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.

Only 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.

Previous years: 2012201120102009200820072006200520042003

For books published in 2013:

Codex Ponape by Cardinal Cox
Starburker Publications, saddle-stitched, 12 pp. Free for C5 SASE from 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB, United Kingdom, or e-mail cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

This is the latest in Cox's series of thin white pamphlets of poetry based on the writings of HP Lovecraft. As the title suggests, Codex Ponape focuses on the greatest malevolent deity of them all, or at least the one with the most cachet: he who waits dreaming in the drowned and otherwise deserted city of R'lyeh, under the Pacific Ocean near the island of Ponape. There are 11 poems, and as usual, there is some sort of “description” at the bottom of most of the pages. However, in contrast to previous publications in this series, these bottom of the page descriptions are not part of the game. Instead, with one exception, these are actual explanations of how the poems came to be written.

This is not one of my favorites of these small Lovecraftian offerings. The first poem, entitled “Just read what it says on the card,” is priceless. If your ophthalmologist was an adherent of the cult of Cthulhu, this would probably be on his wall. Several of the poems in this collection, such as “Trout Mask Replicas,” seem like great ideas that are not adequately realized. I should also mention that a couple of the poems in Codex Ponape are actually songs. The last poem is a piece of flash fiction. If you are familiar with the Cardinal's work, it is enough to know that these are typical of it. If you are not familiar with his work, this review is not going to convince you to get it.

Why am I reviewing a small-press publication about which I have so many reservations? First, it is part of a series and there may be some people who want to read every one in the series. Second, I really like two of the 11 poems a lot. Third, there may be other people who, for various reasons (Cthulhu fans, Lovecraftian completists, etc.), want this booklet even though I am lukewarm about it. Finally, this review will have a small environmental footprint because only an excerpt will be printed on paper and the rest will become phosphors. In conclusion, this little book is not without merit and I hope I have told you enough to let you know whether you will like it.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Constellation by M. Frost, with illustrations by Dee•Ah•Chur, epubconstellation@gmail.com, 42 pages, $8.

M. Frost’s collection Constellation meanders through our solar system—touching down on Mars, peering at the Moon, and sending a single feeler out Pluto’s way—while occasionally reaching back to brush Earth’s surface or peering ahead in time. Standing at 42 pages, this volume contains 21 poems in total, which vary in length from three lines to a full page, and are accompanied by a gamut of illustrations from the talented Dee Ah Chur.

The poems sculpt an image of the night sky that is colored by science at some points, such as in “Redshift, or the Theory of Relativity,” where the Doppler effect coexists with divinity. In other poems, Frost adopts a more whimsical approach, such as her consideration of possible interplanetary legal action regarding Pluto’s recent demotion in “Cause of Action.”

Frost is at her best, however, when she transcends the terrestrial and the whimsical and moves into more speculative, narrative poetry. She reimagines the tropes of science fiction through a unique lens, such as in “Climbing Olympus Mons,” which plays upon the name of the mountain to turn a trek up the peak on mars from a scientific mission to a religious experience. Take this passage:

Bodies of those who have tried
litter the mountainside; are swallowed

by red earth, and if they still have coin,
will pay to cross a dry river into Hades.

Frost recasts the Martian mountain, not in the triple-Everest mold common in comparisons, but as the divine Greek home its name comes from.

It is difficult to capture the full impact of Frost’s narrative poems with an excerpt, but her poem “Telling” contains this gem, where Frost is at her best in using the tropes of science fiction to her advantage:

I will tell you
the noise you hear when you hack their coms
is no language beautiful as your own
but the noise of a million insects
descending like locusts toward your planet.

Other poems in similar narrative veins, from a stellar truck stop to the cockpit of a dying probe pilot, hold the collection together.

Peppered throughout the chapbook are beautiful illustrations by the poet’s brother, Dee Ah Chur, ranging from crisp photography to monochromatic minimalism. Each helps to set the tone of poem it accompanies.

Frost has been published in the past in numerous publications, including Strange Horizons, Star*Line, and Fifth Dimension. But even if you’ve seen these poems other places, they gain a certain quality when gathered together and surrounded by art, forming a worthwhile collage of viewpoints centered around the night sky.

—Alexander Plummer

Cthulhu Haiku II And More Mythos Madness, ed. Lester Smith. 2013, Popcorn Press, PopcornPress.com. 178 pp. $9 print, $1 digital.

Cthulhu Haiku II, containing work from more than 50 authors, collects more than 100 poems, short stories, and pieces of flash fiction—all of which in some way touch, explore, or re-imagine a section of that alien, unknowable horizon beyond our world first envisaged by H.P. Lovecraft. Including a thoughtful introduction by Kenneth Hite on Lovecraft’s own probable reaction to the contents of the collection (Hite’s outlook is optimistic), this collection manages both humor and horror in equal measure, filled to the brim with tentacles, Great Old Ones, and that squamous something just around the next corner.

As the title suggests, many of the poems are haiku, but not nearly all—sonnets, free-verse poems of all types, and even a few Lovecraftian limericks all lurk between the pages—with a few prose poems to round out the collection. A similarly eclectic assortment of subjects, themes, and terrors from beyond mortal ken abound—from Philip C. Robinson’s “Ïa Shub-Niggurath,” a hymn to the glory of the Black Goat of 1,000 young, to Scott Nickell’s “Looks,” where a horror of the deep going through puberty struggles with his attraction to a young swimmer over Innsmouth. There’s even Kevin T. Stein’s “Cthulhu Saves Cthristmas: A Poem on the Angles,” which, done in the style of “The Night Before Christmas,” delivers exactly what its title promises, as the Great Old One searches the expanse of Lovecraft’s writings to find the errant Saint Nick:

Then out on world’s edge, there arose such a clatter,
Cthulhu did turn, to see form beyond matter.
Nyarlathotep rose, in one of myriad forms,
And blasted mankind’s minds, with insanity’s storms.

Lovers of Lovecraft will find much of the terminology gratifyingly familiar. Miskatonic University, Randolph Carter, Hastur, Azazoth, the Necronomicon, and even the mad priest in the yellow silk mask, all make their unspeakable way through the collection. Those who are less familiar with Lovecraft, however, should not feel repelled; a few of the poems may be opaque, but the majority are enjoyable by anyone who doesn’t mind the unknown, the weird, or the mad. As this gem of a haiku by Jason Huls demonstrates, most of the poems are comprehensible even for those readers who have never heard a fhtagn:

The runes in this book
Make sense in the right lighting
Did you hear that sound?

Not every poem featured is perfect, but what this collection occasionally lacks in polish or professional flair, it makes up for in enthusiasm—as Kenneth Hite says in the foreword, it is intended to showcase “exuberant amateur spirit.” If you find one poem lacking, another is sure to draw a chuckle, a indrawn breath, or a prickle on the back of the neck.

And in no other collection could you find two sages dueling over Lovecraftian spirituality while trading haiku, as in Tim Ryan’s short story, “In Winter Fields a Bonshou,” or find Christ recast as the son of a Great Old One, as in Scarlett Algee’s “O Come Let Us Adore Him.” This collection is suitable for anyone looking for a great tome of poetry, with a little prose sprinkled in, and who doesn’t mind laughing on one page and checking over their shoulder the next.

The various authors and poets featured in this book have won too many awards, been published too many places, and done far too many interesting things to begin to list even a fraction here.

—Alexander Plummer

Dangerous Dreams by Marge Simon and Sandy DeLuca. 2013, Elektrik Milk Bath Press, elektrikmilkbathpress.com/bookstore. 98 pp. $10 print.

Passing Notes in Horror Class
Dangerous Dreams marks the third collaboration between Marge Simon and Sandy DeLuca. In this current effort, they built the poems together, trading lines back and forth in emails from their respective locales, and then Simon illustrated them.

The result is a lot of decentralized poems, with the tone generally like that of a conversation between friends. I picture them passing notes, staying on topic for little while, until conversational drift takes them to the next topic, the next poem. Let us go a-wandering and see what we shall see.

Well, no surprise in the poet, no surprise in the reader. And it’s true that two people conversing can surprise themselves better than one person can alone. But we also get an admixture of motives and a jumpiness in narrative direction, so that the poems often come in fits and starts, albeit slaked somewhat and with the creases smoothed over. Such as “Family Ties,” where a girl’s parents and brothers tie her up on Saturday nights and sexually torture her:

She misses them,
misses those sultry Saturday nights
when they tied her to the bedpost
& laughing, ran their blades
against her throat.

Okay, well, perverse enough for a decent horror poem, I guess. But suddenly, three stanzas later, without explanation, she abruptly wants revenge:

She tears her tethers from the wall,
seething with anger, her wounds
beyond description, mind on revenge,

That same jumpiness can be seen in other poems. “Possessions” is about a couple is driving down a highway, and an early stanza ends, “our destination unknown,” I can’t help but feel like I’m watching the potato being passed to the other poet. “Okay, I put them on the road; you decide where they’re going.” Maybe the same poet wrote the next stanza, too, but it is kind of disjointed, as it starts with “My hands caress the quilt / that you so love—” and goes on about how they made love under it, and then the potato seems to pass again, with the next stanza offering a riff on how the quilt was the grandmother’s, and so on. It seems like tangent upon tangent.

Given that art usually seeks to produce some surprise or some novelty, some turning, within the bounds of its genre, it’s funny how often the turning in horror is simply to put murder and torture in some mundane place or have it be done by “innocent” hands. It’s funny how we want the novelty, but we also want the familiar comforts of the tropes. I enjoyed “The Children’s Hours” which ends with the “surprise” that the torturers in the poem are “sweet children with apple red cheeks / [who] bring fresh roses to the dead, / longing for sundown, waiting for the kill.”

I don’t know, what does Horror serve? Do we have to agree that we are all one-third savage, with all this dark id churning inside us, itching to find some harmless expression (read, “venting and release”)? Is that why we have tropes of seemingly kind and ordinary people who suddenly burst out of everyday life and cut the flesh off our bodies? There are a lot of knives in this book, a lot of cutting to the bone. It is just a pleasant night’s entertainment? This is certainly no slasher book, let me be clear. It is horror by the daughters of Vincent Price, who have just a little less of his sweet tooth and a little more taste for blood.

It’s not all murder and mayhem, either. There are a lot of cats and glasses of wine, of ghostly moments and full (or gibbous) moons, of eloquent yet thirsty vampires. There’s a pleasant vampire-hunter love narrative, engifted with a necklace made of vampire teeth, in “The Mission.” The poem, “Bedtime,” has an old woman selling tickets to a rock and roll Heaven show, and then,

Still, the old woman latches her door
for another hundred years,
turns down the lights,
& crawls beneath the sheets

and although I’m taking the phrase outside of its narrative referent, I know of that hundred years, and you might, too. I’ve tucked myself in with it many times.

All in all, it is a decent book with some graceful lines, though it never catches fire. Two people passing notes back and forth are never seized by inspiration, passion, or theme. But they do have a lot of pleasant conversations, and for $10 on Amazon.com, you can listen in.

—John Philip Johnson

Dark Roads coverDark Roads: Selected Long Poems 1971-2012 by Bruce Boston.
Dark Renaissance Books. $15. Dark Renaissance Books

“Surrealism, Science Fiction, and Drugs Walked into a Bar”

Dark Roads represents the highlights of over forty years of work, presenting us with a “greatest hits” of his long poems. It starts with a few from the seventies which aren’t yet consciously speculative, and goes to some recent ones which show the mature chops of our field’s first grandmaster. Generally speaking they are dark, even melancholic, as the title Dark Roads suggests, and all of them have a surreal quality, whether they are science-fictional, or of the horror genre, or meditations on hallucinogenic blue pomegranates and hashish.

The first one, “The Tiger Does Not Know,” dated 1971, is about language and life (“words … / weaved in wood”), but it is really about a young poet strutting his stuff and “dedicating himself / to the transcription of realities,” which I think is the poetic guiding principle for Boston’s career, as sometimes young poets delineate in an early poem, like Heaney and his “digs” or Yeats’s going with Fergus.. The figure in the poem “wrote that he was weary of ‘endless / first person confessionals,’” and while the poem is like a third-person confessional, albeit fantastical, it is also full of striking images and ideas.

Images are the key to Boston’s poetic heritage, which is derived somewhat from the Imagists, but more from the so-called “Deep Image” poets popular at the time Boston started writing. Featuring a tendency towards narratives and symbolism, this was in contrast to the much more influential school of poetry going on then, the Confessional poets, which Bruce, in his late twenties, was already weary of.

So, a lot of his poems have a big, central image—a tent pole—and the narratives of the poem revolve around that. For example, the Mutant Rain Forest is not just a world that he and Robert Frazier created and wrote many stories and poems about, it is also a central, organizing principle. Or “The Crow is Dismantled in Flight” or “The House Broods Over Us” or “She Was There for Him the Last Time” are among the others that are long filigrees around their central metaphors.

His style varies from clear, even prosaic narratives, to lush, textured atmospherics; the latter tending to be the image poems. His first clear-cut science-fictional poem in the collection is “The Stardrifter Grounded,” from 1981, and it’s a blast. I really liked it. It is a narrative of a space explorer who is stuck on a foreign world, contemplating his friend’s advice to just take a blue alien woman there and make the best of it. He gets drunk and staggers out into the night to look at the sky:

There is an incandesce in his heart,
a wilderness of light; above there is
nothing but a vague gray blackness.

I read into this wilderness of light a lot of the realities he’s transcribing.

The next poem continues in that clear narrative style, “Human Remains,” from the same year. I loved this one, too. The first part is about The Androids, in which they contemplate their human origins, being human products, and even though they are now the dominant power, with the humans having been severely maimed and mutilated by nuclear war, for the androids, “man remains our metaphor.” What a great line.

By the way, the book is beautifully illustrated by M. Wayne Miller, with a half a dozen or so finely wrought, full-page black and white illustrations, and a color cover which has two yellow cat eyes hanging in the dark above a wilderness highway, staring back at you. They come from the last line of one of the Mutant Rain Forest poems, “A Missionary of the Mutant Rain Forest,” about a mad priest who plunges through the nearly impassable jungle to witness to the highly mutated cat-people deep in there. His “visionary madness is familiar to their kind,” and the tables turn, and he gets a real dose of their cat religion, going back to preach it to the human civilization. The subtitle of the poem is “in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Felidae Sancti” which means “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Cat.” It closes with “the reborn Savior as a bestial incarnation / complete with taloned forepaws and the eyes of a cat.” What rough beast, eh?—slouching all the way to the litter box.

The darkness of that poem, though not necessarily its cynicism, pervades most of the poems in this collection. Here is a very partial list of Dark Things in the book; I mean things called “dark”: Dark roads, dark rains, darkened hours, dark seas, the “far pale clarity / in the dark extension.” There is the aforementioned crow, which is pretty dark, there is “charred stench and chaos,” there are “senseless nights,” people standing in “ruins,” in an “arcade of subtle poisons,” and so on. There is a whole lot of pretty darn gloomy things in this book.

That would be my only complaint with the collection. It is, I know, a matter of taste. It may just be a matter of personality type, too. By humors, I am a sanguine (sanguines like parties and cheerful things more than non-sanguines do), and I’m pretty sure that Boston is a melancholic, which is the opposite humor and a pretty serious one at that. But I think it is also more than humors. The science fiction of the ’60s was replete with tons of general cynicism, and I can’t help but wonder if Boston didn’t absorb that. Although he doesn’t otherwise have any literary influences of Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick, he sure has that knee-jerk pessimism down pat.

I should keep this in the context of his being, in part, a horror writer, too, having won the Bram Stoker Award four times, so darkness is part of his stock in trade. Horror, as a genre, creates a curious place for the human psyche. It partitions out a kind of limbo, outside the gates of heaven but not succumbed to the gravity of hell. Occupying a midpoint, as if between gravitational fields, it allows a strange freedom for human beings, all of their own. Although I’m not much on the genre, the horror I like is at this precise midpoint, with a slight leaning towards redemption, heaven, and happy endings. I think Boston prefers looking the other way. So, maybe it is a matter of humor, or taste, but also there is philosophy in them thar hills, which I don’t want to go further into here.

Well, there was also one other thing that I didn’t like. Numerous drug references. Didn’t Shelley like drugs? I hate them. I really really hate them, so I have to read his poems about them with a grimace. One poem has “drug-fueled flights to worlds unfathomed,” which is a crock if you ask me, and two other poems, “The Blue Pomegranate” and “Thirteen Meditations on Hashish,” have drugs as their subject matter. Yeah, I know, our genre, more than mainstream work, is about the imagination. And drugs, at least the ’60s drugs that Bruce writes about, are deeply connected with the imagination. Drugs, Surrealism, and Science Fiction, they all meet at a bar called Imagination once in a while to drink alcohol together. Yeah, I know, it’s not a bar, it’s “caverns measureless to man.” But wasn’t Coleridge ruined by drugs? I know so many people who have been.

Let me put these gripes in the context of this being basically a masterpiece of a book that, if you are serious about this genre, you should go out and buy. Lots of solid work. If I were to quote you lines that I think really sizzled, I could give you a hundred or more. In a remarkable, very long poem, “Pavane for a Cyber-Princess,” after “her exquisite cadaver rises,” she finds,

Letters with hooks and eyelets
scavenged from ancient alphabets
(and their venerable antecedents)
have been tethered and sutured
in the enlarged crystalline
lattice of her cerebrum.

Mama, we’re staying home tonight, and a-readin’ Bruce’s book. The poem goes on to recede from itself, deconstructing all the way, offering definitions at the end of each section that rearrange meanings as much as amplifying (such as “‘Spinning’ as in ‘revealing every / scabrous inch of her larval obscenity’”).

It’s an “anima fatale” poem, and in another one, “She Was There for Him the Last Time,”—one of my favorites—we have:

an angel of thanatos and calculation …

[who becomes] a high priestess
of means and standard deviations
a mistress of bell curves
and statistical indifference”

There’s one other poem I want to mention, “The Wordmonger’s Tale.” It is situated back-to-back with “Tale of a Dream Merchant,” and both are kind of lone-genius-mutilated-by-the-ignorant-masses tales (which takes us back to Harlan Ellison and ’60s SF), but what I like about Wordmonger is that it’s about language. I like it when Boston, in this book and elsewhere, talks about language. In this poem, the rabble press in upon the wordmonger, demanding he give them more words, and so he “stitches” for them “words derived from nothingness / with vacuums at their core.” I really liked that phrase, and it seemed redolent with implicit political commentary, too. As the monger journeys, he learns that people are “broken” when “thinking words [are] far heavier / than what they represent.” Ain’t that the truth.

Speaking of words, I love Boston’s vocabulary. Although not a serious sesquipedalian myself (nor a voluptuous vocabularian), I know a few, and I enjoyed seeing words that are new to me, such as ylem, pavane, arcology, caul, and cicatrix, among others. I’m not sure if all of them are actually words, or if they are neologisms, or what, but he tends to use this kind of vocabulary to add richness to his image poems. It’s also true that vocab can get in the way, and some of his image poems are a bit cluttered, IMHO, not necessarily with obscure words, but just too many words, especially too many modifiers. But I seriously offer this up as a total matter of taste. In a similar way, I find some of the poems in Goblin Fruit or Mythic Delirium to be cluttered sometimes, but I love many of the others, and evidently the editors love them all.

I’m sorry this review is kind of long, but I’m responding to a book of great density that took decades to accomplish. I’m also sorry it’s in kind of an academic style, but I thought this book was important enough to review while wearing a tie and a jacket. Let me conclude by saying that I kept sensing the presence of the ouroboros in the background, the snake eating its tale. I can’t put my finger on exactly what I’m sensing, but at a certain point, one of his anima fatales was wearing “two silver anklets fashioned in the / form of self-devouring snakes” and I thought, yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on in a lot of these. It has something to do with the “last existentialist” (one of the characters in these poems) grounding himself in his own being—the cosmic tautology of that.

Be that as it may, or may not be, Boston has had a great career, and he turned seventy this year, which doesn’t seem that old to me any more. Hopefully he’s got a lot left in him. He is an inventive poet, as much now as forty years ago, with a gravitas that lends itself to the profound, if not always playful, use of language. He has dedicated the main efforts of his mind for many years to the “transcription of realities,” and he has done it well. This book is proof of that.

—John Philip Johnson

Review by Norm Rubenstein, Horror World

Review by Drake Morgan, Horror Novel Reviews

Review on Gothic Readers Book Club

Essay by Drake Morgan, Horror Novel Reviews

Review by Clayton Bye, The Deepening World of Books

Review by Charles Gramlich, Razored Zen

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue by Sally Rosen Kindred. 2013, Hyacinth Girl Press, hyacinthgirlpress.com/yearthree/darlinghandsdarlingtongue.html. 32 pp. $6 print.

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue is a series of meditations and persona poems centered around J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy. Kindred uses this story and its characters to discuss and analyze the roles of women and mothers. The major themes are captured in the cover illustration by Nashay Jones, which depicts a woman reaching out for a child floating among petals. It is not clear whether the mother is reaching to catch the child or is tossing them away, and it is these themes of motherhood that permeate the collection as a whole. For example, in the poem “Wendy Darling Remembers Falling,” Wendy says of her mother:

I had only wanted her hands—

the leather of her warm fingers in my hair,
even the smooth-glass drag of her ring.
Now I wonder if that’s why

I learned to fly:
because the only way down

had turned out to be
the crack of my bones and hard rain,
because all her hands had done

was find her lips
and rest against them

as I slapped and slid my hard way
to her shoes: their refusal,
that alien brown shine.

These issues with motherhood, and the speakers’ relationships with their mothers, are major discussions that work throughout this text.

The other major theme is the role of women in the story of Peter Pan. From Wendy Darling to Tinker Bell to Tiger Lily, Kindred has the women question their place and role in the story, challenging the stereotypes that Barrie thrust upon them. For example, in “Tiger Lily Leaves the Book for Now,” Tiger Lily says:

If my lips moved in this story
we could talk.
I’ve shut your book. Just think
if my sisters and brothers were more
than a smudge on the page, than Redskins
moving in tandem, marching
in some dim
ellipse, waiting to be elected
for salvation
or the Superbowl.
Imagine me, waking: the chapter’s
light defined
by my lids swinging wide.
I want to be specific, arch my left
brow, my story
all linguistics
and technology. I want to be so ugly
you can’t look. I want a family
but you’ve given me a beer in the cheap seats.

Kindred uses the voices of these characters to confront and contest their roles in the book, giving dimension to static characters and contemporizing them for modern readers.

Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue is a strong book of poetry. The poems are rich in imagery and present strong, feminist voices, reinterpreting J. M. Barrie’s text for a 21st-century readership. This is an excellent collection that is sure to delight speculative poetry readers.

—Joshua Gage

Demonstra coverDemonstra by Bryan Thao Worra. Art by Vongduane Manivong.
Innsmouth Free Press, innsmouthfreepress.com. 170 pp. $10 trade paperback.

Bryan Thao Worra’s extensive poetry collection Demonstra contains more than 65 poems, ranging in length from a solitary haiku (“Kaiju Haiku”) to one twenty-seven-part epic longer than some chapbooks by itself (“The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa). Many of the poems mine the intersection between Laotian and Western mythology, such as juxtaposing Buddhist precepts with a zombie apocalypse (“Idle Fears”) or incorporating Laotian monsters into the Cthulhu Mythos (“Laonomicon”). Several detailed black-and-white illustrations by the talented Vongduane Manivong lend a visual aid to several poems, depicting various figures from Laotian myth.

Most of Worra’s poems engage with Laotian mythology or history in some way, delighting in bilingual and even trilingual wordplay as the English alliteration is punctuated by Lao words and phrases—some easily understood from context, others left to stand on the beauty of their language alone—with dashes of French making an appearance in places as well. The majority of Worra’s poems are steadfastly narrative, using vivid imagery with speculative elements to convey a short (or not so short in Ms. Mannivongsa’s case) story.

One such poem is the gem “Kwan Yan: A Dharma Discourse,” which seeks to apply five Buddhist precepts to various speculative monsters, crises, and apocalypses:

Even in the aftermath of an apocalypse,
Such as nations falling into the sea,
Or a blight of rampaging zombies,
Looting stains one’s karma permanently.

Other poems read like a mystical collage, spreading in a branched spiderweb from the initial intersection of Laotian and Western myths to such disparate entities as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, Oedipus’s Sphinx, and the American werewolf. Worra’s dazzling array of literary allusions run the gamut of classics of every tradition and genre. One such collage appears during “The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa:”

A cocky skinwalker sits nearby, occupied
Spilling his coffee on a cheap copy of
Skimming an Anthology of Chinese Poems
Of the Dang Dynasty he barely understands,
Any more than the shrugs of Ayn Rand,
Or how to rage against machines.
He thinks he governs all he surveys,
But he’s just a puppet of iron pyrite,
Defanged before he could really bite.

Worra sticks to no one poetic style, making use of of an eclectic combination of stanzas to let the words and story play out in whatever manner best fits. Not all of Worra’s poems in Demonstra are speculative: interweaving with the mythology and the spirits comes the intensely personal that at times verges on the autobiographical, with poems that ruminate on identity and homeland filling in the gaps betwixt kaiju attacks and uncertainly ravenous Nyak.

Worra’s Demonstra contains poetry to appeal to a wide variety of poetical tastes in its fantastical collage. Intensely concerned with Laotian mythology, it does not cast the reader alone into the landscape of unfamiliar monsters and spirits, containing a helpful appendix with an explanation of the various entities of interest. The poems lacking a speculative element are at times even more visceral, bursting into the spaces between mythological clashes with questions of personal identity. Nowhere else could you find poetry that will ask you to consider how Asimov’s Laws of Robotics could be changed to mesh with a belief in reincarnation (such as in “The Robo Sutra”), and that is just one example of the rich, unique depth Worra’s poetry brings to the table.

—Alexander Plummer

Review by Russ Thompson, Hellnotes

The First Bite of the Apple by Jennifer Crow.
2013, Elektrik Milk Bath Press, elektrikmilkbathpress.com. 90 pp., $10.

The First Bite of the Apple is Jennifer Crow’s first collection. What will impress readers of poetry is its density. At her best, Jennifer Crow packs a lot into her poems. Through layers of imagery and language, she is able to capture both subject and emotion, allowing her reader to wallow, if not fully submerge themselves, in the poem. For example, these lines from “The Last Wife,”

No one tells you, at the altar or before, that ‘worse’
Always comes after better, that secrets
Stink like the dead until you can almost hear the stench
Walking room to room, in the hallway
You never enter.

With this rich, evocative language, Crow is able to capture her reader’s attention and hold it firmly.

Even when Crow teeters into the language of abstraction, she does so subtlely, packing her lines with imagery and metaphor enough that the abstract is couched in then concrete, and doesn’t distance the reader too much. For example, from “The Shape of Thorns,”

Your heart curves into itself
a treacherous spike of passion
that drives you, itching
where the tender scab forms,
the point working its way through flesh
whenever you think of her.

Here, the reader is given clear visual, tactile and organic imagery to solidify and make visceral the abstraction of “passion”. This is a technique that Crow often uses throughout her poems, and one that works fairly successfully.

The First Bite of the Apple is a very exciting book, rich with mythopoetic poems. As a first book, it is uncompromisingly successful, and promises a great future from a talented poet. Anyone interested in speculative poetry should rush out to buy a copy.

—Joshua Gage

Diane Severson review

Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry, eds. Shira Lipkin & Michael Damian Thomas. 2013, Meatball Trouble Productions. Digital. 91 pages. Free at smashwords.com/books/view/345097.

Hovering over the Patio
The introduction by the editors tells you all you need to know: A group of writers at Wiscon decided to write poems about superheroes. They wrote some at dinner, and then came home and “decided that everybody should have a chance to join the fun and did an open call for submissions. The anthology quickly expanded to what it is today—a collection of over 50 superhero poems from the ridiculous to the sublime, from award-winning poets and writers to total poetry novices and everyone in between. The unifying thread through this collection is a pure love for superheroes.”

A lot of these were written on the back of placemats at a dinner where the authors were gathering at Wiscon. So, yeah, a lot of them are tossed off, but they don’t pretend to be anything else, and while this is a light collection, it can be enjoyed just for its lightness. It was never meant to be anything other than fun.
It includes contributions by some of my favorite workers in the valley, including Amal El-Mohtar, Mike Allen, C.S.E. Cooney, and more. Here are two samples, one by Mary Marionette Kowal, and another by Anita Allen.

Robin’s Legs
by Mary Marionette Kowal

Robin’s legs
Slender, shorn, and pale
Muscles bunching
As he climbs a horizontal rope.
I still dream about him.

* * *

Mrs. Freeze
by Anita Allen

Is it really a super power, to be able to endure the bitter cold of your world? Maybe.
To see the burning embers of blue gold fires in the frosty sparkle of your eyes.
To find your laughter, like cracking winter ice, beguiling.
To feel myself warm to a soft-as-snowflakes touch, that freezes all others’ hearts.
To know your icy heart beats in its own winter way, just for me, for my touch.
Perhaps it is a power then. If so it is mine. My gift to you however, is love.

I just said her middle name was ‘Marionette’ because I heard her talk at ReaderCon about her puppeteering. If you are data-mining this, it’s Mary Robinette Kowal. If they can have a rowdy, loose time making this anthology, then I suppose I should do the same reviewing it. There’s very little more I can think of to say about this book. It is mostly fun stuff, some of it so stupid as not to be mentioned otherwise, but completely unpretentious. You can knock off this collection before dinner and get a few smiles. Why not, since it’s free?

—John Philip Johnson

* * *

Flying Higher collects more than 50 poems by as many authors, all of which explore, ruminate on, or reimagine the complex, cape-shrouded, and ever-evolving world of the superhero. The collection forms a 91-page collage of crime fighters, cackling supervillains, and superhuman heroes; both those icons of the genre and those obscured by time. By utilizing a diverse set of poetic forms—partnering villanelles with limericks (dirty and otherwise), giving every freeverse poem a rhyming sidekick, and seasoning it all with a haiku or two and at least one sonnet—Flying Higher manages to be as varied and eclectic as the heroes that inspired it.

The collection is marked, above all, by a deep love and enthusiasm for the superhero genre, expressed in a variety of ways. Be it the retrospective sexual thrill inspired by genre mainstays, such as in Julia Rios’s “Becoming Wonder Woman,” or Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Robin’s Legs,” tongue-in-cheek humor at the expense of overdramatic storytelling, as if found in S. Brackett Robinson’s “Swimming Lessons,” (where inflatable shoulder pads are all that saves one costumed hero from a ignoble death by drowning in a pond), or an exploration of the poignant moral conflict implicit in superhuman power, as laid out by Catt Kingsgrave in “The Ballad of Captain America’s Disapproving Face,” each poem, whether affirming or critiquing, wells from an abiding engagement with a landscape populated by superheroes, supervillains, and all the characters in-between.

Several of the poems consider the less heroic and more quotidian aspects of superhero life. Consider this passage from Wednesday Burns-Whites’s “Knitwear is Both Harder and Softer than Suits,” where She-Hulk laments her wardrobe difficulties:

They can't kill me, but they killed my sweater.
My squishy, gunky, loaf-around sweater.
I loved that sweater. You have no idea.

This shit never happens to Stark, and he buys new suits all the time.

Other poems also engage with the off-duty aspects of superheroing, but take a darker bent, considering the strain such a lifestyle would leave on an individual: the reality not often depicted in the comics and movies. This excerpt from Shira Lipkin’s “Limbo” shows a darker take on tragic origin stories:

I was not a child when I came home.

Not a child, not a hero,
but I wore your costume,
I hid my sword.

In Lipkin’s poem, the hero seems aware of the context in which he lives, and theme that traces its thread throughout other parts of the collection—heroes and villains taking on an insquisitve or even antagonistic relationship with their creators or fans; a sort of metatextual commentary on the superhero comic genre that both delights and chills. Of particular note in that regard is Michael Damian Thomas’s poem “Hawkguy,” where the titular hero is overwhelmed by the number of alternate continuities and reboots he finds himself in, as well as Mike Allen’s “Darksein the Diabolic Plots His Comeback from Beyond the Grave,” wherein a villain complains to his authors about his ignoble death.

Some of the poems of the collection assume a fairly detailed knowledge of the superhero genre on the part of the reader. Those who don’t have that extensive knowledge may find a few of the more esoteric pieces lost on them. However, with such a variety of poems, many of them worthy of a read whether or not a reader has an interest in superheroes, a lack of extensive superhero knowledge shouldn’t serve as a barrier.

For anyone looking for a collection of poetry that will at turns delight, shock, or pose serious questions, Flying Higher comes recommended. It’s available for free, so the only barrier to reading it is time—and this one is worth it. It transcends both Silver-Age comics nostalgia and Watchmen-esque gritty despair to arrive, through poetry, in a fractured but rich area where superheroes are increasingly human.

—Alex Plummer

For the Living Dead: New & Selected Poems by Eric Greinke. 156 pages. Presa Press, presapress.com. $15.95.

A large portion of Greinke’s poetry is marked by an image-heavy surrealism. For example, “Black Milk” begins

Satin razors bake in open shells.
Maniacs seek degrees in Law.

Butchers cut up teenage girls
Shot during season by professionals.

The eyes of Michelangelo’s “PIETA” crack,
& blue snakes flood the Vatican chambers.

As with most surrealism, the images work together to create a dream-like sequence for the reader, forcing them to make sense of the narrative as it flows past. Greinke’s surreal poems often hint at a social critique, and the reader is left to consider their place and responsibility amongst social problems.

What will catch readers of speculative poetry off guard is the extreme lack of speculative poems in this collection. Despite being a Rhysling nominee, the bulk of Greinke’s poems are fairly mainstream, and he only has a few speculative poems in this book, mostly near the end. The eponymous poem, for example, discusses zombies and robots. It’s a fairly bland poem, though, laced with a lot of abstraction:

In the land of the dead
If a zombie bites you
You become a zombie too
You become a soldier in the zombie army
Sharing a goal with no sense of purpose
With an inner drive to obey

Overall, For the Living Dead shows that Eric Greinke is a widely written and published poet. And while quantity does not necessarily equate to quality, there are enough decent enough poems to entertain the average poetry reader. However, the bulk of this manuscript is not speculative, and the few speculative poems included are not the best representations of Greinke’s work. Readers seeking good speculative poetry should look elsewhere.

—Joshua Gage

Hysteria: A Collection of Madness Stephanie Wytovich. 2013, Raw Dog Screaming Press, 162 pp. $4.99 Kindle. $12.95 print.

Buckets o’ Blood
This book is mostly full of brutality, with some exceptions. I guess these poems are for people who like to be scared. I find myself wondering if the bulk of our cultural manufacturing is to serve one hormone or another. Sports and action serve adrenaline. Romantic comedies are to let women come home with a romantic, sexual feeling. Is that all we do our art for, just to serve a hormone? Perhaps there is some secretion for high-minded, take-your-breath-away art? I’m not judging; I’m just wondering.

In any event, if you do like being scared, I’m not sure how many of these will do it for you. Although a few are quite clever, there is a relentless grisliness to most of these that deadens us in the onslaught and makes us numb. You find out fast that almost every poem is going to have gruesome nastiness in it, and you cease caring or being scared, if you ever were. For example, by the time I got to “The Cheater,” in the latter half of the book, a woman is raped with a chain saw, and as horrible and ghastly as that is, by that point. honestly, my reaction was a big ho-hum.

So much blood and cruelty. Many times, blood is described as a delicious beverage. Often, as the blood flows, someone is getting sexually hot over it. Mutilation, torture, eyes carved out, limbs cut off, cruelty to animals, cannibalism, madness, self-mutilation, self-amputation, extreme misogyny (hear the chainsaw?), perverse and abusive sexuality, on and on and on. Buckets o’ blood. The poetic formula, for the most part, is simple. What horrible thing can I write about next? What “twist’ can I add to cruelty and madness?

You might say, what do you expect from a splatter book of horror, John? And if you can’t take the bloodletting, maybe you should get out of the abattoir. Yeah, well, do you really think we can so heavily dose ourselves with this stuff and not do some damage? I left 300: Rise of an Empire the other night, which—spoiler alert—is a bloodbath, and I realized I’d hurt myself by watching it.

Well, we heal. Most of us. And, actually, several of the poems in here are quite good. Let me talk about those. I liked “Luna,” about a werewolf. “Signature” also has a raw power, with a psycho-sex criminal stalking his prey, but get this, he doesn’t actually rape or kill or eat his object! He doesn’t even meet his object! Yay! Instead, he goes to her (his?) place and,

I sat on your doorstep
But didn’t ring your doorbell
I wanted to see if you could feel me there

It get creepier from there, but no one dies. Great psychological stuff. A poem about an abused mental patient, “Energy Surge,” opens with this:

He likes me
Because I’m quiet,
Not because he knows
I’m eating his spirits
As he walks on by

We find out the doctor consistently rapes her, but she is performing (imagining?) this psychic revenge. “Storm” is a good one about a another mental patient, this one living deep in his own head, receiving electroshock like a storm:

Lightning courses through my brain
Subtle shocks that shake me
Followed by a bellowing thunder
In the depths of my cortex

Horror writer Michael A. Arnzen, her mentor, writes an AWP-style introduction, with lots of intellectualisms that, like most AWP-style introductions, bears little resemblance to what it describes. So much of this mayhem seems just dashed off. However, some of this stuff is pretty good, and it’s clear that Wytovich has the “chops” to write some really “striking” stuff. A long time ago, I remember reading a complaint in passing by David Hume about London stages where they threw buckets of blood, and I have to ask, if you can write memorable, thoughtful stuff, why just throw forgettable buckets of blood?

—John Philip Johnson

“I Feel So Schizophrenic,” the Starship’s Aft-Brain Said by Kendall Evans. Illustrations by Marge Simon.
Alban Lake, 2013, from a 2007 printing by Sam’s Dot. 50 pages, perfect bound. $6. albanlake.com

If you don’t know whether to write your Classics/Religious Studies dissertation or go bowling, I suggest you do neither and read this book instead. In fact, I don’t know whether I want to watch the hybrid Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick film A.I. or read this book again, although doing both simultaneously might be a good idea. Still there? Hello?

I have always admired Kendall Evans’ ability to write effectively in all the speculative genres without managing to mangle them, and this book is quite an accomplishment even if we just look at it as a long narrative science fiction poem (I feel it is much, much more.) The cover posits the question, “Who are we, who is with us, who isn’t … and how do we tell the difference?” Good questions.

The real question in the narrative is, however, how will 4-Tech Rachel Sanchez save her child Moses, er, I mean Horus … er, I mean, Cyrus, from the schizoid starship’s murderous A-I? How did this problem come about? Well, in chapter and verse, so to speak:

Once upon a time
a triad of computers
comprised the ship’s A.I.
United in one consciousness
in tri-part harmony
And when that one fateful
set of answers disagreed
Ship’s primary intelligence
disconnected me
Schizophrenic split my genesis
As separate entity

Two hundred years ago
We quarreled
One of us
Was wrong

The real fun of this book is that it does bring in well-known SFnal tropes such as a nod to Star Trek’s Nomad, the above-mentioned film A.I., Lord of the Rings’ Gollum/Smeagol, and a setting similar to many stories about “generation ships.” It also, most importantly, does what really good literary SF does: supports its futuristic adamantium framework with the ancient myths of our culture. They could have been talking about Evans’ character Rachel when Christian publisher Zondervan’s BibleGateway.com says of the actual biblical Rachel, “The galaxy of the Bible’s famous women would be incomplete without such a star.” Amen to that, and 4-Tech Rachel is the star of the book as well, a sort of Alien’s Ripley on a mission to save her child, an “Image of a mechanical Madonna/infant robot/balanced on her hip.”

Pharoah, let my poets go!

Oh, and if you are a fan of the idea that the ancient Egyptian gods were actually aliens from outer space … well, I’ve said too much already. Buy the book! It’s an awesome ride through outer space and the inner archetypes of our mythology. So there. My highest recommendation.

—Denise Dumars

In the End: Apocalyptic Poetry by Debra Kraft.
Smashwords.com. $0.99. smashwords.com/books/view/271632

I found the dedication very interesting. It was to three victims of a serial killer, the FBI who solved the case, and a woman in the killer’s car trunk who was saved. And then Ms. Kraft writes,

“I Touched the Hand of Evil” was inspired by my own chilling encounter with the man two weeks before his arrest. When his eyes met mine I felt like prey to his predator and instinctively knew there was evil within him. Perhaps I was saved by circumstance, perhaps by guardian angels. Either way, I feel a connection to his victims and a need to keep them remembered.

I found this vivid, chilling and immediate. Unfortunately, most of the poems that follow are not that way. Instead, they tend to be overly abstract and distant, with layers of metaphor that obstruct me from the subject instead of drawing me in. For example, this poem, “Sacrifice,” quoted in its entirety:


In the gray and foggy murk
of a steady, soggy dawn
he tries to find some meaning in the mist
but a lake of light surrounds him
as a siren sings her song
and his thoughts have lost the power to resist.

He lets the ether take him
through the pouring, soaring swirls
of an ocean tide that swallows empty dreams
as the harbor master watches
and the main sail slowly furls
from the pull of effervescent, silver streams.

When he tastes the silence …

He awakens in the water
in the clinging, clutching hold
of a creature no mere mortal might escape
and the harbor master smiles
while the sun arises gold
leaving trails of bloody water in her wake.

Or, let me just quote a bit of the next poem, “disconnected,” and specify what I mean:

a leaf caught in the wind
cast out by the tree
driven from the land
adrift and alone

If the leaf is caught in the wind, then the wind is the agent of action, and the tree isn’t doing any casting. Am I supposed to think the tree and the wind are in cahoots? And a leaf “driven from the land”? I can’t picture that, can you? Some leaf (brown? green?) alone, blown past all the other leaves that aren’t moving, blown to the political boundary of some kingdom? And if it’s being pushed out to the end of the kingdom, then it isn’t adrift; its movement is very specific. And why would the wind bother, anyway? And is there something a leaf would prefer to do? What?

Some of these are stronger, and a few were published in professional venues. Such as “Beneath Between,” published in Illumen. Here’s a quote from that: “it flexes muscles stiff from rest / and gives the air a feral test.”

Here and there you find great lines, like “a girl who lived like a mop.” And she’s put together a fun video promoting her book which you will probably like:
It has some of the best lines quoted in it. And I like the movement of the book. There are four sections, and it ends optimistically with “New Beginnings”

So, if you want to sift through this self-published book to find the occasional gems, you will find some. In the meantime, I would encourage her to work more closely with writing groups, read more poetry, and do more sifting for us. If a person can write one gem, they can write a book full of them.

—John Philip Johnson

Incorrect Astronomy by Steven L. Peck.
Aldrich Press, perfect bound, 86 pp. $9.00. aldrichbookpublishing.blogspot.com

When Astronomy is incorrect, is it still Astronomy? Is it still a system? After reading this collection of poems by Steven L. Peck, I’d say yes. Incorrect Astronomy spans a broad spectrum of insight and interest into a legion of areas.

The collection begins with “Her Father’s Critique,” which seemed an odd first piece, but reading it, I think it perfectly sets the stage for future explorations. “Her Father’s Critique” hints at a young artist’s decision to quit painting, while “The KingFisher” offers reflections on Jung, his studies and his reason to continue through the vision of a dream:

Picking it up,
he wept because something
somewhere in this frightening
universe cared enough to slay a bird
for him, and give him reason to

keep walking.

These poems cover a broad range of emotion through observance and the complex imagery of nature and our relationship to it. We see the inner and outer workings of the natural world—from the delicate brush strokes of the artist to the vigilant solider’s observance on the borderlands. From “Guarding the Border”:

[…] Onetime, I waved at my enemies,
they waved back and
played air guitar.
I laughed. He laughed too.
My enemy.
I know now,
and knew then
that both he and I were cold
looking forward to something warm
in a world with more color …

Through the lens of astronomy, the observance of war, moons and mechanical men, to geography, fragile ecologies and our psyches—this is a moving and surprising collection. It carries an unexpected energy, a great interconnected system, like a web of netted threads.

—j. mirio

Inhuman coverInhuman: Haiku from the Zombie Apocalypse by Joshua Gage.
The Poet’s Haven. $6.

Zombie Lite

Power failure / basement door / begins to shake
Car alarms / down the block semi: the dogs barking / suddenly stops

Were you wondering if we could do anything else with zombies? The answer is yes, we can do a four act play about them, and not only that, but do it in haiku form, and, since it’s Joshua Gage, actually do it pretty well.

I’ve been a fan of Gage’s work for a while, and I was hoping I would like this slim volume, and I’m glad to report I did. Although not slavish to the 5-7-5 syllabic count, it is true haiku in its mostly refraining from metaphor and instead relying on the plainly spoken gesture. These are short little suggestions, each little bit relying on the tropes but, to my relief, doing it deftly and fresh. Such as;

Autopsy lab
the twitch and squirm
of the body bag

Do you like that? I do. Maybe it’s the context that made me enjoy it, as the narrative accumulates its power during the zombie apocalypse as it rises, crescendos and burns its course. Besides great details, Gage uses humor in places, playfulness in others, poignancy in some. What else would you need from a book of zombie haiku?

Bite swelling
I kiss my daughter

Auden said poetry is prose without the boring parts. This is a nice tasty example of that. It’s a quick read. It’s pretty prosy, really, except for the deftness which streamlines the story and keeps all the boring parts out. It’s a montage of snapshots, the familiar steps we have built as a culture through the zombie meme. What he loses with the haiku story-telling is any emotional depth, but what he gains is a pleasant (if gross), zombie-lite experience. It’s a bit uneven, but overall I think you will enjoy.

—John Philip Johnson

Diane Severson review

The Intergalactic Cookbook by Marge Simon, Sandy DeLuca, and Terrie Leigh Relf, with illustrations by Marge Simon and Sandy DeLuca.
Alban Lake Publishing, 57 pages, $6. albanlake.com

The Intergalactic Cookbook, by the talented trio of Marge Simon, Sandy DeLuca, and Terrie Leigh Relf, is a collection of poems that veers from the hilarious to the bizarre and back again, never stopping to take itself too seriously. Coming in at 57 pages and containing 25 poems (as well as a number of hand-drawn illustrations), this collection is cheerfully self-aware, admonishing readers to refrain from preparing the recipes without Galactic Chef credentials.

Together, the poems form a sort of helter-skelter collage of five-star galactic dishes. From “Helping Hand Stew,” a poem wherein a human chef must use his own severed hand as an ingredient in an interstellar battle of the chefs, to “Lover’s Revenge (a la Pluto),” which gives the necessary ritual (and ingredients) for a late-night revenge party in the vacuum of space with the Lord of the Underworld, the collection holds no subject to be taboo or immune to humorous, irreverent depiction.

Many of the poems either begin with or contain an ingredient list, which always contains one or more disturbing or apparently nonsensical items. Consider this list from “Rainforest Pear Compote:”

4 gallons fairy gel
3 cups hoarfrost honey
68 partridge pears
1 tbsp. cornstarch

The ingredient lists, when included, evocatively juxtapose the fantastic elements necessary for a galactic chef, as promised by the collection title, with everyday culinary staples. In “From Tyraelia’s TopTransgalactic Chef Jardooo,” the requested ingredients include a live human in a stasis chamber, and in “From Psion IV’s Infamous Chef Veragushe’s Secretive Succulent Side Dish Collection,” two to three live, squirming FBI agents are required.

Not all of the poems contain ingredient lists, though, and almost all are narrative—the transformation of the man-preying-on-girl-scout story into girl-scout-kills-man story in “G.S. Cookies,” for example.

I downed my drink
reached for her hand
and then she

drew out the dagger
hiding in her sock—
the first time for her
the last time for me—
she smiled.

Other themes threading their way through this collection include gleeful cannibalism, the consumption of freshly cooked FBI agents, and culinary practices of alien sports fans. Peppered with illustrations of severed heads, grinning skulls, and obese extraterrestrials, this collection is suitable for those looking for a lighter, more experimental course in their poetic diet, as well as anyone looking for an enjoyable collection unafraid to play its premise to the hilt.

Marge Simon’s work has appeared in many publications: Strange Horizons, Niteblade, and DailySF Magazine, to name a few. Sandy DeLuca has published five novels in addition to her collections of poetry and shorter fiction, and continues to exhibit her art in addition to her written work. Terrie Leigh Relf has produced three poetry collections, in addition to many other works, including three novels and the upcoming publications The Wolves of Glastonbury and Origami Stars from Alban Lake Publishing.

—Alexander Plummer

Letting Out the Demons and Other Poems by Terrie Leigh Relf
Electrik Milk Bath Press, 2013, 67 pp. $9. elektrikmilkbathpress.com

Terrie Leigh Relf's new poetry collection is filled with a blend of horror and science fiction related poems. She tends toward the darker end of the spectrum, with many of the poems dealing with male/female relationships. The opening poem of the collection, “You Return To Me As Promised,” sets the tone for the rest of the book;

that body
stolen from
the morgue? It's all wrong!
I'll have to reuse it for parts …

There are poems about zombies, a medicine men, a barista, a kung fu guy, a witch, a mother, an angel, a horror writer, synth model 492, a bizarre help-wanted ad, a sommelier, her sifu, and other more unique musings. A wicked sense of humor pervades some of these poems, while others seem more intimate, like “On Realizing Death Is A Man”:

It's not the scent of his youthful skin,
or the promises that pool in his eyes,
but that when he leaves, your skin burns for his touch.

Relf has included a poem in her collection that literally shreds the notion of fairy tales,
banishing them from the life of the poem's persona. From “The End Of Fairy Tales”:

She didn't know why her favorite book of
fairy tales was lying mangled by the paper
shredder. All that remained of its once-loved
bulk reduced to a cloth and cardboard cover,
a cotton-stitched spine.

This is perhaps a poem about coming of age, and realizing the White Knight is never going to show up to save the day, and the Black Knight is more realistically a lecherous old boss stalking your nine-to-five cubicle.

The title poem of Relf’s collection, “Letting Out the Demons”, is a reflection of the poet herself, or so it seems to me. This is a writer who’s experienced the ups and downs of love and life, and coped with them by writing some memorable dark poetry—with twists of humor at times—over her span of years. There’s a sense of release with each new poem:

Then those wild green parrots
take wing at last
those wild green parrots
with their demon eyes.

Terrie Leigh Relf’s Letting Out the Demons and Other Poems, nicely illustrated by Marge Simon, collects 40 poems that might speak to some of your own personal demons. The collection is a little uneven, but then, most poetry collections are. I was not disappointed by this entertaining read, and highly recommend a visit with Relf’s demons.

—G. O. Clark

* * *

Terrie Leigh Relf’s newest book, Letting Out the Demons, is a collection of prose and poetry. Relf’s poems are primarily narrative, with hints of short lyrics here and there. The short prose pieces she includes, mostly haibun, reinforce this approach. However, the bulk of these poems read not as developed narratives akin to Robert Frost, but merely as the seeds and outline of stories. Unfortunately, those stories are not fleshed out enough for the reader to fully participate in. They lack the clear, bright images that are the hallmark of successful poetry. For example, her narrative piece, “The Dao of Vanilla Lattes” begins with:

makes my lattes …
rich foam, sweet vanilla
shapes a moonflower, or a heart,
then bows,

Relf is using the cinquain form to organize her stanzas, a form born in minimalism. Vibrant, visceral imagery is all but essential, but the reader is left with “rich foam” (rich how? Flavor? Taste? Texture?) and “sweet vanilla” (as opposed to the sour vanilla used to flavor some coffees?)—bland, obvious images and word combinations. This is all that the reader is given, unfortunately. The next stanzas imply an image, but the reader is merely left with abstraction:

it to me; I
bow to him, accept
this elixir, drink from heaven,

spinning …

While there is a hint of kinesthetic image in the bow, the main focus of this stanza, “drink from heaven,” implies a gustatory image, but leaves the reader completely stranded. We do not know what heaven tastes like, nor are we allowed to know what it feels like organically when chakras spin; there is nothing for the reader to connect with, and thus the poem ultimately fails. When it reaches its third stanza, even more distant and philosophic, the reader is left completely disconnected. This seems to be the bulk of Relf’s collection—interesting plots, clever ideas, but failed execution for the lack of imagery.

When Relf’s poems do have enough imagery to capture the reader and allow them to participate, they work quite well. For example, in “The End of Fairy Tales,” it is the speaker who

poked the eyes out of those two-timing fair maidens
in-lust, SHE who had torn castles from highlands,
wheels from carriages, crippled steeds and
shattered lances, clawed at

both the White and Black Knight’s chain mail
until her fingers bloody, her bodice drenched,
her hair writhing atop her head like snakes,

Here the reader is caught up in the clear images. Because they can connect with this poem, when the philosophical metaphor occurs at the end—fairy tales represent immaturity and dreams of childhood which the speaker has destroyed—they are able to sympathize with the speaker because they have been through the ordeal with them instead of merely observing it from the outside.

Overall, Relf’s collection is a weak collection of thoughts and musings with little craft to allow the reader to participate; the old adage “Show, Don’t Tell” certainly would apply here. Still, while it’s certainly not worth the $9 cover charge, there are a few solid, longer pieces contained within that would catch a reader’s attention.

—Joshua Gage

Luminous Worlds coverLuminous Worlds by David C. Kopaska-Merkel.
Dark Regions Press. 110 pages, perfect-bound. $9.95. darkregions.com

Having just finished reading this collection, my mind ever spins with a gathering of images. I am drawn into a continuum of lit and unlit earthly and alien landscapes from which emerge clones, sad gorgons, strange circuses, painted stars, zombies, abandoned ruined cities, and alien women fishing spacemen out of a sparkling lake.

David C. Kopaska-Merkel is no stranger to weird and beautiful poetry. He’s been writing it and publishing it since, I guess, the ’70s. As a fellow poet I know: it’s a compulsion. You can’t help yourself. You’re out there dreaming … maybe not all the time but, well, a lot of the time. It doesn’t mean this world isn’t a grand and wonderful adventure unto itself, it’s just that we can’t help ourselves. Our minds move on these far-flung tawny shores of stars quite naturally as if the brain has an extra limb that is unstoppable in its reaching, its searching. There is no alternative but to be always creating, always calling into being that which your heart desires.

What’s my point? Simply, these poems are written from love and essentially are, pure love of science fiction, of dark fantasy, of altered reality, of time’s lost dreams. Who could turn away from a writer who uses words like “chatoyant” or “golden menhirs?”

Here are two wonderful excerpts from two poems that stood out to me:

(from “Wineglass”)

Luna falls on her lover by the sea,
In the hills where the trees fail,
At the crossroads open to the sky.
Down she leans to brush his lips with hers,
To lave his limbs, anoint her cheeks
With his essence.

(from “Dragon Wind”)

wind, spiraling through barren streets
like the breath of dragons,
scouring clean what was never soiled,
making new what was never old,
this place is not a place,
those who built it never lived here.

I highly recommend this book. Readers will not be disappointed. When you receive it, you will be receiving pages of gifts, an envelope (or e-envelope) containing rocketeers, tsunami revenants, enchanted mushrooms, surreal underwater cities, hungry spaceships, ghost-lovers. This is the gift that keeps on giving. To quote one poem: “The past is where you are.” This book will keep you there, in a pleasure of words, and well on into the future.

Also contains wonderfully romantic artwork by Marge Simon.

—Wendy Rathbone

review by Diane Severson Mori on Amazing Stories

noise of our origin by Dietmar Tauchner. 2013, Red Moon Press, 97 pp. $12.00. redmoonpress.com

Fans of scifaiku will delight in this collection, as Tauchner clearly understands the haiku form and how imagery and juxtaposition works in haiku, and brings that to a speculative audience. Many of the haiku in this collection are science fiction or science focused, often astronomically so, and the reader is often forced to place their own existence within the larger realm of the galaxy.

galaxy clusters
of gas and dust
my birthday

However, Tauchner does not only include science-oriented haiku in this collection, and has some rather traditional pieces that work quite well to establish an overriding mood across the book. Themes of loneliness and isolation, whether cosmically or otherwise, echo throughout this book.

orange clouds
above the roadhouse
the long way home

If this collection could be said to have any flaws, it is in Tauchner’s extreme minimalism. Occasionally, his pieces are so stripped down and bare that they read not as haiku, but possibly haiku outlines. Fortunately, these are few and far between, and the bulk of this collection is resonant and poignant.

Overall, this is a really solid collection, as should be expected from such a published and award winning poet. Tauchner’s haiku are moving and heartrending, and any reader of poetry will be touched by Noise of Our Origin.

—Joshua Gage

On the Dark Path: An Anthology of Fairy Tale Poetry, ed. Anita M. Barnard. 13 Moons Press, perfect-bound, 85 pp. $13.00.

These dreams from the psychosexual forest are not the fairy tales Disney bowdlerized for families. Rather, these fifty-eight poems by forty-eight poets reconsider fairy tales from an adult perspective, revealing the psychological significance of common tropes in ways that are both beautiful and chilling. If all stories are just one story, as Lana Hectman Ayers suggests in her opening poem, “Prologue: The First Story” then it is about human experience: “All stories are about innocence. All stories are about loss.” … “Once you have sown fire, / every story is about burning down”.

To enter the Black Forest is to face our darkest angers, fears and desires: “dream after dream/ of food, of being eaten”. We are forced to recognize that evil is as real as Dachau. In Lawrence Schimel’s “In the Schwarzwald,” Gretel “tears splinters from the barracks bed/ to still the hunger that gnaws inside”. Scott Wiggerman’s “Snow” is a transsexual who “lived in the coffin/ known as Sonny White/ for almost twenty years”. Rapunzel, Little Red, and the Handless Maiden speak about abuse, abandonment, and blood in ways that are both timeless and 21st-century.

The personas of these poems have all been damaged by loss of innocence, something that may have seemed desirable at first: “How else to explain? Desire// was unlearning every fear she’d been taught”. The witch in Katharyn Howd Machan’s “Hansel” is an early adolescent conflation of sex and organic sweetness “queen of all my early hungers: sugar, milktongue … warm brown gingerbread walls … I would have burned in her dark oven”. Most display evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Liza Bachman Caruthers’s Snow White is suicidal. Wilda Morris’s “Little Red” has bad dreams, “his cackling laughter, his leer” … ”His sharp teeth cut holes in my sanity”. The Rapunzel of F. J. Bergman’s “Hair” suffers from trichotillomania: “One by one she pulled out/ the glittering strand, let them/ float away on the wind, until/ her skull was bald as a speckled egg/ and every tree in the forest/ was crowned with a golden nest”.

Alternate points of view are explored. Villains make their points. Susan Olding’s “Woodcutter’s Wife” feels “hated … from the start” … “One loving look, one trusting hand/ slipped into mine might have done it”. The Wolf in Ken McGuire’s “Red and Gray” is a jaded, color-blind sexual predator: “How was I to know / the cloak was red?” … “that to a wolf things / are always shades / of black and white”. In “Why the Children Followed,” Elizabeth Sharp McKetta’s Pied Piper appeals to deepest need, luring children with a song that reminds them of their mother’s heartbeat “ancient umbilical wisdom”.

Youth may be the norm in traditional fairy tales, but here infirmity is endemic. Maureen A. Sherbondy’s Rapunzel has had breast cancer, passing her time in “a nauseous-chemo blur”. Although there are few obvious “happily-ever-afters” and magic is noticeably absent except metaphorically, wisdom comes from age and experience; Anita M. Barnard’s “Still Red” begins, “Grey creeps in with crow’s feet / and dancing all night gives her/ a backache and little patience with the / young and clueless” (8).

Overall, these well-crafted poems deftly reveal the ordinary heroism of everyday life, characters overcoming adversity in a few, powerful, well-chosen words. Buy this book for its beauty.

—Sandra J. Lindow

Our Rarer Monsters by Noel Sloboda
Sunnyoutside, perfect-bound, 106 pp., $15.00.

The Everyday, Tinged in its Horror

There is a lot to recommend in Noel Sloboda’s latest book of poems, Our Rarer Monsters. This Rhysling-nominated poet works back and forth between what we call literary and what we call genre, mixing these in various degrees, yielding a diverse, well-crafted and bizarre collection.

There’s a large list of publishing acknowledgements; it’s always a good sign when a big portion of the poems have already been vetted by one editor or another. And the book is aptly illustrated by well-done, wood-cut-looking grotesqueries in black and white. They match his taste, which is offbeat and fairly dark. For example, in one of the early poems, Grendel’s wife is complaining that the monster is a “momma’s boy” who goes on alcoholic binges of violence, leaving Viking body parts and paraphernalia around the bed in the morning. She signs them up for marriage counseling, but he never shows.

Get it? Our lives, done in gothic, with unflinching indifference. He casts a cold eye on a stewardess in an airplane, and she becomes Skogsgra (which google says is an unpredictable forest spirit) and she mutters spells, and bumps you with her fat hips, threatening your safe landing.

A congenial grimness haunts most of these poems, and technically they would fall between literary and horror, as they skirt the campfire, lurking with a dark intent. Maybe I shouldn’t call it indifference; maybe sangfroid is a better description. Coolly collected under trying circumstances.

I found them all readable. Some are just a release of excess bile, but at least they’re well done. Let me quote a few that I liked most: In “Discipline,” a boy named Percy gets kicked out of school, and the classmates imagine his mutterings as he leaves, “ his words had been delivered / through clenched teeth, a Dirty Harry grumble, // like a Rottweiler with a mouthful of white noise.” Isn’t that great! That’s what you pay for when you want quality poetry.

Or how about in “Half Beast,” which is what the speaker is calling what presumably is a mermaid, who his brother is infatuated with. “He admitted he had / gazed for hours into pools / of bottomless night, never / rippling, despite the stories / of men drowning there.” That’s it, we love our poisons, don’t we. That’s the point of this volume. Our monstrous selves, rarified into poetry. Go buy it, and take it in small doses.

—John Philip Johnson

* * *

Our Rarer Monsters contains an eclectic mix of subjects, styles, and forms, ranging from prose poetry, to freeverse, to several other forms in between. Many of the poems reimagine old stories in modern contexts, exploring how various mythical character adapt and change to the new world, while others investigate the strength of the suburban façade and the inexplicable actions which threaten (and reinforce) that construction. At 102 pages, containing more than 35 poems and several black-ink illustrations, Sloboda’s collection is a quick, fast-paced slice of the high points in modern speculative poetry.

Figures from myth abound in Our Rarer Monsters, some struggling to adapt to modern societies or sensibilities, while other thrive. The wife of Grendel, the iconic creature from the epic Beowulf, laments her husband’s inability to live without his mother in “Mrs. Grendel.”

I knew this day would come.
He’d get into fights

every other night, and I’d wake up
to find a broken sword

or a bloody head
nailed above my mantel—

him passed out on the kitchen floor.

Baba Yaga, the famous folklore witch, makes several appearances, including “Baba Yaga’s Yard Sale,” “Baba Yaga as Figure Model,” and “Little Novelty.” A seductive Scandanavian spirit works as a flight attendant in “Red-eye Stewardess,” (and appears to be doing quite well for herself) Cerberus admits attraction to a Greyhound in “Last Bus to Hell,” and several Greek, Roman, and other deities make brief appearances as well.

Sloboda, in this collection, often explores the fertile intersection of initiation – the trials of youth, the adjustment to responsibility—with adaptation to a speculative environment. In “Advice from an Opossum,” detailed instructions are given to newly born possums, including an ending section on what to do after dying. In “X-Ray Vision,” a new husband tries to see through his wife’s clothes using x-ray glasses, only to find it unnecessary.

She started to unbutton and sighed,
You simply should have asked.

Sloboda has excellent economy of language, favoring the crisp weight of two-line stanzas or the staccato beat of tercets when he uses stanzas at all. His prose poetry maintains a matter-of-fact tone compared to his verse, such as in “Ex Nihilo,” where the disappearance of a man’s mother-in-law and wife are described in the same quiet tone as a missing sweater.

I never have/ determined if my wife was stolen or if the eradication/ of her mother simply made it too hard for her/ to exist. Either way, I have the begonia and the/ second camera as evidence of her being.

Shakespeare’s plays have a heavy presence in the collection as well, with several of the playwright’s characters and ideas expressing themselves with modern vernacular. Of particular note is “Why, Iago?,” where the poem offers the famous villain’s possible answers:

Because I took
too much Viagra.

Because of the plot
of Un Capitano Moro.

Because kids today
don’t know anything.

Because of all the sex
and violence on TV.

A collection rife with the inexplicable, the strange, the intersection of the modern and the misunderstood, Sloboda’s collection is appropriate for anyone looking for high-quality variety in their poetic diet. Containing poetic vignettes about odd situations, ruminations on Shakespeare in the modern age, all accompanied by inked illustrations of men wearing the heads of beasts and animals, Our Rarer Monsters should have something to delight any aficionado of speculative poetry.

—Alex Plummer

Scenes Along the Zombie Highway by G. O. Clark
Dark Regions Press, 2013. Perfect-bound, 62 pages, $9.95. darkregions.com

Zombies are the hottest monsters around right now—at least the type of zombies most commonly found in this book, the post-zombie-apocalypse type, not the Haitian zombies that started it all and are still my favorite form of the creature. Many of Clark’s poems are humorous, as perhaps they should be; can we really take this genre seriously anymore? I’m not sure. Horror is here too, but humor reigns. I think I’d have liked a little bit more horror, but for the humorously minded zombie fan, this primarily narrative poetry collection is fun.

He does address Haitian zombies in one poem, probably the best of the book, called “Zombie Loner,” which speaks of a lone zombie; the reader does not know how this guy became a zombie, and that makes it more interesting. The poor guy does not fit in with “The traditional/zombies, victims/of the voodoo curse” nor “The radioactive/alien-infested zombies” nor even “The plague victim/zombies don’t care who/rots with them[…]”. He’s just not invited to the party. What kind of monster is he? Something to consider.

A lot of the poems contain lists. In “Some Things Zombies Suck At,” this feature is most prominent: “Conga lines and line dancing./Juggling and tightrope walking./Throwing fondue parties./Eating candied apples./Texting, and texting while driving.[…] It’s a cute device, but overused somewhat, though I also liked “Some Zombies One Should Avoid.” Here is one example: “Corporate zombies—/who march around in expensive/but tattered business suits, flailing their/MBAs in your face, determined to drag/you down to their bottom line.” I guess you’d say that sometimes the social commentary is spot-on!

Using zombies as metaphors for our current society and its members is a theme throughout, and I’d recommend this book for those who like humorous and ironic zombie poems and stories.

—Denise Dumars

* * *

G. O. Clark's most recent collection of poetry is Scenes Along the Zombie Highway, a very rough collection of poetry. It suffers from all sorts of problems, from vague, abstract language to bromidic attempts at humor to basic typographical errors. Despite its slick cover and appealing presentation, overall it’s a book to pass up.

The major issue with Scenes Along the Zombie Highway is its near-complete lack of detail. Dependent on clichés and abstractions, the poetry in this collection alludes to horror, attempting to scare readers by what is merely hinted at, but fails to deliver any true emotion. For example, a few lines from “Road Trip Advice”:

The trip down
this zombie highway
is the only avenue of escape,
your wife’s minivan stuffed full,
the territory ahead a truly
Hellish landscape.

The trip down
this zombie highway
is not recommended for the kids;
pop in a Disney DVD to distract them,
the reality beyond their windows
a bloody mess.

There is very little, if any, concrete detail here, leaving the reader grasping for any connection to the poem. Readers are given enough to establish a scene, but not nearly enough to draw any lasting mood or theme from the piece, which results in a shallow and disinterested reading. This is a consistent issue in the book. The details provided are distant, and the poems suffer accordingly.

However, it could be argued that the intention of this book is not terror or sympathy, but humor. Filled with puns and absurd situation, Clark often gives his zombies a consciousness and understanding of social customs to create laughable pieces—zombies that sing Christmas carols about “jellied brains” instead of jingle bells, a zombie ventriloquist with a matching dummy, zombie carpenters who ignore blueprints, a zombie baseball player waiting for a pitch. While these clever situations do have an obvious connection to the larger body of zombie texts, they are treated so banally that they are rendered ineffective. These characters are not humorous, not scary, but simply are. With no emotional connection, the reader neither laughs nor shivers, but simply moves to the next poem in the collection. This humorlessness is even more reinforced by list poems like “Quotes from the Zombie Fact Book” and “Some Things Zombies Suck At,” which attempt to create a chuckle in the reader with their absurdity, but read like directionless and unconnected lists, lines easily imitated and replaced.

Overall, very few readers of poetry will find a connection with or enjoyment from Scenes Along the Zombie Highway. It is a very disappointing collection that isn’t worth pursuing.

—Joshua Gage

Review by Diane Severson, Amazing Stories

Selected Regions of the Moon by J. E. Stanley.
2013, Night Ballet Press. 40 pp. Stapled spine, $5.00. nightballetpress.blogspot.com/

J.E Stanley’s mastery of the short form is proven once again as he explores the dark side in his chapbook, Selected Regions of the Moon.  Beyond the beauty of these thirty-two tightly honed poems, the knowledgeable reader is pulled in by awareness of what Stanley has excised, causing a frisson of poetic pleasure when the answer to an often apocalyptic riddle is realized:

Letter from Poe

Wax seal broken,
phantasms bleed
from moonlit parchment
while a black raven chants,
endlessly, the one word
I do not wish to hear.

Several poems explore the nature of poetic inspiration.  A circling bat “becomes ink” and
“Tesseract” melds music and science.

Yet, who can deny
that jazz times DNA squared
equals inverted hypercube dreams
reflected in four-dimensional mirrors,
that blood times pulse
equals ink stains on the page?

Other poems explore various aspects of physics and cosmology—the nature of time, the big bang and the heat death of the universe. “In Fragments in Granite” the long o’s in the final couplet reflect that final nothingness:

Time decays to zero: silent, cold.
The universe abides as hardened stone.

In the final poems, apocalypse becomes personal with the last three lines in “Thoughts on Cremation” waning to nature’s next-to-nothingness.

Reduce my soul to ash.
Remember me
as dust.

Overall the tone is somber with more emphasis put on ends than on beginnings, more on losses than on laughter. If I had one wish for this thoughtful book, it would be to include further exploration, the lighter side of the moon as well as the dark. Recommended.

—Sandra Lindow

Spaces of Their Own by Russell Jones
Stewed Rhubarb Press (UK), 2013, 20 pp., £3.50. spacesoftheirown.blogspot.co.uk/

This chapbook contains 14 solid, well-crafted science fictional poems written by Russell Jones, editor of one of my favorite-ever anthologies, the recent Where Rockets Burn Through. If you haven’t seen that yet, I urge you to go seek out a copy. It’s no surprise that the mind who could craft such a fine collection could also do well with SF poems of his own.

The first poem is called the "Blue Planet," which opens with the line, "Thinking futuristically," and I think that is a good way to start a science fiction book. The poem is about how we might look from the light of an alien gaze. Even "after we're long gone" it will be recalled "how our waves / swerved and our apes walked upright."

He has a lot of monkeys in here. Monkeys, apes, various simians. Even the cover has a monkey on it, a gibbon maybe, holding a ray gun. The inside front cover has more wild monkeys swinging around, and the inside back cover has a big, solitary ray gun. Really, it's good to remind ourselves that we are very smart apes, who are also very well-armed.

The poem "Five Monkeys'" has a brain-reading machine to test the "cognitive extrusions" of five subjects responding to a painting called “Young Girl in Explosion.” The stream-of-conscious responses are distinct little gems, reminding me of poems from Spoon River Anthology. And the frame of the poem, the cold-blooded tone of scientific objectivity, has some of that same “inhumanity” of clever, well-armed apes. The kind who paint pictures of exploding girls.

Without quoting the whole poem, here are the closing lines to “Five Monkeys” (from a prose stanza): “her, in the trough of living, bound to hessian, and me nailed up, wired up, in the frame of this machine.” This poem, and several others, gave me a bit of that take-your-breath-away quality of very fine poems. Although he doesn’t find it every time he reaches for it (e.g., "Darkness cannot determine / the bright mind") he hits it pretty often. Jones is a disciple of one of those rare poets who can routinely pull off stately, the late great and former poet laureate of Scotland, Edwin Morgan, who was mainstream but, get this dear reader, often wrote science-fiction poems.

There’s humor in here, too, like "The Bang," about two particles, named Alice and Atlas, about to consummate their love by colliding in the Large Hadron Collider. And "Condemnations from a Laptop" is amusing, too.

There is a shape poem, too, called “The Star,” which is the only poem I didn’t like. And the mixture of tone and style and form among the various poems gives the chapbook an uneven quality, but I think that is just Jones settling into his voice.

I want to mention his prosody, too, which I liked. Usually he uses conversational rhythms, with no formal structures, but he often has little rhymes and slant rhymes chiming pleasantly in the background. For example, the last stanza of "Static Life" is full of them. The poem is about waking up in the middle of a cryogenic sleep on a long voyage to the stars. Btw, if you're like me, and you come across a line in a poem like this, "Welcome to Static Life Incubation Chamber C14, please resume sleeping," then you know you're in the right place. Here’s from the last stanza with some of that prosody: “I try to create a story that my dad might tell but it begins in a vacuumed chill. I’ve little to compare it to but it feels artificial.”

Let me end by noting note that Russell Jones is from the UK, and many of our American Star*Line readers will not have come across him before, because his publications are UK based. I don’t know why the sci-fi heads of the English-speaking democracies don’t cross-pollinate more, but we should. I would like to invite Russell and his cohort to send stuff to American venues, and likewise, we should send stuff overseas more. It would do us all good.

—John Philip Johnson

Special Powers & Abilities by Raymond McDaniel. 2013, Coffee House Press. 99 pp., $16 print.

Annoyingly Pomo but Otherwise Potent
I expected I would really love this book of poems, and I halfway did. I saw the title, scanned the project, and thought, hot dog! Poems—literary quality poems—about superheroes! And the Legion of Superheroes, too, no less, some of my childhood favorites! In the introduction, McDaniel says, speaking in the voice of the teen titans, “We will grow up. But we will never grow old.” And I thought, yep, me, too.

Most of these poems are well-constructed, and there is often light irony gently floating in the background. Some of these poems are fun, and some are thoughtful, and I will quote a few to show you. So it is literary in the sense of quality. But it is also literary in the sense of annoying at times, and I’ll show you that, too. Hence my being of a divided mind on the book as a whole. I am able to say reading it is a mixed pleasure, which, come to think of it, is the kind of pleasure most post-modernists have come to expect, anyway, and so I say without ambiguity that this book is very post-modern.

There are many poems I love in this book. Do you think you might like poems with titles like “Saturn Girl Loves Lightning Lad” or “Brainiac 5 Pitches a Hypothesis Fit”? I did. Here’s from the latter, an epistemological mélange set in the border of a dream. After sputtering a bit, Brainiac tells us of an actual dream, where he is tied to the Metropolis bullet train:

I deduce its blueprint in my head and shunt

the momentum into exploded view. Its engineering releases.
Forward momentum radiates neatly, parts part,
A decouples from B.

Disassembled, it waits in my mind, done and unknown then known and undone.
I understand it to bits and pieces. Do you know what this portends?

It portends some cool stuff, with McDaniel doing some heavy lifting. Brainiac is by far the poet’s favorite super-head to inhabit, with something like a quarter or a third of the poems in the book being about the hero whose power is that of a super-genius. Brainiac also fits very neatly into contemporary, intellectualized poetics, which cuts both ways. Here’s some dull, professional-grade angst, de rigueur, about his love for Supergirl:

What do you get for the girl who is everything?
Once we believed the future could be good, because

once we believed the future could be. It couldn’t,
it could only be. We have no future together.

and then warms up a little bit, but ends with Brainiac poised perfectly in that contempo, limnal limbo:

Stay in twilight, Supergirl, and I will pretend your sun
is ever on the edge of dawn. Wake me, tell me it’s time

to go. It is time. It was time. I knew. I know.

Continuing in the same vein, many of the poems offered in this volume are made up of lined rectangles, and inside that box are titles of generally three sections: the superhero tag name, the real name, and the special power. Below that are two columns of phrases, double-spaced, mostly epithets for the hero. The text can be sampled in any order, which is super-pomo. It is also both somewhat engaging and somewhat tiresome. For example,

Saturn Girl / Imra Ardeen of Titan / Telepathy

ever constant, she sounds like conscience
her mind reels and spins
icy moon and icy moods
her thoughts know no boundary
speechless, for what’s the need
unmediated, mental
she gets in your head
distant and distaff
affected telepath
oh don’t mind me
secret-keeper but poison to privacy
she declares herself in our ideas
something just occurred to her
you are always in her thoughts

McDaniel also runs several actual comic-book episodes as titles, but I don’t see that they do much for us other than recount the story. They cast a bit of pomo perspective on America of the 1960’s, and so put it in a slightly ironic light and further the theme of nostalgia. The stories are of some interest to me, anyway, but if they do more than that, I don’t have the energy to suss it out. Here’s how “The Menace of Dream Girl!” ends (which you can also find parts of online.) It’s about her mentalities creating realities, which, okay, is super pomo. She’s been kicked out of the League:

in the end it’s a compromise

sorry for the confusion, she says

won’t you reapply, Star Boy asks

and Dream Girl says maybe later.

But she’s
Dream Girl. She knew

even then. Unfair, her future

that once was ours.

Also, normally I wouldn’t bring up a photo, but it kind of says it all, as far as the book's position: his author photo is disturbingly affected, packed with passive, anxious intensity. I wanted to cry out, "Don't go over to the dark side, Luke!" With this much fey and manufactured parousia, we can tell that while he may have visited us in GenreLand, we’re not likely to see him again.

Which is too bad. As Samuel Delaney said in his essay, “Science Fiction and ‘Literature,’” there is real difficulty in trying to bring together the literary and speculative genres, since each has such different agendas, discourses and positions in society. (Such that Delaney, as a guest of honor at the 2013 AWP conference, was described repeatedly as a “gender writer,” but mum was mostly the word on his being a major sci-fi writer.) But McDowell does a good job tying the two together—part of the pomo flattening and intermingling of the hierarchies—much like A. Van Jordan’s somewhat similar project a few years ago, Quantum Lyrics.

So, forgive my being annoyed by some of the post-modern and literary elements. What did I expect? This book has much fine work in it, and you will enjoy lots of it. (In the genre world, we still enjoy poetry, although ‘enjoyment’ is a word you rarely hear in a literary review.) Even if you haven’t taken a bunch of English classes, a cup of coffee and a quiet place to read will likely do the trick.

—John Philip Johnson

Under Every Moon by G. L. Francis.
Charlie Dawg Press, charliedawgpress.com. 109 pp. Paperback

Under Every Moon is a collection of poems and short stories by G. L. Francis. The publisher urges readers to “Explore edges where the mundane and uncanny converge, where ordinary and extraordinary intersect, and where reality and fantasy sometimes collide.” It sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, the poems inside do not deliver. Add to that some blatant design flaws, and Under Every Moon is a book that isn’t worth pursuing.

What strikes reader’s immediately is how poorly Under Every Moon is designed. The very first pages are marked with clear flaws. For example, all the text that is meant to be centered is moved out from the spine about half an inch.

While many would argue that this is a minor issue, it becomes distracting when reading the poems. Furthermore, all the pages are outlined, so the margins are already delineated, only heightening the awkwardness of the layout. A few of the poems are illustrated, and the reproduction of the illustrations is so poorly done that what might be interesting additions to the text come across as grainy and pixelated disruptions, pulling the reader away from the poems themselves.

Many of these design flaws could be saved by good poems. Unfortunately, Francis does not deliver. These poems are littered with cliché language and dominated by abstractions, which only serve to reinforce the amateur quality of this project. Take, for example, the section “Ware Sample: Two Dreams” from the poem “Dreamspinner”:

You shine in the lightning
of passionate love
with a mate whose soul
completes your own
fulfilling desire, solving the riddle
of two sublimely equaling one …

This sort of language belongs not in a collection of poetry but in the worst of romance novels.

Francis also seems to believe that archaic language makes for a more authentic poetic experience. Take, for example, this untitled poem:

Juicy and sweet fruit
long gone—carven stones endure
as owls, elephants.

Ignoring the technical flaws and the gross misunderstanding of form, readers will still stumble over the word “carven,” which comes from Early Modern English and has since been replaced with “carved” in the 20th century. While the reader can still understand the subject of the poem, this sprinkling of archaic terms only serves to push them away farther from the poem.

Some of the poems in Under Every Moon suffer from an underdeveloped skill set, especially when it comes to the more formal poems. For example, here are the opening lines to the poem “Gryphon”:

the bonds of earth I defy
I fly—fly with eagle’s wings
but higher than the eagle’s dare
I shriek a holy raptor’s cry
that boundless through the ceiling rings
piercing pure the cold thin air …

Poems like this suffer from forced rhymes, to the point that they are grammatically wrenched into very uncomfortable phrases. Add to that the clutter of cliché adjectives to approach the meter, and this poem simply doesn’t work on any level. The same is true for most of the poems in this book.

There are many who argue that Print-On-Demand is a boon for poetry. No longer do poets have to run the gauntlet of editors or poetry contests to have their manuscripts considered for publication. Instead, they simply need a working knowledge of a graphic design program, and with enough money, they can print and sell their own books. However, opponents to POD argue that, without proper curation, publishing poetry can actually do more to damage poetry and people’s understanding of poetry. Under Every Moon by G. L. Francis is a perfect example of this fear come to life. From shoddy design to weak poetry, this book does nothing to support speculative poetry.

—Joshua Gage

Unearthly: the collected poetry of Wendy Rathbone by Wendy Rathbone
2013, Eye Scry Publications, 170 p. $2.99 for Kindle from Amazon.com; $2.99 .pdf from fanzinesplus.com/html/unearthly.htm

Unearthly is an e-book, a reprint of seven out-of-print chapbooks published between 1994 and 2005. Only one poem in this collection is truly new, but unless you have been a dedicated collector of Wendy Rathbone's poetry, you can't have read all of these:

Moon Canoes (1994, Dark Regions Press)
(Im)mortal (1996, Shadowfire Press)
Scrying The River Styx (1999, Anamnesis Press)
Autumn Phantoms (2000, Flesh and Blood Press)
Dreams of Decadence Presents (2002, DNA Publications)
Dancing in the Haunted Woodlands (2003, Yellow Bat Review)
Vampyria (2005, Eye Scry Publications)

Reading these poems is a sensory experience. They evoke a myriad colors, scents, even pure emotions. Rathbone's work is so rich you have to read a poem again and again to understand what it's about. When you do, you often find the poems are images, or series of images, pictures in words of eerie settings and situations. If these poems were abstract paintings I would hang them in my house. Rathbone's poetry carries the reader through dreamworlds that are intimate, beautiful, ghostly, and sharp-edged. Here there be monsters, though some are the kind to whom one is wont to surrender (whether this is wise is debatable).

From "Vampire Poet"

Fling me the snowflakes
from your eyes
I’ll save them in some
winter land
You’ll never know this is happening
how I watch your naked chest move

Some of Rathbone's monsters are more like old friends, and draw explicitly on tales we've long known. From "Child’s Letter Found In An Old Toy Box (Written in silver crayon)"

I avoid Neverland’s mirrors, now,
too ancient to look upon, really,
just a ghastly old, old boy.
But don’t be sad, Wendy.

There are themes, common threads running through many of these poems. Seasons and months, especially autumn and winter. Immortality, vampires, creation and destruction. Especially vampires!

I never think of Rathbone as a science fiction writer. Her work is moody; it broods over impossible landscapes like the ghosts of Lovecraft's Elder Things, hovering over their cyclopean Antarctic city. Nevertheless, sfnal themes and settings can be found in her work.

From "Dreaming a Star-Farer to Life"

I watch for his breath
upon the frozen tongue of sky
that arcs my tiny seam of sight.
Within the tundra of galactic
continents, among the sparks
of constellations flickering

These poems take place in unreal worlds: outer space, undefined regions beyond reality, dreams. Sometimes one awakens from the dream. Some of these poems employ tropes from Celtic tales of the fae.

From "The Vampyre Cathedral"

One boy dreamed
of a goblin
who owns time.
He woke aged
and weeping.

There is simply no way to encapsulate Rathbone's oeuvre. And at less than $3 for the whole delightful collection, it's a crime to leave it on the table. So to speak.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Unexplained Fevers coverUnexplained Fevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey.
New Binary Press. €12.

Review by Diane Severson, Amazing Stories

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