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 2010:

Brushfires by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
2010, Sam’s Dot Publishing, $6.00, sdpbookstore.com

David C. Kopaska-Merkel has a reputation to maintain. His very name seems to have grown into a character all of its own over the years. It is now a name that belongs to a poet of myth, a ghost who waits to greet all travellers journeying into the realms of madness. Or so they say. His work with Dreams & Nightmares magazine is longstanding, and his poetry has picked up the odd award here and there, too. His latest release is Brushfires, a collection of new and old poems which promises to be a little something from outside the box.

In “The vampire solution” our bloodsucking foes are given a lesson in biology, while “Spuddy Buddy” is a nice play on nursery rhyme themes. The feminine mysteries of Europa are explored in “europa’s eyes”, and “Troll” is a flash piece where the narrator bemoans the harshness of stereotype. The reading list of “10 You-Tube documentaries (we’ll never watch again)” is as funny as it is horrifying; and “$3 Time Machine” gives ten very good reasons why you might want to splash a little extra cash before heading off into the future.

“What the Sun wants” is a poem that caught my eye. In this one, our favourite star is given a sentience that is sinister and inexorable. Both beautiful and terrifying in the telling, this is a thinker’s poem that reminds us there is something much bigger and more powerful out there than we mere earthlings:

The Sun is
a bare incandescent
light bulb
constantly exploding with fury
destroying everything in its path
but too far away
to char the
flesh from our bones
in an instant
like it wants

A writer’s reputation is built upon a body of work. Kopaska-Merkel’s reputation as a poet is that of an enigma, an imp, a jester, and a wordsmith whose body of work is eclectic, individual and original. Brushfires may seem like a journey into some kind of organised chaos, but the author knows rhyme and reason, and has a deep interest in the state of the human race. Within his method, Kopaska-Merkel makes a strong point that doesn’t preach but rather observes life from a quirked angle. Through speculative poetry he asks us to look at ourselves, at others we do or do not know, and most importantly to have a good look at the world around us once in a while.

Editor's note: Order direct from David C. Kopaska-Merkel, jopnquog@gmail.com for signed copy, no extra charge.

—Edward Cox

ChemICKal Reactions by Karen L. Newman
2010, Naked Snake Press, $6.99

The reputation of Karen L. Newman has been steadily growing over the years. She is an editor, a writer of poetry and short stories, a columnist, a reviewer, an award winner, and jurist at the 2011 Stoker Awards. Her words and musings can be found in a multitude of publications, including collective works such as Toward Absolute Zero and EEKU. And now, with her new collection of poetry ChemICKal Reactions, Newman shows us what dark thoughts crept from the shadows during all those starchy chemistry lessons at school and college.

First up, we learn that “Acetone” will hide a multitude of sins, and “Cholesterol” will have you thinking twice before sinking your teeth into that juicy burger. With “Hydrogen” it’s never wise to invite a chemist to your party, while “Dynamite” can solve any problem with the in-laws. And if it’s wise to be untrusting of “Sunscreen”, or suspicious of a “Silver” photographer, then it’s probably best to never play a game of Cluedo with “Glass”.

“Platinum” is a particular favourite of mine. Anyone who has ever made plans to get married has heard the legends of how unlucky it is to procure second-hand engagement rings. The bonding jewelery of a failed relationship can only act as a portent for an ominous future. But the magpie eye of one particular lady has seen enough to shrug off any doubt that the legends are hogwash:

Platinum filigree flowed around
a bright rose-cut diamond
engagement ring
that Barb found
and picked up off the ground.
She stepped out into the street
where a truck slammed into her.
Barb reclaimed her find upon
discharge from a hospital
full of flu.
Outside a man mugged her,
stole the ring, and fled.
Bullets flew from a beat-up black car.
The ring fell.
Barb hobbled by,
ignoring the white glint
winking at her.

Inspired by a selection of chemicals, listed alphabetically, each poem of ChemICKal Reactions is as grim as it is entertaining, as sinister as it is amusing. Newman has earned her reputation with hard work and a gift with words, thus it comes as no surprise that this collection has received nomination for the Preditors and Editors Poll. ChemICKal Reactions is an intelligent book that never forgets to have fun, and is sure to take the boredom out of any chemistry lesson.

—Edward Cox

Codex Dagon by Cardinal Cox.
2010, saddle-stitched, 12 pp., numbered edition of 100: 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough PE2 5RB, United Kingdom or e-mail cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

I don't know why I have started getting Cardinal Cox's free chapbooks or what-have-you, sent winging across a pond so wide I have no hope of attending the events at which the booklets are to be distributed gratis. Of course I'm grateful; they are very nice publications. I only hope the readers of Star*Line, perhaps months after the fact, have a hope of getting copies themselves. E-mail Mr. Cox and offer to send him money. I will hope for the best.

This is the second Lovecraftian chapbook from Cardinal Cox. It is witty and humorous, and that's the way I like them (chapbooks of Lovecraftian poetry, I mean). There may be some folks reading this review who don't know that Dagon is an aquatic Old One, a supernatural being who, while not precisely evil, is nevertheless inimical to humans and human society. Dagon is worshiped by a race of intelligent fishlike creatures who live a very long time and inhabit cities in some of the deepest parts of the world ocean. The literature referring to Dagon is somewhat ambiguous about the question of evil versus alien, but Lovecraft was pretty clear that what seemed evil to us was really more like indifference.

This book contains seven poems and an essay about the evolution of the Deep Ones, Dagon's aquatic worshipers. The poems refer to literary traditions ranging from traditional Japanese legends to the short stories of H.G. Wells. From “Haploteuthis Ferox” (which should be italicized and the specific name should be in lower case):

Arms welcome him to the dark wet world
Mollusc muscles pull the helmet apart
The tight embrace of the fatal sweetheart
Eyes roll as though in ecstasy pearled

referencing a short story by HG Wells. Another refers both to Lovecraft's “Pickman's Model” and to worldwide legends of dog-headed people. The book opens with an hymn to Dagon. One poem conflates the idea of the Deep Ones with Irish mythic history, with interesting results. And why wouldn't Japanese myths be turned into Japanese monster movies and then perhaps Hollywood remakes? The essay is entitled “An evolution of the Deep Ones.” Cox here considers the well-known theory that humanity's hairless condition might have evolved as a response to living in the sea. If it did, are the Deep Ones our sister group? Maybe that's why we can interbreed with them, even though we cannot interbreed with our closest relatives known to science, the chimpanzees.

Any fan of Cardinal Cox or of the Cthulhu Mythos or, indeed, of fantasy/ mythic poetry would probably enjoy this book. And the transformations of various forms of literature into annals of the cult of Dagon are charming and amusing. There is definitely something in Codex Dagon for the irreverent.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Hereafter Landscapes by Jody Azzouni
2010, The Poet’s Press, $19.95

Over the years, speculative fiction has given the apocalypse many different guises. Viruses, zombie plagues, vampires, alien invasions, nuclear wars, ecological disasters—if there’s a way to end the world and crush civilisation, the will of the writer has already told us about it in every gruesome detail. With Hereafter Landscapes, Jody Azzouni asks us to choose our favourite apocalypse, to imagine that it has come to pass, and then, with the worst already transpired, to wonder what happens next.

The collection is divided into three parts: Prologue, Embers and Snapshots, and Epilogue. “Oracles for modern times” kicks things off with the decline of Earth, while “Will we still have blogs?” acknowledges the death of the material world. In “I dream of futures” the human spirit clings to the way life used to be, but “How to escape the future” comes to realise that nothing can be as it was. And “The Last Pond” slowly begins the slow scratching away of hope.

There’s much to admire about Azzouni’s wordplay and imagery in this book, but his most poignant moments are those he chooses to give an almost prosaic surface. It’s as if certain decisions have been made concerning post-apocalyptic humanity, decisions that then become reality, and in turn normality, and with quite chilling effect. “Have a little sympathy for Cassandra, won’t you?” is a good example of this:

(Eyeballs hide indoors)
Look at all the heads in the sand.

Later (when we are trolls
having children for breakfast)
we will wander the earth like plastic bags.

(It will still look good on wireless Television.
We’ll watch Happy Days over and over as we munch.)

Accompanied by the haunting artwork of the great John Martin, Hereafter Landscapes isn’t a collection of cautionary tales warning us to take better care of our blue planet. There’s no reprieve from what we’ve already done, there’s no planning for what might lay ahead, and there’s certainly no lessons to learn for a happy ending. This is about what becomes of us, and how long we could hold off our inevitable extinction. Azzouni has taken a sly look at what’s important today, and then he turns everything on its head for tomorrow.

—Edward Cox

Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd
2010, Hilltop Press, £6.99/$14.00

As a race, human beings have always been adept at imagining the future. However possible or improbable, visions of what might lay decades or centuries or millennia down the road have found a happy home in the realm of science fiction since before the genre was even named. Continuing the sci-fi tradition of future speculation is Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd, which promises more visions of tomorrow than you or I can shake a quantum stick at.

There are ninety-six poems in all, of varying shapes and sizes. “Now it is Ours” is a clever piece, that at first appears like a list of words in four columns, but can actually be read up, down, sideways and diagonally with differing results. “Sticks and Stones” is a short look at the fragility of Earth, and “In Reply To Your Lack of Faith” ponders the loss of humanity. The harsh facts of long distance space travel are spelt out in “The Ship Commander’s Subtext”, and “Civilisation Counselling Service” considers the philosophy of the walking dead, while 2001’s HAL gets an appearance in “Almost An Anniversary Ritual”.

My favourite poem is also the last of the collection. “Owl Soup Bend” is a sinister look at an alien’s mission to infiltrate and observe the human race. There’s a chilling air to the alien which is almost innocent as it discovers the darker side of human life as if this were no more than an interesting field trip:

like a gangster’s gun
he used her once then

threw her in the river
fluid as his face

harmless looking before
rage swelled it

big as the moon as
she’d be

bloated by the time
she joined the other

corpses tidy like big corporation
documents in their

freezer drawers in
Deep County Morgue

Sneyd’s Hilltop Press has a long and proud tradition of publishing innovative works that push the sci-fi genre until its boundaries bend and burst. For many years now, Sneyd himself has held a reputation as one of Britain’s leading voices in sci-fi poetry, and Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman does nothing to hinder that reputation whatsoever. The poems collected here are both thoughtful and multifarious, presenting a willingness on the author’s part to allow for open interpretation. And, as the back-cover blurb says, Sneyd’s visions of the future are waiting to greet you with bared teeth and sinister beauty.

—Edward Cox

Prismatica by Elizabeth Barrette
2010, Diminuendo Press, $12 paperback/$7 .pdf

The prism is an apt metaphor when describing the process of writing tales of speculative fiction. At first, the story idea is a simple looking thing, deceitfully bland and colourless. But when an author shines the light of imagination into it, all sorts of stuff comes pouring out the other side. Elizabeth Barrette has shone her light deep into the realms of the fantastic, and using the prism as backdrop, she presents her latest book of collected works, Prismatica.

There are over a hundred pages of Barrette’s poetry to choose from here, including “Widowmaker” where we must beware the black hole. In “Robosoldier” the contract of what makes the perfect warrior might hold a few hidden clauses, while “Bug-Eyed Monsters” considers the very small place we have in the universe. “Colorbind” is an interesting tale, and one of the collection’s longest, where the strange arguments of the prism occur; and “One Tall Ship” remembers the dreams of our ancestors, and what might be achieved in the future.

“The Fire in Our Eyes” is a piece that stood out to me. A short and smart poem, this one is a tale of caution, warning the human race to slow down and take a breath. In this day and age where technology advances at such a frightening pace, it’s important to remember where we came from, and to consider where we might be headed:

Huddled around a fire—
the first science—
our ancestors caught the stars
in their primal eyes.

From orbit we look down—
children of a distant Earth—
and see within her shadow
the fires burning still.

Divided into the colours yellow, red, clear, green and blue, Prismatica covers most bases in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy. With her knowledge of history, mythology and science put to good use, Barrette has collected together entertaining and thoughtful pieces. She knows well the shades and hues of speculative fiction, and Prismatica isn’t afraid to shine its light through the colours of the author’s imagination.

—Edward Cox

Second Hand Poems by Ian Hunter
2010, Read Raw Press, £3.99

Ian Hunter is a writer of short stories and poetry. He resides at a place just north of me, a mystical country known as Scotland. He is a member of a few writing circles, and he is currently the poetry editor for Dark Horizons. But more than this, Ian Hunter is one of the directors for a company called Read Raw Ltd, which has a mission to promote Scottish creative writing. And with the release of his new collection Second Hand Poems, Hunter and Read Raw Press have come to show us what it is that Scotland has got to shout about.

There are sixteen poems in all, of varying shapes and sizes. “Happy Baby” is a short, sweet visual piece, while “Grey Baby” gives the mood a turn towards the morose. With “Where the Dead Go” we learn that the afterlife is a little cramped, and in “The Ossuary” a gravedigger has sinister plans for the dead. “Danger Unexploded Poem” is an interesting piece, in which poets traverses dangerous territory in the name of their craft, and the characters are defined by their writing styles.

The poem that really caught my eye is also the collection’s longest piece. “The Only Ones that Matter” is loosely based upon the story of Valentine of Terni, and centres on the life of a blind girl who is sent to live in a castle. Her days are filled with menial chores, and she soon learns that cruelty and fear has replaced love and compassion in her new home. With the absence of sight, all the imagery is grown from the girl’s other senses, and she narrates this epic poem to weave an intriguing tale. Here’s a taster:

I am one of the discarded,
the broken children.
My parents rejected me at an early age, my
blindness making me more of a burden, than a worker,
my hand is marriage worthless

Still they must have had some feeling for me.
I was not entirely abandoned to fend for myself,
but taken to the big house beyond the city.

I have been told that the house is more like a castle,
belonging to a nobleman who fell out of the King’s favour.
He was left to rot on the end of a wooden spike
while his house was given over to the church.

Second Hand Poems is a brief but smart chapbook. The works therein are thoughtful and entertaining, sometimes mysterious, and occasionally jarring. With an initial limited run of only one hundred signed copies, Hunter should find himself running out of stock fairly quickly. If this book is any kind indication of Read Raw Ltd’s mission to promote creative writing in Scotland, then I should imagine their message will be heard across the oceans in country near you very soon.

—Edward Cox

Spores From Sharnoth and Other Madnesses by Leigh Blackmore
2010, P’rea Press, $13.50

H.P. Lovecraft has a lot to answer for. So long ago now, his dark imagination dreamed of weird places where the remnants of Earth’s forgotten history dwelt. Elder Gods and Old Ones who hid in lost, ancient cities, still hide there to this day, awaiting new stories that will unleash them onto an unsuspecting world. The Cthulu Mythos is more popular today than it ever was in Lovecraft’s lifetime; and now Leigh Blackmore is helping to keep the great man’s legacy alive with his new book of poetry, Spores From Sharnoth and Other Madnesses.

There are forty-four poems overall in this collection, which kicks off with “The Conjuration” where ancient rites are best left lost and forgotten. In “The Sphinx” the great statue of old Egypt might not be inanimate as we think, while “Inarticulo Mortis” has the sins of a murderer coming back to haunt him. “The Nameless City” is an interesting piece, incorporating one or two names straight from the Lovecraft pantheon; and there are chilling haikus abound with the likes of “Offerings”, “Mother and Child” and “Antarctic Vista”.

“The Temple” is a poem that stood out for me. In this one Blackmore conjures a dark mood and a sense of foreboding. Although by no means the most Lovecraftian of pieces in this book, “The Temple” does capture that suggestive atmosphere of the classically weird that nicely sets up a story yet to be told:

There stands upon a nameless Africk shore,
Amid the jungle’s foetid overgrowth,
An antient temple—ruinous, and both
Deserted and forgotten by Man for
Countless aeons. Along the track once rid
By savage tribal chieftains and their kin
Lie shattered statues—not of brass, or tin—
But jet, and onyx, under stones half-hid.

Where merchant-monarchs brought their offerings
Of sandalwood and spices, herbs and talc,
Of fabulous gemstones and orichalc—
Now rubble lies, o’ershadowed by the wings
Of awful Time; yet lingers on an air
Of Something, crouched and waiting in its lair.

It is doubtful Lovecraft ever envisioned that he would become the iconic figure that he is in the world of horror today; or that his Cthulu Mythos would ultimately spawn a global business. It’s true to say that Lovecraft was Blackmore’s influence for only one half of this book; and I think it’s only fitting that you discover who his inspirations were for the other half yourself. But above and beyond the influences, let’s remember that these poems are originals, and they came from Blackmore’s own dark dreams. Spores From Sharnoth and Other Madnesses deserves its place in Australian Weird Fiction.

—Edward Cox

Voices from the Dark by Gary William Crawford
2010, Dark Regions Press, $9.95. darkregions.com

The purpose of Greatest Hits compilations is to celebrate a body of work. Whether the art involved is sound, words, visuals, or all three, a compilation should present an artist’s journey through his or her craft. It should serve as a marker, a creative crossroads at which the artist currently stands. Voices from the Dark is a celebration of Gary William Crawford’s twentyyear journey through speculative poetry, and gathers selections from his previous works, including The Divided Self, The Shadow City and The Phantom World.

The book kicks off with “To Absolve Pain” which encapsulates a desire for reprieve from suffering, even if it is to feel nothing. With “Insomnia” dream deprivation is used to subjugate; and “Press Release” and “Flies of Oblivion” are a search for identity. “The Artistry of Punishment” is an interesting, Kafkaesque look at justice and the trials of growing up, while the troubles with adulthood are addressed in “I Have a System in my Head”.

Of course, no Greatest Hits compilation would be complete without the inclusion of previously unreleased material. Here we are treated to “The Magic-Lantern Show” where the insubstantial nature of thoughts, and the fragility of perception, are explored. The antagonist of “The Iron Woman” holds a strong social position, which she abuses to ensure certain prejudices never die; while in “Players in a Black Comedy” stories and inspirations are re-imagined in dreams.

The most poignant poem among the previously unreleased material is, perhaps, also Crawford’s most personal exposure in the entire collection. As the author’s afterword suggests, “A Letter from the Dead” is written from experience, and concerns love and loss and the mentality of coping with death:

I couldn’t believe it.
This morning I got a letter from you.
But you had died.

It was from the nightmare of my loss.
You—dying suddenly—was all I knew.
Fixed as the idea was—

I could not shake it off.
They suspected I was mad—
but what did they know?

With Voices from the Dark an author’s past is firmly catalogued. There are themes running through these pages, some of which are clearly personal to Crawford. Sexuality, mental health and death, are all well covered. Sometimes sinister, often dark, always through-provoking, this book presents a journey in poetry which has led Gary William Crawford to his creative crossroads. It will be interesting to see which direction he takes next.

—Edward Cox

Wild Hunt of the Stars by Ann K. Schwader.
2010, Sam’s Dot Publishing, $6.00, Sam's Dot Publishing

Do you ever find yourself thinking about what’s Up There, beyond the clouds and all that blue stuff in the sky? Have you ever talked until the early hours because the twinkling lights that come out to shine at night are way too many to count? Feeling small because you can’t fathom the enormity of the universe and all that lies in it? Sad because there seems to be no sense and reason to it all? Yes? Then—shh!—I know a secret about Up There: it looks like the artwork of Marge Simon, and it sounds like the poetry of Ann K. Schwader.

Wild Hunt of the Stars is Schwader’s latest collection, a mix of new and old sci-fi poetry that takes us far into the deep beyond. We kick off with “Rich & Strange,” in which myths return to replace the human race on Earth. In “Dark Balance” the structure of the universe has never seemed frailer; while “In Some Final Winter” and “Revenants of the Time Machine” ponder the final days of civilization. The title poem is an interesting piece, where, oddly, the bad guy is science and space exploration; and “Sifting Stars” is a fight for survival on an alien world.

One poem that catches the eye is the impressive “We Gave Them to the Aliens.” Here, governments find an ingenious method of rectifying the problem of prison over-population. Terrifying in its conceivability, this poem will have conspiracy theorists drooling at the mouth, and even Philip K. Dick would be proud:

We gave them to the aliens who came
in ships of crystal fear to sample minds
of spiciness, uniqueness. Nothing tame.
Our leaders smiled & said they knew that kind
for trouble … claimed our prisons could provide
seditious succulence beyond their dreams
if, in exchange for being satisfied,
they told the state their victims’ secret schemes.

For long years now, our land has been secure.
Yet prisons empty faster than they fill
these days, while searchlights of no earthly hue
haunt our horizons. Only one thing’s sure:
our leaders have a heavy butcher’s bill
to pay—& all of us hold secrets, too.

Some poetry collections will always stand out from the pack, and when the author has as many award nominations as this one, it doesn’t take a quantum mechanic to see why. So, the next time you’re wondering about what’s Up There, just pick up a copy of Wild Hunt of the Stars. There’s a chance Schwader might not be telling you the truth, but her visions will fulfill anyone’s curiosity, and keep you entertained until well past the early hours.

—Edward Cox

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