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: 20202019201820172016201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2021:

Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley.
(Aqueduct Press, 2021). 178 pp. $18 paperback, $7.95 e-book. aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-197-1.php

Ursula K. Le Guin, who died in January 2018 at the age of 88, is best known for her speculative fiction, including the Earthsea books. She was also a prolific poet, penning a total of nine volumes of poetry.

Aqueduct Press’s Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin was released in Janaury 2021 as a tribute to Le Guin’s work. The book contains two main components: first, sixty-plus poems that pertain in some way to Le Guin’s work or themes she commonly explored, and second, an analytical section that provides an overview of Le Guin’s poetry as well as a critical analysis of each of Le Guin’s nine poetry collections.

The volume is edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, and includes contributions from poets in the United States and Canada, as well as Greece, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, Uruguay, the UK, and Australia.

Roughly one-fifth of the poems were previously published in venues including Uppagus, Mythic Delirium, and Shoreline of Infinity, leaving the majority as new works.

Out of all of Le Guin’s writing, I’m most conversant with the Earthsea chronicles, though I also read The Dispossessed in my university days. Within this collection, I found those poems that in some way addressed universal themes or the Le Guin works I was familiar with the most appealing. That being said, the majority of the poems were universal enough to connect to in some way, even if I didn’t fully appreciate their significance vis-à-vis Le Guin’s works.

Some of the poems, like “Dear Ursula” by Edmond Y. Chang and “Where Are You?” by Jo Walton, are addressed to Ursula. In “Dear Ursula,” for example, Chang notes:

A book of yours told me mountains when I was ten.
Decades later it reminds me of promises made,
Then and today, that words are more than their sums,
That the map of the earth is sea and sky and change.

Other poems touch upon the impact Le Guin’s work had on the poet themselves. Mary Soon Lee, in “On Reading Le Guin,” notes that it has been

Years since I last sailed
the islands of Earthsea,
but everything’s the same:
the swift hawk’s flight,
that brightness on the water,
the fire the dragons woke in me.

Soon Lee notes that though the stories have remained the same, she herself has changed. And yet, reading the books still feels like “coming home,” a sentiment I could identify with.

In “Couch Burning,” Tania Pryputniewicz remembers

hours reading the LeGuin book the parents argued over
behind closed door, then to my face, then gave in,
in which the he doubles as a she in certain seasons to lie
with a lover, something warm to cling to…

Some of the poems deal with issues of aging and grief, themes that Le Guin visited in her own poetry. One such is Lyta Gold’s “Journey,” which notes

Grief keeps its own timetable.
You never know when it’s arriving
or departing, leaving behind
a socketed emptiness, a space
where the sea wind breathes
in, out
the harsh music of the gulls.

Catherine Rockwood, in “There Must Be Darkness,” notes

I have been on that train too
in the continual absence of other passengers
as it halts and rattles through sprawling tessellated cities
toward conjunctions arrived at far too late.

Many of the poems address themes or locales favored by Le Guin: nature, forests, Earthsea, dragons, and the like. Among my favorite works was “Cat’s Canticle” by David Sklar, which begins:

If you speak I will not answer,
if you call I will not come,
if you throw things at my shadow
I will nail them to your thumb.

Also noteworthy was Linden K. McMahon’s “Speculative Fiction,” which contains the lines:

I want there to be a space commune
named Le Guin. It will be on Earth.
We will tell each other stories at night.
We will believe what we say.
The white rhinos will come back
and rampage through London
putting their horns through car windows
and bellowing songs of triumph.

The contributed poems take up almost two-thirds of the book. The closing pages include poet and editor bios and previous publication information for the 13 poems listed as reprints. The remainder of the book contains R. B. Lemberg’s analysis of Le Guin’s poetry. Le Guin started penning poetry well before she dove into fiction, although it is the latter for which she is more famous. Lemberg notes that the subject matter for Le Guin’s poetry differs, for the most part, from her prose: “Readers unfamiliar with Le Guin’s poetry often assume that it is speculative, but those who expect science fiction brilliance from Le Guin’s poetry will be disappointed. Speculative poetry is not front and center in her poetic repertoire, and science fiction poems are quite rare in her work.” Where speculative elements do creep into Le Guin’s poems, it’s mainly in the form of fairy tale and mythic retellings.

Lemberg provides a brief critical analysis of each of Le Guin’s nine poetry collections in turn, starting with Wild Angels, first published in 1975, and ending with So Far So Good, which came out in 2018. This analysis, which includes brief poetic excerpts, provides the reader with a flavor for which of Le Guin’s volumes they might personally find most of interest, should they wish to delve into them.

—Lisa Timpf


The Last Robot and Other Science Fiction Poems by Jane Yolen
(Shoreline of Infinity, 2021) 39 pp. £5.25 chapbook, $2.99 Kindle.
shorelineofinfinity.com/product/the-last-robot/

The universe itself is a poem. / No mistaking it for prose.” Grand Master Jane Yolen’s 399th book, with evocative cover illustration by Emily Simeoni, and introduction by Jo Walton, offers 28 sparkling and sparking science fictional poems, divided into four sections: “Planet Earth,” “Outer Space,” “Aliens & Robots” and “The Robot Suite,” providing thought-provoking content that moves from universal creation to robot sex, and finally to an apparently pastoral, postapocalyptic end-times.

Throughout, Yolen deftly combines contemporary science with politics, mythology, and everyday life, creating images that strike a deep memetic chord. The book aptly begins with “Light,” blending biblical mythology and particle physics, then takes an unexpected turn: “A word but not a word / sound but not a sound/ a puff of air, a hiss of breath / a shift of molecules / before there were molecules. // A star born before it has a name, / a garden planted with nouns / green not yet a color and yet / surely a color, pushing up / through what will one day be called / Ground Zero.”

Warnings of environmental destruction often mark crossroads where history meets SF, meets fantasy, meets mythology: Wildfires large enough to be seen from space create a place “Travelers from distant planets […] now avoid.” “We make furrows on this planet / deep wounds with iron/ the fairies warned about. / The world bleeds green/then rust” (19), and “Ashes to Pluto” ends with a prayer: “Forgive us our sins young earth / as we prepare to plunder your hearth.

Yolen’s social awareness becomes a beacon to deeper consideration of our own prejudices. “The Last Robot” parallels robots with slave and migrant workers. It concludes: “Lynched by history, / rotting by roadsides, / hated by fellow workers/ and owners alike. / They never truly died. // They just cluttered the landscape / with their irony / and their iron bones/ a testament to their steadiness / and the world’s bigotry.”

Most of these poems have been selected from Yolen’s blog, where she offers a poem a day that can be read via Mailchimp, at eepurl.com/bs28ab. A video filmed on Yolen’s 82nd birthday introduces the collection, offers a brief interview, and allows readers to hear some of The Last Robot’s poems in Yolen’s voice.

Highly recommended. This is SF poetry at its very best.

—Sandra J. Lindow


Million-Year Elegies by Ada Hoffmann
(2021). 76 pp. Paperback $14.99.
amazon.com/Million-Year-Elegies-Ada-Hoffmann/dp/B08W7SQGB7

In her debut poetry collection Million-Year Elegies, Ada Hoffmann offers 45 poems focussing on dinosaurs, while at the same time touching upon evolution and humans’ place in the world. Five of the poems have been previously published in Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s. The remainder appear for the first time.

The 76-page book is arranged in three main sections, “The Age of Monsters,” “The Age of Reptiles,” and “The Age of Mammals.” A prologue and epilogue tie the book together nicely.

Each poem is titled with the name of a dinosaur, and deals mainly with that particular creature or matters related to it. Some, like “Brontosaurus” and “Tyrannosaurus” were familiar names; others, like “Blattodea” and “Scleractinia,” less so.

Some poems are told first-person, while others are written as though addressed to the title creature. Still others are framed in third-person viewpoint. This variability does not detract from the overall harmony of the collection. Rather, it keeps the subject matter from becoming stale, and allows Hoffmann to create different moods in different pieces.

Poems like “Proterosuchus” provide an image of what the world might have been like in ancient times:

The world was burned, dead, and rotten,
again. The fabulous beasts
that you draw in your books,
horns and crests, plates and spines,
had not been born. These were the days
of swamp and desert, empty days.
Nothing much lived: nothing you
would call interesting.
Just teeth. Just hungry throats.
Just us.

Musings about paleontologists and paleontology pop up in several poems. Some refer directly to specific scientists, like O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope, who became bitter rivals. Others reference the challenge in deducing what a particular creature might have looked like, based on the sometimes-cryptic clues that have survived the ravages of time. In “Iguanadon,” for example:

…they worked at you from scraps,
puzzling over a thighbone, a knee-joint,
a thumb. Placing the bones this way and that,
revising their own earnest creation
from the almost
nothing left of the past.

In “Plesiadapis,” Hoffmann notes:

There is a missing chapter here.
So the man of science thinks,
squinting at the fossils
and scratching his nose.

The poems evoke a variety of moods. A number of the pieces are matter-of-fact, providing descriptive imagery. Others are ironic, contemplative, fanciful, or even wistful, as in these lines from “Baluchitherium”:

I want to look out my bedroom window
and watch massive beasts on promenade.
I want to see the earth as it was,
or as I imagine it was:
a peaceful congregation of giants.

“Hallucigenia” provides a colorful look at evolution:

…body plans found and discarded
as life slips the cage of single cells,
looks left and right, grins at its freedom,
gets out the brightest biomolecular Lego bricks
and plays.

Poems like “Epilogue: Mememto Mori” wax philosophical:

Who will come after us? After the bombs,
the floods, the meteors, the simple march
of generations. One day, a mind will look back
which is not our own
and cannot fathom us.

Hoffmann contemplates life’s paradoxical duality—its fragility, and at the same time, its capacity for endurance. “Prologue: The Late Heavy Bombardment” advises:

Listen. This world is a breakable bone,
a fragile crate in a sea of ice and flame,
and wondrous creatures cling to its edges.
This world has burned and ended, burned and ended,
more times than you know

Despite what we as humans have done, and might yet do, to our planet, the poem “Ursus” provides hope: “… the earth / below you, poisoned and shaking, / softly smiles. She knows this cycle; / has seen it before.” In the end, “Epilogue: Memento Mori” reminds us, “Life knows how to hide / in the rocks, the swamps, to be small/and rebuild.

Million-Year Elegies whisks us through millennia of time, and makes us like it, providing food for thought along the way. Well worth a look.

—Lisa Timpf


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