharp balancing point. The lyric calls for us to improvise, to enliven, to be improvised upon, and to become enlivened. Mike Allen does all that, and reading this work will do that for you. By the way, this pdf is really beautifully maneuverable, totally easy to use. A great ebook. For a lot of reasons.
—John Philip Johnson
Graywolf Press. 148 pp. $25.00.
If The Tabloids Are True, What Are You? is an interesting amalgam of art, poetry, short fiction, erasures and other art forms. Harvey is clearly playing off the speculative aspects of tabloid papers, whether it be mermaids or demonic possession, interstellar travel or even Elvis. While many of these tropes aren’t unique in their own right, Harvey is able to take the clichés and invigorate them with a fresh perspective, using them to explore various aspects of the modern 21st century and make commentary on the human condition.
The first section of the book is a series of flash-fiction pieces based on various mermaids, each piece accompanied by a surreal black-and-white cutout. Many readers finding this in the poetry section of their library or bookstore would assume these pieces to be prose poems, but they contain too much plot and narrative for me to read them as such. Each one takes a mermaid—“The Homemade Mermaid,” “The Morbid Mermaid,” “The Deadbeat Mermaid,” etc.—and tells her story in rich, vivid language. By playing off of various clichés, both of mermaids and the labels and descriptions that humans assign to others, Harvey is able to create, in this series, observations about how people treat each other, as well as what motivates and drives people to advance forward in their lives.
The second section, “M is for Martian,” is an erasure of Asimov’s “R is for Robot.” This is a fairly weak piece, even in Harvey’s presentation of the actual pages with the words covered in whiteout. This creates an interesting visual, as some words are only partially visible through the whiteout, and others are clearly intended to be read completely. This adds some ambiguity to the text. Unfortunately, Harvey’s erasure is in the extreme, and while what’s left makes sense and is interesting, it doesn’t read as a poem, but merely as a plot summary.
The next section is clearly based on tabloid headlines, real or imagined. With titles like “Using a Hula Hoop Can Get You Abducted By Aliens” and “Michelin Man Possessed By William Shakespeare,” Harvey is having fun with some of the more bizarre and extreme articles that grace such bastions of credible investigative reporting like Weekly World News and The National Enquirer. She plays with the language of such stories to create deceptively humorous poems that explore modern issues. For example, her poem “Prom King and Queen Seek U. N. Recognition Of Their Own Country … Promvania!” reads as fun and silly on the surface, but actually explores ideas like international relations, political honesty and budget spending in its lines:
aside from the usual border disputes with Homecoming and
Sadie Hawkins, we’re committed to peace. Pinky-swear.
Yes, of course you have questions. We know how to
spike punch to perfection and if a large percentage
of our national debt stems from the nightly balloon-falls
we require, there is much to admire in our high school
Despite some weak line breaks, this poem takes the language of prom and all the tensions and infighting thereof and brilliantly hyperbolizes them to an international scale, allowing the readers to see how little difference there is between international politics and the squabbling of high schoolers vying for popularity.
The final section of the book, which covers about twenty-five percent of the book as a whole, is “Telettrofono.” This is an experimental, multi-voice poem which doubles as a script for an audio walk. It’s an interesting combination of instructions, patents, math problems, monologues and more. On the page it reads as a chaotic, juxtaposed overload, and readers will have difficulty following along. However, a web link in the back of the book provides the audio recording, which adds a lot of context to everything, though possibly not enough. If nothing else, “Telettrofono” is an interesting and unique presentation of poetry working with other mediums that opens the possibilities for various projects.
Overall, Harvey’s If The Tabloids Are True, What Are You? is interesting and experimental, but probably a bit uneven for the average speculative poetry reader. While a few sections will hold readers’ interests, many of them will fall flat due to their elaborate complexity and experiments with language, voice, perspective, presentation, mixed media, etc. Furthermore, the high cover price makes this a book to pursue through the library, and not something to purchase for one’s collection without thoroughly previewing it first.
Eldritch Press, eldritchpress.com. 82 pages, $5 print, $3 digital.
Michelle Scalise’s collection of dark and evocatively disturbing poetry, The Manufacturer of Sorrow, contains 41 poems that explore the underbelly of human emotion. It is a journey through a modern landscape littered with the signposts of horror: the collection traipses through dark asylums (such as in “Visitor’s Day”), prison churches (“That Which the Waters Hide), and blood-stained maternity beds (“Whims of the Faithful”) and ends up in graveyard after graveyard. Almost every short poem is narrative, describing a brooding scene or horrific situation in a few lines, never exceeding two pages. Accompanying several of the poems are illustrations or photographs either thematically or literally related to the subject matter.
Few of the poems contain anything other than a bleak or twisted story. The line between madness and reality blurs, with many poems ruminating on insanity, asylum trappings peeking out around the stanzas. Damage to the body often mirrors the damage the mind as the poem’s mind, as in “The Immortal Hour,” where the speaker’s damaged fingers mirror her damaged psyche:
In the mourning solitudes of hell
I claw this satin chamber
A bloodstained funeral box
With torn and pulsing fingertips
Like a child indulging fantasies
Alongside questioned sanity, bleak eroticism crawls through this collection, deliberately stripped of tantalization via juxtaposition with trauma or death. Kisses are poisoned, trysts regretted, children abandoned, with intimacy wreaking horrible damage. The poems weave a complex combination of lust, loss, shadows, and sex in a grim tapestry. “Mouthful of Thorns” provides one example:
Arsenic kisses ripped her lips
with lies and a mouthful of thorns
And she fears he wouldn’t
Recall her name now
If she scratched it ’cross the sky.
The collection also engages with the darker side of motherhood, with several poems including neglectful, abusive, or downright twisted maternal figures. They drug their children, haunt their dreams, steal their souls, and chain them to asylum beds, flitting past with perfect red lipstick and hollow smiles.
The collection’s primary strength lies in its atmosphere. The similar length of each poem, along with a unity of subject matter and similar vocabulary, manages to weave a dark but appealing window into the less stable sides of the human experience. The poems attempt to strike an uneasy balance between the imagery and the narrative in every poem, and sometimes they do sacrifice threads of the nascent story in favor of a brooding juxtaposition or startling simile. Some feel like bleeding limbs, truncated stories full of uneasy and shocking events that forgo resolution or conclusion.
Scalice’s Manufacturer of Sorrows contains poetry to appeal to those looking for a short, inexpensive collection of brief poems with a thoroughly dark subject matter and shadowed atmosphere. Madness, twisted eroticism, and damaging motherhood make up the backbone of the collection, and if it doesn’t chill the blood, it should leave the reader with a pleasant sense of unease.
Leaky Boot Press, leakyboot.com. 160 pp. $15.99.
A majority of poems in Memory Man & Other Poems have been vetted in places like Dreams and Nightmares, Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and especially Mythic Delirium, and they span a long time, back to the ’70s, including poems culled from earlier collections, making this book a selected poetic works of Ian Watson. Given such a time span, the work is aesthetically uneven, more suited for the needs of the author (to create a single artifact as a legacy) than the reader, but with such a broad sampling, you’re bound to find stuff you like.
The range goes from plainspoken to the grand style, to light verse, to prosy entertainments. Many of his poems rhyme. They are all clever, which the genre demands, and a few are graceful, which is a bonus for our genre. They are rarely ambiguous or suggestive. These are rational poems; the reader is usually tended to as though by a sheepdog down the declarative path.
Let me get past the rhyming poems before I get to the ones I liked. I like rhyming, though rarely. It is so hard to do well. Especially in an age that prizes conversational naturalism in poetry, rhyming usually seems forced. Offhand, Theodora Goss is one of the few I can think of in our genre who pulls it off. Here’s a typical example, although more Elizabethan than his other poems, from “The Mutant’s Second Song”:
“To you I may look like a beast,
To your eyes I may seem nature’s jest.
One pitying glance from you, Rita, the least
Little nod, and love beats a drum in my breast.
“You’re such a fine hen, charming chick,
Dainty bird—any man will avow.
How it wounds me to the quick
When a beast can’t woo a bird, thou.”
Along with rhymes, he sometimes employs the grand style, which is also real hard to do in a conversational age. “Andromeda” is an imagining of lines from a lost Euripides play, and that may explain the anachronistic feel, but it doesn’t make it good. I can’t help but think he had Byron’s “Don Juan” in the back of his mind as he wrote these didactic lines:
Do not heroes seize the high ground of history
There to erect their image, their phallus
Of power to procreate not sons and daughters
But a name, the name of a hero
Before which women must weep and pray?
The last of my grousing is the smattering of anti-Christian themes. This isn’t a big point, there aren’t a lot of them, and I assume that Mr. Watson would sincerely deny this, as would so many others in this genre, with the precise same vehemence that Mike Resnick & the Old Guard deny they’re doing anything wrong by sticking women in bikinis and keeping their protagonists white. I’m not judging anyone here, nor am I saying they don’t have the right, nor am I trying to stir up the trolls. I’m taking the opportunity to mention it, because almost no one seems to notice, that’s all.
My favorite poem in the book is the title poem, “Memory Man.” The premise is a man who can create memories in people, and he does it to make old lovers out of total strangers, and create old friends out of passersby. It is really an exquisite poem about alienation and the haunting of inauthenticity that I assume many people who live a reflected life will recognize. Asimov’s was the lucky publisher of this poem back in 2003, but any number of literary magazines would have published it. I won’t quote from it, as I would have to quote the whole thing.
I will quote from this delightful piece of light verse, called “Entertaining a Hope,”
Shall I write my hope
A poem so lovely
That she admires herself
As in a bathroom mirror
Till the words written
In steam fade away?
If you don’t entertain a hope
What hope dare you have
That she’ll stay?
A lot of his light verse I like; oh, a few are too ironic for my tastes, and others too bawdy [an oxymoron—FJB], like the salacious “Tale of Jordi” with its chorus of “Oh yes, Roll over!” But clever poems work better sipping a gimlet than posturing on stage, and Watson hits more than he misses with the lighter touch.
I need to comment on the several poems co-written with Mike Allen. Although a few of them I wasn’t fond of, these have some of the best writing in the book. The strengths of each writer cancels out their weaknesses. The tidy, didactic rationalism of Watson is submerged in the whitewater of Allen’s visionary sprawl. I especially liked “Timeflood” and “Zombie Bombs.” From the latter, see if you like this:
the first time I saw a ship,
a dark movement in the sky
like a whale’s lumpy back breaking
an ocean surface turned upside down;
then gone. Moments later bodies burst,
limbs writhed on lawns, roofs, driveways.
When mobile flesh began to push
against my front door, I nailed
towels in place.
Nice, eh? Love the alliteration, too.
All in all, you may like a lot of poems in this book. A lot of editors did. For me, I liked quite a few, but found it a mixed bag. However, one person’s mixed bag is not necessarily another’s.
—John Philip Johnson
Raw Dog Screaming Press, rawdogscreaming.com. 118 pp. Print $12.95.
Who would’ve thought that there were so many ways to describe and enact death and dying? Well, I suppose most writers and poets could come up with hundreds of ways off the top of their heads. Stephanie Wytovich’s collection Mourning Jewelry at times feels like an attempt at creating and collecting the most diverse death poems possible. These are poems about death and dying and all the ways there are to do it, look at it, experience it, feel about it. These are poems written by someone who loves death and dying, and thus there is a macabre feeling of joy or satisfaction within them, which, for someone like me, is not easy to grasp. They are quite unlike someone trying to work through pain and loss, and come out the other side intact, hopefully sane. These are poems which veritably revel in the insanity, the psychopathy within. Most are first-person POV. Some, like “Exception #1”, personify Death:
There are no exceptions.
Everyone dies: some when I tell them to,
Others when I don’t.
I found myself having difficulty with most of the poems simply because they were in first person. I felt a distinct aversion to identifying with the content of the poems, some being quite revolting.
But then I couldn’t leave him.
I wanted him with me everywhere I went, so I cut off one of
his thumbs and stuck it in my jacket pocket. I’d finger it
then I wanted more of him with me, on me….
…. I yanked out
one of his molars and sucked on the tooth when I missed his taste.
(from “Dare I Keep the Body”)
That’s the sort that’s not for me. And while I appreciate that not all people grieve in the same way (or at all), this, from “Grieving in Diamonds” is also not for me:
… She wasn’t sad he was dead, wasn’t
even troubled, but she cried like the saddest
of wives, mourned like the grieving widow
she should have been. And people believed her.
Now, if this is your thing, you’ll love this collection. Despite being monothematic, there’s a good variety in specifics. The poems themselves are of varying length and form so as not to become monotonous and they are quite successful in the variety of tone the POV takes with the subject, as well.
“Nightingale” is a well-crafted and horrific poem which didn’t repulse me. Which surprised me, made me empathize with the “protagonist,” even.
The bird sings to me,
it makes the scars go away, makes them fade.
… Its voice soothes my
angry skin, erases the light pink bump that runs from my
eye to the tip of my lips, connecting the dots in serial-killer
There are precious few poems that don’t focus on death. Personally, I enjoyed those much more. Like “I do,” of a spell gone wrong:
But spells have a way of backfiring when your intentions
aren’t clear, so when I plucked those couple of hairs from his
head and wove them into my braid, the words that I said did
not match the feelings that I felt, and emotions are so much more
than just bottled up secrets that we pretend our heart likes to keep
from our brain. They are portals and charms and they bound him
to me that night, bound him physically, but not emotionally.
If you have a preoccupation with death and its endless iterations, and you appreciate dwelling on it, then I believe you will enjoy this collection.
—Diane Severson Mori
2014, Who’s That Coeurl? Press, 100 City Centre Dr., P.O. Box 2065, Mississauga Ontario, Canada L5B 3C6. Sixth edition, saddle-stitched, unpaginated.
There is another review of this chapbook by David C. Kopaska-Merkel from when the 6th edition was published in 2008. It is currently in its 7th edition (2014) and is probably quite different than the 2008 edition; there are 6 poems, as far as I can tell, which have been added since then and the 6th edition from 2008 apparently had poems dating back to 1984. This one is a retrospective collection; representing the best Carolyn Clink has offered us since 1996. There is an astonishing variety in form and subject and genre. There are only 22 poems in all, but all of them are gems.
Let’s see: half of these poems have been reprinted in other places, some multiple times, in a variety of well-known genre magazines including Star*Line, Space and Time Magazine, On Spec, Weird Tales, and Gusts: Contempory Tanka. Two have been finalists for the Aurora Award (Canada’s best science fiction and fantasy) for best song or poem and one was the winning poem (“The ABC’s of the End of the World”). There are list poems (“10 things to know about staplers”—Star*Line 34.1), tanka, haiku, dwarf-length and long(-ish) poems, free verse and rhyming verse, straight up SF, horror, serious and funny/spoof poems and much in between.
Clink’s style is very readable and highly enjoyable. All are easily understood; there’s nothing mysterious about some of them, but many sneak up on you. It’s difficult to get a handle on what makes these so special. It’s not so much the words themselves or the poetic lines, but the whole of the poem, which combines to light up your brain when the poem is over. Such that I was compelled to read each poem again immediately to try to fathom what had just happened.
Pinwheel down, down
into a spiral
galaxy, light blueshifting
back in time
to when stars exploded
from the pressure
This is a fine example of what I mean.
As far as I can tell, you can’t get this sparkly little gem anywhere but from the poet herself. She is very willing to send it anywhere though; just e-mail her:
Nouveau’s Midnight Sun contains more than 35 surrealist poems from a score of poets. Adamantly refusing at every step to conform to any single theme, pattern, or philosophy, the collection runs the gamut of surrealism. The introduction, penned by anthology editor John Thomas Allen, lays out in fevered, frantic style a short manifesto for the NSI (New Surrealist Institute), the movement of the poets within to place their work in the context of past and present Surrealist poetry and art.
The poems within maintain only a tenuous grip on reality, freely admitting to a slapdash rush through the human psyche bound by no one goal. Some poems, such as Allen’s “Genome Dice,” are full-page prose-style poems eschewing line breaks and plumping the depths of surrealism itself. Others, such as Joseph Lease’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” refuse to contain more than four lines to a page and shun the idea of a single subject, sliding from love to economics to home with madcap grace.
The collection rides the ragged edge of comprehension, never stopping to explain who or what or how in favor of a continual sensory and conceptual barrage, intercut with stream-of-consciousness musings on surrealism itself. Take first the patchwork imagery of Brian Lucas’s “Calcium Debris,” which dares the reader to puzzle out a narrative:
with crystal slab wounds
magma in their inflamed aorta
living on ivory slabs
diet of translucent placenta
radio turned to clever meat
At times the collection soars to the limits of human expression, and at others veers to the viscerally personal, balancing between the two an uneasy eroticism that never manages or tries to be comfortable; instead favoring a thread of dark absurdity and a deep uncertainty about the inviolate nature of space and time. This piece of Bruce Boston’s “Surreal Dimensions” captures this uncertainty:
When the moon fall on this land
it is not the light of the moon
that falls on this land
but the moon itself.
When a brush falls on this land
its light breaks to shards
that ribbon to creatures
who flee the harsh horizon
Some poems, like Boston’s, revel in a faceted repetition of terminology and grammar, while others are loath to repeat a single word. The styles within are as mixed a bag as their contents. Prose poems abound among other more structured works, but all in some way play with form, function, and subject in strange and unusual ways.
This collection is not usual fare for speculative-fiction poetry. It is surrealist first, with the speculative elements a secondary concern for some of the poems and entirely metaphorical in others. Readers looking for a quick injection of easily digestible poetry or strong narrative poems should look elsewhere: Nouveau Midnight Sun is for readers who don’t mind poetry that eschews narrative and straightforward imagery in an attempt to reach beyond.
2014, Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pp. Hardcover, $14.95. knopfdoubleday.com/book/240438/poems-dead-and-undead/
Poems Dead and Undead is an anthology of horror poetry meant to fit into one’s pocket or handbag. It is chock-full of great horror poems, ranging from the ancient past to present day. The anthology is broken into three sections: “The Corporeal Undead;” “The Incorporeal Undead;” and “Devils, Gods, Angels and Death.” What is intriguing about these poems for readers of speculative poetry is that very few, if any, speculative poets are found between these pages. The anthology is mostly, if not completely, filled with poets of a more academic or canoned nature. Because of this, the anthology provides a more rich and well-crafted experience for the reader.
The first section, “The Corporeal Undead,” is about those creatures that were dead once, but have now risen from the grave, mainly zombies and Vampires. The poems in this section are wide open in their variety, from “Puck’s Nighttime Speech” from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the more contemporary “Blade” poems of Tim Seibles. What is nice about a lot of these poems is that the undead are more than their characters or archetypes, and the authors tend to use them to create some sort of social commentary.
The next section of the book, “The Incorporeal Dead,” deals with those bodiless spirits of horror—ghosts, poltergeists, etc. Again, the range of these poems is massive, stretching from the ancient Egyptian text “The Dead King Eats the Gods” to young, active poets like Derek Dew and his “(Weathervane) Pirate Ship of the Dead.” This section contains more of the horror factor that I would expect from horror poetry, and while many of these poems still manipulate the tropes of ghosts, hauntings, etc. the effect is much scarier than the first section.
The last section is a bit odd. “Devils, Gods, Angels and Death” seems to want to cover two more major horror tropes (Devils and Death) but maintain some sort of sacred balance, and thus throws in angel poems and other religious poems as well. Again, a huge range of authors and time periods, from the very young and still active Amin Esmaielpour and a section from his poem “Zahhak’s Burning Tehran” to a section from the Epic of Gilgamesh; the editors were clearly casting their nets wide. This section has some predictable choices: “Satan’s Speech to the Fallen Angels” from Paradise Lost, section two of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “Questions about Angels” by Billy Collins, etc. While these selections make sense, they seem a bit too obvious, and despite their brilliance as individual poems or sections of poems, stand out as tired against some of the lesser-known poems in the section.
What I think will surprise most readers of speculative poetry is the nearly complete lack of speculative poets in the anthology. As far as I can tell, no one who has won a Stoker or Rhysling for poetry is in this anthology. While some may argue that this is simply because the editors went with the obvious choices, and ignored those poets active in the genre, I think it might merely expose the gap between speculative poetry and mainstream poetry. Poems Dead and Undead, I believe, also presents an opportunity for authors of speculative poetry to bridge that gap and break out of the isolation bubble. The market for dark speculative poetry is clearly there, as this anthology proves. Poets with solid craft and clear talent can succeed with dark poetry. The markets are there; now it’s up to us to pursue them.
Christine Heppermann’s book Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty is a collection of fairy-tale-based poems aimed at young adults, specifically women. The primary focus of this book is women and women’s bodies, challenging and usurping the misconceptions about beauty and body image perpetuated by the media and exploring the consequences of those who succumb to them.
Heppermann’s main objective in this book is get young women to challenge their beliefs about beauty and body image. Using fairy-tale imagery, she explores what happens when women fall prey to the mass-marketed, corporately driven image of beauty as portrayed in the dominant culture. For example, in her poem “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy,” the queen says:
It used to be just the one,
but now all mirrors chatter.
In fact, every reflective surface has opinions
on the shape of my nose, the size
of my chest, the hair I wash and brush
until it’s so shiny I can see myself
Heppermann develops this image-obsessed speaker throughout the poem, offering her target audience the understanding of what happens when one is so obsessed with beauty that it ultimately consumes their life. Of course, using the mythic imagery of the fairy tale, readers will ultimately remember that the queen’s vanity led to her downfall, something which Heppermann is keenly aware of; however, the queen in this case comes across as a more sympathetic character, and the reader pities her for the way her obsessions consume her.
Heppermann also uses fairy tales to critique the tools of body subjugation. For example, her warning about diets in “Thumbelina’s Get-Tiny Cleanse—Tested” reimagines Thumbelina as a health guru with a new shrinking diet. When Miss Muffet partakes in this diet, she shrinks beyond sight. However, the poem ends ominously:
Results: It worked! When our editors showed up at the tuffet four weeks later, the Divine Miss M was so tiny they couldn’t even find her! They did interview a spider that was in the area, wrapping something in its web.
Next issue: The Secret of a Svelte Arachnid—Small portions of lean protein.
From her analysis of gender stereotypes in tampon advertisements to her critique of spa treatments, Herppermann uses the classic images of fairy tales to critique the methods that young women use to control and modify their bodies.
Heppermann also empowers young women in this text, asking them to challenge patriarchal structures. For example, her poem “Retelling” begins:
What the miller’s daughter should have said
from the start
or at any point down the line is,
The poem continues from there, exploring the options that the miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story would have had if she had challenged her father and husband. Heppermann, therefore, does not only educate her readers about the dangers of falling prey to media images of beauty, but also attempts to provide them the strength and tools to challenge these images as well.
Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty is an exciting text, if only because it shows there’s a mainstream audience for speculative poetry. While many adult poetry readers may find the poems as simplistic and often one-dimensional, as is to be expected for poetry deliberately geared towards a young adult audience, the ideas behind the book should capture their attention. This is an excellent book of poetry, one that every young person about to enter middle school or high school should be encouraged to read. Adults interested in speculative poetry, especially those adults who see the world as an advertisement for an unobtainable perfection, will be engaged and encouraged as well.
Alban Lake Publishing, store.albanlake.com. 335 pp. Paperback.
The Rings of Ganymede is a fascinating and daring experiment in literary hybrid. It is, at its core, a play. However, taking a nod from Elizabethan theater and, possibly, opera, that play is written in verse. Furthermore, there is a note at the beginning of the book that insists that this be read as a novel. Therefore, it is a novel written as a play with dramatic poetry. NEAT!!! However, experiments are just as likely to succeed as they are to fail, and The Rings of Ganymede is rough and uneven at best.
The main thing that makes this book so spotty is the very thing that makes it interesting. Verse drama, if done poorly, becomes clunky and obtuse. Because of the science fictional elements of the book, the iambic pentameter often becomes obvious, and reads not as the fluid rhythms of Shakespeare, but as the clunky plodding of Norton and Sackville. For example, here are the end lines to Act I, Scene I:
JIMMIE J. KODOWAKI:
Don’t go away, laddies and gentlewomen, nay!
Don’t stray from those vid-screens, fellow vermin!
We’ll be right back, after these vital messages!
VOICE OF UNSEEN COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER:
Imagine, if you will, a robust vehicle
Designed to navigate the hardships of Red Mars,
Modified to fit your needs for style and safety.
Think … How well it will perform on Earthly bi-ways …
Rotan Aeronautica … “Taking YOU to the stars!”
The lines follow their tonic fairly faithfully, but sound forcibly antiquated or clunky. One might argue that, if this book were staged somehow, the actors’ intonations and performances would hide some of this, but on the page it is readily apparent and distracting. The other issue that alienates readers is the overuse of dialogue. Too often the characters over-describe their feelings or thoughts, some of which is necessary due to the format, but some of which could be easily be in the stage notes, leading to a more successful and succinct dialogue.
Those issues understood, The Rings of Ganymede is an exciting book. It has a complex and winding plot with many characters. Essentially, the book focuses on a group of mortals who fashion themselves as gods in order to solve humanity’s problems and bring order to a chaotic universe. However, they quickly learn that the lives of gods, or mortals become gods, is no easier than it is for mortal human beings. Add to this mix lots of fantastic creatures (valkyries, mermaids, etc.) and a healthy dose of space opera, and readers are in for a really interesting and multi-faceted book.
The Rings of Ganymede is an important book in that it brings science fiction and space opera to the realm of verse drama. One would hope that, in swinging for the fences, Kendall Evans would have just knocked this one out of the park. Unfortunately, due to various craft issues, he came up a bit short. But it’s still a successful book, and a really fun read. Furthermore, it shows the potential of the form, and challenges authors to try their hand at something similar. Evans should be celebrated for his accomplishment.
Popcorn Press, popcornpress.com. perfect-bound, 32 pp. $9.95.
How many collections and chapbooks and collections David C. Kopaska-Merkel has published so far? I’m assuming many if his rate of publication the last few years is any indication. Each one is a fine sampling of his work and style(s). In fact, this short collection is full of poems mostly published in various venues in the ’00s. They have a distinct flavor, which is quite different from that of his previous collection Luminous Worlds (2014). And what flavor would that be? Well, one thing that Kopaska-Merkel does supremely well, at least I enjoy it, is to take familiar tropes of SF or an aspect of science or the animal world or really anything that many people are familiar with and show us just how absurd it can be. Satire, in a word!
here, the right-hand
not only doesn’t know
what the left hand is doing,
it doesn’t know which left hand to check
They fly, swim, crawl, bore, burrow, do it all,
Will they write verse as well, after our fall?
I’m sorry, Darlene,
the alien nano I picked up on Io
has messed me up sumthin fierce:
There are poems about stealthy alien invasion, alien colonization, trans-dimensional relationships, bugs—lots of bugs, Amazons, gods, hillbillies and hicks, uplifted animals and horticulture. There are Fibonacci poems, a sijo (a Korean form) and haiku as well as regular free verse; SF, horror and weird poetry—everything we’d expect from Kopaska-Merkel! All have been previously published, most in journals, some on the author’s blog or web representation.
These poems are funny and will delight you—if you get it. And most of you will understand more than I tend to. So, if you are well-read and appreciate a good bit of satire and fun-poking, you are very likely to enjoy this chapbook. There is very little not to like.
Papaveria Press. 129 pp., $12.95 trade paperback, $4.99 e-book.
Fraught with influences by Victorian poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, Rhysling award winner Theodora Goss’s beautifully illustrated first poetry collection Songs for Ophelia contains eighty seasonally organized poems that celebrate the fey and gather in the gothic and ghoulish. Often redacting folk and fairy tales, Goss’s poetry works best when it incorporates images from nature that perch on an ethereal and chilling edge above the merely mordant or precious as is exhibited in this poem from 1993:
Beauty to the Beast
When I dare walk in fields, barefoot and tender,
trace thorns with my finger, swallow amber,
crawl into the badger’s chamber, comb
lightning’s loose hair in a crashing storm,
walk in a wolf’s eye, lie
naked on granite, ignore the curse
on the castle door, drive a tooth into the boar’s hide,
ride adders, tangle the horned horse,
when I dare watch the east
with unprotected eyes, then I dare love you, Beast.
Later poems, reportedly written for Goss’s daughter Ophelia, frequently have a Renaissance Faire flavor: Clothing is decorated with “smirking little goblins bold.” Ogres emerge from the “verge of the tenebrous wood.” Changelings ride skateboards and transformations are commonplace: however, as seen in “What her Mother Said” these poems deliver timely messages for preparing growing girls for travel through the psychosexual forest:
And child, you must be wise
in the forest.
When the wolf finds you, remember:
be courteous, but evasive. No answer
is better than a foolish one.
If you stray from the path, know
that I strayed also. It is no great matter,
so long as you mark the signs:
where moss grows on bark, where a robin
builds her nest. The sun
When your grandmother serves you,
with a silver spoon, on a dish
like a porcelain moon, Wolf Soup,
remember to say your grace
before you eat.
But remember, when returning through the forest,
kept warm against the night by a cloak
of the wolf ’s pelt:
the hunter is also a wolf.
Goss’s deft and delicate handling of rhyme and rhythm provides a traditional song-like framework for startling surreal images: A woman wed to a raven must sleep in a tree one night of seven. Chrysanthemums, each “a slice of wedding cake” “the narrow end eaten,” are given to the dead “to light their way, like lamps.” A dreaming woman is carried by nightmoths to the north to be embraced by “Our Lady of the Nightmoths.”
If this book has a flaw, it is in the preponderance of “unhappily ever after” tales. Brides are deserted in church yards. Sisters are wed to ogres. Isolde longs for Tristan. Orpheus’s head is found in a pool. Humor is rarely expressed. Even the initial “Spring” section is as heavy as the stones that weigh down the pockets of “The River’s Daughter,” a well-wrought poem where Goss reflects the deaths of Virginia Woolf, Hamlet’s Ophelia and Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” Still, transcendent images and elegant language do, for the most part, lift these poems above the merely macabre. Goss is someone to watch and read.
—Sandra J. Lindow
University of Tampa Press. 130 pp., $14 trade paperback.
Despite its name, Space Traveler is not a book most us would call science fictional. It is, however, science fiction-ish, using the tropes of the genre in every poem, and hence its review in this venue. I don’t have a lot to say about it, but it is useful to take a closer look. Even though every poem involves some outer space object, they never really leave earth. Space travel is an extended metaphor for “alien”-ation, a departure point for the obscurantist distance that bundles up around objects in a post-modern cosmos.
Grossberg’s poems are at home in places like the New England Review, which I’ve heard critiqued by noted poets as having gone over to the “dark side.” I’m not saying Darth Vader would publish his poems there if he were an actual person and a poet, but it’s pretty much the other side of the ’verse from the kinds of craft most readers here would want to shuttle in. These poems, though having a plainspoken congeniality, still mostly practice an aesthetic which is largely unintelligible to a person without lots of training in poetry.
Here’s an example that starts off fun, but then makes that turn. “The Great Moon Hoax, 1835”:
No hoax. They just didn’t
hang around very long:
the blue unicorns, bipedal
beavers, the man bats especially,
which flew up in corkscrews
and glided down with fully
outstretched wings. A hopping place,
your moon, but that was back then—
existing, as all wonders do,
in the interstices created by
ignorance. Between question
and answer, blankness
and language—in that medium
of waiting—genius beads
on the skin: comes in such
excess that the body
drains it through all portals …
I know, right? There we were, having such an enjoyable time, right up to the em dash, and then, well, the volta for poems in the New England Review is different than it is around here. These are fine, intelligent poems, and one can easily admire the work and talent that went into making them. They aren’t written to be enjoyed, though, not the way you enjoy other art forms, like music, film, architecture, etc. They are written to be understood, to be admired, to be pondered.
I do want to point out one thing about these poems. They compulsively reiterate the post-modern dogma of formlessness: “a place no thicker / or thinner in stars”; “I’m hard put / to say how anything sounds— ”; “we lived on the same world, though that was in some unplaceable / back there of time and distance”; “rips / the membrane between here now / and then gone”; “we need and find / and lose, and need and find.”; “Everyone up here knows / frontiers proliferate.” Yeah, it’s up there, all right, but it shows up in almost every poem, and this use, like a reflex, makes it seem more normative than philosophical. More like a shibboleth. I think Grossberg can do better.
Anyway, this book raises all kinds of questions that are often discussed around here as to what genre poems are, but out of respect to Dr. Grossberg, who, I suspect, out of principle eschews such definitional work, I will leave these questions for other times.
—John Philip Johnson
GraphicPoetryPress.com. stapled-spine, 24 pp. $4.99.
I’m not sure if this is the very first graphic poetry book, but it sure seems like it might be. John Philip Johnson has taken 5 of his most successful poems over the past few years and had them made into little mini-graphic novels. Each line of the poetry has its own panel, and each poem is a couple of pages long. Each poem is illustrated by a different cartoonist—and some very successful ones, at that.
Johnson conducted a Kickstarter campaign for this project in the fall of 2014. It was very successful, raising over 500% of the funding goal. The book itself looks and feels like a comic book, but when you read the first entry, “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” it is obvious that this is not your ordinary comic book. There are no bubbles. Julian Peters has integrated the poetry into the artwork in such a brilliant way and the black-and-white drawings depict each sentence perfectly and bring it to life. This poem was first published in Rattle, and I had the honor of reciting it for the website. If I do say so myself, listening to this poem while looking at Peters’ wonderful panels makes it an amazing multi-media experience like none other. Johnson cites Julian Peters as the inspiration for this graphic poetry book, since he has done a similar treatment of many a famous poem.
Other illustrators are Nate Hamel (“You Are Horror and Light”), whose treatment of this zombie poem is just so perfectly grisly; Michael Lawlor (“After the Changeling Incantation”), in which each full-page panel is a beautiful painting; two of John’s daughters, Margo & Sophie Johnson, did the illustrations for “The Secret Edge of the World” and it is a relief by then, to have some bright colors; “Bones and Shadows” is drawn by Bob Hall, was an artist for Spider-Man, Batman and other well-known comics and evokes the mood of this ghost-cat poem elegantly.
The poems here appeared in Rattle, Strange Horizons (complete with a recitation by yours truly), Communion, Vicious Verses/Tales of the Zombie Wars, and Ted Kooser’s newspaper column, “An American Life in Poetry” (Poetry Foundation). Due to my having spent more time with “Stairs Appear …” and “After the Changeling Incantation,” I have a particular fondness for them, but all of these poems, while quite different from one another in tone, have a quality about them, which worms its way into you and bites you, surprises you or delights you. These are the best sort of narrative poems, which don’t just tell a story but catch you unawares, blow your mind open with a little twist and give you something to ponder.
Hands drop the wand feather cannot pick it up.
we forget when we change we become something else.
things mean differently.
“After the Changeling Incantation”
If you have enjoyed Johnson’s poetry and you like graphic novels (or even if you think you don’t—trust me, you’ll like this!) you’ll get much pleasure from this little gem.
Eds. P. S. Cottier & Tim Jones. Interactive Press, amazon.com/The-Stars-Like-Sand-Speculative/dp/1922120782. 188 pp. Paperback $16.20, Kindle $8.99.
I can’t argue with this collection. There is a lot to like about it. The editors have obviously put a lot of work into this effort, which is something of a sequel to 2009’s Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand. There were two rivers coming into this confluence; one was an open submission call last year for Australian spec poetry writers, and the other was the mining of Oz poetic luminaries for a semblance of the fantastical, reaching back to Banjo Patterson and including many of their best known poets, such as Les Murray, Peter Boyle, and other giants from the island continent.
What we get from that process is a collection of highly readable poetry, although there are two aspects: the purely spec poetry, and the literary poetry with a dash of spec. The latter is always the stronger.
For example, Murray’s poem “The Future” is philosophical, not science fictional, though it mentions SF: “There is nothing about it. Much science fiction is set there / but it is not about it” and “It is the black hole out of which / no radiation escapes to us.” The poem is about our placement in time, and ends beautifully with a look to the past, and I highly recommend it as a read (you can find it online), but it’s not spec poetry.
Likewise, Boyle’s “The Museum of Space” (2004) is more about that big empty stuff that holds our lives than it is about the backdrop for rockets. While said museum is actually in the poem, making it more of a spec work than Murray’s, the museum is still an extended metaphor, even if the poem doesn’t flinch from it. Frankly, for me to do this kind of taxonomic and say this one is more like a spec poem seems like petty thinking compared to the poem itself, which is masterful. Here, after a paragraph of sort of describing a museum, we get this: “Why are water and sand always used to / measure time passing? They must then be the one substance— / what never gets dry, what never gets wet, the absolute embrace / that says, Wade into me.” Maybe you need to warm up to get the vibe and can’t catch it in this stand-alone quote, but for me, lines like that take my breath away.
But still, though, the taxonomic is far from settled; since the cover of the book advertises “speculative poetry,” and I’m writing for a speculative journal, it’s kind of important. Simply put, the editors take liberties. Call it ‘poetic license’? I mean, why is Banjo Patterson’s “Waltzing Matilda” showing up here? Since I don’t recognize half the words (swagman, billabong, old billy boiling, jumbuck, etc.), I suppose I could pretend there was something SFnal in them, but there isn’t. I’m thinking the editors tossed this poem in as kind of an anchor point, and justified it because a ghost shows up in the last line.
Nathan Fillion said of his Firefly days that every so often he would forget for just a moment or two that he was acting. Momentarily, he was there. Just like, I think, sometimes momentarily we forget that we’re just watching a TV, and it’s more like we are there in the story with the characters. I think the best works of art do that, let us forget for a minute the technique, the plumbing and the wires. I think the difference between spec poetry and non-spec poetry is where you’re sitting. Say I’m listening to Philip Levine talk about his brother, and I’m totally carried away by it, I’m still sitting at a kitchen table somewhere with him, or at a bar. Even if he brings out a ray gun to illustrate his point, he doesn’t take me to outer space.
Although I like the poems in this book, mostly I’m sitting at that table. When Dorothy Porter describes “The Radium Chocolates,” while I do see the big night parrot she talks about looming over her diseased speaker like a specter of death, he’s just a metaphor to me; I’m much more aware of the bus fumes and the Woolworth and the wheezing.
Oh, there’s plenty of pure, unambiguous spec work in here, make no mistake. As a collection of purely spec poetry, it’s like any good spec magazine, one that is having a particularly fine issue, full of poems that close the hatch, at least, even if they don’t take off. However, what makes this book sing are the poems that don’t even get on board Serenity.
I adored last year’s British analog to this book, Where Rockets Burn Through. While I don’t love this collection, I do like it very much. I’m not sensitive enough to tell you what cultural issues mark out the Australian mind, but if you’re an American, I think you will sense a slight difference, and that by itself might be enough to entice you to buy it. All in all, if you’re reading Star*Line, you will like this book, and if you collect these things, then it should go on the respectable shelf, near Holding Your Eight Hands.
—John Philip Johnson
Dark Renaissance Books, darkrenaissance.com. 122 pp. $14.95 trade paperback.
More Sweet than Poison
This is the third collaboration between Simon and Turzillo, two of the better and more accomplished practitioners of our genre, and by and large it is a successful effort, with poems mostly ranging from okay to splendid. They collaborated by sending the other one a poem, and then the second one responding back with a poem of her own. Thus we get whole poems, each with a coherent voice and impetus, integrated together in a bright dynamic; there is a tugging and a tension between the two poets which enlivens the book in a way that would be missing in a book by a single author.
We get this dynamic in the opening pair, two poems about the Gods. An old tradition in poetry books is to open with an invocation to the gods or to the muse, but these poems serve as anti-invocations, with Turzillo’s agnostic uncertainty and Simon’s defiant glee. Generally, throughout the book, Turzillo favors moonlight, while Simon’s work is more physical, and had a taste for blood.
For example, in the Alice in Wonderland pairing, Simon starts with “The Mad Hatter at Large,” who is a serial killer:
I’ve drowned the Dormouse
in the Pool of Tears, served him
to the Queen of Hearts in a stew.
She seemed to enjoy his tiny skull
floating in a sea of vomit.
Okay, then! I think the vomit might be “gilding the lily” a bit, don’t you? But you can see my point: it’s a bawdy, rough and ready language. In Turzillo’s response, called “Seven Years Later,” Alice is a murderer, and included in her trophy room is the head of the Cheshire cat:
with teeth white as teacups
and green glass eyes.
His head was all there was. Sometimes he gets down off the wall
and prowls the house. But he’s harmless,
if a bit sarcastic. Reminds me of Dinah.
And then we find out Alice has killed the Queen of Hearts and all her consort, with a vorpal blade:
All, slashed to cardboard shreds.
And a small photo of Dodgson himself.
All, under glass.
Dodgsoh himself! (Lewis Carroll’s real name.) I love it! See what I mean about moonlight? This is wiping off the blade with a lace doily. Not referring to Simon, who can be plenty deft, but I would prefer more horror writers write like this, or not bother at all.
This book is much more than horror, too. These poems cover the waterfront of genres and themes, and sometimes almost leave it for fine non-genre or barely-genre work. My favorite poems in the book were about time travel. Simon provides us with a perfect gem, “The Man in the Castaway Bar,” the kind of poem that keeps me loving this genre, and then some pages later, Turzillo responds with the equally splendid “Doctor Mather’s Dyschronic Ward”:
Here’s Chastity Bomberg, stuck in a macrobiotic
restaurant she visited in the Bronx in 1969,
chewing the same mouthful of brown rice
until Buddha calls them both home.
A pairing of love poems shows more of both their quality and their differences. First, more moonlight in Turzillo’s “Hymn” to Aphrodite,
I come to you in a late age, myself older, and cry
oh, Aphrodite, slenderest and most lovely of gods,
give me leave only to make flower chains for his hair,
he who has made wanton with my desire and shrinks my heart.
And then Simon’s “Toi! Toi! Toi!”, Aphrodite’s reply, which ends with the god’s somewhat terse response: “In truth, you’ve suffered nothing, wench. / So leave me be.”
Anyway, there’s lots of fun stuff in here. I expect this to be one of the better books we get in 2014. M. Wayne Miller provides some sharp, good-looking illustrations within, although don’t judge this book by its cover, which is corny and cheap-looking.
Inside, there are plenty of fine poems to enjoy.
—John Philip Johnson
Stanza Press, pspublishing.co.uk. 169 pp., £15.00.
Most of the poems in this book use a common format, making liberal use of extra spaces among groups of words as a substitute for line breaks. This makes them look like prose, but they don't read like it. Instead, the result is a stream of consciousness feel, which goes very well with the subject matter covered. This, broadly stated, is poetry about how science, technology, and the supernatural affect the lives of ordinary people. Some of these poems are narratives about the history of science; the speculative element in these is minor. Other poems in Tell Them What I Saw are purely SF or fantasy. For instance, the one for which the book is named.
The book title comes from a short fantasy poem. It recounts a deathbed scene from the point of view of the person dying, but it ends before either death or revival, leaving the outcome unknown. The view of the near-death experience presented by this poem is nearly as mundane as they get (floating above the bed, seeing a bright light, etc.); it really isn't very interesting or satisfying. It does have a great title; and, despite the banal subject, is written well. It's easy to believe you are that dying man. Maybe that's why it was chosen to provide the title for the book.
I’m above the nurses station Laughter, tonight’s double date
At the Well My mind more clear Bright light everywhere
The doctor motions for the defibrillator paddles to shock me back
Tell Them What I Saw opens with a long science/history poem entitled "many worlds." This is a biography, in verse, of the physicist Hugh Everett III, author of the many-worlds hypothesis so important to SF. Not an SF poem at all, but a fascinating look at the father of parallel worlds. Typical of this volume, the poem is filled with the person of its subject and his family; it is an engaging biography, and very immediate. Other physicists had problems with the theoretical underpinnings of Everett's idea back in the day, and it's not generally accepted now. But oh, the possibilities!
The cat has split
Both alive and dead
As the wave function evolves
It constantly splits off
New universe for each coordinate point
Some of the SF poems are straightforward extrapolations from the science we know. Here is a bit of “Dark Mission,” Bialer's take on the military-hiding-aliens trope. This time, structures on the moon:
My older son: Are there aliens on the Moon?
Rises behind fog, mist like a rubbing No, of course not
Can’t tell him I’ve seen the images—, Apollo, Lunar Orbiters,
Clementine Satellite Not the blur/smudge tampering for the public
Tiered, rectilinear structures Western edge, Sea of Tranquility—
The poem reminds me of a novel by Jack McDevitt that hangs on the same premise. It's a difficult thing to cover such a familiar topic well, and such a broad topic well, in a poem, but Bialer carries it off. Other poems cover “Crop circles” (aliens did it), memories from past lives (“Past Life;” it happens), Houdini, lost twins, aliens, demons, psychics, everything told in a matter-of-fact way, eerily enhancing the realism by bringing the wildest ideas down to earth.
These 47 poems are beautifully concise and emotionally powerful. I wish I'd written them. Funny thing. If you read the lit-crit reviews that came attached to the review copy of this book that I saw, you might have been completely turned off. The first review is by someone who might never have read another spec poem. I think everything the second reviewer said about Bialer's poetry is true, but the way he said it made me feel that I needed a degree just to proceed. Clearly, I'm not part of the publisher's target demographic. Fortunately, I needn't have worried. Tell Them What I Saw is a book every fan of spec poetry really should read, and will enjoy. This will be nominated for the Elgin.
—David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Finishing Line Press. 24 pp. Paperback $14. finishing linepress.com
In a series of eleven poems, Rhysling-nominated poet Shannon Winward explores motherhood from birth to death. It begins with a therapy session where the persona recalls a dream of uncovering the body of a dead woman:
and I knew
in the way you know in dreams
that she was me.
I knew that there were others
so many more
a field of fragments
The poems that follow, affirm the poet’s connection to all women as well as the natural and mythological worlds. “Gravity” concludes, “I wonder if the ocean beats herself up/ for feeling this way.” In “Beansidhe” the persona is an Irish banshee haunted by the ghost of a lost lover: “Your penance turns these marches cold/ Your winds reach like fingers to my shore/ they grip, but close on nothing, /for you died blind”. “Space,” a poem about pregnancy, links scientific imagery with self-awareness:
this little I know of parenthood
mitosis, bits of me
unraveling, replicating, expanding
to fill the self I already thought
Although each poem is engaging in its own way, the book as a whole sometimes seems to slip uncomfortably between mainstream and genre poetry. “On Raising Boys,” is clever but problematic in its essentialist approach to gendered differences:
A girl is wrapped up neat, like a little pink bow
but you come equipped with your own artillery
good for an sniper shot to the face
or Pollock patterns of violent yellow
on the bathroom floor.
“Intentions” describes a mother’s disappointment with her adult son: “fear starts in the womb and turns us inside out”. “Moon Song” is an interstitial ghost story about night driving, while “Undoing Winter” is a contemporary redaction of the Persephone myth. “I Visit Your Heart” counters romance with fantastic horror, while “Weaver” explores the nature of art through a spider woman perspective. “Warren,” the final poem, concludes that “Every man is a boy with a broken heart, every woman mother’s softer shadow,” a grammatically confusing oversimplification of romantic ideals that may be lost through experience. Winward has a talent for weaving language together in ways that please the ear, but her conclusions become too generalized when she chooses to use “every” to describe gendered behavior when modern gender psychology concludes that men and women are more alike than different. Minus rigid gender stereotype conditioning that begins at birth—the tight “pink bow”—girls can be as irrepressible as boys, and boys can transcend their “artillery” to softly shadow their mothers. While each poem has its strengths, there are some proofreading issues throughout that should have been caught by a discerning editor.
—Sandra J. Lindow
2014, Poise and Pen Publishing. 38 pp. Saddle-stitched $5.99, e-book $0.99.
It’s not safe, he’d said, but she’d laughed,
What harm could it do?
What explains contemporary fascination with the Zombie Apocalypse? Niteblade editor, Rhonda Parrish’s latest poetry chapbook, White Noise, provides insight through images in these twenty imaginative poems. Her short lines, repetitive sound patterns and double entendres strip the zombie experience to its bare bones, revealing an AIDs-era predatory perversion of appetites:
She sniffed the air
Only one thing mattered now
Warm and willing.
It was out there somewhere
as she had been,
like chicken on the barbecue,
ready to be turned.
Perhaps the plastic commercialization of our lives contributes to obsession with death and decay. Parrish sets “Slippery When Wet” in a 7-11 where the battle of the sexes becomes fatal when Ann’s zombified boyfriend turns on her:
She bolted from the counter
darting out like a deer from a ditch—
right into what used to be Gary.
They pinballed away from each other
he ricocheted off an empty shelf
that used to hold Doritos
she bounced down the aisle for cleaning supplies.
The humorous parallelism of “used to be Gary” and “used to hold Doritos” says something subtle about the meaninglessness of modern life.
Even the title poem “White Noise” reflects a gallows humor that juxtaposes the commercial devaluing of religion with a bittersweet attempt to hold on to something that is still human when all else is white noise:
A Christian station
Sermons interspersed with donation calls
twenty-four hours a day.
She had to chuckle when the preacher
offered up eternal life
as some sort of reward.
Overall, Parrish’s poems convey a jaded contemporary disillusionment regarding lasting relationships as well as religious and societal rewards for maintaining traditional values, but amongst the false promises a few comforts remain—baked beans from a can, a kitten purring:
Now, as snow blankets the ground, she rests
spread across my lap, vibrating gently, warming
my legs and my heart. The only other thing
within hundreds of miles, perhaps,
with a heartbeat.
Ultimately, Parrish’s book is a compelling look at the Zombie Apocalypse that leaves the reader with much “to chew on.” Recommended.
Dancing Girl Press and Studio, dancinggirlpress.com. 30 pp. Paperback $7.00.
Nineteen elegant poems in this simulated antique handmade edition reflect contemporary insight into fairy tales whose origins are lost in time. Native of south Louisiana, Mary McMyne writes poetry flavored by the moonshine of Southern Gothic and puts them in a butterfly frame. There is a witchy, cognitive connection between “the woman in my head who pinned monarchs to cork” mentioned in the first poem, “The Butterfly Dome” and the poems that follow. “Lepidoptera” reveals that “unlucky” butterflies sleep “Under glass,” “wings wide open—married to cork” while the woman who collects them dreams of flight as she transfixes their wings. This dichotomy of love and death, freedom and captivity, power and powerlessness is a reoccurring motif “pinned down” throughout the collection.
In “Molkendiep” (Milk thief in Middle High German) the point of view shifts to that of the butterfly and warns of the butterfly net, “the arc that/ interrupts, the ripple of linen/ and hair that ghosts beside,” creating a dual viewpoint of predator and victim that continues in the archetypal Red Riding hood poems that follow. In “Fur” Red is viewed as a “mindless” “doll” “dumb as porcelain.” Menarche is delicately suggested: “Only a sliver of light bleeds through the doorway” while a mother warns her girl child, “Be not girl, her eyes say, but wolf.” In “The Girl Who Came Before” a Lilith-like proto-Riding Hood is in touch with her inner moon goddess. She separates herself from the eternal hunt of the huntsman and gray wolf “It never ends” and is drawn to the reflection of the moon in the lake: “It is time for us to drown./ It is time for us to touch the moon.” “Wolf Skin” tells the story from the huntsman’s perspective, but the stars “laugh” when he tries on the wolf skin, implying potential role reversal. Furthermore, Riding Hood and Grandmother may not be glad to have been rescued: There is a beauty “of being eaten,” “Rotkäppchen” indicates. “Thunder.” a redaction of the Persephone myth, describes gathering crocuses, early spring flowers, and implies that the wolf of old age takes the shortest route while individuals are distracted:
Then the sky world split with lightning, and I saw the whites of her eyes
spun of shadow, the gray strands of hair floating up from her face
like snakes being charmed.
In the Rapunzel poems that follow, Rapunzel is no innocent but clearly understands the witch’s poisonous nature: “That garden was full of nightshade, henbane, black hellebore.” Her tryst with the Prince is a calculated attempt to escape a toxic relationship, but once again she finds that she moves toward another form of captivity:
Only you’ll be free, anytime you wish, to go riding, on the back of the finest/
white mare—sidesaddle, silk-bottomed—though of course you’ll have to take the guard.
Later, in “Rapunzel Tucks the Twins into Bed” she weeps for the loss of her freedom. Her butterfly life seems to reflect the initial poem—captured “under glass” and “married to cork.”
The final poems, “The Bzou,” “Estate Sale” and “Love,” reflect themes in earlier poems.
Bzou, another name for werewolf, reflects how the nature of sexuality changes as a woman matures. All three poems reflect dealing with loss of the mother protector. “Love” begins:
LOVE is an insect taking wing from corkboard,
sloughing off formaldehyde, the ping
of pin, the flutter of label to floor.
Thus, love allows us to transcend the archetypes that define us as human beings, softening the issues of power and powerlessness, innocence and carnal knowledge. Much is contained in this small package of poems. Highly recommended.
—Sandra J. Lindow