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.

SFPA members’ books are listed on the Books page. Here, 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.


For books published in 2003 and earlier:

happiness by Frederick Pollack.
1996, Story Line Press. 160 pp. Paperback $12.95.

Frederick Pollack’s happiness was published on Story Line Press in 1996 at the tail end of the Clinton administration. Story Line Press was the home for the bulk of the Expansive poets, a catch-all term that included New Formalists and New Narrative poets. Because their politics were antithetical to more “liberal” or “experimental” poetry movements of the time (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the second wave of Confessionalist poets, the second wave of Beat poets, etc.), the poets of Story Line Press were often seen as conservative by their peers. This is readily apparent in happiness which reads as conservative satire aimed directly at the moderate social policies of the Clinton administration and the politics of the country in general.

In happiness, Stephen Hawking created an anomaly on X-day that separated the country into two sections. The main section is “the Zone” where hyper-left-wing idealists rule tyrannically. Because of the anomaly, and a few technological gadgets, roaming bands of officials are able to solve all the world’s problems and mete out justice to the deserving. In other words, if something doesn’t meet with their approval, they can simply fix it with a wave of their hand; clearly, this parallels the right-wing, Moral Majority view of Clintonian politics and their critiques of his stances on gays in the military, affirmative action, etc.

To drive this point home, Pollack allows the Special Action Squad to deal with the problem of a child abuser.


stepson has drawn
our attention to
certain crimes. It’s
only fitting

your punishment should be
at his hands.” This part
was voluntary, but the kid
was game

The young man who was abused proceeds to beat his stepfather to a bloody, toothless, limbless pulp. All of this goes well, and the young man receives an official voucher of services rendered. The problem is that he’s worried what will happen if and when the anomaly disappears, and his abuser is there waiting for him. The Special Action Squad tries to reassure him that he’ll never see his abuser again, but even they are uncertain.

Pollack also critiques interracial relationships. His speaker, on the day of the anomaly, is able to force a group of underprivileged students to critically examine themselves. Their teacher gets upset about this:

“Stop it,” said Mrs.
Nyman. “You’re being a bully.”—
“I deny that,” I said. “I’m
helping you do

your job. I’m giving them
a language, a critical language,
hence a culture.” She
muttered something about

“their own culture,” but I said,
“You don’t believe
that nonsense, do you?”
—“No, but I

do believe in
their freedom. In
freedom generally.
Don’t you?” she demanded.

“No,” I said.

Again we see Pollack’s conservative satire coming through. This is almost a direct challenge to Clinton’s November 13, 1993 speech in which he channeled the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. to critique African-American society.

Throughout the book, Pollack uses a very choppy, uneven system of lines and line breaks. All of his stanzas are four lines, but beyond that, there seems to be no underlying organizing pattern or rhythm that he’s following. As much as this isn’t the traditional New Formalist return to classic meter and verse, it’s also not the rhythmic line breaks of Projective Verse or similar experimental forms. Pollack seems to be deliberately challenging the reader with his line breaks, forcing them to deal with weak breaks, uneven lines and clunky rhythms. Some might venture that this is deliberate, and that he’s using the chaos of the poem’s form to replicate the organized chaos of life after X-day in the poem, but if this is true, forcing the reader to suffer through such affected bad craft is a bit much after a while.

In her “Introduction to Science Fiction,” Ursula K. LeGuin argues that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” and “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.” This is exactly what’s happening in Pollack. He is taking ideas and policies of social justice to such a hyperbolic extreme that they become toxic. This, of course, is the point of satire; things are taken to an extreme to challenge them or make fun of them, to point out their flaws. Using a shattered craft of choppy, uneven lines, Pollack critiques the social policies of a government and society that seemed, at the time, to be shifting uncontrollably to the left. Conservative readers will champion this book as much as Liberal readers will be infuriated. However, it stands as a very interesting historical perspective of life and society in the late 20th-century United States as seen through a science-fiction lens.

—Joshua Gage

Sauce Robert coverSauce Robert by F.J. Bergmann
2003, Pavement Saw Press, stapled spine, $6.00. pavementsaw.org/chapbook_pages/sauce.htm
or order from fibitz.com/sales.html

In F.J. Bergmann’s Sauce Robert, the slip of the stream is everywhere. From “Corollary”:

Love is a cluster of rose-
colored balloons filled with squeaking gas.

Or, from “Prairie Queen”:

... the shimmering Morse of caught rubbish. We will signal back in the language of smoke.

Bergmann uses slipstream as the seasoning in sf/f/h poetry, whereas with other poets, the slipstream is the meat and potatoes itself.

—Denise Dumars

Time Frames ed. Terry A. Garey
1991, Rune Press. hardback, 98 pp. $15 including shipping from the editor at 3149 Park Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55407.

So, Terry Garey and I were talking about speculative poetry anthologies of yesteryear, and she mentioned that she had edited one called Time Frames almost 25 years ago. It was published by Rune Press, and come to find out, there is a box of them still available. I was writing speculative poetry then, but I was not yet "with it" and I never saw this book. So it's great news for me and everybody else who didn't read this book when it came out, that it is still available. It's eminently readable and contains science and speculative poetry by Robert Frazier, Ruth Berman, Geoffrey Landis, John C. Rezmerski, and Ann K. Schwader, and others. Most of the poems have only appeared in this book, so the only ones you've seen are the ones that were nominated for the Rhysling award that year, or later included in collections by some of these fine poets. Most of the nearly 100 poems, I had never seen. Terry chose a relatively small number of poets so that she could include multiple poems from each of them, really showcase what they could do. I think it was quite successful. It wasn't so much that you were following a train from one station to the next but that you were exploring a city. Things fit together, but indirectly. Some of these people are no longer writing speculative poetry, but most of them are still at the forefront of our field. Here's a way to find out what they were doing in 1991.

We begin with Ruth Berman: here is a sample from "Nick Chopper the Tin Woodman":

She turned and caught him
Round the tin waist
Pressing close the comfort
Of her sweetheart
Who had loved her
Although he lost his heart
And turned to tin.
His visits slowed—
The witch kept closer watch
Feeling a premonition of some ill wind blowing—
And he forgot.

Reading this book is how I discovered that Geoffrey Landis sometimes writes sword and sorcery and that John Grey can write speculative poetry that isn't horror. He's good at it too. From “Photographing the Sun":

They say just once
I should look up,
select my stones from that sky's
shameless worship of color,
the foamy exuberance of a
million liberated wildflowers
cracking through its
floating reefs of coral clouds,

Ann K. Schwader is represented here by a number of poems, including "For Omega Dreamers," of which this is a part:

Rereading earth burned white between the covers
of novel after deathdream, do not wonder
at strangelove's labors lost: this print ob will session
with mushroom morning glory' will s sane as fiction
could be, and more hopeful than the news.

What is there to say about Time Frames? These poems show aspects of poets that might surprise you even if you are very familiar with their recent work. Also, because most contributors are represented by at least half a dozen poems, you have the opportunity to see a lot farther into their heads than is usual. Almost any of these poems could have been nominated for awards. The best speculative poetry brings visions of wonder, terror, and joy. This book is 100 pages of visionary, cutting-edge poetry by the masters. Maybe not the cutting edge of today, but I think you will find that many of these poems are still quite sharp. You owe it to yourself to read them.

—David C Kopaska-Merkel

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