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: 2019201820172016201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2020:

Android Girl: And Other Sentient Speculations by Michael H. Hanson
(Three Ravens Publishing, 2020). 133 pp. Paperback $7.99.

The striking cover art (Pete Linforth/Pixabay) of Android Girl: And Other Sentient Speculations [A Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy Poems] is representative of cyber cultures that parallel the human race.

This hefty 133-page collection (7 chapters) of which at least are 112 pages of poetry in an 8 x 5 format, is physically appealing. The quality of the product from Three Ravens Publishing is noteworthy: the feel of the matte finish, the attractive layout, decent margins, as well as the page texture and color, and the kind-to-the-eyes font, all are earmarks of a professional job.

Of Hanson’s work, Angela Yuriko Smith (Space & Time) says in the Introduction, “Like an android, this collection balances humanity and machine with an adequate dose of horror.” Beyond this, and what the title of the book suggests, it is challenging to limit the book’s theme to a single idea. Indeed, there is an ample blend of musings and “other sentient speculations” that the author himself refers to as “the strange poetry of Michael H. Hanson” on the cover, which teased me into thinking that this collection would be a fun-read. It is. And the preponderance of rhyming poetry helps keep it fun.

Hanson deftly handles rhyme by not forcing it, relaxing the hard rhyme whenever necessary and taking advantage of non-end-stopped lines, while making good efforts to maintain syllabic regularity. In general, his structures gravitate toward a series of quatrains ending with rhyming couplets (which sometimes results in a sonnet), or a tercet, or another quatrain. The rhyme scheme might also vary within the bulk of the poem (as well as throughout the collection). He manages to tell story outside the classic ballad structure, regardless what the rhyme scheme is. Hanson masters it.

The collection is divided into seven chapters, and the titles might be as elusive as the contents. Throughout some of the chapters, not just in “Chapter One: The Human/Science Equation,” one will find a scattering of science, not at all as didactic verse, but rather as stanzas having nuances of science. The author is well informed. In fact, the opening poem (“Antiqus Cantoribus”) speaks of the titanosaur, which belongs to a group of the largest land animals ever known to have existed. However, this is not a poem about paleontology, but a segue to the nature of early man, how he might have appreciated the night sky among other things, and perhaps his innocence was compromised when “cultural sin” would catch up with him (speaking of us in his future). As is demonstrated in this poem, there is more than a hint of philosophy and metaphysics; the reader will find that it permeates the book.

Hanson finds how to ask the big questions of humankind in subtle ways. He may use comparisons with other life forms like sentient microbial alien life (Under Mars) or he may use comparisons with manmade ones (as the book title suggests, and is developed further in chapter four). Hanson knows how to handle abstract notions, for example, he may personify them and include a science metaphor as well, as in: Only death truly conquers gravity (Gravity).

So that the reading remains “light,” the heavy questions are modulated with a relaxing tone, and with a healthy smattering of humor and wit. There are too many to list (but a few examples from a couple chapters are Digital Romance Specters; My Rebel; Flight; Ms. Wrinkles and Mr. White Hair).

Most of the themes and styles contained in the first chapter (the longest of all seven) are representative of the rest of the book. But “Chapter Two: Phased Transitions” is distinct in that it is a poetic tribute to mostly science fiction legends of the 20th century: Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, CJ Henderson, Richard Matheson, Ray Harryhausen, Leonard Nimoy, John Lennon, Mike Resnick, and Rutger Oelsen Hauer.

Perhaps “Chapter Three: Fissionable Teething” is another transitioning chapter. It is sobering with what seems to be a prophetic voice on the future of mankind, a wondering. The last poem of that chapter (Beyond the Rift) exploits the “fission” imagery, but the thing that splits, so to speak, is the skin between two universes or that between earth and heaven.

The androids make their strong entrance in “Chapter Four: The Android Girl Saga” (and continued in chapter seven) with its seven poems describing a variety of traits of these human-robots/robot-humans. And perhaps these android girls exhibit characteristics contrary to Taoist ideals, which embrace things like being patient and compassionate, being in harmony with others, and “going with the flow.” These androids are bored, aggressive, competitive, etc. “Chapter Five: Tao of Magic” explores the Taoist things. Here, he uses a good measure of humor mixed with the metaphysics. And the humor becomes whimsical in “Chapter Six: Meta-Myths.”

The collection ends with “Chapter Seven: The Android Girl’s Dreams,” where some of the poems are as elusive as dreams; the reader will be left pondering more philosophy (Beautiful Selfie) and spirituality (Ghost Apples). And though there are many questions to ponder, the last poem (My Steampunk Booth) returns us to fanciful places we have come to know and love (humorously, like RavenCon and LibertyCon—places where our imaginations take off and explore, a space where we might find a host of sentient speculations.

This collection would find a comfortable home among poets and dreamers, and those who speculate on just about anything, including the purpose of humanity.

—John C. Mannone

Arrival Mind by Louis B. Rosenberg, illustrated by Anastasia Khmelevska
(Outland Pictures Publishing, 2020) 36 pp. Hardcover $19.95; paperback $9.85.

It is worrying that Louis B. Rosenberg, a thinker in the field, believes this to be a trenchant means of communicating about AI dangers. The art by Anastasia Khmelevska is nice enough, but she doesn't have much to work with in the lines which do, strictly speaking, rhyme. But the poetry is cold and clammy, and there are so many issues with even the simplistic warnings in this book. It posits scenarios like an intelligent AI sprouting a billion eyes and ears to watch us. Oh dear! Yet we all know we have not-very-intelligent AIs and government agencies (and government agency AIs) watching us all the time. And, oh no, you guys, it can't be unplugged! But we've seen the Terminator movies, and the fear of building a system that hates us and cannot be unplugged is in our blood at this point. These warnings are not exactly the big surprise the author suspects.

The book does not manage to engage with the interesting questions underlying the advance of AI. What is agency? Will AI inherit our cultural biases, or have new ones? When will machines be "conscious"? What is this loopy thing we call consciousness for convenience, even? Slow takeoff versus fast takeoff? Skipping over all this makes complete sense; it would be very difficult to discuss those topics in simplistic rhymes. But the "afterward" is truly egregious, and ruins the (admittedly pointless) attempt at seeming to be a children's book with a warmed-over stew of Nick Bostrom's arguments in Superintelligence. Somehow it manages to skip any mention of existing AI safety research, or the burgeoning field of AI alignment.

I just don't know who the target audience of this book is. If this book was written by an AI as a meta-level joke about how humans fail to think deeply about AI, then our new overlords have mastered multi-layered humor and I will gladly bend the knee.

—Daniel G. Fitch

Carpe Noctem by Robert Borski
(Weird House Press, 2020) 132p, paper $14.95 $10.95 on sale: weirdhousepress.com/product/carpe-noctem/

Warning: I may be prejudiced because I’ve been a fan of Robert Borski’s extraordinary poetry for some years now. That said, I was delighted when his newest collection arrived! Perfect title, one of the few Latin titles that I could immediately translate and certainly apt. Borski serves up all sorts of zombies, vampires and creatures from scary blockbusters, like “Elm on Nightmare Street”, “The Blob”, “I married the Creature from the Blue Lagoon,” “The Digital Portrait of Dorian Gray” and “Monthra” to mention a few titles. Every single one is a new take on its subject.

“Chum” reminds me a bit of the novel War with the Newts, perhaps late in the book when things get really grim. “… patient as all fishermen must be/we wait for the first frenzied bite.” This may not seem horrific unless you consider that the bait is made up of fishermen, coated in their own “life essences”. After all, the bait must be “as close to raw as possible”! Gruesome, yet a freshly executed poem as only Robert Borski can do. There are poems that relate in a weird sort of way, to what we’re dealing with now, such as a plague/virus, “Zoomorts” and “I, Pod” –only again, the virus is much different in kind.
“Halloween (The Planet)” is kind of Bradbury-esque but more suitably, Borski-esque. The last stanza is actually so sweet, referring to the narrator’s girl in the monster mask: “she only frightens/ me in completely/ pleasant ways.” Have you ever been pleasantly frightened?

“Verispel” is simply brilliant! A fantastic treatment of words observing as they come alive, and those last lines: “all writing shapeshifts, all poets howl.” Delicious.

Last, but in no way least, I must mention “Murmurations.” Surely, you’ve heard about the unhappy results (1890) of importing starlings from England, ostensibly to help control the insect population. Moreover, and this is where the poem takes off, an eccentric Bardolate imported starlings because of their reference in Shakespeare. In a few years it became clear that the English species can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. The poem explains how over a century later, after improvements in “genesmithing and biocombinant technology” scientists decided to release a variety of other beasties Shakespeare mentions in his lines. (Ahem!) I've always said that a sky full of dragons will never let you down, if you believe.

About the author, he is holed up deep in the hills of his home town, Stevens Point, Wisconsin. From there, he works for the state university system, and is “still doing his best to seize the night, but, of course, well aware that it may have already seized him.” I want to thank Robert for composing and completing yet another Essential Borski collection. Honored to know that Bruce Boston and I are credited with giving him a jump-start to do it. Buy this, ’tis a keeper!

—Marge Simon

Sci-Ku: Explorations into the Poetry of Science by Jay Friedenberg
(Lulu.com, 2020) 98 pp. Paperback $22.30.

As president of the Haiku Society of America, it should come as no surprise to readers that Jay Friedenberg knows how to write a decent haiku or senryu. However, it may surprise readers for him to approach science as source for such forms, even as a scholar in neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence. However, this is exactly what he does in his newest collection Sci-Ku: Explorations into the Poetry of Science, probably more successfully than any other poet over the past few years.

What makes Friedenberg’s collection so successful is his understanding of the haiku form. His poems capture a moment, often juxtaposing a science term or scientific principle against a very human experience. This creates a rich moment for the reader, and allows them to participate in poem fully:

eroded cliff
the slow emergence
of her past

In this example, we see a scientific principle (erosion) juxtaposed against the idea of someone revealing something intimate. This is a successful senryu, as there’s no kigo to make it a haiku, as it captures a poignant moment in time.

However, not all of Friedenberg’s senryu are this serious. Some are clever, using the humor that readers will so often associate with senryu.

plate tectonics
we rub each other
the wrong way

Here the scientific principle is juxtaposed against a clever pun for the amusement of the reader. Again, this taps into the humorous history of senryu, but still uses science as a starting point, connecting the poem back to the collection’s theme.

Friedenberg does not shy away from haiku, either. There are a handful of haiku in this collection, some with very clear and obvious kigo:

climate change news
the constant drip
of an icicle

However, as opposed to simply leaning on the kigo to provide the vertical axis of the haiku, Friedenberg instead leans on the scientific principle, in this case “climate change.” So, while this is indeed a haiku, the emphasis on the science over the season almost forces the reader to see this as a senryu, which is a very interesting technique, but one that makes the collection seem more cohesive and seamless as a whole.

If there is anything to detract from this collection, it’s the exorbitant cost. This book is printed on lulu.com, and the price on the site is $ 22.30. While the presentation of the poems is quite nice, each poem being given its own separate space, this is an extremely high price for any sort of poetry collection.

Despite the outlandish cost, this book is a really solid collection of haiku and senryu. Friedenberg knows his craft and has many clever and poignant poems in this collection to engage and entertain its readers. Overall, this is a book that readers of science fiction poetry will want to enjoy and study.

—Joshua Gage

The Sign of the Dragon by Mary Soon Lee
(JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020) 893 p., Kindle, Nook and e-book formats $2.99.

Mary Soon Lee’s epic poetry saga, The Sign of the Dragon, is a remarkable achievement, offering over 300 poems, 200 previously unpublished in her earlier collection, Crowned, The Sign of the Dragon: Book 1 (2015). Beginning with Rhysling winner, “Interregnum”, first published in Star*Line in 2013, the poems, variously structured, some rhymed, others free-verse, reflect an experienced story-teller’s repetitive and alliterative rhythms, recording the life story of Xau, hero king of the mythical Iron Age country of Meqing. By showing Xau through many points of view, including prince, stable boy, horse and cat, Soon Lee provides a poetic hologram, a hero made more accessible:

“My father said years ago
That you were ‘hideously honorable.’”

Xao silent a moment.
“We … tried to do what was right.”
(“Tiarnan, 378)

Other than Harry Martinson’s Cold War masterpiece, Aniara, 1956, few speculative poets have succeeded in such a sustained effort. Building on Chinese and Mongolian legends, Soon Lee creates a fantastic world where dragons and demons are real, and long-range horse whispering is a talent that can be used as an effective tactic in war:

as the clash of metal on metal,
as the screams, the battle drums,
the horses maneuvering
as if they were a thousand shadows
of a single faultless form—
(“Tsung’s Battle,” 62)

In Chinese, Xau refers to a method for measuring the weight of gold and in an alternate spelling refers to filial piety and care for others. Xau, who is worth far more than his weight in gold, never expects to be king, but when his three older brothers are deemed unworthy, they are eaten by the resident dragon:

“One slept. One fought. One pissed
himself. They didn’t taste like kings.”

She laughed. “And you? What will
you pay for a crown, little princeling?

“Nothing. I don’t want it.” (“Interregnum,” 4)

Xau unwillingly becomes king, foreseeing the great responsibilities of leading a country during difficult times. Essentially although Xau, who consistently uses the royal “we” to indicate his service to others, earns the respect and support of dragon, body guard, Monster Queen, and many of his former enemies, Xau’s genuine goodness and consistent care for others, human and animal, demonstrates that there are other ways to be eaten. Always thin, but warrior tough through unstinting practice, Xau essentially wears himself out, but in doing so, saves the lives of thousands during a series of wars and disasters, discovering eventually that his healing touch can save victims from monstrous mind control: “a tenderness, a gentleness/ certain as daybreak/ sure as an anchor/ calling Gul home” but only at a great price to his own health (“Gul,” 806). This collection is highly recommended for the quality of its verse as well as for what it says about leadership at a time when politics is frequently seen as self-serving. The Table of Contents contains hot links to each of the poems. It could, however, be improved through division into sections such as “Early Years,” “Earthquake, Flood and Fire,” “Wars”, and “The Demon Underground.” Published during the pandemic, the author’s share of the proceeds will be split between Doctors without Borders, the Greater Pittsburgh Foodbank and the Trevor project.

—Sandra J. Lindow

The Sign of the Dragon by Mary Soon Lee
(JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020) 893 p., Kindle, Nook and e-book formats $2.99.

Mary Soon Lee is no stranger to the speculative poetry scene. Her poems have appeared in numerous venues, and have garnered Rhysling and Elgin Awards. The Sign of the Dragon carries on this stellar tradition, providing an ambitious 300-plus poems. While over 200 of the poems have not been previously published, individual entries from The Sign of the Dragon have appeared in venues such as Star*Line, Uppagus, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Dreams and Nightmares, and Silver Blade. “Interregnum,” initially published in Star*Line 36.4, received the 2014 Rhysling Award for Long Poem. The first 60 poems in The Sign of the Dragon were published in Crowned (Dark Renaissance Books, 2015), which won the 2016 Elgin Award.

The Sign of the Dragon weaves a chronological narrative which, beneath the surface, is also about loyalty, leadership, relationships, and sacrifice. Reading The Sign of the Dragon combined the enjoyment of being drawn along by the story line with the savoring of poetic devices such as lists, alliteration, figurative language, and the occasional rhyming section.

The Sign of the Dragon is billed as an epic fantasy. While much of the content is, on the surface, ordinary-world stuff, there are supernatural occurrences and characters, including a dragon and a “six-eyed, six-mouthed” monster. King Xau himself has an uncanny ability with horses, who willingly serve him at call regardless of whether they “belong” to King Xau’s forces or to enemy armies.

The individual poems deal with both heroic exploits and everyday activities, and illuminate King Xau’s struggles and uncertainties as well as his triumphs. While most of the poems revolve around Xau, some provide us with insights into other characters’ thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. We get glimpses into the lives of members of the royal guard, Xau’s spouse and children, his allies and enemies, and even the palace cat. The multiple viewpoints provide a panoramic view of what is going on.

There is a theory that some the best leaders are those who didn’t aspire to leadership roles. These individuals aren’t driven by a yen for power but rather by the motivation to do their best at what they are assigned. King Xau seems to be proof of that. As a child, Xau never envisioned himself ruling the kingdom of Meqing, thinking himself sufficiently buffered by the presence of three older brothers to be spared that burden. When he goes to the Mountain where the dragon who anoints the kings of Meqing resides, the following exchange occurs between Xau and the dragon:

She laughed. “And you? What will you
pay for a crown, little princeling?”

“Nothing. I don’t want it.”
She flamed, and he saw himself reflected

in her scales, a kneeling, shivering boy.
“Then why,” she asked, “are you here?”

“Because they sent me.” He stopped. “No.”
He was so tired, he couldn’t think—

“Because the kingdom needs a king.”

Some staff members are skeptical of Xau’s capability at first, but they are won over by his humility and his genuine concern for others. For example, in the poem “Guarded”:

Gan stared at the boy, the king,
standing there in his pajamas
holding out a cup of water
to him, the guard.
A small thing,
but the boy’s father
had never done it.

Humble, compassionate, and hard-working, Xau makes a likeable protagonist. Despite King Xau’s noble nature, the author avoids falling into the trap of making things too easy for him. His heroic deeds take a physical, mental, and emotional toll, which we witness through the events portrayed in the poems.

Well-crafted poetry and an interesting story line are reason enough to enjoy the book, but there’s more. The Author’s Note near the outset states that because The Sign of the Dragon was published during the coronavirus pandemic, the author’s share of proceeds from 2020 sales from the e-book would be split between several charities. King Xau, I think, would have approved.

—Lisa Timpf

Space in Pieces by Juan Manuel Perez
(The House Of The Fighting Chupacabras Press, 2020). 32 pp. Paperback $10.00.

The Poet Laureate of Corpus Christi, Texas Juan Manuel Perez brings his speculative poetry roots to the forefront with his new collection Space in Pieces. Perez is a Mexican-American poet of indigenous descent and a veteran of the first Gulf War who provides a unique voice to science fiction poetry. This chapbook, containing 8 multi-part poems, evokes the whispers of beat poetry in a science-fiction setting.

The first poem, “Early Log Of The Mercury Space Trail,” is poetic static from a fading Mercury Station 8691, interweaving the voices of the doomed station and those trying to contact it. In the poem “Messages,” Perez describes a running dialogue between a mission command center and a spacewalking astronaut running out of oxygen after the astronaut’s tether has broken. As the control center desperately attempts to communicate the astronaut enters a mental timeslip of existential analysis. This introspective hallucination continues until mission control faces doom from an unidentified space craft. While the astronaut muses about letters written to various magazines that went unanswered the parallel question also remains unanswered, “God, are you there? You must be there.

In the poem “Knowledge,” a faster-than-light explorer faces the time loss between his present and the earth he once knew, now left to history. Perez’ astronaut has to be reminded by his crewmates that he made the decision to lose all that he once loved:

Remember the first few months onboard the rocket
You were so homesick, almost suicidal to a point
Your squad reminded you that you volunteered yourself
No one forced you to give that final YES goodbye

The other poems follow similar themes of humans dealing with catastrophe and death in space and other planets yet internalizing existence. Perez offers a uniquely diverse contribution to current speculative poetry and should be enjoyed by lovers of the genre.

—David E. Cowen

Telling Strange Stories: A Guide to Understanding and Writing Great Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry by David Vandervort
(2020) 264pp. $12.99 paperback. amazon.com/dp/B086Z9QWDR

You may know David Vandervort’s poetry, which he publishes under the name “irving.” With his experience, he’s well-qualified to do a book like this. He has written it specifically for the YA crowd, and the tagline is, “This is not your traditional poetry curriculum.”

I appreciate the overall effort. He also says of the book at the top of the description on Amazon, “Our whole culture is dripping in speculative stories. Superhero fantasies. Science fiction invasions. Horror slasher killers.”

This fact of our culture is exactly why I’ve taken up genre work. It’s what I love, and it’s what’s happening in our society. The mission part for me is to help people love poetry. I’m an American working in the American culture, and right now the movies, comics, and novels are hugely science-fictional. Sci-fi is the American mythology, and people can learn to love poetry again if we write where they (and most of us) are coming from.

I do have a couple of qualms about the book. One is that, while his subject matter may be radical, his pedagogy is not. He spends a lot of time doing close readings of his own poetry, which ostensibly is to reveal their structures, but a lot of it is that “golden nugget” style of exegesis that we are all corralled into during our K-12 years, which kills the love of poetry for most Americans. Like Billy Collins says, we tie a poem to a chair and beat the meaning out of it with a rubber hose.

The second qualm I have is that the book is not edited closely. This gives us more than a few little typos and missed punctuation. It also leaves a lot of the prose a bit slack and overwritten.

Mix that with the didactic voice, and I think he’ll lose a lot of his audience. But for a young seeker who loves this stuff and wants to learn more, this will be a helpful book. There’s not much in it for veterans, though. If you are interested in a great How-To book, I would highly recommend Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. I read it about ten years ago, and went from getting an occasional poem published here and there to having most of what I write get picked up.

But, regarding Vandervort’s book, I’m glad he wrote it. One more worker in the field trying to help out.

—John Philip Johnson

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