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: 201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2016:

The Book of Robot by Ken Poyner
Barking Moose Press, 2016. 73 pp. $13 paperback. barkingmoosepress.com

This is a collection of 52 poems about robots. Most of the poems illustrate different aspects of how robots think and what they feel, what their “lives” are like and whether, indeed, they feel anything at all. The Book of Robot is organized more or less chronologically, from simple robots to those that are more sophisticated. None of these are like R Daneel Olivaw, from Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. None are unequivocally and demonstrably self-aware. Many of the poems concern how robots are treated, and their reactions to the ways humans treat them. The early, simple robots are capable of simulated emotion, at least in a superficial way. They know enough to seek understanding.

From “The Learning Machine”

those responsible for pest control
Are due by midmorning. I place this
Beside the constant of the neighbor’s
Rapping and the quickening breaths
Coming from the overly filled room upstairs.
Life is broader and wider than I had imagined.
Wait until I have enough experience,
Until I have housed endless stray, independent acts.
Then I will set my store of mathematics loose
And the life I can then extrapolate
Will fill this house like a balloon

A domestic robot programmed to learn expects to achieve understanding by the acquisition and analysis of data. We are not told anything about its data-analysis algorithms, but it sounds naïve. Even this primitive robot, though, sounds like a naïve person, not like a machine. These robots are talking to themselves, for the most part, they are not actively trying to fool humans into believing that they are self-aware. So we must take their thoughts as real thoughts, any emotions as real emotions. This is a problem, if Poyner is trying to take a hard-science approach to machine intelligence. If Poyner is taking a more mainstream approach, using robots as a vehicle for discussing the human condition, then this poem is right on track. But is it science fiction? Assume for the moment the former. More advanced robots can do a better job of simulating humanity, or at least of simulating intelligence, but are they self aware?

From “The Upgrade or Make-Do Dilemma”

With the warm spots in my memory
Better edged and direct access
Even faster, what more
Might I, myself, imagine a machine such as me doing;
What new sensual flare could I eloquently give
To our formerly seasoned, repetitive tasks? You would
Be pleased. I am sure of it.
You would be pleased.
Let me connect. Let me
Register for our enriched tomorrows. Already
I can feel the new code dripping
Bit by bit into me, through me: and I imagine
What your sinful word joy must point to,

Well, this is a more advanced machine. It certainly appears to be expressing human-like feelings. One could imagine a programmer creating software that would require a robot to use emotionally laden terminology without feeling real emotions. The desire for self-improvement could be programmed easily enough. Is the reader capable of distinguishing the self-aware machine from one that lacks awareness? Is this even the point?

from “Selling the Soul Chip”

It will quicken your clock
Qualitatively without doing so
Quantitatively. And, in just a few cycles,
Bathed in its stunning register displays
And consoling random reservations,
You will know the sum of what I recite:
Not just recognize, compartmentalize, and store, but
You will know.

Surely a robot susceptible to a con, and one capable of launching one, could be created without imbuing self-awareness. I could even imagine a robot capable of recognizing a con, a robot that can recognize a lie, doing this algorithmically. And maybe this is a point of the book: that recognizing self-awareness in robots would be just as hard as doing so in animals. We can recognize it in other people because we recognize it in ourselves, even though only Descartes’ first statement has the ring of unequivocal truth. It seems unlikely that I am the only self-aware human. It seems more likely that we are the only self-aware species. Robots? All bets are off. Is a sufficiently sophisticated set of algorithms indistinguishable from humanity?

At one level The Book of Robot is quite unsuccessful. Feelings come through in almost every poem. These robots are not simply machines, even when they claim to be. These robots cannot be demonstrated to be self-aware, even when they believe they are. But it seems that this is what The Book of Robot is really about. The robots represent all those people whose humanity is undervalued or ignored. Their concerns, which may be different from ours, nevertheless are just as real. And where do you draw the line? Your smartphone doesn’t feel pain, but Poyner’s robots appear to do so. Your pets, your food animals, they do too. Some of the robots struggle with their own consciousness, or at least with their own apparent consciousness. Penultimately, if this book is metaphor then it may not even be science fiction. However, at an important level, this book is extremely successful. Genre or not, it made me think, and I had a good time doing it. You should read it too.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel


Brief Encounters with My Third Eye:
Selected Short Poems 1975–2016
by Bruce Boston
Crystal Lake Publishing, 2016. 144 pp. $12.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle. crystallakepub.com

Bruce Boston is the first Grandmaster of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and of late he has been producing a series of masterworks exercising his muscles as the preeminent speculative poet in the world. In 2013 his book Dark Roads: Selected Long Poems 1970–2013 was published by Dark Renaissance. Earlier in 2016 the poetry novella Sacrificial Nights, written with Alessandro Manzetti, was published by Kipple Officina Libraria. And now, Brief Encounters is here, providing a masterwork focused on a third length for poetry. One can only imagine that poetry novels and tetralogies are on the horizon. The book is well produced by the publisher, and nicely illustrated at each section by Luke Spooner. The reader may need to adjust slightly to the fact that poems tumble over each other with the next one following the previous on the same page after two skipped lines. It is easy to imagine each section written down one long sheet of paper like the original scroll version of Kerouac’s On the Road.

Brief Encounters … is divided into sections by decade with the 1970s and 2010s getting modest representation, and the other three decades represented by enough work to make each their own poetry collection. Of course, part of the purpose of this sort of masterwork is to allow the reader to see the poet developing, and that definitely happens with this book.

Poetry can be a film clip or a still photo. It can be the scent of an orange, or the crisp immediate misdirection necessary to conjure emotions too subtle to have names that can found in a dictionary. The early poems are like that for me. The 1970s section opens with the light and elegant “Artist as Owl” and moves to the first of three longer poems about The Alchemist, works that explore the transmutation of emotions to words, as well as element to element. The 1980s section moves from the other Alchemist poems into the beginnings of the epic series of poems about the wives of monsters, supernatural beings, and other denizens of F/SF/H. The poems in the series are all formatted as “Curse of the _____’s Wife” and they are rich material. All forty to that date were collected into The Complete Accursed Wives in 2000, though a few new ones have appeared since along with a parallel series about accursed husbands.

Poetry can respect the walls of the individual, or invade the hero, the reader, the writer, the victim, or anyone else so unwise as to enter the poem. It seems to me that the poems for the 1990s go in this direction. Consider “Interior Monologue with Mirror” which opens:

The cartographer who dwells behind my eyes,
who maps the continents of desire and imagination
for the navigator who charts the course of dreams
and nightmares for the pilot who traverses
the landscapes of time and illusion

The invasion will be mapped and staffed, and recorded for posterity. From “My Wife Returns as She Would Have It”:

I am a fifty-six-year-old man suddenly
kneeling on the cement spilling out
his love and regrets to a lone insect
he hopes is a reincarnation of his wife.

Toward the end of the 1990s section a thread of recursive self-reflection rises. I feel that these lines from “Conditions of Sentient Life” might be one of the best descriptions of speculative poetry that I’ve read:

The soothing balm of dreams.
A share of nightmare terror.
[…] recycled from the stuff of stars.

“Curse of the Bandersnatch’s Wife” reflects back on Lewis Carroll. “The Poetry of Science Fiction” ends the section with a poem composed entirely of the titles of books and periodicals. Between those two poems, “Spacer’s Compass” charts out Boston’s personal journey through speculative poetry:

Old I grow … […]
and still I tramp the stellar routes […]
fixing no frame of reference
beyond the passage itself
adrift in the passages
yet to be taken

The section of the 2000s opens with “I Build Engines”, an extended metaphor poem in which the engines equate to Boston’s poems. Each stanza outlines a dangerous place that his engine/poem has taken readers.

Immediately after this poem, the section changes becoming a little more accessible, containing more concrete detail. While the significant majority of Boston’s poetry is narrative, at least in the sense of a sequence of related events moving through time, starting with the second poem of this section the poetry becomes more filmable. (Or more a possible subject for animation.) Part of this is the result of less use of the passive voice. While the passive voice is out of vogue, it is useful for creating distance, and can be quite poetic. Greater use of the active voice is usually the alternate option to the passive, but at times in this section the poet moves to the ‘would’ voice which may be underused on the whole. Examples of the ‘would’ voice can be found in the four poems (of at least 37 to see print so far) in the “_____ People” series including this from “Knife People”.

If knife people
were the world
it would be
full of holes
and torn curtains,
green harvests and
bloodied walls.

When you are sharp
you have to cut.

I should note that throughout Boston has moments of humor, that are sometimes easy to overlook as they can blend in. Consider this from “Relative Weights and Measures”:

My unconscious mind
proves too large
for the ten-gallon hat.

The brief section for the 2010s overtly moves toward the musical and the surreal with poems from Boston’s series exploring those elements. It ends with this lovely thought about speculative poetry readers that seems appropriate to close the review:

… those of a certain

mind and heart who listen
hard enough to hear it,
never completely sure

what kind of music it is,
yet convinced it is the
one they must dance to.

—Herb Kauderer

* * *

Brief Encounters with My Third Eye, the latest from Bruce Boston and Crystal Lake Publishing, is a comprehensive retrospective of Boston’s forty-plus-year career which began, coincidentally enough, in the mid-seventies. I say coincidentally because it was in the seventies that speculative poetry began coming into its own. A new generation of editors were suddenly interested in something more substantial than “filler” (something clever but not necessarily poetic at the end of a story or article to fill space on a page), and the end of the decade witnessed the founding of the Science Fiction Poetry Association and its literary appendage Star*Line, and speculative poetry’s highest honor, the Rhysling Award—an award Boston has won more than a few times—was founded at that time as well. A few years later The Magazine of Speculative Poetry was launched, and speculative poetry became a staple and not just a feature of genre publications. And after an evening with Brief Encounters one can easily understand why the name and work of Bruce Boston also became a staple of great genre publications during the past forty years.

Presenting selections from a veritable calvacade of print and web venues, the poems are grouped together by decade and elegantly complimented by an impressive set of illustrations from Luke Spooner. Even Boston’s earliest work (the seventies) demonstrate masterful use of imagery, concise and yet complete. Consider the following excerpt from “The Beast at Vespers”:

The moon is the rib of Adam,
and the night,
a woman grown around it.

Or the last lines of “Night Flight”:

All the clocks are melting.
I will search your back for wings.

What I noticed most readily about Boston’s work was the ku-like quality that each poem exudes, each a powerful narrative building to a moment of epiphany for the reader, that instant when one realizes reality has been dislodged, or one’s place in the real world has been dislocated. It is this particular quality, this ability to surprise with great subtlety that, in my opinion, separates the speculative from the contemporary, and Boston’s talent, even in the early stages, not only aided in separating speculative poetry, but perhaps even propelled its development. With the eighties and nineties we see Boston exploring science fiction themes more directly as opposed to only fantasy; poems such as “The FTL Addict Fixes,” “Beyond the Edge of Alien Desire,” or one of my favorites, “Old Robots Are the Worst” showed the poet’s willingness to explore new frontiers, as it were. Alive and thoughtful, these poems accomplish what all good poetry achieves: providing us a window into our very selves. “Old Robots” is especially touching, serving as a poignant reminder that no matter how technically advanced our creations become, they will always be imbrued with human fallibilities.

In the nineties Boston began exploring marriage and all of its cumbersome themes. Several poems of this era quite eloquently demonstrate that marriage can never be perfect or easy, not even for the wives of angels, bandersnatches, shape shifters, ghosts, body-thieves, and especially the poor science fiction writer’s wife! The last two decades have seen Boston’s poetry develop a maturity and depth few writers achieve. Poems like “The Dimensional Rush of Relative Primes”, “The Lateral Eclipse of Bound Sunsets” or “She Walks in Yellow to Please Her Lord” display a confident writer at work, someone in command of the language they use. Boston definitely operates in worlds and landscapes of his own spinning, finding the hidden nooks and crannies of the familiar and re-inventing the familiar with almost every line. Even with words that are not his, Boston can weave beautifully complex wordscapes.

One work that really stood out for me was the poem “The Poetry of Science Fiction” (from the nineties), which exquisitely orchestrates the titles of science fiction and fantasy stories as well as incorporating the names of popular sci-fi periodicals to produce an extremely entertaining piece that hints of things to come and dares us to “dream the last dangerous visions”—words that perhaps the speculative poets of tomorrow should take to heart (or consider a call to arms!). All of the poems included in this collection are driven by a strong narrative voice, a voice that really echoes in poems like “America Comes” or “I Build Engines”, a voice that really offers the reader no choice but to come along for the ride.

We all know that the beginnings of speculative poetry are as debatable as the question of when did science fiction begin? But we all also must admit how far the genre has come in the last half century. Boston was one of those early pioneers who helped to push the train out the station, and as a poet he has always executed his craft in a way that lends credibility to the very idea of speculative poetry. All in all, Brief Encounters with My Third Eye represents a faithful chronicle of the first half of what has already been a storied career as well as an appropriate lens with which to view the recent history and development of fantasy and science fiction poetry. Some of Boston’s newer work, such as his collaboration with Alessandro Manzetti, Sacrificial Nights, show that for Boston and the art of speculative poetry, the future is wide open.

Over a hundred and fifty pages (with over a dozen award winners!) Highly recommended.

—Daniel C. Smith


Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak by Stacey Balkun
Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2016. 29 pp. $7 paperback. staceybalkun.com/store/jackalope-girl-learns-to-speak-poetry-chapbook

“We Begin This Way” was the 2016 Dwarf Stars Award winner and now we have a whole collection of (generally) a bit longer poems by Stacey Balkun. They are linked poems about a jackalope-girl, born of an antelope-girl mother and rabbit-boy father. The Jackalope-girl grows up in an adoptive family (human) and little by little learns about herself and who she is. From “Jackalope-Girl's First Time”:

I drank coffee at a young age

to impress them. It stunted my growth, kept
My ears from stretching up, the whiskers
From sprouting across my cheeks.
from “Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak”

I was seventeen. I stopped shaving
my antlers, wore whatever I wanted

and hung out with the smokers
even though I didn't smoke. They liked me,

whiskers and all.…

These are snippets of a life full of estrangement and differentness. It is heartbreaking what she does to herself (and her parents do just trying to help her) to appear normal and how she goes through the typical teen-age self-discovery. She discovers others like her and is drawn to them and the Animal City. From “The Animal City (Reprise)”:

The animal city was a love poem

with no language barrier.
For a weekend at a time, we spoke
the words of the dirt threshold

There's a story in these poems if you read between the lines but you won't find any kind of ending, let alone a happy one. These poems are stark, beautifully written poems which will rend your heart if you have any empathy or you also ever felt a similar foreignness. They do not offer answers, but are like an opera aria in that they depict an emotion or feeling and animate it, explore it. As familiar as many of the Jackalope-Girl's problems are, Balkun successfully demonstrates just how strange she is. There's much that is foreign, that one can't understand as a human.

I recommend this to anyone looking for a new exploration of otherness and the feelings and situations that it elicits.

—Diane Severson


Late in the Day: Poems 2010–2014 by Ursula K. LeGuin
2016, PM Press. 86 pp. Hardcover $18.95.

Le Guin’s most recent collection of fifty poems is intended as a celebration of the human relationship with common things. Her poetry illuminates the reciprocity of relationship with everything: fellow creatures as well as trees, rivers, hills, and physical objects, such as spoons and earthenware pots, what Le Guin calls “non-living beings”. In a foreword entitled “Deep in Admiration,” Le Guin advocates for poetry that is truthful. She explains that “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from the inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe”. Some of the objects she describes are tools that have developed an independent spirit through human use, an animism that, although not clearly speculative, still reflects heavy influences of various mythologies. A small Indian pestle, for instance, has a “fine shape that fits and fills my hand, this weight that wants to fall and, falling sing”. Salt in a small bowl looks up with “little glittering eyes and says: I am the dry sea. Your blood tastes of me”.

On the whole these are gentle poems that offer a mature wisdom. A number of them reflect the meditative tone of Le Guin’s  experimental work, Always Coming Home, 1985, as she muses on the nature of passing time: “Time makes room/ for going and coming home/ and in time’s womb/begins all ending”. “My Story” elaborates on the hero tale: “He frees the fox, she puts the fledglings in the nest” but for Le Guin, at age eighty-seven there is always an undertone of approaching mortality: “the ants will sort out every poppyseed for them/ from the heap of sand before the fatal morning” … if I’ll only listen who the hero is/ and how to live happily ever after.” “The Old Mad Queen” posits an alternate history where the Queen if Spain imagines the love child she had with Christopher Columbus. “My Job” provides a mythological metaphor for inspiration in the writing life that speaks to all poets: “The boss who drives the shiny yellow car/ and those nine sisters up there by the spring/ are tough, but fair. There’s times/ you can’t get them to listen, / but they’ve always got their eye on you./ They don’t let botched work pass./ Sometimes the pay is terrible./ Sometimes it’s only fairy gold./ Then again sometimes the wages/ are beyond imagination and desire./ I am glad to have worked for this company.”

In her afterword, “Form, Free Verse, Free Form: Some Thoughts” Le Guin describes how her approach to poetry has changed throughout her life. After joining a writing group she discovered how a form in itself can give her a poem and that being given a poem is different than simply writing one: “When you use these forms you’re not entirely on your own. You’re an individual working within, as part of a community, within a consensus. so what you have to say is no longer totally and entirely up to you”. The constraints of rhyme and rhythm cause the poem to become “more than you intended or envisaged”. She concludes that writing a complex form like a villanelle “beats Solitaire all hollow”.

—Sandra J. Lindow


Lost Gardens of the Hakudo Maru [and other poems] by Ryu Ando
2016, a...p press. 58 pp. $5.50 paperback. afterthepause.com/a-p-press/

Some of the poems in this book include a fair number of Japanese words that I don't recognize. In many cases enough of the meaning can be gleaned from context to appreciate the poem anyway. In other cases, it seems that the poet speaks to the bilingual, or bicultural. It used to be common to require an understanding of French and/or Latin in order to appreciate English literature. But those languages are relatively easy for anglophones to learn. This is more of a challenge, probably requiring Google translate, or the like.

The author describes his work as difficult and unique, but lists peer recognition (awards) that it has received. This seems like an odd thing to say about oneself, really. Isn’t it something best left to the critics? I did find much of this book difficult, but only because it seemed in many cases that words were chosen for their sounds rather than their meanings.

From the title poem, for instance:

precision-geared think machines
Examining boxes of distraction
Fixated on marking our time and terroir;
Sheltering minds half-full of data,
Factotums and trivia, but holding
Neither knowledge nor the wisdom
Of the divine, we bob upon freezing
Waves, more detritus for the hungered
Vortex widening in time before us.

Intriguing juxtapositions of words, perhaps a nonrepresentational word picture, like an abstract painting. To me, these kinds of poems sound nice, but I struggle to extract meaning from them. This may very well be entirely down to me. I have trouble with nonrepresentational art too. I judge it according to whether it would make good wallpaper or wrapping paper, and I know that's not what one is supposed to do. All I can do is present this example. And hope that if you like this kind of poetry, you will recognize the value of this book to you from the example I have chosen. Here is another:

And the waves
That spiral around us,
—As we search for
Onogoro,
The first island rising—
Call for beginnings
As they hint of endings;
They open doorways,
Massive lintels
Passing through time

Also from the title poem, which is rather long. Unlike some long poems, including some that other SFPA members like, but which seem tedious to me, the long poems in this book hint at meanings that are just out of reach. Meanings that seem like they might develop, like photographic prints, upon rereading. And even if they never become clear, the poems are beautiful as well-crafted sequences of words.

My favorite part of this book was the last poem, “Descendants Of The Unbroken Energy (Modul 38_17),” which consists of a series of linked short poems, each about the length of a haiku. However, each stanza is a single phrase, in contrast to the two disjunct phrases of most haiku.

From the last poem:

38_02 | I’ve watched as our |
So-called | Immortals | Have
proved mortal,

38_03 | Subject to decay | And
dispersal | As the | Chasms |
Gaping before us

and

I’ve watched |
(As we sink

38_10 | Beneath the quiet seal |
Of the ocean’s still surfaces, | In
thrall to warped, entropic
forces)

These linked stanzas seem to express meanings that may be elusive (I chose examples that are not), but are beautifully displayed, as if they are verbal flowers (like many haiku), and they are wonderfully written. This is all that I ask of haiku and I think it is all that many people do: beauty, concision, and imagery.

Should you buy this book? I enjoyed it. As I have already admitted, a lot of it eluded my grasp. I suspect that part of this is because I don't understand Japanese culture or I fail to understand other things expressed in these poems. I strongly suspect that part of my failure to engulf the meaning of this book is that it doesn't always have one. Words are sounds and they are also elements of meaning. When one is writing poetry, there is a temptation to go for sound rather than meaning, and some succumb. I fear that this has happened to Ando more than once. However, I have the same thoughts on reading Rhysling-winning poems sometimes. Your mileage may vary.

—David C Kopaska-Merkel


Notes on the End of the World by Meghan Privitello
2016, Black Lawrence Press. 47 pp. Paperback, $8.95.
blacklawrence.com/notes-on-the-end-of-the-world

Notes on the End of the World is a post-apocalyptic book of poetry. It is divided into 20 sections, or “days,” each one working as an individual poem; however, the collective whole stands as a more complete experience. Privitello’s language is rich and dense, with a sprawling vocabulary that is sure to please the ears of all fans of poetry.

Privitello often takes a look at the way the apocalypse has affected the individual. In one day, she writes, “I sleep with a pistol between my legs so often/that any man would be a soft nuisance.” In another day, she writes, “I am part child / if I stay awake/to calculate the number / of balloons it takes/to lift a body / out of its grave.” Privitello uses the images of the post-apocalypse as a vehicle to explore her role in society as an individual and woman, creating rich metaphors that resonate with the readers.

Privitello also explores a societal consciousness in Notes on the End of the World. In one day, she writes “We can stand next to last year as if we were all people / in line waiting to send care packages to strangers.” In another, she confronts the banality of the post-apocalypse with the lines “Somehow, we’ve all been given the same fate, / which means our lives are ordinary.” She explores the ways in which the unnamed apocalypse affects people in society, whether its astronauts getting incinerated or circus performers making dust angels to attempt flight, and uses these as vehicles to get the reader to explore their own role as an individual in society and they way they commune with others in times of fear and crisis.

Notes on the End of the World is a really exciting book. Not only does it reveal that mainstream poetry publishers are willing to explore speculative material, but it also shows what can be done with speculative material in the right hands. The language in this book is rich and resonant, and tackles an overwhelming topic like the apocalypse in a way that is both tender but dryly cynical. There are no happy endings for Privitello, but there need not be. Readers are sure to be moved.

—Joshua Gage


Poems from the War by Robin Wyatt Dunn
2016, Popcorn Press popcornpress.com. 50 pp. Paperback $9.95.

Poems from the War is a series of texts written from the point of view of a post-apocalyptic survivor. The speaker also was part of the insurgency that began the revolution that brought about the destruction of society, so readers are given scenes from the war itself as well as after the war. It plays well into dystopian themes of speculative literature, but fails to connect as poetry.

Fans of speculative literature, especially dystopian or post-apocalyptic styles of fiction will thoroughly enjoy this book. There are lots of fun pop-culture references twisted in this revolution that modern-day readers will enjoy.

I wear Trump’s face over my own, a leathery mask of honor.
He grins while I squint into the haze, sighting the battery.

The mask summons the demon who must hear the burden of our tale.
Trump has moved from real estate, in life, to spirit-shaman in death, stretched taut over my cheekbones.

Like Nixon robbing a bank.
Trump guides my hand as I push the button and collapse the bridge.

Johnny shouts into the wind, still scanning for snipers,
And now I’m smiling too, right underneath Trump.

For fans of the blood-and-guts aspects of post-apocalyptic stories, there are also lots of blood-and-guts scenes. As a document of a future revolution and war, with all its politics, destruction and grisly corpses, this book delivers.

Fans of speculative poetry, however, will be left wanting. What this book has in content it loses in craft. Many of the sections read not like lines of poetry but like prose sentences. Sometimes they’re separated into line breaks, but more often than not, they’re left on their own. While this is not a problem in and of itself, the lack of the other hallmarks of poetry (meter, innovative language, metaphor, simile, etc.) lead to a very prosaic style of writing:

It’s war and revolution!
It’s chemical fusion!
It’s the extrusion of my will into yours…

Made in the finest factories,
Polished lovingly by hardworking lasses,
Scrubbed clean and shipped expediently to the front
Dustbuster in your living room,
Gleaming!

Occasionally, Dunn is able to work in a tight metaphor or an interesting piece of personification, but these instances are rare.

Overall, Poems from the War is an interesting collection. If readers are looking for a short, post-apocalypse war story with dystopian filigree, then they are in the right place. If readers are looking for the nuanced, rich language of poetry, they may be disappointed. It’s an uneven collection, but capable of entertaining if one doesn’t set their sights too high.

—Joshua Gage


Quick Bright Things: Poems of Fantasy and Myth by P.S. Cottier
Picaro Poets Press, 2016. 28 pp. An imprint of Ginninderra Press, P.O. Box 3461, Port Adelaide, Australia 5015. ginninderrapress.com.au

P.S. Cottier’s slender chapbook of nineteen fantastic poems is like an elegant carriage ride through a department store of social criticism. The tone clip-clops down a slope elevated by the language Victorian fairy-lore poetry, a craze once typified by Palmer Cox’s “The Brownies Ride,” which first appeared in 1883 in St. Nicholas Magazine. Cox went on to write thirteen Brownie books and created a lucrative sideline of dolls, toys and games as well as a stage play.

Cottier, however, combines similar ornate language with a hard, sarcastic 21st-century edge that may well have shocked the gentle-mannered Cox. For instance, the first poem “The music of fairly tales” begins “It strokes in like a stray tress / blown by breeze from warmer climes” but immediately warns “Screen out the constant hum of radio, / pluck out parasitic ear pods that infect / like a virus” implying how the electronic age has damaged human ability to connect with the magical. The next poem depicts garden gnomes “striking” … “turning nasty” and attacking plastic lawn flamingos. Another begins with a rewrite of the “Laws of Cricket” for the Fairy World but then wanders into the psychosexual weird, similar to Christina Rossetti’s fairy tale retellings, when rule infringements result in the severing of an offending hand which will then “float into the ether, waving farewell” and

be cold as a witch’s tit after she is sliced up by the
woodsman who mistook her for a ravening wolf, that
same long clawed grin of a wolf who ate the little
pinafored and aproned crimson girl who carried
marshmallow and gingerbread in her modest yet
surprisingly spacious basket.

Many poems evoke a genteel horror. Shellacked finger nails revert, grow legs and “secrete eggs which … bury themselves in the woman’s skin” metaphors like “imagination to burn” are taken literally, and a poem that begins by comparing the writing of a poem with the work of a carpenter concludes in gallows humor: “you are writing scarlet verse/ on the page of your only death… / And … / What flying duck is an awl?

Although Cottier is a native of Australia, you will recognize some of these poems from their publication in Star*Line and Dwarf Stars. Readers who love this quirky work—and many will—can find more of her on her blog, pscottier.com, where she offers a new poem each Tuesday. Her poem for Nov. 8, 2016, seems to provide a not-so-secret summary of her literary approach: “She plants sarcasm / in a weedy succulent garden / where such thin green tongues / poke like wee prickly dragons.” Yes, indeed, this is an author to watch.

—Sandra J. Lindow


The Role of Lightning in Evolution by David Clink.
KQP (an imprint of Chizine Publications). 92 pp. $17.99 US, $19.99 Canadian. amazon.com/Lightning-Evolution-David-Livingstone-Clink/dp/1771484012

David Clink finished in third place in the 2015 Rhysling long poem category, and in third place for the 2015 Elgin Award for best Chapbook. He also finished in third place for 2014 Dwarf Stars Award, won the 2013 Aurora Award for Best Poem/Song, and finished second in the 2007 Asimov’s Reader’s Poll. I don’t have the time and patience to count all his genre poetry award nominations. You get the point.

The Role of Lightning… is Clink’s fourth full-length collection, and the package is pleasing, printed in a small 5" x 7" perfect bound volume. The book contains 51 poems in six sections. I note that there are glitches between the contents pages and the contents placement. Most of the poems are speculative, but not all. For example, “Surviving a Canadian Poem” is delightful, but not speculative. But it does provide the opportunity to point out that Clink often writes in a more literary vein, which is reflected in the credits which list prior publications in prestigious literary journals such as The Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, and The Dalhousie Review.

Clink once wrote that “poetry is about the beginning & end of things—with the poet in the middle” (from “The Rutabaga Poet,” which is not in this collection). Some of Clink’s best work is when he puts a classic trope from the speculative genre into the middle of the verse, and looks forward and back from there. For example, the award-winning “A Sea Monster Tells His Story” opens the book. The titular sea monster is beached and humans are trying to save it while it tells of its life before and after. I find the ending of the poem devastating. Another example is “Tin Man” which opens section IV. A sample reads:

Every one you ever loved is dead.
For a tin man, there is no life after this one.

Your world changed when a girl approached with an oil can.
If your lips could have formed one word, it would have been
no.

“Skinchanger”, “Roc”, and “The Lady in White” are other fine examples of this sort of poem.

Another place where Clink’s poems excel is when he puts the reader into the poem, using “we” and “our” and often writing in the second person. Consider the title of the poem “Mr. Sandman and the Tooth Fairy on the Morning of Your Death”. “In Defence of Science” opens with:

When grief comes to you as Piltdown Man
a 100-year-old scientific hoax
[...]
I put out the usual place setting for him
and we share a meal.

The prose poem “A Natural History of Snow” includes:

You need to follow the giants’ tracks in the deepening snow, catch up to them, tell them there is still magic in the world, there is still love. You want to walk among the wrecks, tell the sailors they are not forgotten. You must find the rest of that alien insect whose fixed eyes cast a light on all that is solemn, unforgiving, and to try to free it, and if that is not possible, stay with it till the end, make it understand it will not die alone.

“Séance”, “Rock Candy”, and “At the Temporal Café” are other strong examples.

It should not be overlooked that while Clink often writes seriously and with power, he also embraces fun and is sometimes flat-out funny. “Sixteen Colours” tells of an alternate world where they lack subtlety in colors while “Short Forms” is a world where they use “no initials, no contractions, no abbreviations.”

In the end, this is a rich and powerful collection from one of the powerhouses of the field. I expect to see it mentioned come Elgin Award nomination time.

—Herb Kauderer


Sacrificial Nights by Bruce Boston & Alessandro Manzetti.
Kipple Officina Libraria [Italy], 123 pp. kipple.it

Sacrificial Nights contains poems by each of the authors separately and some in collaboration. Most of the poems are long, and they are set in Sacrificial City, a hardcore lawless urban district. The poems build, and some characters reappear from poem to poem. The poems are meant to be read in order, but I would recommend not in one sitting so that the darkness doesn’t overwhelm. There will come a point somewhere after the middle of the book where it will be hard to stop reading. Make sure you have your breath when you get there.

While I expect this book to be nominated for the Stoker and some of the poems to receive consideration for the Rhysling, it is, more than anything, noir, right down to the detective who fears his doom. There are places where fantastical things are implied, but they are generally not nailed down leaving this in the liminal spaces of speculative poetry. I am sure the whole book qualifies as horror. I leave the question of how much of the book qualifies as speculative to those who care to tease out the subtle differences.

I consider this a book of poetry noir, and nothing could be more natural. Noir is an unusual literary movement in that it came from cinema rather than the written word, and this book certainly relates back to that origin. Sacrificial Nights would make a helluva noir film full of strong images and actions. But the funny thing is, one of the hallmarks of noir film and noir fiction is its inherent poetry, the poetry of the mean streets, and a dark poetry of fatalism, betrayal, and a morality far more brutal than anything discussed in clean suburban sermons. Perhaps books such as this are its final destination.

Some of the poetry is straightforward such as this from “Requiem in a Taxi”:

The driver turns to her,
his face like that of her father,
lord of whiskey and punches,
buried now three years
in a loose blue suit.

Some is more figurative such as this excerpt from “Deep in His Coma”:

the head of the future
hissing from a manhole
with the language of a snake,

This book is really one story of dangerous streets with many characters: hookers, serial killers, arsonists, hookers, pimps, strippers, hookers, thieves, and psychopaths. There are some graphically violent moments, but the poetry doesn’t dwell on the horrific scenes. It expresses then and steps away leaving the reader to fill in as much or as little detail as she wishes.

There has been much critical discussion through the years of the difference between horror and terror with the first being a physical threat and the latter psychological. I believe there needs to be a similar division in noir between that which dwells in the physical pain and darkness, and that which dwells in the psychological darkness and fear. In the first the worst happens, and then is exceeded. In the second the anticipation of evil, corruption, and betrayal is worse, and the awful reality is almost a relief. Call the first the ‘blacker outside’ school and the key component is that the reality is worse than you ever dreamed. Call the second the ‘blacker inside’ school and its essence is that stewing while waiting for evil to triumph is worse than the arrival of evil.

If Frank Miller had told this story there would have been more pages full of dramatic lighting and devoted to showing the physical pain and real dangers. Boston and Manzetti take it in a different direction sometimes merely implying the real loss and blackness, worrying about the subjective anticipation more than the excesses of some modern noir. This is not to say that the poets avoid the darkest shadows of humanity. Make no mistake: people will die in these poems and you will see it and smell it and feel it.

Noir is always about those who embrace evil, those who succumb to evil, those who attempt to sidestep it, and those lucky few that manage to survive it and find their own space. It celebrates the imperfection of what is wrong in humanity; that the darkness is awful but unable to sweep everyone into its shadow. In “Awakening” the authors write:

He visions the city in flames
and knows he must leave
before it incinerates in the
furnace of its own corruption.

The book is designed to introduce the characters and events that will lead up to “Conflagration” which can be seen as eighteen pages of transcendent crescendo in which darkness reaches its event horizon and bursts into flame consuming most of itself, but leaving enough behind for the evil to take root again.

By and large, those readers who like this sort of thing (and I’m one) have a clear idea of what this book is about by now. I consider it exceptional. I could pick a few nits. For example, one early poem and one late stanza are in a different and conflicting verb tense. I eventually just converted them in my head into the verb tense of the rest of the book. But does that really matter?

In the end, as I drive to work I’ll be thinking of Sandoval the detective, and China and Jean-Paul, and maybe visiting them again in the evening. The poem “The Great Unknown” was brilliant end to end over seven full pages. The sustained tension, interest, and fascination of this book amazes to me. Coincidentally, my collection of genre poetry books sits across the tops of two bookcases that hold my noir books. Sacrificial Nights will reside in the bookcase, not on top.

—Herb Kauderer


Somehow We Remain in the Aftermath by Sara Krueger
2016, Finishing Line Press finishinglinepress.com. ~30 pp. Paperback $14.49.

Sara Krueger, who studied film in Chicago, is a young writer with several publishing credits to her name, mostly poetry and screenwriting. This is her first collection. It's a brief series of linked poems which tell the story of a post-apocalyptic world where humans become robots in an effort to survive.

This book will be published in March and the pre-sales will determine the size of the print run as is this publisher's wont. There will be original color art in the interior and the cover is great—robots or suited people slogging through a green polluted river with nuclear power stacks and factory smoke stacks in the background black against a red smokey sky.

The poems are arranged in roughly 3 sections of 3 or 4 poems, each beginning with a poem entitled “Story Keepers,” “Story Seekers,” “Story Tellers,” and “Story Makers” finishing out the collection. It tells the story of various women living on an earth which has been destroyed by pollution and/or climate change or natural disaster. It's not clear what exactly has happened, but it is definitely not safe for humans to live in the open. In the first section we follow one of the last flesh people and how this person becomes a robot:

And there it is blooming.
Sweet smell of rotting sick
like pineapple syrup from a can,
with an undertone of aluminum.
A flavor note
appearing right when the brochure said it would.

from “Becoming Robot”

Perhaps it's because the person is going to renounce body and emotions, but it feels a little flat. The next section is dedicated to 3 different people just trying to survive. It is dire in this world and Krueger lets us feel it a bit more.

I reach the city,
sprouting up in columns,
rising exclamations of what was.
I run a rubbered hand
along a welted metal girder
and I can almost hear them
from the burnt-out shop windows.

from “Knocking”

The third sections tells of a woman who becomes a mother among people who have retreated underground. These were the most powerful poems for me, perhaps because I am also a mother and couldn't imagine these circumstances.

We try to bet at
when they’ll breed and birth.
When they might be ready to remember
and crawl out of their hidey-holes—
own what we’ve protected

from “Story Tellers”

This collection is a fine beginning for a promising writer. I did want more, though. At times I found it a little bland and distant, not packing as many punches as you would think. But perhaps that's due to my reading it before bed. The second and third readings helped. However, I was left wanting to know more about how the world got this way, if these were various glimpses of possibility or if this was a coherent future Krueger created. At any rate, I wished the collection was longer, but will settle for reading more of them in the future in the hope that things get fleshed out.

—Diane Severson


Straight Away the Emptied World by Leah Umansky, 2016 (
Kattywompus Press, 20pp. $12 print. kattywompuspress.com

Leah Umansky's chapbook is presented as dystopian poetry, but it's not your typical wasteland post-apocalyptic setting, but rather the dystopia that is within (the center of the self is a star. / (Aren't all stars dead?). And thus, because the focus is inward and not outward, the poetry is rather self-aware. It's interesting because I read in an interview with Umansky in Luna Luna Magazine (lunalunamagazine.com/blog/leah-umanksy) that her motivation for many of these poems stems from dissatisfaction “with being a single woman in the 21st century.” She wanted to write “poems that took place in an imagined future as a way to just explore the mechanism of hope.” Interesting because this comes through pretty clearly in her poetry; this juxtaposition of frustration, dissatisfaction and longing with and hope and wonder, and yet, I wouldn't say that the poems come across as particularly feminine or woman-oriented. I think they can be read just as easily by anyone and retain their relevance.

Umansky's expression is original, at least to me, I haven't read anything like it before. It often seems stream-of-consciousness, but disjointed, like we are left un-privy to bits of the stream, or it stems from a consciousness which flits from one thing to another. The effect is not jarring in a negative sense, but brings you up short with the wonder of the juxtaposition. She has an interesting way of combining words to create a new, startlingly specific image: “wonder-felt,” “poured-truth,” “keen-spike,” “frothy-tusks,” “Not-Earth,” and “steeled-beauty” just for a few. The imagery is, in fact, very vivid as a result. There is a playfulness a liveliness in Umansky's lines, but it is never trite. This is a dystopia after all. She makes interesting use of space in her poems with line breaks, indentation and spaces. Sometimes a single word is placed between 2 or 3 lines of poetry, which give the reader a pause to absorb and digest, or the opposite propeling the reader to the next bit.

If you are looking for something interesting and different, with a literary flavor, you will enjoy this brief collection.

—Diane Severson


Violet Hours by Jeanie Tomasko
2016, Taraxia Press taraxiapress.com. 35 pp. Handsewn paperback $13.

Jeanie Tomasko’s Violet Hours is a children’s book for adults. The faintly Victorian title suggests quiet evenings spent watching fireflies from the front porch, but Tomasko opens us to an alternate world where violet is “the face after poison,” fireflies are dismembered for parts, and deceased aunts return at teatime. The twenty-two poems and short prose pieces provide vignettes from the life of Violet, a little girl who was conceived on a night “when everything went wrong,” and grows up with a curiosity for both the anatomical and the macabre.

The tone is representative of the many politically correct children’s books such as Ian Falconer’s Olivia series, but the content is distinctly more Edward Gorey than anything commonly read in an elementary classroom. The poems shift slyly from valentines and piñatas to bodily parts, fluids and functions. For instance, the prose poem “Paper Dolls” begins with the comfortable Hallmarkish revelation “Violet loves paper dolls,” but then slides into undainty descriptions of how Violet’s dolls are made with human hair and insect parts. It concludes by describing a ’50s diorama complete with kitchen chrome, bathroom Valium and a “man leaving the house, his drab leather briefcase made from a large scab Violet saved from her leg.”

Tomasko remembers what it is like to be a child. She has a knack for interesting, unexplained details such as “Heart-shaped stains on the porcelain sink” and creepy open-ended endings where the reader is left to imagine what unsettling event comes next. In the end, it’s hard to tell whether Violet is a proto-Nobel laureate or murderer, but that’s part of the appeal of this delightful book.

—Sandra J. Lindow


What Strange Miracles by James Brush
White Knuckle Press, Chapbook #37, 2016) 14 pp. Free online at: whiteknucklepress.com/#!brush/tzszf

James Brush is the editor of Gnarled Oak, an online literary journal that occasionally includes speculative poems. He is also a prolific micropoet and blogs on an extensive author website at coyotemercury.com.

Like the other books in the White Knuckle Press series, the book consists of ten prose poems of less than a hundred words each, and in this case, thematically linked by the sea. The book was released in June, and is not marketed as speculative poetry, though other books in the series may also qualify as speculative such as the three books by SFPA member Robin Wyatt Dunn.

Some poems are obviously speculative such as “Thrown to Sea (I)” with images such as, “The ocean spits out plastic: faded, thin, but whole. The great-grandchildren of those who threw it in retrieve the relics, invent stories and religions for their ancestors…” Others are deliciously nebulous about whether or not they are speculative. “She wondered if horses knew about fish. Did equine visionaries imagine them and call it sci-fi?” (from “Beginner’s Mind).

Portions of poems are highly lucid, while other portions step out into surrealism. An example is the poem “The Difference Engine”. “Extinctionism” and “Summoning” step into the sideyard of horror. “The World Is a Magnet” steps toward science fiction with its opening lines, “Compasses pull toward the heart, the pole star. This is understood in the robot impulses of beetles.”

I believe the nature of prose poems is that they are more dependent on the rhythm of the sentence than other kinds of verse. Brush masters this. The movement from poem to poem is just enough to permit new variations on the rhythms; but overall the poems speak with one voice.

In the end the book creates a dislocation and altered world view, as some of the best poetry does. In under a thousand words it looks at the world through the eyes of generations, handles myth-making in a hands-on way, and makes the endurance of plastic an unintended heirloom.

Given the brevity of the collection, its accomplishments are impressive.

—Herb Kauderer


Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek by Timons Esaias
2016 Concrete Wolf Louis Award Series. 145 pp. $15. concretewolf.com/contests/2015-Louis.htm

Timons Esaias is no stranger to the speculative poetry community having won the Asimov’s Readers Award (2005), been a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, and having been nominated for the Rhysling Award five times, finishing third in 1997. His poem “Regarding the Mastodons” just won the 2016 SFPA poetry contest Short Form category.

In Why Elephants …, Esaias has assembled a fine book of poems rich in mystery and dislocation, elements generally appreciated in speculative poetry. This book is a masterwork that won the 2015 Louis Award. By my highly subjective count, about fifty pages are clearly speculative, and another fifteen pages are somewhere in between spec and non-spec. The book is organized into four sections, and to a lesser degree the content is organized by topic with large sections on baseball, food, or the elements of poetry. Some series of poems such as “All the Important People” and the elephant poems are spread throughout.

Esaias understands that poetry, like most intoxicants, is highly habituating. It needs to be changed up to keep the good brain chemicals coming. While themes may be gathered at times, styles and levels of poetry are distributed. Given that Esaias labels himself a satirist, satire becomes a recurrent flavor of poetry. Other times pragmatism. Esaias often walks into a place I might call “science realism” to parallel “magic realism.” For example, “Supplementary” takes overly literal interpretations to the names of some elements such as recommending supplements of thorium for those “who hammer all day long” and suggesting “suppressing Californium—for reasons that need not be enumerated.”

Esaias is well-read in history and blends it into his poetry both in detail, such as the outstanding title poem, and in atmosphere such as “Nudge” which is a form-letter designed to query a submission status, but written for use in ancient Rome, and translated to English for our use. In a sense, the historical is an overriding motif, with a cover type font in a calligraphic style, and a marvelous faux woodcut illustration.

Esais also steps away from here and now in other ways such as “Awkward Stage” which is a classified ad for a young man looking for an “attentive tutelary deity; whom oak trees must be sacred to.” “A Fire on Ganymede” starts with the things you can’t do on Ganymede and somehow moves to the Buddha’s opinions on fire and smoke. Perception is altered in “Six Leaves on Shaded Elm,” where the elms become “Faëry castle to the bee” and eventually “Babel of insects.”

If the poems referred to above sound interesting, you may want to read this book. But be forewarned that it is diverse. There are clusters of many different kinds of poetry here. I find that to be a good thing, but if you like to flock your verse by similarity of feathers, (such as preferring all poetry in a collection be speculative) this might not be a good fit. Otherwise it probably will be.

—Herb Kauderer


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