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.

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For books published in 2019:

The Ambassador Takes One for the Team by David C. Kopaska-Merkel. Art by Allen Koszowski. Introduction by F. J. Bergmann.
(Diminuendo Press, 2019) 70pp. Paperback $7; $10 signed, from author. amazon.com/Ambassador-Takes-One-Team/dp/1936021633

I want to offer a short disclaimer, but first I want to say this book has some of the strongest work I’ve seen from David Kopaska-Merkel, and even the weaker poems are still readable.

Let me get a couple of things out of the way. David C. Kopaska-Merkel is one of the people who helped create the space we’re writing in. I’m not sure if a lot of people in this field know the debt they owe him. Both as a writer and an editor of the long-running Dreams and Nightmares, he has been one of the prominent figures of Spec Po since the ’80s and rightfully awarded Grand Master a few years ago. That we have a broad genre to work in is a result of the work of those such as DKM who have tilled in this field for a long time.

I should also say that David was a great encourager to me when I got started in this field. As I made my transition from literary poetry to genre, for some reason I had it in mind I should first have a poem in Dreams and Nightmares. I sent him many poems. He sent back little encouragements. Finally, he took one! Yay! This was about ten years ago.
His new book, with the subtitle of Poems of loss, alienation, and hope, is more ambitious than I’ve seen him do in a while. Some poems are exquisite, and even the weak ones are pretty readable in that standard, old-school spec-po, full-of-tropes way.

Listen to the music in this opening line of “Charity of the Gods”: “Their young rise up from the ground in sleep.” Isn’t that perfect? The near-iambic grandeur! And all its implications and unanswered questions! Ominous and beautiful.

Their young rise up from the ground in sleep,
tiny and perfect, pushing aside stones
and the roots of trees, cracking pavement,
toppling statuary and light poles,
rubbling foundations,
squalling at their emersion,
just like human babes from their mothers’ wombs.

One of the main things in spec po, or most po, is to very quickly get the exposition out of the way and pique the reader’s curiosity. In our genre, we have the extra burden of quickly making it believable, which we do with mundane details, such as he did in the above stanza.

In “Crossing Over,” he starts it this way:

Vines mantle graves
behind fences of rust,
bindweed flowers their only decoration;
their only visitors rustle in the leaves.

which I think is lovely, and then he slowly reveals the subject of the poem, a vampire who survived humanity’s extinction.

With each passing moon
he grows paler,
more translucent, less real,

until finally he

… will be a ghost
of his ghostly self,
then, nothing at all,
and the new Lord of the Crossroads
will not know his name.

These poems do what I like most in spec po. They condense a narrative into a few stanzas, like a compressed SF movie. At their best, they have a dreamy kind of ontology with the words emerging from a kind of background music.

There’s a lot of God talk in these poems, in maybe 15–20% of them. DKM lets it out reluctantly, and with gobs of irony. In “Some God Had to Be the Real McCoy,” about a world where a natural pipe organ grew and a natural god played it once, he writes

but soon as we cleaned its pipes
reality began to fray; belief can do that:
folk
screamed
and ran,
hadrons boiled
to quarks, then quarks to
nothing; had the cosmos last thoughts
they’d be something like “Beat me with a holy organ …”

This example shows his proclivity for actual science, and also the tendency to end a poem with a punchline. I should mention, some people resist the road to Damascus, but this snappy punchline ending was a mainstay in this field for decades. It brings conclusion to a poem the same way a joke brings an emotionally difficult conversation to an end. This kind of structure filled Asimov’s for forty years, until an offhand remark by Mike Allen in his blog prodded them to get a trained poetry editor. I think sometimes the joke is a dodge, but it does remain readable, even enjoyable.

Partly with DKM, the joke is often a mix of emotion: the profound mingles with farce. There’s a heartache there. As somebody said in a movie, Eez that not like life? It’s a way of stating the grandeur of our brokenness, using the protective strength of irony.

My personal aesthetic ideal is to make beautiful poems with a trope structure, oozing with philosophical implications; to entertain the reader with an enjoyable B-movie that leaves them moved and thinking. DKM’s work overlaps my predilection. Listen to this from “Hard Row,” “This winter the bones of gods” / … “frost-heave the jagged field” Oh my! I love the beauty of that! And then later, as the speaker is addressing his God, he calls the inspiration “ultramundane” and mentions they were “warned to not give ear, /… to any crawling thing.

DKM ends the poem with this:

now grace’s a fleeting dream,
life a cup of sorrows,
till the harvestman counts your coup.

Please, I find it just beautiful. This is some of David’s strongest work that I can remember. Even if a large part of it is old school, dripping with tropes, it’s still all enjoyable, and some of it is exquisite. With each poem, we see the work of a master in this field. The book also includes a generous helping of beautiful art by Allen Koszowski, a mainstay, many of the pictures dating from 1970s and ’80s.

—John Philip Johnson


The Black King of Kalfour by Robin Wyatt Dunn.
(John Ott, 2019) 189pp. Paperback $16; ebook $4.
amazon.com/Black-King-Kalfour-Robin-Wyatt-ebook/dp/B07K5H1CJY

Like the fellow said, no one can accuse Robin Wyatt Dunn of being lazy. He writes a lot, and puts a lot of words together into books. This book came out in 2019, and he’s had three more since then.

Self-described as a novella, the prose is loose and disorganized, with short, sketchy chapters, qualities I think that some might call lyric, and so it came into our hands to review.

It’s about a guy who has been kidnapped into the dream dimension by aliens who have taken over the earth, and who is trying to find his wife. That dream dimension business allows for Dunn’s imagination to go everywhere. In the first few pages, the narrator shows up as a straw-doll effigy, then as a wolf in a pack. Think Pickle Rick without the humor.

That loose quality of the prose also has a reckless quality to it. Here’s a sample paragraph from chapter 8:

    Who centers my gravity a stone under your long hereafter, my darling; is it you?
    What metal face shunted under the star glowing right underneath my faceplate knows me; knows me again?

Okay, some cool aspects, but dense, hard to read. This is writing that makes you commit but doesn’t necessarily promise anything in return. Here’re the next few lines following that paragraph:

    Is it like last time?
    Wolf or soldier of fortune; flesh or spirit.
    Is it my flesh or is it my spirit? Is it my balls or is it my balls of fire?
    Under the sun; inside my Neomachean maze; under your lips.

As a reader, I just don’t have any stake in finding out if it’s his balls or his balls of fire. Not that it matters, because I don’t think that comes up again. It was just a quick gesture, something cool to say.

You could say we’re of different schools. Take away the free association, the showiness, the indifference to holding a narrative line, I don’t see he has much interest in a relationship to his readers. He says early on that “storytellers are torturers,” and in chapter 13 he writes:

     Well, I’ve been away a long time. I’m sorry. Coming back isn’t easy; you know that. All the changes that have come, the biggest one being in me.
     We’re working on the canal through the city; digging, and digging, and digging. Los Angeles, with already one Venice, plans to become many.
     That the Pacific will not pacify the population is obvious; but they do try.
     One is tempted to arrive at meanings, to assume and then assign the meaning to what has occurred, and describe the events in the light of
this assumption, so as to create a story that will be easy.
     Easy stories, like easy women, aren’t ever really what interested me.

And that’s the point. He’s making it hard, not easy to read, and he doesn’t give a damn if you like it or not.

—John Philip Johnson


Black From the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing, eds. Stephanie Andrea Allen & Lauren Cherelle
(BLF Press, 2019) 244pp. Paperback $19.95; Kindle $12.19
amazon.com/Black-Future-Collection-Speculative-Writing/dp/0578502135

Stephanie Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle have released this weird and wondrous, futuristic and fantastical powerhouse anthology into the world, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Inspired by Alondra Nelson’s essays and writings on Afrofuturism, these poems (and fiction) are all written by emerging and established black women that push the boundaries of the speculative genre (and even abolish them in the wonderful case of Radha X Riley’s poems). However, Black from the Future still invokes the ancestors and creatives with each unique poem.

The title itself alludes to the popular 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” by Mark Dery, which I formally declare to be speculative fiction canon. Other poems remind me of Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer emotion picture album, and River Solomon and Daveed Diggs’ The Deep, among others. The gorgeous cover, designed by Lauren Curry, is in a category all by itself—a deity-like figure swaddled in the stars, or perhaps exuding them.

Don’t get too comfortable, though—these poems are not limited to the typical shackles of Earth—they’re heading to the year 3000, but taking the collective memories of unwilling martyrs with them. Even the poems bound to the Anthropocene escape typical white-black binaries that plague racial allegories. You’ll also notice that there’s no lengthy intro or explanation of what “Afrofuturism” or Black speculative writing is—the anthology dives right in and allows the works to speak, or rather, sing for themselves. And some poems truly sound like songs, as in the case of Radha X Riley’s cyborg stream-of-consciousness piece, “Cyborg Chix Din Da Da”: “Cyborg Womanism, 10th Wave Feminism, Technology turn on the foe”. There’s a rhythm, groove, and playfulness to her poems that is contagious—I wanted to tap out the rhythms and meter for myself just to feel closer to her work. In her second poem: “Cyborg Chix Drop it Down Low”, the Cyborg Chix have found enlightenment through dancing for themselves, and are “Serving you truth after centuries of / Solitudes.”

Riley’s poems are more than just rhythmic shouts of jubilee—they’re a reclamation of cyborg bodies as sentient beings aware of their erased history, and a warning against those who did that erasing. She challenges the system best in her final lines: “So what you gonna do/When your property turns on you?” If you lack rhythm you’ll find it here, but if you’re in search of something darker, Vernita Hall’s poems allude to and eviscerate familiar villains of climate change and silver-tongued creatures that go bump in the night (they’re either fuckboys or vampires, or both). Her narration style is quite straightforward—there are unambiguous villains, but her free verse shines best when they deliver unexpected lines of resistance: “Let the holy mackerels cough— / and watch a shrimp hurl a Molotov”.

Resistance also takes place through healing, as in Stefani Cox’s narrative sequence poem, “Therapies for World’s End,” which follows the journey of an ailing woman in a dystopian setting.

What is a healer?
Is she the one who cures, who holds the stamina for life and dispenses it forthwith?
Is she a sanctuary, a container for pain?

At the end of this world, all that is left are healers and those waiting to be healed—broken people and the ones who have not yet learned that they are broken. This is the most traditional verse form of the poems, but breaks free of expectations with its raw self-reflection, sorrow, and universal truths among black women: healing will not come from the master’s tools, but from invoking the ancestors, as in “The Conjurer’s New Gospel” by Kristian Astre, where she praises the power and sexuality of an unnamed goddess:

there were no rubies, no emeralds, no gems
Just the pulsing of her sacred sovereignty
Midnight medicine thicker than molasses

These poems look to the future with a healthy balance of optimism and pessimism, but invoke nameless, familiar ancestors and deities lost to time and unforgiving oceans. I particularly enjoyed the imagery of “Sirens” by Destine Carrington, which details haunting images of sirens stirring among the still lakes and ponds of plantations. The sorrowful pauses make space for readers to imagine the shrill screams of stranded sirens, and the cruel men who put them there.

Overall, Black from the Future is a confident reminder that Black speculative fiction is more than racism in space, or afro puffs in space (though we’d love to see more of the latter)—it’s sorrow songs of sirens in abandoned wells in Destine Carrington’s “Sirens”, Massas smoking weed and watching Hulu in their parlors while cyborgs reclaim their bodies in Radha X Riley’s “Cyborg Chix” duo, and little creatures subverting the food chain in Vernita Hall’s poems.

It’s resistance thinly veiled in gorgeous, passionate poetry. And among these memorable phrases is the unmistakable strength and weariness of black women. These poems bear their souls for better futures, and deliver a jubilant message of healing amid the world’s decay.

—Maya C. James


Cacophony by Josh Medsker
(Alien Buddha Press, 2019) 123pp. Paperback $11.11
amazon.com/Cacophony-Josh-Medsker/dp/168635441X

The 108 pages of poetry include a copious amount of black-and-white art (53 internal drawings) by Aaron Morgan, who captures well the bizarro style poetry. Some of them I imagine are like an acid trip, others thoroughly engaged with the absurd, in fact, the theater of the absurd. Others chant like an incantation/invocation which seems to be influenced by contemporary rock-n-roll or silly songs. The author does speak of the influence of a 1988 album by Rudimentary Peni—a British anarchist punk band. The book’s title is adopted from the album title. There is also a measure of irony and satire, which I consider as elevated forms of humor. But the collection is also largely influenced by Lovecraft—his themes and biographical elements. It is often dark, ominous, schizophrenic. The blurb on the back of the book by a Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi, echoes Medsker’s tribute to Lovecraft, who further says of Medsker’s work, “his scintillating, impressionistic poems throw off an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of images—by turns chilling, poignant, and grimly ironic.” I concur. Enjoy this strange and stimulating work.

—John C. Mannone


Coronations by Catherine Kyle
(Ghost City Press, 2019) 19pp. Free at:
ghostcitypress.com/2019-summer-microchap-series-1/coronations

There is a long tradition of using fairy tale personas in poetry. There have been many anthologies and journals dedicated to this very niche genre, so it is difficult for a poet to find a new entry point into this area. Not only does a poet have to take standard images (some might even say cliché) and imbue them with fresh energy, they also have to move beyond the typical interpretations and offer fresh themes for the tales. This is exactly what Catherine Kyle does in her recent chapbook Coronations.

Kyle is a poignant craftswoman when it comes to poetry. Her imagery is vibrant and fresh, and the vehicles rich and resonant. Readers are told that Hansel and Gretel faced an oven that was “a lion’s jaw yawning suns of autumn,” and that the young woman in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin faces a lake as bright “as a slick knife under the coin-round moon.” The language is luscious and dense, so that even though this is a small chapbook of a mere fourteen poems, readers are left fully sated after completing it.

Furthermore, Kyle is able to inject new life into these tales with modern retellings and adaptations. These are clearly 20th-century interpretations of the classic tales. Kyle invokes “nylon” and “The Cure” and shaking a mirror “like an 8-ball” to allow readers to see the characters in these poems as modern people. Kyle then develops these tales further by altering the plots, breaking the characters out of their shackles and giving them an autonomy and independence not normally seen in these stories. The Little Mermaid, for example, is no longer a love-struck victim who suffers a spiritual death, but is a seductress in the deep tradition of female sea creatures, and maintains an intense power over the other person in the poem.

What makes this collection even more enticing is the cost. As part of the Ghost City Press Summer Series, this virtual microchapbook is FREE to download. Normally, I’d be concerned about the length as a reader, as chapbooks run anywhere between $5-20, and I want to get my money’s worth. However, in the case of Coronations, readers literally have nothing to lose by diving deep into this suite of poems and enjoying them fully.

Coronations by Catherine Kyle is a rich microchapbook of fairy tale retellings. It’s a bit short, but for the price, completely worth pursuing. Kyle’s language is gorgeous, and her reinterpretations of these tales provides a modern spin on classic stories. Any reader of speculative poetry, or poetry in general, will enjoy this collection immensely.

—Joshua Gage


The Gates of Never by Deborah L. Davitt
(Finishing Line Press, 2019) 89pp. Paperback $19.99.
finishinglinepress.com/product/the-gates-of-never-by-deborah-l-davitt/

Deborah L. Davitt’s speculative poetry collection The Gates of Never explores a variety of settings, from myth and magic to science and space. The range of themes is no surprise given the author’s background. Davitt obtained a Master’s degree in English with a focus on Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which accounts for her a familiarity with myth and legend. In addition to teaching writing courses, Davitt also worked for around 20 years as a technical writer, engaging with such subject matter as computer hardware and software, nuclear submarines, and NASA’s return to space.

In a featured interview on Colleen Anderson’s Women in Horror blog series, Davitt notes, “I very rarely go for abstruse in my writing… my goal in everything I write is clarity and precision.” The poems included in The Gates of Never bear out this assertion. Though I didn’t necessary get all of the allusions, particularly in the sections dealing with myth and legend, the poems themselves were easy enough to understand. That isn’t to say that they are lacking in poetic flair. Davitt demonstrates that it is possible to be both straightforward and lyrical.

In the interview on Anderson’s blog, Davitt notes that she gave careful consideration to the structure of the collection, opting to group her poems thematically rather than offering a mish-mash of topics jumbled together:

I started with my more mythological and folkloric work, the historical faces of evil, or at least of indifference, the monsters out of the past. Then I moved through the fairy tale retellings, and then into the futuristic and scientific stuff–much of which connects back to the mythic as well.

Building on the collection’s title, The Gates of Never, the book’s five sections are headed “The Gate of Sandstone,” “The Gate of Marble,” “The Gate of Wood,” “The Gate of Steel,” and “The Gate of Stars.” While the first four sections each contain between eight and ten poems, the final one includes 26. Since the final section included many of the poems I found the most enjoyable, I didn’t mind that it was the largest.

Davitt’s poems touch on birth and rebirth, just desserts, sacrifice, and other matters. Some are erotic, some contain irony, and some, like “Vegetative State,” are unsettling. Many include striking turns of phrase. In “The Stone Garden,” for example, “carbuncle/tulips purse like an old woman’s frown.” (p. 52) “Diaspora” includes the lines “when we left Earth, it was a / dandelion diaspora, / a hundred thousand ships departing/the central sphere at once…” (p. 60) “Postcard from Callisto” includes the lines, “Look up: Io’s belching sulfur again— / droplets flung across the void.” (p. 70)

There is also humor, both in the situations portrayed, and the words used. “For Sale” describes a “shadow auction,” a sale of otherworldly denizens, while in “The Reliquary,” the speaker muses “Passing through customs / isn’t easy even without / carrying a lead-lined casket.” (p. 17) The ending of “Once Human” merges past and present with sly humor.

In addition to creating strange new worlds, the poems invite us to look within the human psyche. “Fairest” (p. 41) includes the lines:

But still the magic fades.

And people don’t wish for its return. They
reason, Better a gray world, with heat and
food, than to risk what the gods might ask in
futures that we do not wish to foretell.

“Haunted” reminds us that “Each of us contains / the mortal remains / of ancestors ten thousand years gone,” (p. 65), while “A Mask of Ice” observes that “It’s a part captives learn to play: / we only boil inside, / awaiting the chance to flee.” (p. 71)

Among my favorite poems were “The Sea-Wolf of Brittany,” and “Storm Miners.” The latter poem provides an imaginative look at a future in which the crew of the Nimbus Lea hauls in a harvest of diamonds from Saturn’s skies. This poem blends imagery, imagination, and a surprise ending to good effect.

The Gates of Never includes 62 of Davitt’s poems. Roughly two-thirds of the works in this collection have been previously published in venues such as Polu Texni, Liquid Imagination, Liminality, Star*Line, and Spirit’s Tincture. All told, Davitt has seen close to 200 of her poems published, with works appearing in more than 50 venues. Her poems have received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations. Taking the enjoyable and imaginative The Gates of Never as a sample of Davitt’s work, it’s easy to see the reason for this success.

—Lisa Timpf

References: Colleen Anderson’s blog: “Women in Horror: Deborah Davitt.” February 25, 2020, colleenanderson.wordpress.com/2020/02/25/women-in-horror-deborah-davitt/


goodwill galaxy hunting by LeRoy Gorman
(Urban Farmhouse Press Crossroads Poetry Series, 2019) 78pp. Paperback $9.35.
amazon.com/dp/1988214254

LeRoy Gorman, the winner of the 2017 Dwarf Stars Award from the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association for his one-liner haiku:

aster than the speed of lightf

is a master of “scifaiku,” sometimes known as “science fiction haiku” or “speculative haiku. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his new book, goodwill galaxy hunting. In addition to tanka and visual poems, his scifaiku sparkle throughout the 62 pages of poetry.

Scifaiku is much harder to write effectively than it appears. Many would-be scifaiku poets fall into several pitfalls, all of which Gorman deftly avoids. First, there needs to be a sense of focus otherwise the reader may get lost. Gorman’s scifaiku are focused and clear unless he is being deliberately vague for effect.

a star
it’s only
light years

time portal wedding
an exchange
of nows

A second pitfall of writing scifaiku is to set the haiku in a place so alien that there is no way to relate. An author has created a world in his/her mind and we aren’t privy to that world. Gorman avoids this by mostly sticking to places/themes we already recognize – Mars, the moon, time travel, etc.

Mars hangover
morning’s a blinding
blue stop sign

This one is even better if you know that sunrise/sunset on Mars is blue.

all you can eat
for nothing
the hologram buffet

Finally, the final challenge of writing a good scifaiku is to make it relevant. We may read a haiku about a creature on a newly discovered planet but what does that mean to us? This is where Gorman really shines, many of his scifaiku laden with a sense of humor.

late summer cold
the gardeners of Mars
have gone to seed

Jupiter spring
so many moons
but no place for love

time travel dating
a rejected lover
never leaves

Travel the pages of Gorman’s universe and you will discover more about yourself and your own universe. I can’t recommend this book enough.

—Deborah P Kolodji


Interviews from the Last Days by Christina Loraine.
(Atmosphere Press, 2019). 99pp. Paperback $16.00.

No one reads science fiction anymore,
except you.

I first encountered Christina Loraine’s work while editing Eye to the Telescope 25 on the theme of garbage. Her Rhysling-nominated poem “Tree Builder,” included in that issue, is included in this collection as the narrative of an artist.

On a planet that suffers from two suns above and an overly pragmatic culture below, Christina Loraine’s Interviews from the Last Days focuses on a journalist’s interviews as a record of people before their world dies. From “Prelude [The Journalist]”:

These interviews
may be all that remain
snippets of words: the aftermath of souls,
pieces of the whole—
DIY collection of the truth

This approach gives the poetry a context and wide berth to describe her so-foreign and simultaneously frighteningly familiar world of war, work, political intrigue, and an underlying mysticism.

The characters interviewed range from an astrophysicist to a miner, a janitor to a tailor, a preacher to a soldier. Throughout the narratives there are hints at this society, as in “Sun Gypsy [The Musician]”:

Childhood was plain
monotonous
androgynous
rules
restrictions—
. . . I had to get out

This is a perhaps no different from many childhoods, just as in “Prelude”:

Mostly, no one listens
no one hears
turn a blind ear
there’s no protest
no upheavals,
look around you—
rebels
are few

could describe the complacency in much of modern society despite
all the horrific and threatening things we know go on around us or
wait around the corner. Just as in “Finding Time [The Astrophysicist]”

You want more time.
Sure,
we all do

is a simple phrase until you factor in the every real and pressing deadline apocalypse at 5:55, the “Zenith of Time.” It is easy to slip between worlds in these poems, one where the apocalypse is on the calendar and ours where the climate apocalypse is all but on the calendar.

Loraine uses short, occasionally one-word lines with frequent scattered rhyme and alliteration. The rhymes occasionally give the narrative a singsong quality, which might enhance the work when read aloud. It served instead to distract me sometimes from the content of the poems.

In “Infantry, Forget About Me [The Soldier]” and “Classified Catastrophe [The Farmer],” Loraine utilizes the narrative arc to shift the tone, using more colloquialisms than in the other poems. This made me wonder how the rest of the collection might have felt if there was more variation in the voices.

The layout is clean and the poems, which, except for two, run multiple pages each, are easy on the eyes. There’s a fun flipbook-style illustration on the bottom of each page, a nod to the other side of Loraine’s artistic life as a painter.

Overall, the collection is conceptually engaging and I look forward to seeing more from Loraine in the future.

—John Reinhart


The Planets by Wendy Van Camp
(2019) 82pp. $9.99 paperback; $4.99 ebook.
amazon.com/Planets-scifaiku-poetry-collection/dp/1700527266

Wendy Van Camp always had an interest in poetry but did not consider herself to be a poet for many years. One day, she happened on a scifaiku writing workshop at a local science fiction convention. In the workshop, she wrote her first science fiction themed haiku and the first poem she had written since high school. The poem sold immediately. She wrote more. As she began to attend open-mic readings for her poems and teach how to write scifaiku in workshops of her own, Wendy has come to realize that she is indeed a poet… in spite of herself. Her collection of scifaiku is The Planets.

The Planets is an attempt to explore our solar system in scifaiku. It’s very much science poetry, and while there’s little actual science fiction in the book, there is a lot of science history and fact to prop up these poems. The book struggles, however, to work for me as poetry in that the poems often read as mere descriptions of the planets.

The Planets is a book steeped in science and science history. It is obvious that Van Camp has a solid knowledge of planetary science and space exploration history. For example, the poem “Canals” from the Mars section reads:

mistaken translation
Italian canali creates hope
of Martian life

It’s a basic summation of the discoveries of Secchi and Schiaparelli and the resulting theories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Another poem, titled “Jupiter Storm” from the Jupiter section refers to the Cassini-Huygen’s Research Mission:

great red spot dances
first red then shifting to white
Cassini's fading legacy

The science is prevalent throughout this book, and the poems themselves work as micro-descriptions of major events in planetary history and the exploration of our solar system.

While the poems in this collection are predominantly science based, there is some science fiction in this book, too. A lot of it has to do with colonizing other planets and moons. For example, the poem “Titan” from the Saturn section reads:

your deep canyons hold
rivers of hydrocarbons
will we plant our flag?

While forward thinking and speculative, it’s not as science fictional as some others. In “Venus Ascending,” mankind has made its way to Venus and is populating the planet with

floating cities:
airship city floats
above toxic clouds
mysterious Venus

While there are fewer science fiction poems in this collection than science and history poems, science fiction readers will not be disappointed. My main issue with the collection is Van Camp's definition and execution of scifaiku. Scientific knowledge and history are deep and rich here, but the poems themselves are often merely descriptions in three lines, and do not create emotion for the reader. While a bold venture, The Planets will disappoint scifaiku purists.

—Joshua Gage


Space Saving Device by Cardinal Cox,.
(Starburker Publications, 2019). Saddle-stitched, digest-sized, first edition of 100.

The latest in a long series of science fiction and fantasy pamphlets from Starburker Publications.

Like its predecessors, this pamphlet is available to anyone who sends a self-addressed envelope to 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB, United Kingdom, or who emails cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk. The pamphlet is available “while supplies last” and if you want it, I would not delay.

Space Saving Device is particularly appealing. Many of the poems do a very good job of bringing out some important aspect of space, its exploration, or humanity. They are well written, pleasing to the linguistic palate, and will send a chill down your spine. From “Cosmonought”:

Orbit was a zero
Launched before Gagarin
Test pilot – name erased
No open-top Zil parade
Eye’s pupil infinite

Some of the poems are about our attempts so far to explore space and to make it ours. Humans strive to achieve great things, which reveals both the good and the bad about us. From “Graves of Giants”:

two things
amongst the wreckage
1) somewhere there is a
race far in advance of us
2) somewhere there is
another race capable
of swatting them

Other poems focus on the future of space exploration. What will we find and what will we do about it? These are concise works with powerful insights about our kind of people. We don’t learn anything about aliens in this pamphlet, but where do we really learn that, outside of science? And probably not very much even there.

The pamphlet does have a theme, which has something to do with the importance of the universe and something else to do with what people do with or think about the universe. Themes and I often don’t get along very well, and I don’t think it is very important in this case. The poems are good. That is enough for me.

Most of the poems appearing in this pamphlet originally appeared in Pablo Lennis.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel


Such Luck by Sara Backer.
(Flowstone Press, 2019) 56pp. Paper $13.00.

As a fan of Sara Backer’s work, I’m pleased to say that her enticing new collection does not disappoint! Her cover choice is a Tarot card relating to the Ace of Cups. A medieval page holds a chalice with a fish rising from the wine as if telling a story or giving advice. It contains elements of her poems in a collage of styles of that era, similar to Gentile Da Fabriano, Master Bertram, Fra Angelico, and Jan van Eyk.

“Luck” and “Such” are separate sections for a purpose, arranging the “Lucks” as the poet’s more personal revelations and “Suches” as odd poems, not so personal. In short, experience in LUCK, observation in SUCH.

With this very first poem below, you’re seduced. I’m not giving away how it’s carried to a close, but the next thing you know, you’re on page 56, the last poem in the collection. And wanting more!

Long ago on the edge of Vienna and lost,
I walk off the map into an alley of street vendors
squatting on tablecloths beside strange treasure;
Ebony snakes carved as bracelets, silver coins strung
as necklaces, lace scarves, intricately
painted eggs, tiny porcelain elephants.
I want
everything. I can’t
choose.
(from “Now’s the Time”)

“The Death Jar” tells of a child’s disconcerting discovery that the beauty of a Japanese beetle matches that of the rose it destroys, and the question why such a creature must be killed to ensure that another beauty may thrive.

“Such Luck” links to the cover with a glimpse of the poet’s single-girl life in California. “I drank in bed. The more/ I drank, the larger my glass grew. I waded surf with cabernet/in hand and yearned for love. Until I sipped and found a fish.” The poem continues with a surreal conversation and a most satisfying ending. If ever you’ve been lonely for a lover that never showed, it may well have been for the best.

Sometimes I found myself thinking, “I relate to this, and the way she’s framed it blows me away!” Such was my reaction to “The Menu at the Bridge.” Herein, a man hikes into the hinterland in winter and is caught in a blizzard. He thinks he’s been rescued, but then “three pale men dressed in bones trudged toward him.” Don’t miss the rest!

Buy it, thank me later!

—Marge Simon


Zen Amen: A Collection of Abecedarians by Michael Kriesel.
(Pebblebrook Press, 2019). 97pp. Paperback $15.00.

Michael Kriesel’s 2019 abecedarian poetry collection, Zen Amen, is a remarkable example of how poetry can embody mythology and metaphysics. The abecedarian form with consecutive lines following the alphabet sequentially forward or backward works well in a meditative poetic process that blends storytelling and stream-of-consciousness reflection. The seventy-three abecedarians (thirty-four single and thirty-nine double) were all written in an eighteen-month period between 2006 and 2008. Double abecedarians have an alphabetic sequence of letters or sounds at the ends of lines as well as the beginnings. The title, which is, in itself, alphabetic, works to establish form and content. Amen means “so be it” or “yes” while Zen Buddhism is a spiritual practice of inquiry and great doubt. It wars with the unquestioned acceptance required of other religions and is dependent on meditation and considerable self-control. Kriesel’s iconoclastic inquiry satirizes historical religious belief while employing common religious tropes. “A Modern Grimoire” begins with a heretical prayer:

Astral gnome of doom, protect us.
Balance in all things. As above, so below.
Chant daily. Chant each morning. Chant when bored, or driving.
Demons surround us.

It concludes:

X is the true cross of man,
yet be not deceived by the
zombie Christ. None return from the dead.

and yet, despite the rejection of the religious trappings, a core of humanistic spirituality eschews nihilism, finding meaning and purpose in the circle of life. The eponymous poem, “Zen Amen,” is a reverse abecedarian that begins:

Zen. Zero. Zilch awaits all afterlives.
Yet somehow we can’t imagine nothing.
X marks the spot. X must equal something.

but later:

Laugh if you want. It’s good for the soul—though
killed, hope resurrects like dandelions.

“Heaven’s Nail” promises a kind of reflected holiness through creative process:

Just creating recreates the first act.
In the beginning, God’s a carpenter.
Heaven’s nail is driven through descending
globes grown denser until at last matter
finally carries Heaven’s spark in it.
Even river stones have light inside them.

Although most of these poems were published in nongenre markets, these poems are clearly speculative, intrusion fantasies where jackalopes are real, UFOs appear and plunge into the sea to save us; Yahweh and Zoroaster cross swords; Zeno lectures; Seneca belches, and downtown, the hanged man swings “like a traffic light above First and Main.” “Christ comes back in work boots” and a drunken Odin falls in the fire. In Zen Amen it is always Twilight of the Gods, Ragnarok around the clock, a noir ramble through the tenderloin of the cosmic library’s mythology section, dusky, dirty, always just about raining, no god or goddess worth the energy of belief. Lovecraft intrudes; so do Darth Vader and Bugs Bunny. Wizards use xylophones “to raise storms in new age stores,” and Kriesel’s well-read, gender-fluid persona ponders the meaning of life and death via popular culture. Sexual expression is a matter of the past, consciously discarded in favor of monastic reflection, but human connection remains. Military buddies keep in touch, and in a small elementary school near Wausau, Wisconsin, a gentle janitor finds meaning in cleaning. This remarkable book is worth reading and rereading.

—Sandra J. Lindow


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