Speculative Poetry Book Reviews

Reviews in Star*Line itself are now limited to short excerpts; however, those reviews in their entirety will appear on this site. Further reviews, especially those expressing a different opinion, are welcome and will be posted or linked to. Send reviews, links, cover images, and corrections to starlineeditor@gmail.com. NB: reviews published here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Star*Line editor. Moreover, dissenting opinions are welcome.

Only SFPA members’ books are listed on the Books page. Here, however, reviews for any speculative poetry book, regardless of membership status or year of publication, are welcome. Star*Line welcomes books for possible review; see the Star*Line page for our editorial address. Reviews are listed by year of publication and alphabetically by title.

Previous years: 20142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2015:

The Bloody Planet by Callista Buchen.
2015, Black Lawrence Press blacklawrence.com. 30 pp. $8.95 paperback.

The Bloody Planet by Callista Buchen is a slick, professionally-published chapbook of twenty poems. Eight of these poems are named after life on the current planets in our solar system and serve as a framing device for the other poems. Overall, this is a superb collection of poetry.
 
The bulk of the poetry—twelve out of twenty—in this collection are poems about love, personal relationships and the conflict inherent in everyday life. Many of them do not seem speculative, on the surface, but taken as a collection, it’s clear that a speculative perspective runs through Buchen’s poetry. Take, for example, these lines from “Rounded by Water”:

            My mother gives birth
to a polished stone.
Even the air is pregnant—
 
            My mother gives birth
to a polished stone.
She  asks if I want to see.
 
I say no.
The stone has always been
in the belly of the river. No
 
in the belly of my mother.
My mother gives birth
to a polished stone.

The lines are, on one level, metaphorical, but on another level, deeply haunting and mythic. It is this sort of language that permeates Buchen’s poetry, and the kind that repeatedly draws readers back to her work.
 
The primary instance of speculative poetry are the eight poems, each one named after the current eight planets in the solar system. The titles are simple, but imply speculations into extraterrestrial exploration and colonization. These poems are image-rich and metaphor-dense, encouraging slow readings and multiple rereading so the reader can really soak in the language. For example, the poem “On Mercury” begins

Less skin than wrapper, less concrete than gauze,
the ground crumbles—floats away, cools,
 
gray-brown dust tornados, magnetic, lost in tides.
What does it matter? Broken ground folds
 
into plains and craters, fields mark
the path of violence. Scars gather flesh—

It is this sort of language, playful and poignant at the same time, that Buchen exhibits in her work, and what readers will find so fulfilling when they venture between these covers.

Callista Buchen’s poetry is not a typical speculative book, which is what makes it so rare and appealing. The poems are sharply crafted with as much focus on craft as content. Furthermore, many of them have been published in academic journals, giving them an unusual pedigree from the standard speculative fare. Still, any fan of good speculative writing, be it the hauntingly mythic or the critically science fictional, will find this a rich and satisfying read.

—Joshua Gage


Chemical Letters by Octavia Cade.
2015, Popcorn Press popcornpress.com. 50 pp. $9.95 print, $2.99 Kindle.

Octavia Cade is a scientist and has a PhD in science communications. She also writes speculative fiction. While this is her first book of poetry, she has written many short stories, 5 novellas and a novel published in various places.

Chemical Letters is a collection of linked poems that tell the story of Caroline, who finds herself within the Periodic Table, which is, surreally, an apartment block of which Mendeleev (the creator of the Periodic Table) is the building manager and where various scientists and important historical figures, such as Einstein and van Gogh, occupy the “rooms” with the elements they are connected to. At first, it's all a bit confusing and it helps to have read the blurb first; otherwise, I'm not sure there's enough information in the first poems to really understand what's going on. This was one of my favorite reads of late, but if I were not the type of person who enjoys learning and prefers to understand what I'm reading and will go in search of missing knowledge, I might not have enjoyed this collection nearly as much. As it was, I read a PDF version of the book and was able to switch back and forth between it and an interactive version of the Periodic Table. I'm not a scientist and it was back in High School the last time I thought much about chemistry and the elements, but these poems made me want to look up the elements and the names of the people and places, things and historical events the character of Caroline encounters on exploration of her new abode. Why were these things significant? What makes them interesting to Caroline? It is clear that Caroline is a scientist and an insider and has an intimate knowledge of the Table. She name-drops left and right and there are some interesting puzzles as she figures out how and why she's there.

Caroline
shrinking
is shoved into Rutherford's cannon
15 inches wide,
with her arms and legs tucked under.

from “Au”

*

(the walls of the room are covered in murals
Ivy Mike, Enewetak, Elugelab
but they are scratched out, defaced
and the nose of the boat is covered in paint.)

My one great mistake he says.
Now I have this honour, though it feels like punishment.

from “Es”

Cade features the women who figure into the Periodic Table—Lise Meitner and Marie Curie and weaves their stories and all those who make an appearance into the story. In the end, it's a very satisfying read. The poetry is descriptive, but gives a slightly surreal feel, as Caroline moves around and flits from place to place, through time and space as well as undergoes transformations just like in a chemical experiment.

Instead of burning into ash,
love-handles goin up in smoke,
Caroline finds herself getting fatter in the fire—
near a thousand degrees, and she's not even sweating.

from “Ge”

*

She lies on her back, sleek and sleepy with sunshine.
The heavy lines, the grittiness of half ground pigment
(emerald green, vert Véronèse)
press painted ridges into her spine.

from “As”

This collection should be required reading for all high school chemistry students. It will light up their interest in the elements and science in general. Enthusiastically recommended.

—Diane Severson


Codex Yokai by Cardinal Cox.
2015. 8 pp. Pamphlet, £1.50 + shipping. contact atlanteanpublishing@hotmail.com for overseas sales.

Unlike some of the Cardinal’s Lovecraftian codices, this futuristic pamphlet gets my unreserved praise. Cox has wedded Mythos and manga in a long and complex haibun that is both charming and chilling.

A century hence, her mecha unit home from Mars, she sees Japan with a new perspective

So it begins, this tale of a search for family amid a gathering war between humans and those who long ago ruled the earth. Unlike HPL’s seminal work, Codex Yokai describes conflict between forces that are relatively evenly matched. This story is presented as a sequence of intercalated scifaiku and short prose poems. In effect, a haibun that is 8 pages long. This offering shows that Cox is a master of the form:

rumours of madness
attend curious icon
cursor approaches

Somewhat reminiscent of Varley’s “Press Enter”, as well as “The Call of Cthulhu”, this brief piece combines disparate genres in a traditional Japanese form to yield a novel and gripping result. You really should buy it.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

The Crimson Tome by K. A. Opperman.
2015, Hippocampus Press hippocampuspress.com/mythos-and-other-authors/poetry/the-crimson-tome-by-k.-a.-opperman. 182 pp. $15.00 paperback.

The Crimson Tome by K. A. Opperman is an attempt to write Weird Poetry, with clear gothic overtones. While the poems in this volume vary in their success, most of them are weakened due to basic craft issues—overuse of adjectives, clichéd language and ideas, linguistic sacrifices made for the sake of form, etc. Furthermore, the sheer length of the volume leads to a repetitious and monotonous read for the reader. Overall, this is a fairly uneven and seemingly uncurated collection.

The Crimson Tome is primarily a collection of Weird Poetry. The collection begins with a series titled “The Nightmare Muse,” and moves through “Unpleasant Dreams,” “Nocturnal Lovers,” and so forth. It is firmly grounded in Weird Literature, the speakers of the poems often moving beyond their known comfort zones into areas of eldritch foreboding, causing psychological dread and despair. The bulk of the collection, however, seems steeped in gothic overtones—not the literary Gothic style and imagery of the 19th century, but the brooding, depressed gothic subculture of the late 20th century. Some of this is painted on a bit thick, too:

… solitude and darkness are my curse.
This candle-flame can’t kindle my cold heart,
And phantoms of its light all from me part.

or

Upon her bier of stone,
Her gorgeous corpse receives the night,
Her face a second softly shining moon.
With leaves of seasons flown
Her raven tresses are bedight,
Across cold granite lying lifeless strewn.

The depression and ennui, possibly palatable in small doses, become overwhelming after a while.

This is furthered by Opperman’s lack of craft and allegiance to formal poetry. In his attempts to write formal verse, Opperman often clutters his lines with unimaginative and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, making for a weak read. Take, for example, the lines:

Deep in a wood whose stagnant, nauseous gloom
Hides death behind each twitching, serrate leaf,
There lies a pool in whose dark mirror loom
Huge yellow flowers drooling liquid kief—

That’s nine adjectives in a matter of four lines, many of which are repetitious (do we need both stagnant AND nauseous), unnecessary (does it matter that the leaves are serrated?), or vague and meaningless (how huge are we talking about? The size of my hand, my face, big enough to sleep in and curl the petals around me like a blanket?). Because the lines are so cluttered, and because the adjectives are often there for the sake of the meter rather than to inform the reader of anything, the poems become difficult to slough through. The reading is made even more difficult when Opperman wrenches the English language into archaic and unnatural formations for the sake of making a rhyme. For example, lines like:

Where is the wine Khayyam would have me quaff?
What sanguine grape will gush forth juice enough?
And from what gilded cup, pray, should I sip?—
My dromedary I must soon fall off.…

Each line in this stanza gets progressively worse. The first line is fine, and the next line, though slightly out of order, works well enough for the sake of the rhyme. The third line seems a little more inverted and grammatically outdated, but is still acceptable. The final line, however, is very clunky, separating the preposition from its object, ending on a weak word, simply for the sake of rhyme, to say nothing of the inconsistent meter.

At 182 pages, the word “tome” in the title is not to be taken lightly. This book is roughly the length of 3-4 average poetry collections. A lot of what’s contained here seems very unfocused and underdeveloped, and leads the reader to believe that neither the author nor the editor were careful or judicious in their decision making. Taken on their own, in a magazine or anthology, many of these poems, though weak, would be passable; however, lumped into a weighty collection like this, the reader becomes overwhelmed, and has difficulty separating the good from the bad. The Crimson Tome is a difficult book to get through, and very uneven in its presentation.

—Joshua Gage

Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon, Book I by Mary Soon Lee.
2015, Dark Renaissance Books. 186 pp. Paperback $16.95.
darkrenaissance.com

Crowned by Mary Soon Lee is an adventure fantasy written in a series of independent poems. Combined, these poems create the beginning of a larger narrative about King Xau, the youngest of four brothers, who becomes king after his father dies with blessings from a dragon. The book is about Xau’s life once he becomes king, his training, marriage, war stories and near death. It is the beginning of an epic adventure, but one that is not without its flaws.

In the author’s note, Lee writes “I am unhappily aware that many of the poems are deficient in poetry.” This pretty much sums the book up as a whole. It is an adventure story, but just that—a story. It is an overarching narrative crafted of individual scenes which are presented as poems. To be sure, they look like poems on the page. They have the necessary line breaks, the shape of poems. But what they lack is poetry, those craft tools that mark successful poetry from unsuccessful poetry, and indeed, successful writing from unsuccessful writing—vibrant imagery, original metaphors, strong juxtaposition, rhythm and meter. Almost all of the pieces in this book are weak in these areas, and read as mere plot descriptions, economized versions of a scene or chapter from a long novel broken in to lines under the guise of poetry.

When she uses the tools of poetry, Lee does so well. A poem like “Cure,” with its masculine-rhymed tercets, shows off her skill as a poet.

Not healing herb, nor dragon’s wing
nor surgeon’s skill, nor serpent’s sting,
nor spell, nor ghost that healed the king.

But that the surgeon, tired, distraught
still heard the mumbling woman out;
abandoned pride; considered; thought.

A hundred hook-mouthed maggots mined
the king’s fouled flesh, devoured, dined:
a feast that left no taint behind.

Here is clear beauty and tight lyricism in poetry. From the echoes of Shakespeare in the first stanza to the disturbingly delicious euphony of the first line of the third stanza, this is a poem working on many layers, and one that works within the narrative of the book as a whole. It is a shame that more of the poems in the collection do not exhibit such talent because it is clearly there.

However, this has not stopped Lee from publishing said poems in various journals and magazines. In fact, the opening poem of the book, “Interregnum,” won the 2014 Rhysling Award for Long Form. So there is something there that draws readers, something beyond craft that appeals to readers and editors. It could be Lee’s natural storytelling abilities, the depth of sympathetic character she crafts in King Xao in poems like “Surgeon” or “What Xao Remembered.” It could be the magic that she hints of in poems like “Interregnum” or “Horse Master.” There is something in this work that draws the reader in, and allows them to enjoy the book despite the glaring flaws in the poetry itself.

Most readers of Crowned will not be disappointed. It is a rich story about a young man learning how to be a king and ruler, and in turn, learning about himself. For those readers looking for solidly crafted poetry, there will be issues and glaring flaws, but the story and its characters will override this. Lee has begun what promises to be a solid series of books, and when she taps into her clear skills as a poet, this series will be an exciting addition to speculative literature.

—Joshua Gage

* * *

“And what will you pay for the crown,
little princeling? Gold? Men? A song?”

“My freedom!” he shouted at her.
“Well,” she said, “that’s a start.”

Beginning with the 2014 Rhysling Award-winning long poem “Interregnum” and illustrated by fantasy artist M. Wayne Miller, Mary Soon Lee’s Crowned includes sixty-four poems describing the early years of the hero, King Xau, from his successful dragon confrontation at age fourteen through the birth of his second child. Initially lacking the stature, athletic prowess, and assuredness of the conventional hero, Xau nevertheless has the moral development to be a better king than his father or the three brothers who died before him.

One king dead, a new one crowned.
The royal court seething with rumors.
fibs, fears, fancies, phantasms and fictions.

Set in a medieval fantasy world where Chinese and Celtic cultures collide, afterlife is real, and magic such as animal control exists but is neither understood nor trusted. Xau’s talent is an intuitive understanding of horses which allows him to command them, giving him an edge in battle.

But on horseback
he is almost the man
he needs to be.

Through warrior training, bloody battle and natural disaster, Xau must constantly balance human costs and political gain while being fully aware that his decisions will affect the future of everyone living in his country, lives he holds as equal in value to his own. Seen through the eyes of the people around him: guard. cleaning lady, young wife, etc., Xau’s intelligence and compassion make him an exceptional leader at a time when abuse of power is commonplace.  Although the author reports in her endnote that Xau has been criticized as “too perfect,” she concludes that “I have never written anything that has meant as much to me.”  Criticism notwithstanding, these poems are character-driven rather than didactic. Xau is not a male Mary Sue whose expertise is effortless, and the author’s long-term emotional investment in this epic series is clearly dependent on the main character’s decision-making process, his emotional and physical struggle to do the right thing, and the price he pays for it.  Lee is a talented story-teller with a gift for revealing a message through strategic use of sound patterns and evocative image. The following stanza concludes a poem entitled “Wedding Gifts.”

Bowls, bottles, bells,
masks, mirrors, music.
one treaty, long sought.

Mary Soon Lee reports that presently there are another 130 poems that continue Xau’s story.   Stay tuned for more books in this highly entertaining and thought-provoking series.

—Sandra Lindow

* * *

Mary Soon Lee’s fantasy epic Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon: Book 1 contains 64 poems detailing the coronation and early reign of King Xau, the monarch of the land of Meqing. Following the young king as he grow, changes, learns, and leads, the book of verse explores gender, tradition, and the burdens of ruling in a land fraught with dragons, wolves, and ancient magic. Crowned also contains black-and-white illustrations to accompany several poems, created by M. Wayne Miller.

Lee’s book is first and foremost a narrative tale. Each poem, while containing vibrant images and powerful language, is written in a clear and straightforward manner to convey Xau’s story. All the elements of a novel are present: a linear timeline, foreshadowing (as in the end of the very first poem, “Interregnum”), subplots for recurring characters, and triumphs and defeats for the protagonist.

Many of the poems in Crowned reveal a situation or conceit, often in unique style, and end on a revelation or realization by the viewpoint character—such as in “What Xau Ran From,” after the king’s first battle:

How Xau’s soldiers cheered
when he rode back, victorious–
No. Not their cheers,
but how he’d liked it.

Some of the poems are tales told by one character to another, some battles, others lists of objects and concepts, placed in relation to what has occurred. One such gem is “Wedding Gifts,” told through the objects received after his arranged marriage:

Bowls, bottles, bells,
masks, mirrors, music.
One treaty, long-sought.

The narrative jumps from one poem to the next, so too it does from viewpoint character to viewpoint character. Xau provides the lens for several of the poems, but the book explores his actions and decisions from many angles and reveals many facets of both the king’s life and the world in which he lives. His personal guards, his wife Shazia, and a simple enemy foot solider, among others, all contribute their perspective on King Xau. The camp follower of Xau’s first enemy, King Donal, provides one such viewpoint:

Rose nodded. She couldn’t speak.
In all the tales about Donal,
no one had ever warned her
that he could be kind.

Crowned is deeply rooted in characters and in its story. That story is a compelling one, inviting the reader to follow along with Xau’s struggles, burdens, and successes. The poetry itself serves as the medium through which Xau’s story is told. For those who like the fusion of narrative and verse, and who like to see the form expanded to fit such a story from different perspectives, Crowned is a collection worth perusing.

—Alex Plummer


Dark Energies by Ann K. Schwader.
2015. P'rea Press preapress.com. 111 pp. Paperback $12 US/Canada, ₤9 UK, €11 Europe, $14 Australia.

Ann K. Schwader is a master of weird formal poetry, and Dark Energies will please any fan of the genre. This slim volume manages, without any crowding, to include 56 poems and an interview with the author. I dislike formal verse that seems forced. You'll find none of that here. Schwader has been exploring weird formal verse for decades, and it shows. Of course there are sonnets, and Schwader makes writing them seem so much easier than it is! Some other poems belong to forms I don't recognize. One of the strengths of this book is its diversity of form.

Some of the poems in Dark Energies are haibun, a Japanese form in which a segment of prose, often like a prose poem, is followed by a haiku that summarizes or distills the preceding part of the poem. The haibun in this book consist of multiple prose segments that are each followed by a haiku. The haiku explain what is described in the prose sections, or unfold the next step of the narrative, or reveal a new aspect of the situation. This form is well suited to weird poetry, because it facilitates mood development.

More than a few of these poems were written in homage to masters of weird verse, such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert W. Chambers, and HPL.

From “Finale, Act Two”

Incarnate in the blood. Unasked,
They ruled by runes they dared not name
Until a jaundiced phantom tasked

Their line with sorcery. That shame
They tasted once as mortals fled
Before a greater Sign which came

(after Robert W. Chambers)

The deadly play about the king in yellow has not yet been written, so far as I know. These and other lines penned by Schwader are as close as anyone has come to it.

From “Weird of the White Sybil”

No matter that my draperies are frayed
By tempests only glacial wastelands hold.
You see me as you wish, a lissome maid

Less prophetess than purest spirit strayed
From paradise—or legends left untold—
& never dream that you should be afraid

(after Clark Ashton Smith)

One of the most inventive of the weird fantasists, Smith had a gift for laying out a vivid scene or creeping up on a plot. Schwader distills Smith admirably into just a few powerful lines. Her poetry is definitely a match for his lush prose.

When Smith and Chambers were writing, weird fiction and weird poetry were primarily the domain of men, and so the old masters whose work Schwader used as her jumping off points were men. It's nice that nowadays, in the field of weird poetry as in others, the gender barriers have largely fallen. Because fair's fair, but also because of all the fantastic writing we can enjoy, which we might have missed out on.

If weird poetry turns you on, you owe it to yourself to buy this book as soon as possible.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

* * *

Ann K. Schwader's most recent offering, Dark Energies, from P'rea Press (ed. Charles Lovecraft), is what we have all come to expect of this formal poet and more. It is a (not too) slim volume of “dark cosmic poetry”, which collects her poetry from the past 4 years plus 3 from the early aughts as well as brings us a few brand new ones. It also includes a preface by S.T. Joshi and an afterword by Robert M. Price—respected names in dark poetry. The publisher, Charles Lovecraft, also includes an interview with Schwader. All of these extras to the poetry serve to illuminate the origins or backstory of some of the poetry, especially for those of us (ok me!), who haven't read everything written by H.P. Lovecraft as well as praise the work.

As is most likely well known, Schwader is one of the unequivocal masters of formal verse. This collection, however, shows the sheer variety of forms that she does, in fact, master. There are sonnets and quatrains (with various rhyme schemes), to be sure. But also triolets, haibun, pantoum and likely other forms I can't name. I have a difficult relationship with formal verse. It takes work and patience to grasp the fullness of it, but Ann Schwader makes that work pleasurable and rewarding. Her rhymes are never stilted, and while the sense of a sentence may at first be obscured by the rhythm and rhyme of the form, a second reading always unlocks the door. Line after line is a tiny work of art, which as a whole is nothing short of mind-blowing. It is therefore highly recommended that one savor this collection, reading each poem slowly and multiple times. It is worth it.

As is also expected the subject matter circles around Lovecraftian themes, but these themes are often interwoven with another great love of Schwader's: astronomy. That's the “cosmic” element in her dark poetry and it is delightful. She, herself, calls it dark SF poetry. This collection, more than much of Twisted in Dream, doesn't require an in-depth knowledge of the poetry and mythos of H.P. Lovecraft and other writers in that tradition. It probably adds depth and wonder to the poems, but appreciation and application are not dependent on it. Schwader's skill is such that from the first few lines of a poem the universe is fully wrought and has drawn you in—it matters not if you do not know the backstory.

Ann has taken several female characters and entities from the Lovecraft mythos (Lavinia, Keziah Mason, Mother Hydra and the “canine” ghouls she made matriarchal hyenas) as well as creating one of her own (Ammutseba) and has given them the opportunity to express themselves more fully.

In short, this collection is not to be missed. Charles Lovecraft asked me to remind SFPA members that we receive a discount of 10% off on one book and 15% off two or more. He tells me there is some error on international shipping (outside of Australia) and one should just contact him through the website to order.

—Diane Severson

Dark Parchments: Midnight Curses & Verses by Michael H. Hanson.
2015, MoonDream Press copperdogpublishing.com/moondream-press. 119 pp. Paperback $12.95; Kindle $.99

Sonnets are not just fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme. They function as a self-contained unit most of the time, dependent upon a volta, or turn. In the turn a second idea is introduced, or the first idea reaches a climax. In some sonnets we expect the final couplet to give us the turn; in other styles and according to the author’s preference, the turn can come much earlier. The point is that a sonnet needs to have a turn, however and wherever it may occur.

And that’s why I’m having some trouble with this collection of mostly sonnets on dark subjects. Admittedly, this subject matter is “mah thang,” but I was disappointed in some of the sonnets. Maybe it’s the rhymes themselves that let me down—for example, I like the sonnet “Grieving” which contains some lovely lines, including the following:

She is grieving for all the wrongs
a distant deity allows,

Yet the rhyme scheme ruins the final couplet of the poem, a poem I otherwise like a lot:

A deadly infectious sickness
her grief is too harsh to witness.

Oh, dear …

A better form that didn’t force rhyme and meter might have made this into a very affecting poem, but as it is, it disappoints. This is a problem with some of these poems, and perhaps a less critical eye than my own might forgive them.

Embedded here—within way too much decoration; we don’t need illustrations, borders, and repeated titles on every page—there are very good ideas and indeed excellent whole stanzas, but they sometimes seem like gems embedded in slag. For example, I really liked the opening lines of “The Secret People”:

Can you see the secret people
painted in all the hues of night,
a mellifluous camouflage
immune to all but second sight?

There are lots of wonderful lines like those. From “Almost” here are some more:

wishing to rise from wormwood’s bed,
I chose to wake and live, instead.

These are poems for readers who enjoy dark formalist poetry and can forgive awkward rhymes. It may be that I’m too fussy about this.

But I do take issue with the publisher: first of all, why is the book not available to purchase on the publisher’s website? One has to go to Amazon to buy it. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, there is too much illustration overall, but what really bothered me is that some of the illustrations are from William Blake. Blake intended those illustrations for his own poems, not someone else’s. I have to think that this is simply error on the part of the book’s designer, but the effect is that it takes the reader out of the poems, which isn’t fair to the author or the reader. “Hey, isn’t that a drawing from Songs of Innocence and Experience?” is not what you want your reader thinking when he or she is savoring the poetry of this book.

So a mixed review for me. I do enjoy the subject matter of the poems, and there are some very effective images and lovely lines, but the strictures of formalist verse sometimes get in the way. Hanson’s beautiful ideas deserve to blossom in a more natural form, and would benefit from the fresh eyes of a writing workshop.

And one more thing: the word SHAME is a non-count noun! One can feel different kinds of shame, but not “shames.” “Shames” is the third-person singular version of the verb “to shame.” As a noun, you NEVER put an –s on it. So, word to the author: Please change the title of “The Rain has no Shames” to “The Rain has no Shame.” Thank you.

For more info on the Sonnet form, see sonnets.org/basicforms.htm
For more info on William Blake, see blakearchive.org/blake

—Denise Dumars

* * *

Dark Parchments: Midnight Curses and Verses is a collection of dark fantasy and horror poetry by Michael H. Hanson. It is a wonderfully designed book with a very appealing cover. The poems, however, are clunky and poorly crafted. Ultimately, this is a weak collection of poems.

Dark Parchments is a very pretty book. The cover art by Chris Mars is disturbing and inviting, and the graphic design of the book, from its ornate borders to the interesting use of drop caps to begin every poem, shows that a lot of care and attention was paid to making this book into something people would want to look at and enjoy. Some of the choices may have been unwise, such as the use of classic public-domain art from folks like William Blake to illustrate the poems, but overall this is a very stunning book to behold.

The poetry, however, does not live up to the graphic hype. Hanson’s work suffers from the usual issues with amateur poetry—abstractions, inconsistent meter, forced rhyme, etc. Hanson’s focus is on formal poetry, and many of the poems in this collection are based on classical forms. However, his lack of understanding of the basic craft tools of poetry, such as imagery and metaphor, causes the poems to suffer greatly. “Doppelganger,” one of the opening poems, for example, contains the lines:

She knows that this double is real
and more than a mere reflection
with smiles not really quite ideal
and eyes empty of affection.

This stanza is littered with vague language that serves to alienate the reader from what’s actually happening as opposed to allowing them to participate in the protagonist’s fear. The reader is not given the rich imagery to understand how the smile is “not really quite ideal” or to know how the eyes are “empty of affection,” so they’re only left to guess what’s horrific in this supposed nightmare.

Hanson also suffers from choppy, inconsistent meter, which makes the reading of the poems difficult. For example, his poem “The Dream” contains the following stanza:

Her skirt extends beyond her sight,
its weight hampers her every stride,
fleeing foul things bathed in moonlight
and horrors from which she can’t hide.

Metrically, this is a mess. It begins in iambic tetrameter, but trips through various metrical anomalies from there, ending with a fourth line that is either trimeter or a very forced tetrameter with a monosyllabic foot. And while I absolutely respect the idea that a poet can alter the meter of their poem to put emphasis on some word or to enrich the metaphor of the poem, I don’t believe that’s what’s happening here. There is also an awkward imperfect rhyme in lines 1 and 3 that seems to be the result of sloppy meter as well. Most of the poems in the collection have these same metrical issues, which is unpleasant and discomforting for the reader.

The foreword to Dark Parchments compares Hanson to Shelley. I think the more obvious comparison would be to Poe. Both poets write poems that play off gothic tropes; both poets use shorter, lyrical forms; the last poem in Hanson’s collection, a poem about a young woman who drowns in the sea, is even titled “Anna-Lee.” The connection between the two is obvious. However, whereas Poe’s use of sound and meter made for a chilling tone, or even at their worst (“For Annie” and “To — — —. Ulalume: A Ballad” are the two most obvious that I can think of right now), tightly woven sound pieces, Hanson’s lack of craft makes for awkward, clunky poems that fall apart upon reading. So, while this is a visually appealing book, the poetry it contains will probably not catch the interest of any but the most fervent readers of speculative poetry.

—Joshua Gage

Review at Black Gate


Dawn of the Algorithm by Yann Rousselot.
2015, Inkshares, Inc. 60 pp. Paperback $13.99; ebook $9.99. inkshares.com/projects/dawn-of-the-algorithm/

Author Yann Rousselot argues that his book, Dawn of the Algorithm, is “about the end of the world. It's about giants, robots, aliens and dinosaurs; disasters, catastrophes and spectacular cataclysms. By analogy, it is also about rupture: the micro-apocalypses that spark when you throw together love, longing, friendship and loss—what some might call The Dark Side of the human experience.” This is a great description of this cynically humorous illustrated book of poetry.

Most of the poems in Dawn of the Algorithm are some sort of first-person description of self. Whether it’s a “DEFCON One–calibre rogue AI” that speaks “post-human,” or KITT from television’s Knight Rider, or even a Tyrannosaurus rex, Rousselot gives voice to the voiceless in his persona poems. He attempts to give these monsters and artificial intelligences some humanity, and in doing so, garner empathy for them from the reader. More often than not, the poems work on that level, and the reader is able to appreciate what it means to be a sad dinosaur or disconnected AI.

Other poems serve as warnings to the reader. In “Blink Twice For No,” the speaker is giving instructions to their loved one concerning their death. The speaker is afraid that, while their body might appear dead, there still might be a consciousness trapped inside, and he wants the loved one to try to communicate with them. In “Stranger Danger,” the speaker is warning a stranger not to trust them, lest they be drowned at the bottom of the ocean. The tone of these poems makes for an interesting read, as the reader immediately becomes involved and engaged due to the speakers’ imperatives.

While Rousselot takes on serious topics, like a post-apocalyptic world, he does so with a lot of humor. His poems are littered with pop culture references and silly word play. Furthermore, the cartoonish illustrations in the text help to develop this lack of seriousness. Some readers may find this distracting, even disappointing, but if they go in expecting some goofiness mixed in with the raw images of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, they will not be let down.

Overall, Yann Rousselot has written a light-hearted look at various post-apocalyptic scenarios blended with various personas from popular culture. While it does have its weak points, Dawn of the Algorithm is still a successful collection of poems that will keep readers of speculative poetry entertained.

—Joshua Gage


The Endless Machine by Max Ingram.
2015, Bone Forge Books. 40 pp. Paperback, $5.99; ebook $1.99.
boneforge.com

Ingram’s second collection of poetry is a chapbook exploring the “mysteries of space, sex, and time” among other things. Science fiction this time instead of horror, primarily, but as in his first book of poetry, The Bone Forge, dark imagery abounds. From the hot chick depicted on the cover by more-than-competent artist Ryan Wardlow, we can guess that women are at the forefront of this collection, not all of them rendered stereotypically. For example, the woman depicted on the cover might be Cora, a bounty hunter in the poem “A Quiet Exchange”:

But on drawing close, Cora pulls her
pistol and levels it, a grin spreading
on her austere cheeks, her green
eyes glitter with the banknotes she
can already see in their bruised faces.

He returns to the cadence of early English poetry in poems such as the multi-part “The Endless Machine”:

A silver, lancing arrow that splits
the forests my father feared. I have
named it. It is mine. I ride upon it and
stab it through my ribs, as I must, so that
I may bleed.

As with his first foray into poetry, The Endless Machine also delves a bit into confessional poetry, the necessary angst most poets feel a need to express. These poems will work for those who prefer more mainstream poetry as well as genre poetry. For example, in “Merry Christmas,” those of us who have had many not-so-merry Christmases can perhaps relate:

I flushed ’em down the toilet
each pill like a
pearl-white sacrifice to some
waterlogged god,

While not a totally science-fictional collection as the title and cover blurb would have it, still, I like this poet and his point of view and sense of honesty. I do wish he would work on his line breaks in certain poems! It would be good to see another general collection of his works rather than one that tries too hard to stick to one theme. Recommended for those who like dark SF and confessional poetry.

—Denise Dumars

* * *

The publisher of The Endless Machine describes the book as “a series of bold depictions of sex with starships, space-suit wearing angels, and horrifying aliens cut in half by wormholes.” Readers intrigued by this description should be cautioned; this book fails to deliver the goods. Ingram divides his book into two “chapters:” “The Voyage” which lasts for eleven poems and “Man of Excess” which lasts for ten poems. The poems are vaguely connected to each other, and some attempt to create a narrative between each other, but the connections are tenuous at best. Both in terms of content and craft, The Endless Machine is a weak book of poems.

The most disappointing thing about this book is the vagueness of the language. For example, the poem “The Footpath Widens” begins:

Perched upon the
precipice of a
black-skied purgatory,
my fists and toes taking
purchase of the earth,
mud-wet and
misanthropic in their
defiance.

The reader is left wondering how fists and toes could be either misanthropic or defiant, and the poem does little to explain.

Craftwise, the poems are equally as amateur. Weak line breaks seem to be the norm, and adjective heavy lines overburden the poems with unnecessary language. For example, the final stanza from “Diaspora” reads:

And to this world they would spill, wet-eyed
and naked to the rain, innocent in their newly
born knowledge. No remnants of their
apocalyptic ways. And she, their nursemaid of
fire, metal and—ultimately—love, would be
consumed by the elements, the days of
hard-sought rain, mud slicks and summer dry
desiccation. But her children's children would
remember her stripped iron ribs reaching for
home.

Ingram is attempting to touch upon creation myth imagery, which can work in a Science Fiction setting, but the weak line breaks (“of,” “of,” “for,” etc.) and the adjective heavy language makes for a poor reading experience. Furthermore, the word “home” as a line by itself reads as contrived, and while it certainly draws attention to that word, such a dramatic shift in line length and a weak line break to lead up to it does not read as profound or meaningful, as I suspect Ingram intended, but as affected.

What is disappointing is that Ingram shows evidence of understanding the power that imagery can add to a poem. For example, he begins the eponymous poem of this collection with the lines:

I take the railing like I would a
lovers' hand, leaning forward, washing
my face in stars. An angel's halo rings
my neck, a noose of timid light, and I stand,
observing, praying upon the altar of
God’s unwritten word, his scriptures
sketched in flight.

Granted, these images teeter towards the cliché, but they are images nonetheless. They add tangible and visual elements to the poem, allowing the reader to participate in the speaker’s point of view, fully allowing them to immerse themselves in the poem. Were there more of this, The Endless Machine would be a passable collection of poems.

In general, Max Ingram’s The Endless Machine does not work as a book of poetry. The language of the poems is often too vague and abstract to have any real meaning, and the poems themselves suffer from various craft issues. This is a poor offering, and readers of speculative poetry will not be missing anything if they don’t read this book.

—Joshua Gage

* * *

Max Ingram’s collection The Endless Machine explores the symbolism and emotions rife in various speculative images. Containing 21 poems, with cover art by Ryan Wardlow, the collection forms a collage of striking scenes. Each poem is based around an image, which run the gamut from a seemingly mundane swatted fly, as in “First Contact,” or as fantastic as a crashed colony ship being cannibalized for parts on an alien world, as in “Diaspora.”

The collection is divided into two chapters. The first, titled “The Voyage,” casts the lens of its poems on vistas far away from Earth. The collection delights in juxtaposition, leaving the reader to wonder what is familiar by a different name and what is alien by another. This gem from “Wormhole,” for example, shows the literal separation of two different realities through a tiny hole in a forest clearing:

It winks; once, twice, pausing for moments
between slicing at the wind passing through it,
a door of razor-wire reality that has no more
kindness for its wounded, dirt-born traveler than
for an atom, a molecule, or the clipped wings
of a fly.

Other speculative images, both familiar and more esoteric, fill the first chapter. Lucifer broods over his atmospheric descent in “My Fall,” while the collection’s title poems, “The Endless Machine,” parts one through three, detail the at-first hopeful voyage of a colony ship, before the narrating space-bound sailor spirals into deranged attachment to his vessel.

The second chapter, “Man of Excess,” strikes closer to home, with several of the poems trading speculative elements for a more immediate, seemingly biographical impact. Alien kings on desert worlds, as in “Desert Demon,” coexist with the erotic, as in “Thousand-fold Colour.” The imagery remains vivid, however, as the powerful opening to the drug-themed “Merry Christmas” shows:

Gave me a fistful of
murdered dreams,
death still fresh on their
frozen smiles,
and all I could wish for were my
two front teeth

The strength of The Endless Machine is in its images and emotions; the poetic language often a secondary concern to the concept of a piece. While some poems are narrative, the collection does not, as a whole, form a story; they are instead snapshots, some taken on far planets, others closer to home, sometimes evocatively or disturbingly so. This is a collection for anyone seeking a group of eclectic poems that sometimes peers at the stars and other times closer at hand, always seeking a strong image.

—Alex Plummer

review by Diane Severson Mori in Amazing Stories


THE FIFTH GOSPEL: Revelations of Mary Magdalene to Sister Verity by Souda Nimes.
2015, Predella Press. 126 pp. Paperback, $5.99; Kindle Unlimited $0. amazon.com

I disagree with readers who feel that this book is a “send-up” of an earlier book, The Fifth Gospel, which reputedly chronicles Jesus’ adventures in India and mittel-Asia post-Easter. Rather—although it does draw from this source, quite obviously—this Fifth Gospel is more of a feminist/goddess perspective on the relationship of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene … I think. I enjoyed this book and its musings on many religious traditions, and recommend it not only for those for whom this type of subject matter would appeal, but also to those who like a little science fiction with their mythology. For example, here are a few lines from “Genesis 102”; bear in mind that “Jesus” is never mentioned by name:

anyway in deep space
no one’s got your number
so Blessed can slumber
eternally.

In case there were any doubts about this being a science fiction collection, star stuff is mentioned in nearly every poem, along with the comparative-religion lesson, of course, as in “Soma,” which begins with an epigraph from the Bhagavad-Gita about the origin of the mysterious drug elixir called Soma, an epigraph that this poem echoes:

On Planet Telluria, a silver river flows
sowing Soma
Bringer of Light
Awakener of Minds
Creator of the Gods
and around this gift
they build a temple
where the wise guide ritual drinking
cure the ill
teach the dying they are homecoming

But “Blessed” and Mary of Magdala are not the only folks in the story; no, there’s a fellow named “Moria” (yes, LOTR fans!) who bears a resemblance to the fellow in the Rolling Stones’ song that forms the title of the poem introducing him/her/it. From “Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself”:

Who says I have no ethics?
It’s a free world doncha know
Blessed-Be-It does not exist
(no really) cannot incarnate
non-existence is powerless
not I!

So with other characters such as Mary-Cybele (look up Cybele, dudes!) and “Job, lawyer for the prosecution” you know that tongue is firmly in cheek, yet at the same time there is tenderness and even seriousness here, as well as an attempt to tie together differing mythologies that have ideas in common. We begin, in fact, with a prose introduction in which the author, who explains herself as a “translator” of Sister Verity’s revelation, comes across an abandoned Catholic Church in Goa (a province of India greatly influenced by Portuguese colonialism, and hence largely Catholic). In this church she meets Sister Verity who is worshipping before an altar of what at first appears to be the Hindu sacred couple Shiva/Shakti, until she realizes that the Shiva figure has Jesus’ face.

If narrative poetry and especially sacred narrative poetry is of interest to you as well as science fiction, you will like this book. I did. Maybe not everyone’s cup of Soma, but it worked for me.

—Denise Dumars

* * *

The Fifth Gospel is the sort of premise that piques my interest: The idea that women played a more important role in early and continuing Christianity than has been preserved for posterity has always seemed plausible. And in the absence of actual historical evidence, I've enjoyed writer's flights of fancy. Plus it is a satirical novel in verse! 

This book is exactly what it says on the box (although everything is presented with utmost seriousness it is very tongue-in-cheek). It emulates a canonical gospel, chronicling the conception, birth and life of Jesus. This one is 3rd/4th hand, however. Mary Magdalene, having appeared in a vision, told it to Sister Verity, who was subsequently excommunicated and who “told” it to Souda Nimes, who then translated it into English.  This version of the gospel deviates significantly from the canonical ones—no surprise there. It's cast of characters only vaguely resembles that of the gospels we know includes such satirical figures as the Galactic Skater and the Eternal Conman. Familiar figures are transformed into caricatures: Pontius Pilate is the Law and Order expert, Peter is the leader of the Gang of Four and Blessed-Be-It is the innocently inept Creator. The narrative incorporates elements from several other cultures, most notably Indian, which is only natural because Souda Nimes encounters Sister Verity in Goa, India. The cult of Wyrd also plays an important role. In short there's plenty to Google if you are unfamiliar with the influences and enhances the fun. 

This book is not for the religious without a sense of humor. It's irreverent and scoffing. The author does not shy away from extrapolating certain aspects of the gospel and making them seem utterly ridiculous:

40. Joseph worries about NQR

Our sleeping babe
is not quite right 
Ma doesn't see it
...
but look
see what I mean
how his tiny face
lights up the space
in a blue glow?
At least we'll save on candles
with this glow-worm babe.

The language of the poetry is colloquial, so no pretensions there. There is no formality, just free satirical verse. It's easy to recognize the humor (an issue for me!) and there is much ridiculousness and absurdity. And yet, all the pickings from various sources are woven together quite well. Sometimes I wonder if it was absolutely necessary to write it in verse, and then I think, but yes, it fits.

—Diane Severson


invisible tracks/unsichtbare spuren by Dietmar Tauchner
2015, Red Moon Press. 134 pp. Paperback $12.
redmoonpress.com

A new book by Dietmar Tachner is like that comet you see accidentally when you just happen to look up into the sky. It is a gift from the universe, a treat for speculative poets and haiku poets alike. Invisible tracks is no exception. Tachner’s latest book from Red Moon Press is bilingual, with a version of each poem in English and German. Published by a mainstream haiku press, the haiku range from speculative to non-speculative, but even a haiku formed from everyday life, for example, standing in front of a bathroom mirror, often has a speculative edge:

bathroom mirror
facing my
amphibian DNA

invisible tracks is broken into four sections, the first being “Loop of Identity,” an introspective grouping of haiku that explores our place in the universe. Each section has haiku written in a variety of styles, one-liners, two-liners, and what we’ve come to think of as more traditional in English, three-line verse. There are also occasional concrete poems, the most startling being a poem about a nuclear warhead that is shaped like a nuclear warhead.

“Loop of Identity” opens with the universal question of where did we come from? The point of view of this haiku takes it into the speculative realm, by its opening line “world of clouds:”

world of clouds
where we come from
where we go

I would classify the majority of the poems in this section as speculative or on the edge of speculative, reaching that edge with the choice of juxtaposition and image, or the use of scientific language.

The second section, also the title, “Invisible Tracks,” moves outward and explores our place in nature, with poems ranging from pastoral to scientific, from scenes of October leaves and flocks of starlings to electrons, gravity, and particles.

magnolia scent
a molecule’s
memory

The third section, “Pollen Days,” is a grouping of poems narrowing in on particular moments in time: a pub, a ticking clock, a parking lot on Christmas Eve, while in the same time widening out to focus on the continuum of spacetime itself.

dusk shadows of spacetime unfolding

The book becomes its most speculative in the final section, “From One of These Stars,” where the haiku is grouped thematically around astronomy, astrophysics, and outer space. This is where Tauchner’s poetry really sings, in the juxtaposition of the geography of outer space with the inner space of a person’s thoughts, beliefs, or day-to-day life.

behind a horizon
the red-shifted heaven
of our beliefs

or

stars in the dark what am i

Tacuhner once more shows that he is a genius when it comes to crafting the very best of speculative haiku. He writes haiku that takes us deep into the realm of imagination but yet brings it home, touching our souls, commenting on our daily life, all skillfully done with the most minimal of language. Not a single word is unnecessary; each syllable packs a big bang.

invisible tracks can be purchased online at Red Moon Press or in Europe from Vertrieb (weisenburgverlag.de) and is highly recommended.

—Deborah P Kolodji

* * *

Dietmar Tauchner collects 100 haiku and other short-form poems in his bilingual publication Invisible Tracks, or Unischtbare Spuren in German. Each piece is presented both in the author’s native German and in English, with the language presented first shifting at the start of each of Tauchner’s four sections. Containing an English introduction by George Swede and a German introduction by Dietrich Krusche, Tauchner’s collection juxtaposes the normative and the fantastical, the mundane and the extraordinary, often using the form of the poem itself to lend additional layers of meaning.

(To provide full disclosure, I am not a fluent German speaker. I have presented the German text in these excerpts as it appears, but this review covers the English content only.)

Many of the collection’s poems—all very short, with full-length haiku the longest form found within—begin with a simple description or abstraction, and then provide a speculative image or concept in rich contrast. Many poems are a single line with no clear cadence, inviting the reader to read and reread the poem to find a different meaning each time. Often, one reading is perfectly mundane, while the other runs deeply speculative, as found in this poem from the first section of the collection:

Morgendämmerung erwacht im Feld

dawn waking up in the field

The haiku often play with the traditional expectations of the form itself by using natural imagery as a base for speculative occurrences. This fusion of the abstract with the specific and the normative with the fantastical runs as a theme throughout Tauchner’s collection. One such example can be found in this poem, from the final section of the collection:

autumn morning
a plane breaks through the membrane
to the other world

Herbstmorgen
ein Flugzeug durchbricht die Membran
ins Jenseits

As mentioned above, many poems in the collection use form to provide additional potential readings of each poem. Some appear as disembodied crosswords, while others lack vowels, and further poems a constellation of phrases around an ampersand to invite a circular reading of the text. Poems about space-time are deliberately erratic, such as this one, printed at the bottom of the page rather than the middle:

im Traum erwacht eine andere Zeitlinie

in a dream the approach of an alternative timeline

Tauchner’s collection of 100 poems can be read twice for its many doubled and trebled meanings, but even then it is a relatively quick read even for those who savor haiku, as many poems are only a single line. The speculative elements come and go throughout the text, with consistent science fiction imagery in the later half, but without a strong focus on any particular speculative theme. This collection should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates haiku and very short poetry as a form on its own, as well as anyone looking for poems that can be read more than once for varied meaning.

—Alex Plummer


Moon Facts by Bob Schofield.
Nostrovia! Press, 33 pp. Free online: nostroviatowriting.com/uploads/9/0/3/8/9038323/
moon_facts_by_bob_schofield__online_release_.pdf

Moon Facts is one of the three 2015 winners of the Nostrovia! Chapbook contest, which results in a limited print version of the book. After that is sold out, the book is available as a free online PDF. Two poems from the book were nominated for 2015’s Pushcart Prize.

There is not much information readily available about the author other than his publishing record. The book contains 24 pages of poetry, nicely designed, with illustrations. Perhaps a quarter of the poems are prose poems. All poems are titled “FACT #__” (fill in the blank), and they are indeed, little known facts about the moon, or as the book styles it THE MOON.

To be clear, these are poems rich in figurative language, and well outside any semblance of realism. For example, FACT #011 includes:

THE MOON ties The Ocean to its throat
Jumps from chair to chair

Because this is still
the dawn of time

and the floor is lava

Portions of the book lapse into nonsense and word salad, and somehow I loved it anyway. For example, this from the prose poem FACT #284: “THE MOON travels exclusively by old wooden ship. Now it is nighttime in Trinidad. A one-eyed tree sits smoking a pipe. Two men pledge their love to the same parrot.”

The sense of humor that runs throughout is best served in the author’s deadpan delivery. There are a few examples of him reading poems from the book posted on the homepage for the book.

Overall I generally lack the patience for extended bouts of such nonlucid writing, but this book worked for me. In fact, it was so much a sort of delicious indulgence that I’ve read it at least four times already. It is not the kind of book you stop in the middle of. Its rhythms exist not just on a poem by poem basis, but across sections, and across the whole book. I would pay a good-sized cover charge to see the whole book performed at a poetry slam. But it reads well, too.

—Herb Kauderer


Naughty Ladies by Marge Simon, illustrations by Sandy De Luca.
2015, Eldritch Press eldritchpress.com. 92 pp. Out of print; free download at ndukdigital.com/pdf/free.php?asin=0692492542.

Every picture tells a story, don’t it? Naughty Ladies is a collection of pictures by Sandy De Luca and poems by Marge Simon—ekphrastic responses to lavish and often dark or troubled paintings of women. This is the third such collaboration of art & poetry between the two, the two prior efforts both nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, as is this one, and the first one, 2012’s Vampires, Zombies, & Wanton Souls, winning it. This current volume continues the same high quality work, and I recommend it to you.

I need to make a full disclosure here. When I first started reviewing for Star*Line four or five years ago, I was a decades-long student of poetry and fresh into genre work. I spoke my mind plainly. Now that I have developed relationships with many of the people in the field, I find it harder to write objectively. I find it harder to perceive objectively. Also, I haven’t written any reviews at all, good or bad, for a while, because last year I wrote one about a poet who I thought had no business contaminating our genre work with his academic viruses. He wrote me an angry, sad, and devastated letter. I was kind of devastated by what I had done, and backed off altogether.

Not that I am tempted to pan Simon and De Luca’s book. Not at all; it is a fine book, and I am certain that I would happily recommend it to you even if I had not become pen pals with Marge Simon, turning to her from time to time for advice on poems, or sharing interesting things in the horror field. (Like last summer, when I was reading a biography of Robert Browning, I was ecstatic to find out that he kept a human skull on his writing desk, and—hold on—inside the skull he kept … LIVING SPIDERS! The one person in the world I had to tell was Marge. Immediately.)

Well, we like those people and things we are like. Partly what draws me to her work is a shared aesthetic. If you aren’t familiar with her work, she writes what I have elsewhere called “regular guy” aesthetics. Straightforward English sentences, ordinary syntax, everyday diction. Some of the exemplars in this aesthetic are William Stafford or Ted Kooser. Now imagine that mixed in with Poe. The poetic effect accumulates over the stanzas. It’s a subtle climb. It doesn’t try to throttle you in a whirlwind of implications. It’s like refined chatting at a bus stop with a stranger who you realize is haunted.

Also, it tends to mean there is a strong narrative element in her poems. I think poems entwined with narratives stand the best chance of being enjoyed and remembered by a reader. They’re the kind I like best, anyway, and Simon’s narratives here take us through all kinds of dark alleys and into cloistered rooms. The tone is almost uniformly dark, mostly fantastical, and each little world is distinct. Not that she’s lumbering through epics: Narrative in lyric is usually a gesture, like these poems are, a page giving us a moment, telling the story mostly by implication in several directions.

One drawback with this kind of aesthetic is that it can go pedestrian pretty quickly, and, trying to be objective, I would say some of these poems are kind of jejune. I suppose the opposite style of writing (and, yes, I’m as binary as a color wheel), the one crammed with layers and textures of cryptic mythopoeics, has as its besetting sin the merely obscure, the empty puzzles that do not reward a closer reading, or exist just as a splash of to-be-admired language in the reader’s face.

These poems are all clear, and they all seek to engage. The jejune ones, and there are some, just record the details of the painting with a hint of story sketched in, or tell a story with the standard conjurer’s trick of taking a banal, if uneasy, everyday situation, and then in the last lines cracking open the door to the encroaching horror.

I think my favorite poem in the book is “All His Fancies Dancing in the Flames.” This poem does a lot more than most genre poems do. The speaker in the poem is a woman, whose old husband is sitting by the fire, and she knows he is dreaming of mythical lovers.

In his eyes, a universe,
candlelight is such a color.
He confounds me, so few
wonders in this world.
There he sits, hand on chin,
staring into the flames.

There is a covenant
between my gypsy and her unicorns,
still as dust, darker than shadows,
they speak in tongues—

She goes on to recall when she was herself as a mythical lover to him. The interplay between the real and the imagined draws us beautifully into the subjective, real experience of life. Like good poetry often does, it almost breaks the fourth wall between the poem and the reader. But it also gives us some of the ontological grounds of genre literature, the reality of the imagination. I mean, we’re not just goofing around here in genreland, drawing stick figures of dumb, pointless dragons.

Although every poem is about a different woman, I should mention that various men float in and out of some of the poems, causing problems. Some do violence, some impose definitions, and some are bled or devoured by the women. Sometimes they just hurt the women. Another poem I really liked was “He Loved Us All,” based on Picasso’s lovers. The old goat did a lot of damage to a lot of people, and this is the POV of one of his ruined women.

Women are ruined in this book. Women are also naughty and transgressive. Women are victorious. Women are struggling. Women are vampires, wraiths, and demons, poised on the edge of ordinary reality, watching us, their mouths watering. Offhand, I’d say that about two-thirds of these poems are fantastical, and all of them are what you might call ‘dark.’

I should also say a word about Sandy De Luca’s paintings, since they are half the book and the genesis of the whole: They are colorful, inventive, and luscious. The women are all voluptuous, young and sensual: evocative figures swirled in skulls and scraps of nightmare. The pictures strike me as somewhat untrained, and the lines are at times uncertain, but De Luca, who is also a poet and a novelist, has a fine intuition and is able to infuse these portraits with some emotional power. They are all pleasant and interesting to look at, and they lend themselves easily to narrative, which Simon has solidly fortified them with. The poems and the pictures are stronger together.

The page arrangements of the book bugged me, as most of the time you have to turn the page from the painting in question to its poem, when they could be facing each other. Also, the cover is misconceived, if not the title. The words Naughty Ladies are emblazoned over the most salacious of the paintings, a naked woman looking up from a bed with a vulnerable hunger in her eyes, the kind you’d see in a poster for Teen Vampire Lust or Hot Nurses at Midnight. Seriously, if you don’t know the people involved, the cover promises a lewd, air-headed adventure, and the contents are far more nuanced and creepier and better done. This cover-botch has happened before with Simon’s books, and I’d like to put in the request that it doesn’t happen again.

Anyway, I think you’ll like it. It’s a fine book.

—John Philip Johnson


Past the Layered Stones by Ivaylo R. Shmilev.
2015 ivoshmilev.net. 107 pp. $3.99 digital.

Ivaylo Shmilev's collection, Past the Layered Stones, collects several dozen poems into seven sections in a variety of styles, formats, and subjects. It presents the conceit, through a foreword, thematic theoretical dissection, and afterword that the collection is truly the writing of a 30th century poet (and perhaps revolutionary) who opposed a fascist science fiction regime.

Some of the poems are fantastical, though more are grounded in the expected trappings of science fiction. Many of the poems rely on the juxtapostion of disparate images and phrases to achieve a desired tone or drive home a theme, such as in the beginning of “Part VII: Comprehending the Steps:”

Immediate hunger, undisclosed rain, private
typhoons, deniable challenges,
what we seek to quench:
the cheating veil of the future,
the faltering bank of our knowledge.

Common themes present include disillusionment, love, searching for answers, fuility, and a pervading sense of longing for more. Many poems rely heavily on repetition, with a few repeating entire stanzas after being recontextualized by an intervening addition.

However, most of the collection lies in an uneasy place as a reader, due to the conceit of being the last remaining poems left by a dead revolutionary. There is little sense of a strong identity on behalf of this fictional writer, and it leaves the reader unable to decide to take the opening and closing as a veneer and look at each poem individually, or to attempt to contextualize the whole as part of a personal narrative. Poems often start out strong, but seem to suffer the same lack of idenity, and many struggle for cohension amidst the thematic barage and speculative words peppering each.

And did my talk go off again to reveal me?
Your impositions have made me unsafe.
A sign of disjointing, this breakage linguistic;
a vestige of falling, silence and snaps.

Where the collection succeeds is in its sounds, as seen in the above excerpt from “Gigachiroptera sapiens Reforming.” The foreword notes that the poems are intended to be read aloud, and many of the poems deliver on that promise, with cacophony and assosonance and alliteration prevalent throughout.

Overall, Shmilev's collection is an interesting attempt to weave a picture of a dead 30th century poet through the eyes of those who study him as we study our own deceased and revered wordsmiths. The conceit, while not perfect, forms an ambitious frame around poetry that never quite cohesively portrays the id of the central character. Nevertheless, for anyone who enjoys attempting to trace a narrative through a poetic collection or reads their poetry aloud, many of the poems inside may be worth your time.

—Alex Plummer


Resonance Dark & Light by Bruce Boston.
2015, Eldritch Press eldritchpress.com. 92 pp. $10 print.

Bruce Boston’s vivid and incisive collection, Resonance Dark & Light, contains more than 50 poems, accompanied by several pieces of black-and-white artwork depicting the subjects of a few of his poems. Abounding with pristine word choices and spanning the breadth of several genres, Boston’s collection explores the arcane, the inhuman, and the everyday.

The collection can be humorous one moment and thrilling the next, but always carries a fine edge. One section of the collection is ekphrastic and delves into the minds of artists both classical and surreal. One poem is entranced by the blush of the woman in William Bouguereau's Femme Au Coquillage (“Portrait of a Nude”) while the next imagines the life of the girl in Franz Marc's The Dream (“Her Passage”):

and she is naked
on a hummock
facing the wilderness.

She awakens slowly to
the fragrance of orchids,
which have almost
no fragrance at all.

Boston’s collection does not so much contain genres as lay them bare, their components another poetic device in the arsenal constructing Resonance. Surrealism abounds, notably in “Surreal Shopping List,” containing such evocative, impossible objects as “3 lbs Stonehenge” and in the haiku “Surreal Insomniac.” Noir receives attention as well, as seen in this gem from “Noir People:”

If noir people were the world
color would abandon us
to be superseded by
a range of shadow shades
in subtle gray distinctions,
by stark chiaroscuro contrasts
invisible to a world of color.

In addition to genres, Boston revels in repetition, casting each cadence in a new light to reveal a different meaning for a word, a phrase, or a line. This penchant for repetition includes “The Music of” poems, each themed after a different speculative event, monster, or element, such as in “Music of Werewolves:”

The music of werewolves
is rife with a raucous chorus
of howls and blasphemes,

a scherzo of wilding violins
and pounding kettle drums
in a thunderous blood beat.

Resonance Dark & Light is a collection perfect for anyone who appreciates speculative poetry. Boston combines a mastery of poetic language with a wide array of genres, styles, and images to craft a superb collection definitely worth experiencing.

—Alex Plummer

review by Steven Hampton in The Zone


Risk Management Studies by Noel Sloboda.
2015, Kattywompus Press kattywompuspress.com. 22 pp. $12 print.
(and worth every penny —FJB)

I think Noel Sloboda is one of the better genre poets working today. It seems to me odd that other people don’t know that. I think this lack of attention comes from his not playing in our sandbox much. He does sometimes publish in genre magazines, but by and large he takes his both his regular-flavored and as well as genre-infused material out to the mainstream literary public.

In general, I share an aesthetic point of view with him, and naturally that’s what I like about his work. He writes like a regular guy. I mean, he uses plain English sentences without layers of cryptic compression, and he sticks to ordinary diction. He also does philosophy with his poems, usually by implication, often employing real, everyday nouns to do so. Those are also my conscious aims.

However, there is also a hardness to his poetry, and that part makes me nervous. It is as though his poems, or his thought, were reinforced with durable fibers of nihilism, or maybe indifference. I think, though, this quality has the benefit of allowing him to face up to his version of the truth pretty easily, and that in turn might be why he is so prolific. He has had a ton of publications, 95% of which are outside the genre world, though a significant portion could have found a place in Star*Line or one of our other publications.

His current chapbook, Risk Management Studies, is an entertaining and thoughtful collection of fictional letters to some University Risk Management Office by a faculty member on a series of bizarre and idiosyncratic complaints. It’s funny. And painful. In tone, they reminded me of Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy's, if you’ve read that worthy collection of post-modern verse. In content, they are mostly paranoid and self-absorbed, achingly polite and inappropriate.

The first letter is about animated dinosaur bones in the museum. The professor is dead serious and matter-of-fact. He expresses no wonder at the animated bones, only complaining that the commotion is distracting him from his research work. Every problem in the book, each letter, ends with the same phrase, that the problem in question will interfere with his “book-length study on monstrosity, which, Derrida posits, permits us to understand conventions by transgressing them.”

That’s part of the joke. There are many weird problems he complains about, all more or less monstrous transgressions of his little world. A theory that Shakespeare was a vampire. The prospect of another semester of robots running amok. Ghosts. Clones. Students having sex in the arboretum. His dog, which he swears is no longer a threat. In each one, he is white-knuckling his reality, trying to hold on to his world view. It’s a caricature of a certain type of academic we’ve all seen, the one who professes a nihilistic, valueless worldview but then gets super persnickety when it comes to enforcing their own values. I like it that Sloboda makes fun of his own parochialism by signing each letter with his own, real name.

Another part of the joke is that, of course, his wildly inappropriate complaining is itself a massive, neurotic transgression of University protocol, and this causes problems as the narrative advances. The whole thing is actually a story, like Letters to Wendy’s is a story. It’s told in epistles by a surreal, unstable mind. I think you’ll like it. I’m counting it as genre work, or slipstream, because it is full of SF and horror tropes, treated as real, and the whole thing has a weird, Norm Sherman bite to it. And, by the way, this chapbook would be an absolutely perfect gift for any academic in your life. I promise, unless they are a total cement-head, they will love it. Here’s a sample:

19 December

Dear University Office of Risk Management:

I thought you should know that members of the Engineering faculty have begun building robots again. (You can consult my letters from spring for technical specifications.) These new robots are far smaller than the ones you confiscated last semester. However, this fact in itself might lead to the new robots becoming a threat. My brother was always insecure because he was small. As a teenager, he compensated with displays of violence. He shot my dog with a BB gun, ran over mother’s cat with a dirt bike, and threw lawn darts at our parents. Once, he punched his girlfriend in public because she laughed at his haircut. Eventually, his behavior landed him in juvenile hall, and he was never the same. (Can you imagine what juvenile hall would do to robots?) I worry that another semester with robots running amok will distract me from my work: a book-length study on monstrosity, which, Derrida posits, permits us to understand conventions by transgressing them. As such, your prompt attention to this important campus welfare issue would be most appreciated.

Be well,

Dr. Noel Sloboda,
Researcher in the Humanities

PS: Happy holidays!

—John Philip Johnson


The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey.
2015, Mayapple Press. 77 pp. $15.95.

Jeannine Hall Gailey’s latest offering is a very autobiographical work rather than one which is strictly science fictional, but if you didn’t know that many of the events actually happened to the author you wouldn’t necessarily guess it. There are many first person narrative poems, in which a semi-fictional character tells of the charms and perils of her childhood and others, which in a more detached fashion tell more about the perils as they happened but also often in a fictionalized way.

Gailey grew up within spitting distance of Oak Ridge, TN, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory fame. Her father was a professor at the University of Tennessee and consulted on the use of robots in nuclear-waste cleanup at ORNL. Many of the poems describe events when she was a child and have a suitable child-like lack of grounding in full reality. Which isn’t to imply that things didn’t go down just as she describes, but rather her experience of them reflects a certain surreality typical of childhood.

Most of these poems show the reader what a bizarre, charmed, dangerous and beautiful childhood she had. They are at turns full of gorgeous imagery of childhood wonder and discovery, as well as dangers and calamity she faced on a daily basis.

She wanted to imitate the mockingbird, learned to whistle
for mourning doves. She hid in the honeysuckle
and crept up quietly on foxes and even sometimes
small bears.
“The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [Before]”

The hum of the lawn mower grows louder
in the afternoon. My father puts me on his lap
and lets me drive it. Sometimes when my parents
aren’t watching I eat the grass too,
… The grass tastes green
“Knoxville, 1979”

It began with eating grass. Later, she grew welts
where she used soap…
… Everything she touches feels like fire;
her skin puckers and reddens when she does her hair 
or cleans the sink.
“Multiple Chemical Sensitivity”

A fair percentage of the poems are entitled “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” with a word or 2 in brackets to differentiate them: [morbid], [medical wonder], [in films], or [escape]. The rest are a mixture of autobiographical and/or narrative poems and science poems. Some are riffs off a headline or news item such as “Hot Wasp Nests”.

Despite the occasional romp in the sun the overwhelming tone of Gailey’s poetry is dark and brooding—I feel like she is working things out here and doing it very courageously. There is a distinct sense of impending doom. As wonderful as her childhood in Tennessee was and as much as it still feels like her real home, it is a love filled with bitterness and resentment toward what it has done to her—she suffers a myriad of health problems now—through her childhood exposure to the radiation prevalent in the area. Gailey did extensive research on the effects of the radiation on the people who lived near ORNL; on the the policies (or lack thereof) of the ORNL in relation to radiation; the attitudes of the people affected (i.e. the employees and the townspeople), of those in charge of ORNL and of the government.

It’s a pretty damning exposition, to be truthful, and horrifies me anew that “we humans” could have been so ignorant, stupid and in blatant denial for so long about the effects of radiation on the body and the world around us.

What this book doesn’t do, however, is show what we learned from ORNL and places like it. On the contrary she states her position in the foreword and by virtue of association, by placing poems about Fukushima within this volume, she seems to be making a blanket statement about all things nuclear and the evils thereof. And it is here that I have to make a disclaimer that I am perhaps not the most sympathetic reviewer of this work: My husband is a nuclear engineer who has made nuclear safety (as it pertains to nuclear power) his life’s work. He is very passionate about it and that nuclear power has an important role to play in today’s society and I have become a convert to his way of thinking, which stems from his extensive knowledge and awareness of its effects and risks. Fukushima is not even in the same sport as ORNL, not to mention the same league. So let’s suffice it to say that I simply disagree with her extrapolation into the present.

But, regardless, Gailey’s poetry here is powerful and brave, sad and angering, full of whimsy and horror. Her poetic voice is clearer than ever in this volume and it is a fascinating examination by an insider of a place and events we’ve all heard rumors about.

If you like the subject matter of nuclear research, robots, chemistry, biology, history, with a tone of personal experience, you will enjoy this collection immensely. Highly recommended.

—Diane Severson

review by Mary McMyne in The Rumpus


The Scent of his Feathers: A Collection of Dark Verses by Ash Krafton.
2015, ashkrafton.com. 91 pp. Digital $1.00

In Ash Krafton’s collection The Scent of His Feathers, the persona inhabits a dark, lonely world and apparently lacks energy to seek help for her malaise. “Finality” concludes:

… I’m all alone.
I find the truth so frightening
to know I lack the strength to fight.
Thus now I rise with dignity
and curtsy to the phantom voice
whose shadows take my hand to lead.
I’ll offer up my soul to dance
and face, at last, finality.

The collection is divided into four parts with photos: “Surrender or Defeat,” with Edgar Allan Poe’s tombstone, “Abandonment and Yearning,” with pensive angel sculpture, “Guilt vs. Defiance” with faded tombstones on a wall, and “Prisons and Punishments” with a foggy, mist-enshrouded lane. Throughout, the personas struggle to find meaning amongst crow feathers and tombstones. “Six Words for Edgar,” is an homage pantoum that states, “Edgar, it occurs to me your dreams may all be lies/ and yet I long to tread your path.” Suicide is described in a number of ways including burning in the ghazal “Hush” and drowning, although it is not clear whether drowning is simply a metaphor for religious ecstasy or sexual surrender: In “Freewill for Faith” Krafton writes, “Submerge me in God./ Hold me under./ Drown me in faith./ If left to myself,/ I’ll bob to the surface/ bake in the sun/ wither and crack”, while “The Buoyant Heart” concludes, “While sinking, I marvel at the breath-stealing beauty of your oceanic heart.//and so drenched, I drown/ my last breath a smile.

Other poems struggle with preordination and what may or may not be God’s will. For instance, “Natural Deception” describes a real-world gypsy moth infestation: “winged flutters to float on warm, dry breezes/ God’s handiwork, evidence of redemption/ How tempting to forget the creepies that destroyed our May” and concludes, “I cannot forgive reformed sinners/ nor am I deceived by delicate creatures of wing and flight// murderers pretending to be butterflies.” This lack of forgiveness also appears in “What’s for Dinner?” where serial killing and cannibalism appear to be a cheerful solution to adultery. The search for more positive solutions is derided. “One-Dimensional Despair” condemns living in the now as “depressingly limited” and those who seek enlightenment through self-help books are described as “hamsters on a wheel/ in a one-dimensional cage.” Although Krafton writes in her afterword that poetry is her guide through the darkness, there is little evidence of any light discovered along the journey.

The self-published collection misses the discerning eye of a careful editor. Some of the poems exhibit grammatical, spelling and line length issues that should have been caught. For instance, “Gaslight Fancies” uses the word “gentile” when the author probably means “genteel.” The margins are inadequate and some poems such as “Nuclear Winter” and “By the Side “are reminiscent of uncorrected journal entries. Krafton is a promising writer with a good ear and knowledge of form. She is at her best when her work is tightened by the constraints of form. This reviewer looks forward to further work that departs the graveyard to discover more meaningful human connection.

—Sandra J. Lindow

* * *

Ash Krafton’s Gothic collection includes a selection of dark, introspective, and potentially autobiographical poems divided into four Acts across its pages. Krafton explores such themes as faith, personal loss, and the transience of love utilizing almost entirely freeverse form, each poem often steeped in dark internal musings.

However, what the collection tries to do and what it manages to accomplish are two separate things. Unfortunately, many of the poems trade comprehensibility for a clutter of ideas that fail to have the intended impact. There are some evocative turns of phrase, but they are largely buried amidst less interesting verse. Take this example from “Undone Before Begun:”

Like a rough shove between the shoulders I am urged onward toward an unseen end.
Unseen but not undreamed:
this ungift-like gift of foresight makes me dread what is to come
and already I mourn for what has not yet been lost. My future has been stolen—

Many of the poems fail to ground themselves in something recognizable, the intricate language lacking crucial context. Often, it feels as if the poems are stretching themselves too far, as in the “ungift-like gift” line above.

Krafton seeks to place each poem in the Gothic genre, but largely fails. The Scent of His Feathers is a fractured mix of themes that never adhere into a coherent whole. Only a sparse few poems contain more speculative elements that the Gothic overtones throughout; and those mostly return to the same slightly tired themes. “Blue-Shift,” for example, a poem ostensibly about the parallels of differing light wavelengths and the distance between individuals, loses its way and ends with what feels like a moral, rather than an image:

Only a big bang could push aside this dark matter
The web that suspends our matter
Freeing us to become the blue shift
Our infinite souls long to be

Feathers is available digitally for $0.99 at the time of this review, so for any potential readers, there is not much risk in checking out it; but unless a potential reader highly enjoys introspective Gothic poetry, there’s likely not to be much reward either. Overall, the collection comes across as very personal and earnest on Krafton’s behalf, but of limited poetic merit.

—Alex Plummer

Zen of the Dead. Edited by Lester Smith.
2015, Popcorn Press. 204 pp. $9.95 print popcornpress.com, $2.99 digital drivethrufiction.com.

Every year since 2010, during the month of October with a release slated for on or shortly after Halloween, Lester Smith of Popcorn Press runs a Kickstarter campaign, which is more like a pre-order fest than a real campaign, for a new anthology of poetry and short fiction with a horror theme. This year's Zen of the Dead includes more fiction than previous years (23 flash and short stories vs. 89 poems). I'm sure the fiction is fun, but I'll focus on the poetry here.

In previous year's anthologies, the poetry tended toward the very short dwarf sized poems of haiku and other short short poems, which is really no surprise with titles like Cthulhu Haiku or Halloween Haiku. There are in this one, however, a few meaty mid-length and longer poems, which give the anthology a nice balance. I, personally, get more out of poetry, which straddles the cut-off from the short form category to the long form—around 50 lines—not too short, but also not too long, and this anthology has a good number of them. All in all, I really like this year's mix of length and form with fiction. There's also not much which I would call Hardcore Horror, but rather, much of it is tongue-in-cheek or downright humorous. Therefore it makes for a cold and dreary autumn evening's pleasant entertainment.

It's a delight to see so much poetry by many SFPA members in these anthologies. This volume includes work by F.J. Bergmann, Robert Borski, Josh Brown, James Dorr, Joshua Gage, Adele Gardner, Deborah P. Kolodji, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Christina Sng, David Lee Summers, Greer Woodard, and Stephanie M. Wytowich. I especially enjoyed Deborah P. Kolodji's work—for instance: in the fog / of all this gray …/ blood moon. F.J. Bergmann's “Eyes”, which many may remember from her Elgin Award-winning collection Out of the Black Forest, is especially evocative, and “On Abundance,” an acrostic poem in which she lures you in with nostalgia and then the creepiness accosts you in the last stanza with stunning imagery:

... ghost adrift
in a warm and tangible darkness
cradling a tangerine-slice moon.

I appreciated many of David Lee Summer's poems, which are mostly haiku: French Quarter at night / ghostly eyes / second floor window. And Greer Woodard's delightful list poem “Hell, as a Spa Experience:” Meditative Blasphemy Refreshers / Cloven Hoof Pedicures / Servile Minion Massage.

It was wonderful to read work by other, non-SFPA poets. I found the poetry of Michael Kriesel, Greg Schwartz, and Kelda Crich especially fresh and interesting.

“Yard Sale in Plainfield, Wisconsin” by Michael Kriesel

Coughing up words like pins on that brittle August lawn,
she tells me the rest like someone possessed

*

by Greg Schwartz

desert winds...
forgotten corpses rise
from the sands

*

“Under Hunter's Moon” by Kelda Crich

Dye the dark sky in colors.
They are storm, coming.

Jennifer Moore does a very good job of emulating the verse of several centuries ago, which adds to the gothic feel:

“A Dartmoor Ballad” by Jennifer Moore

In human guise the devil rode
With furious force and speed
And thund’rous tread, to shake the dead
Upon his fiendish steed.

I have always enjoyed these anthologies since I discovered them a few years ago. Since they are published around Halloween, they make excellent atmospheric reading for the season. But since they don't generally evoke Halloween overtly, you can really read them at any time of year for a good shiver.

—Diane Severson


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