Speculative Poetry Book Reviews

Reviews in Star*Line itself are now limited to short excerpts; however, those reviews in their entirety will appear on this site. Further reviews, especially those expressing a different opinion, are welcome and will be posted or linked to. Send reviews, links, cover images, and corrections to starlineeditor@gmail.com. NB: reviews published here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Star*Line editor. Moreover, dissenting opinions are welcome.

Only SFPA members’ books are listed on the Books page. Here, however, reviews for any speculative poetry book, regardless of membership status or year of publication, are welcome. Star*Line welcomes books for possible review; see the Star*Line page for our editorial address. Reviews are listed by year of publication and alphabetically by title.

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For books published in 2020:

Altars & Oubliettes by Angela Yuriko Smith. (2020). 66 pp. Paperback $7.00.

One thing I must say up front, I bought this collection knowing I’d be adding it to our Contemporary Poets’ shelf in our library. I didn’t do that, though. Not yet! I still have it out by my desktop to read over the poems every now and then.

Angela presents this collection in three sets: Foundations, Psychonauts, and Haiku. The first carries the weight, both in numbers and with a variety of chilling persuasions. I use the term persuasions, and you may well find it’s true. Take a poem such as “Anonymous Screams.” The poet puts you right up front at death’s door. Check out what you see ahead—Pearly Gates? Not a chance. This is a view of the end of mankind from a universal perspective, and (not surprisingly) man has made rather a mess of this planet. Our reward is loss of self in the oblivion of anonymous screams. Smith provides you with many more such poems that shake the foundations of your beliefs or at least, rattle your life perspectives.

“A Murder” is really a goodie to me personally. I always thought the term “a murder of crows” needed to be accompanied by an illustrative poem, and Angela’s got one: “And I love the murder / with all its ominous gesturing / full of midnight rustle and scraping claw. / From deep within the sharp and grasping maw / I hear my name called out sharp, rasping and raw… I was made to love this murder.” What a delicious metaphor!

I wasn’t expecting to find a passionate comment on a true-life tragedy, but there is, and the collection is all the better for it. “The Unfelt Flames of Kate Leone” concerns the death of a 14-year-old girl working in a shirtwaist factory due to a massive industrial fire in 1911. Angela pulls no punches:

I am on fire—aflame!—
for life, for the butcher boy
and for my expected $7
earned from my 52 loyal hours
spent cutting shirtwaists no longer in fashion
for ladies I will never know
and as the lady I will never be
in a moment, turns to ash.

A poem that won’t be easily forgotten.

You’ll come to a fine example of Concrete Poetry in “Merciless Day”, very powerful, about a child raised in a cell with her mother and fourteen others. It reminds me of the 500 innocent children separated from their families at our border. The poem is in the shape of a cross. “My mother named me Mercy in hope that some may be spared for us, like a cup of brown sugar from a neighbor…”—gripping!

From Psychonauts: “Reality Isn’t”

How can she return to a reality that isn’t?” Discover how less is more in this short, condensed poem. Moreover, the rhyme within the final (free) verse—a skillful variation Angela uses so well: “…The churning begins/to separate the cream / from the dream that lingers / past the ticking measures that / whisper mirage to ears / no longer listening.” There are several other examples of interior rhyme in this collection. See how many you can spy.

In “Death Calls”, the poet mentions “a layered cacophony” that engulfs you—think about it! How may cacophony be layered? What lies beyond the white light at the end of that proverbial tunnel?

Finally, there is a haiku section: Twenty-eight wickedly delightful three-line poems written for February’s Women in Horror Month.

When you reach the end of Altars & Oubliettes, it may take some time to recover. You’ve been held captive for a time by Angela Yuriko Smith’s unsettling poetry. But, bottom line, you know you’ll be returning to read it many times more.

—Marge Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John C. Mannone

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

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

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

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

—Daniel G. Fitch

Betelgeuse Dimming by Jean-Paul Garnier
(Space Cowboy Books, 2020) 40 pp. Paperback $11.00.

How many of us think of nothing better than to discover a really cool used bookstore specializing in sf/f and horror books by authors whose names are as familiar as best friends? Space Cowboy Books sounds like such a store. I know I couldn’t pass without going in to poke around. In case you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll find author Gautier’s store in the little town of Joshua Tree, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley, California.

Garnier has created a worthy chapbook collection, composed of four sections. It was initially inspired by reading about the dimming of the great star. He was particularly concerned about its effect on orbiting planets, should any have evolved higher lifeforms such as ours. Eventually, Gautier was relieved to learn the star was not going nova for a millennium or so. But that realization didn’t stop him from continuing with his premise behind the collection.

In the first section, “Betelgeuse Dimming,” a single long poem, begins as if plucked from thoughts about the star’s supposed demise:

the way of all stars
takes you before my birth
weeks of light
temporary remains, we may have spoken
we, teething still
during your renaissance

Gautier considers what another species might feel, facing extinction:

those centuries ago
holding each other in the knowing
those who could not escape
terrible knowledge
forewarned apocalypse
or blissfully naïve in the caves/

to the final lines which express an overwhelming wonderment:

… as you brighten before us
at one time
future colors painted our thoughts

Next, lines from the second section, Flight Notes, speculate the trip across the void:

spacecraft passes plume
photographs rare occurrence
begs many questions

mighty wind from sun
shaping the sky into dance
colors of heaven

The third section, Last Contact, the time when aliens take their leave:

as they left I heard cheering
unsure if it was mixed with tears
or was it shouting, begging
we never crossed the language barrier
protestors held signs scrawled with equations
even these symbol sets
remained a mystery

Lastly, a feeling of profound sadness in lines from Sky Burial:

transmutation ends with cold
spirits break entropy if freed from mass
or time can stop as your light is trapped
the containment field entered from the void
frozen, traveling forever
meant to let go
caged through sky burial

Anyone who has contemplated alien life while dreaming into the stars will appreciate what Gautier has accomplished in this collection. It’s for us all, star-gazers, writers, and of course, poets!

—Marge Simon

Carpe Noctem by Robert Borski
(Weird House Press, 2020) 132p, paper $14.95 .

I like this book. I like the poems, the themes, the arrangement of titles. It is lyric and intelligent. But I must say, you’ll wade through many pages you wish you hadn’t. For me, the discord is that many of the poems have the same shape, the old Asimov’s Magazine punchline poem shape, especially the horror variation on that. You have to slog through quite a few of those. I’m going to elaborate on this gripe before I get to the things I like about this book.

Start with this opening stanza from “Rapture of the Zombies”:

We arrive by means unknown,
some insisting we were brought here
by a team of bleeding seraphs,
while others say no, it was
a cacophony of brass loud enough
to roust whales from the salt
tombs of the sea.

Isn’t that gorgeous? But the rest of the poem, the shape of the poem as I’m calling it, ah, that’s the rub. From here, this poem degenerates into 1960s Sci Fi Cynicism, and ends with this:

Rinsed of all impurities,
for example, the flesh of saints
is savory-sweet, while doused in
a fiery sauce, a heaping plate
of angel wings will perk up
even the most jaded of palates.

There’s that shape-thing I’ll get into in just a moment. But on the zombie trope in general in our movies, books, and poems, overall I think it is reification of our soulless culture. Each one of us is vital and alive, but we are hard-pressed by the necrotic cacophony of our culture. The zombies are coming for us. Zombies represent our social death-in-living, the end result of consumerism, narcissism, capitalism, post-modernism, etc., etc., coming to eat our brains; i.e., make us stupid and force us into a joyless, undead life.

With all that rich social material that the zombie theme offers us as writers, it’s a shame to turn it into a punchline. There is a specific version of the punchline poem for horror poems, and Borski uses it a lot. I see it ALL THE TIME in other horror writers. The punchline is, Hey, let me shock you! I’m ending the poem in Murder! Or Cannibalism! Pretty shocking, eh? Feel the frisson? Bwa-ha-ha!

The effectiveness of its usage requires that it be a surprise ending, but the surprise is long gone. Quite a few of Borksi’s poems have a rich opening only to get the poem out of the way and deliver the punchline. Murder! Cannibalism! Oh my!

Here’s the ending to “Bush Meat.” (Trigger warning, you guessed it, cannibalism.)

with a deliquescent crack,
the skull yields that sweet, mollusky truffle
we so love.

If only I could hold Borski by his ankles and shake him until all that cheap, quick cynicism fell out of his system! He can do so much better! Here’s a longer sample. (‘Canopic’ describes the pot the Egyptians put the viscera of the mummies in.)

Canopic Wine

A mere dram of it
will make you see pink
hieroglyphs, tilted pyramids,

and a sphinx
with more answers
than riddles.

As for that strange aftertaste
and lingering pharaonic note?


“Abel” is a prosy but fascinating poem, possessing a cumulative, structural beauty—until we come to the punchline. He’s talking about a baby absorbing its twin in utero but bearing the marks of the other’s body. So many fascinating ways he could go with this. The penultimate stanza is:

Would I go back if I
could and reunite us in that fertile
crescent where, unbiblically, we
began, back before mitotic angels
drove you out with swords and firebrand?

And then, right on time, the punchline pulls into the station:

Of course, I would, brother—how else
can I kill you all over again?

Again, that punchline. The star wipe of poetry. A poem called “Gills,” with an interesting, breezy opening discussion of phylogeny, ends in an abrupt murder. “Au Pair” ends with the children eating their nanny.

In a larger sense, part of this is Sheila Williams’ fault (the long-time editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine). She did not start nor encourage the Murder!-Cannabalism!-version of the punchline poem, but for decades, an awful lot of the poetry she published was of the punchline variety, the SF kind. (This changed when she hired a poetry editor.) Borski was and is a huge contributor to Asimov’s. For a decade or two, she would toss him a fish for the quick snap poem, the punchline. She trained him.

Don’t get me wrong. I love B-movies. Just not the same one over and over. And I'm not writing off all his work at Asimov's. I'm generalizing. Here's another generalization: Borski is capable of so much more. For example, look at this brilliant reversal of Pinski’s “ABCs”:

Omega Men

Zombies? Yes.

X-rays will validate

Utter thanato-

Respiration quietly
Present—only not

Listless, kinesic—
Just imagine

Hamstrung gaunts
Flailing, each

Derelict corpse
Barely animate.

Utter Thanato-stasis! J You have to get into the book around 40 pages before the quality evens out. “The Vampire Priest on the Eve of His Discharge from Rehab” is a perfect poem. And anybody who mentions Fulke Greville and Ernst Haeckel is all right with me. When he doesn’t use the punchline, I like his stuff very much.

Isn’t this a juicy start? From “Capgras”

After dinner the charade
continued, with the imposter
who wasn’t her husband
sitting across from her
pretending to take an interest
in the imaginary novel
that was now their seven years
of marriage together.

I loved that opening but cringed at reading more. I expected him to once again abandon the theme and hit me on the head with a murder/torture ending. But he didn’t! It is a terrific poem! “Catfood” is a fantastic modern horror poem you should read. “Mandragora” is too. “Gavage” is perfect horror. Many others are. You have to get through about 40 pages of this book before you find the good stuff. Overall, despite my complaints, the book is splendid and inventive and a pleasure to read. Much of this book is fit for Arkham, and I mean that in a good way.

—John Philip Johnson

Carpe Noctem by Robert Borski
(Weird House Press, 2020) 132p, paper $14.95.

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

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

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

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

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

—Marge Simon

Easy Travel to the Stars by G. O. Clark
(Alban Lake, 2020) 48 pp. $9.26.

Anyone looking for pulpy monsters or robots or nightmarish monsters from bizarre planets will not find a lot of that type of writing in this volume of poems, except perhaps through a cinematic lens or a remembrance of a printed work from years past. There are robots, reminiscent of the author's chapbook Built to Serve from a few years back, but these are mechanisms rather than full-blown intelligences with their own agendas which might take front stage positions driving the poem. There are more actual space missions described with hard science outputs than space operatic flights of fancy going on in these pages, and the one appearance of an advanced alien hive mind is basically a supposition deduced from a universe of infinite possibilities which does not get a chance to menace the reader at all. This is not to say that these poems are mundane, however, or that a reader will find little speculative fare here.

The title poem mentions the "stars" for a good reason, with a solid majority of these poems set in space, dreaming of space, imagining what it must be like to be in space or to have space beings come to visit us. But the "travel" part of that title is just as important. The chief vehicles the author employs for this is since are the fantastic tales from the golden ages of print science fiction and the classic films which followed. It is clear he feels a good deal of love for those stories and especially for the way it made a young person feel, and more than once there is a wistful sense of how much this seems to be lacking now that that child finds himself living in the actual future.

I would classify the style as one more comfortable with order than straining at the linguistic boundaries. The lines are short, with easy line breaks, not overflowing with clashing images or allusions that a reader might find elusive. While some of the descriptions speak of surreal topics, the poems don't indulge in that kind of stylistic experimentation at all, or traffic in tricky rhyme and wordplay (as far as I could tell). They feel like the kinds of poems in the largest circulating publications of speculative writing because many of them first appeared in just those places.

It is interesting to look at a bunch of poems to guess at what the poet's main concerns and interests lie. Here is his poem "Real 3D" (printed in this collection for the first time):

He kept the 3D glasses
from the last movie they saw
together, a CGI-driven fantasy
where the audience was a target
for various cinematic projectiles,
flurries of fairy lights, and
in-your-face dragon fire.
It wasn’t until they
were outside the theater that
he noticed that his lovely date
was only two-dimensional, at best
a stand-in for his dream date.

Disappointed, he never
called her again, and gave up
dating all together. The 3D glasses
on the bookshelf, now gathering dust,
remind him of one more summer
of larger-than-life blockbusters,
and sad illusions of love.

Maybe the idea is that our present-day life is a flattened version of what we remember from before, only an unsatisfying imitation of what we thought we were going to obtain, along with dismay at how dissatisfying real people are compared to the ideal. In the end, maybe the kind of travel we have constructed for ourselves to make our way to the heavens has turned out to be a little too "easy."

—Rich Magahiz

Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms by Hal Y. Zhang
(Aqueduct Press, 2020) 92 pp. Paperback $12.00.

Goddess Bandit is comprised of 49 poems and one short story along with an erudite afterword. It is the 77th entry into Aqueduct Press’s “Conversation Series” which, the press claims, is designed to capture feminist science fiction and “trace its existence into the past and from there see its trajectory extending into our future.”

One such future is mapped in the poet in “Dawn, a Genesis.” Two somethings—two bodies—await ignition as hydrogen in a stellar nursery—to unite and, eons hence, become a star. Perhaps what is sketched here is a pair of subatomic particle lovers with an attraction for one another which cannot be measured by human affection:

We press together just like the hydraulic
interlock, don’t we? I never knew what my
Neck dimple was for until it met your nose.

The collection’s title refers to a Chinese deity named Guanyin boasting a thousand arms with which to help and assist. In Zhang’s afterword, she explains that she blended this goddess with a well-known math problem involving a bandit. Guyanyin-Bandit therefore represents a “collective of minority, shapeshifting, disabled, immigrant, scientist, and fantastical women who are starved and marginalized, but remain defiant to rise up against the oppressive world.” There is a program in these poems, but a psychic one—not a political one.

The poems in Goddess Bandit return time and again to a call to defiance, even by means of becoming gods (or stars). If science fiction is primarily about what we are becoming, the recurring metamorphoses here reveal anticipatory transformations; of mother-daughter orbits; of things wanting to be born; of bent Frankenstein beings that ought not to be invented.

But Zhang’s archeology stretches in more than one direction. It peers into the future while it also recedes into the past and inspects a lineage; at what we used to be—fish, in particular. In “Swallow,” she writes:

When I see a restaurant tank
my jaws swell in remembrance
gulp ice water like air…

The poems also feature a recurring food motif. In “sky king toast,” the narrator makes herself a breakfast, thereby becoming “Creator of the new world” while an ungrateful egg attempts a rebellion. But this revolt fails:

… I
swallow the sun yolk in fury, in
protection and it burns
all the
way down

In some poems, the food is delicious, but haunted; Persephone’s decision to gobble half a dozen pomegranate seeds (leading to six months of winter and her recurring half-year imprisonment) in “Pomegranate—Persephone,” for example. It concludes, “Six seeds, one yanked from the gum line for each month.” In other poems, people eat things they shouldn’t. In “litotes,” the protagonist’s companion becomes a planet eater:

the gift crow looks into your mouth
blue marble tiny planet popping
on taste buds…

And in “themaligned” there are:

roaring tides of stained tigers
clanking between my teeth bloody

This is a collection of loneliness and revolt, of stars and dumplings. It is Zhang’s first published collection. It was preceded by two chapbooks. She has been nominated for a Rhysling in the past. She describes herself as “a lapsed physicist who splits her time between the east coast of the United States and the Internet.” This reviewer sincerely hopes she continues to allocate time to science fiction poetry as well.

—Thomas E. Simmons

House of Minds by Cardinal Cox. (Starburker Publications, 2020). 12 pp. pamphlet. Starburker Publications, c/o 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough PE2 5RB, United Kingdom. Available for SASE to publisher, or emailcardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk.

Cardinal Cox has been producing these brief speculative-poetry chapbooks for many years, and they have a common format. Each page bears a poem and, below it, some sort of fanciful explanation. There is always a theme, but, generally, each explanation is only tenuously connected to the others. "House of Minds" is different. In this volume, the footnotes, if we may call them that, tell a story. Each moves the story along by explaining the associated poem in the context of the narrative.

The theme of this book is that there are, and have been for centuries, individuals among us with psionic powers. The first poem appears to refer to the present day, setting the stage by explaining that ours is a time in which people with psi powers are imprisoned, abused, or made use of by others. The first footnote focuses on one individual who can use his powers to learn about the past (postcognition).

Some subsequent poems consist of snapshots of subjects of the viewpoint character's investigation; others focus on his personal experiences. Neither he nor any of the other people featured in these poems are named, and clues to the historical time periods are vague. This lack of specificity gives the reader the impression that most times and places are encompassed by the tale. In other words, that psis have existed almost everywhere and everywhen, and they have been revered or reviled, lifted up or suppressed, but almost never treated as human beings.

From "Patient X"

Get me away
From the static – the scratched record
The stuttering – the seizures
Get me somewhere quiet
Some staff might silence him
With drugs – with electricity

Early psis commonly interpreted their gifts as religious or God-given. From "A Temple"

We are the lanterns
That turn back night
We are the horns
That blast in warning
Horoscopes are cast
Talismans made for
The Planet of the Hour

A strength of this chapbook is the framework provided by the footnotes linking the poems into a narrative. The poems can certainly be read without the footnotes, and one would still be able to understand that they are beads on a string. It might be interesting to read the poems first, and then to go back and read the whole thing. In retrospect, I wish I had done that. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed "House of Minds" and I urge you to get a copy if you can. If you are interested, don't delay—copies are limited.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

How to Extricate Yourself by Laura Theis
(Dempsey & Windle, 2020). 54 pp. Chapbook £8.00.

Winner of the Brian Dempsey Memorial Competition 2020, Laura Theis’s How to Extricate Yourself is an imaginative smorgasbord of speculative poetry’s various subgenres. It is her first poetry collection. The Dempsey Award is given each year by the National Poetry Library of London. Winners receive a monetary award and publication of a thirty-eight-page chapbook.

The book is divided into three sections: “False Advertising,” “A Flight of Familiars,” and “Hostinghosting.” In the first section, “The Clockmaker’s Daughter” stands out in its unified use of genre images and metaphor. It begins: “I never knew my mother / almost dropped out of clockmaking school / when she had to admit to herself / that there was something tick-ticking inside her.

Many of the poems deal with the dangers and lures of young love. For instance, “purple sea” asserts: “a certain song / rises up from the sea interrupts with a lure he will not even try / to resist he will follow the siren call of scales and skin he will not / fight the fins teeth and fingers that await him beneath the waves / of quickly reddening blue.” “zombie apocalypse self-knowledge” explores the advantages of choosing either a practical of impractical lover during safer-at-home.

Often there is a wry, subtly wistful humor. “false advertising” concludes: “look I’m not kidding around here this poem will make you / beautiful this poem will make you special yes yes special and / happy and yes this poem will make you good.” “advice from one who’s been burnt before” begins: “on the first day the dragon moves in / don’t tell the neighbours but / take the batteries out of your smoke detector / you’ll thank me later / you can stop paying your electricity bills /even asleep a dragon is more than a room / full of candles.

The poems are strongest when the mystical is woven through the power of relationship: “Aurae” ends: “The men that came for our gold talked like fools, / blind with a story of treasure. / They did not know what was hidden / deep, glinting: that our gold was song.” “Hostinghosting” explores the material remains of someone deeply loved: “this stuffed swan was actually her heart / once but this whole country used to be / her heart come to think of it / all the cliffs & wild springs & lava fields.

Although each poem has a strength of its own, the collection, as a whole, would be stronger if it were more thematically unified, Theis is certainly a writer to watch in the future.

—Sandra J. Lindow

Off-World Fairy Tales by Joanna Drucker and Susan Bee
(Litmus Press, 2020). 52 pp. Stapled spine $24.00.

The authors of this book, each with her own collection of professional honors and attainments, have collaborated before on other projects, so I would presume that they entered into this one with an idea of what they were trying to produce. It can be considered an art book where the visual art (watercolor painting, gouache, pastel, and collage, I believe) and the text join to form an aesthetic whole, but also a children's story book with themes and characters intended to appeal to early readers, or a poetry book where the illustrations inspire the words or comment upon them in some way. After I went through the electronic version of this book a couple of times, I felt as though they were charting a course along none of these paths but somewhere in between, which should not on its own have led to an unsatisfying experience on its own, but did end up disappointing me for a few reasons I will discuss.

Aside from one college course on art history I took a long time ago, I don't have training or credentials to evaluate the visual elements by Susan Bee with any expertise. I can say that it is clear that the methods and execution support the idea that this book has children as its primary audience, with colors and forms and a taste for whimsy and the unexpected that I think the very young might recognize in their own attempts. I found an interview of her describing how she has done many artist book collaborations, including a number with poets, which makes me think that she went into this with an idea of what she wanted to accomplish and applied herself with professionalism. There is one collage that used the picture of a milkweed butterfly caterpillar amidst little stars that I found charming.

When it comes to the text, the first thing that came to mind was whether these fourteen pieces by Johanna Drucker were fairy stories presented with line breaks, verse poems, prose poems, or something else. My impression is that they are closer to the former; loose, somewhat dreamlike forms which do not pay attention so much to sound or rhythm or any specifically poetic elements as repetition as much to mood. I was going to say that they were concerned with image, but I often found problems picturing what was being described, either because of contradictions or word choices far beyond what an early reader book would use. My guess is that the author tried to produce a certain dreamlike quality with unexpected twists in the narrative, to emulate the way very young children tell stories. Ms. Drucker has had a long history of typesetting art books by hand, and I think that the line breaks are there to make the stories pleasing to the eye, not dictated by how the words sound to the ear. In a couple of the pieces the lines are split to flow around a bit of ornamentation, again only to make for a pretty layout, not to convey additional meaning. The only other adornment to the text (which is set throughout in the Comic Sans typeface) is the use of different colors for each block of text.

Over half of the pieces describe space travel, other planets and moons and stars, or spaceships moving through the galaxy, as you would expect from the title of the volume. It seems like the authors consciously simplified the vocabulary and syntax to accommodate the reading level of their target audience, although there are places where a young reader is likely to be unfamiliar with a word or understand a particular aside. Some of the pieces have a more or less conventional structure, but about half of them end quite abruptly. The first piece and four of the ones toward the end also seemed to close with a sort of moral drawn from the events described, in the style of a fable. None of the child protagonists are given names, only brief descriptions when they are first introduced, and none of them recur from one story to another. From my standpoint in an age group very far from the target demographic I found the pieces rather dull even despite the flashy passages which they would often feature, seemingly at random. My impression is that this roughness was probably intentional, to make the book seem less produced, less grown-up, but I didn't enjoy it.

In the end, my feeling was that this book might be interesting to a niche audience interested in an artistic book taking on some outsider effects, but not for most people. I might be reading in too much about how the project took form over the last four years during the Trump administration, which to me might be a good reason to go for an escapist otherworldly fantasy as far from grim realities of living in the United States as possible, I wish that the words here could have ended up more memorable, with more accessible feelings behind them.

—Richard Magahiz

Poems That Could End the World by Ronald A. Busse
(Turning Point, 2020) 80 pp. Paperback, $18.00

Galloping and gleeful mucking with forms in here, a dark collection obsessed with various ways the planet (or other things) end. Although this sort of self-referential winking might come off cloying, instead I found myself chuckling along, shaking my head at us foolish humans from all the many viewpoints within: alien, SF, and prosaic.

Everything breathes with life and sly humor, as the poems hang loosely connected by threads of black humor, climate change, and death. Their many uses of rhythm were quite arresting, and so pleasing to read that I had to go back and read quite a few pieces aloud, to smile as they rebound around. Absurd anagrams and sarcastic sijo-like sevenlings abound. The single palindromic poem, “Underworld,” was a definite highlight. Even the environmentalist pieces which should have seemed preachy managed to become denser and empathic. I laughed more than a few times at punchlines and slashing irony, and in the end, the crazy tongue-twisting consonance left me smiling as the Earth burned.

—Daniel G. Fitch

Sacred Summer by Cassandra Rose Clarke
(Aqueduct Press, 2020). 104 pp. Paperback $12.00.

This is a beautiful horror novelette, told in verse. It is graceful and evocative, a pastiche of scenes that is cinematic and emotionally compelling. I loved it.

It is supernatural horror, but only at its core. Everything else is ordinary life. It is the story of women in a suburban development at the edge of the woods, and something insidious is working its way into their lives. They entwine with the horror; their mundane failures and desires drive them into it.

This book will be especially well-received by the Strange Horizons/etc. contingent in the SFPA, the ones who ask only for a wisp of genre and a generous helping of literary craft. The wisp here is horror waiting in the shadows of divorce and discontent. Like all arthouse work, let me advise you to be a little patient: you will be rewarded.

The structure of the story, by the way, is told in the John Campbell model of get into the story immediately and then only dole out world-building exposition within the story as it opens up. Which means it takes a while to understand what’s really going on.

I’ll violate that structure slightly for you and reveal what takes twenty-five pages to come out: Twenty years ago, a brutal murder of two boys in a punk band happened at the location of what is now a trophy home lived in by a divorcee known only as M. She has found a cassette tape of the band and is obsessed with it in kind of a Videodrome way. There was one survivor in the band, and he is still alive, still playing music, and she becomes fixated on meeting him.

Here’s the start of an early poem to show you how beautifully she builds the story.

The Wives in Repose

The wives gather like dandelions
pushing through cracks in the driveway,
dusty flowers clumped in the shade of
someone’s three-car garage…

Look how efficiently she sets the atmosphere. We get more scenes from a marriage as well as the hints of the horror in the opening lines of “The Architect in Repose,”

He built for her a home to win awards,
with windows that face
the remains of the forest,

Look how gracefully Clarke creates the mood. This is verbal mise en scène.

shadows crawling into vines
across the bare walls
of my apartment, slices of

moonlight marching across
the dirty carpet, illuminating
patches of moss and flares…

M’s obsession with the cassette tape is described like this, which I find totally delicious:

When she presses play
the music drowns out the sunlight,
flooding the studio with its darkness.
turning the dust motes into snowflakes.

If you want to get a clearer sense of the power of her poetry, look at how she describes searching the name of the surviving boy on the internet. She could just say her character “googles it” or that “she looks it up on the internet.” But Clarke is all about beauty and craft:

She gathers it [the name],
holds it in her memory
until she can drop it
into the chasm of the Internet
and collect what comes back:

Come on now! You should read this book! The narrative is pulled together in the poem “Necromancy” at page 19, which is pretty much precisely where Act I would end if this were a movie.

I don’t want to end this review abruptly. There is a lot more good stuff I could say about this book, but just believe me: This is one of the best genre poetry books published in 2020. I should mention it is from “Conversation Pieces: A Small Paperback Series” from Aqueduct Press. The series is explicitly feminist, and while this book has a feminist slant, it has absolutely zero polemics or preaching. It is just simply elegant. Let me end with a longer selection to give you a better taste of why I recommend this book:

Dance of Seduction

One afternoon they meet in the forest,
fallen leaves beneath their feet instead
of oil-slick cement, trees crouching
in their periphery instead of garden tools.

Who suggested it, their gathering beneath
the green canopy, passing a joint in the
dappled sunlight? They can’t remember,
and in the drowsy heat it doesn’t seem

to matter, only that they are sitting now
in a circle beside the pines, legs tucked
under their bodies, musty smoke curling
like fingers around their mussed hair.

One phone still gets reception out here.
Does it matter who it belongs to? M.
puts on music, pale and unrecognizable
like a lover’s voice on a distant speaker

until the wind gusts, pulling it toward
the trees where it amplifies, thudding inside
her muscle memory….

—John Philip Johnson

Scars That Never Bled: An Exploration of Frankenstein Through Poetry by Koji A. Dae
(Paiyak Development, 2020) 108 pp. Paperback $12.99.

Scars That Never Bled contains twenty-nine Frankensteinian poems grouped under seven headings of tarot arcana. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) has long been interpreted with a feminist lens. Frankenstein has been called the first science fiction novel. It is also a key horror text. Victor Frankenstein’s tragic, shuffling creature casts a long and influential shadow stretching across most of the 19th century, all of the 20th, and our one-fifth span of the 21st. The novel a fitting subject for a chapbook.

Dae honors and reinvents Frankenstein in her poems. The alchemy of the misguided scientist meets an autobiographical sort of “clean body horror and metamorphosis,” as she puts it on her website. A preface takes note of relevant parts of Shelley’s biography, observing that she initially constructed her tale as a teenager following a miscarriage as she travelled across Europe, tagging along behind a married poet.

Dae explains that the fiendish Dr. Frankenstein has been cast as the tarot’s magician; a converter of power and a wielder of will. In “Graverobber,” he describes his own dogged determination; his resolve, as he digs:

i sniff out something more
and claw through the mud
down to the still heart
my fingers clutch the muscle
until memories of its rhythm
beat through its heavy chill

Dr. Frankenstein is more than a mere ghoul. He is also a magician of sorts. And in “Found Parts,” the magician’s trick silently stakes notice of what the magician is doing to him:

your foreign fingers hum
over the jumbled assortment
i call me

Often the poems in Scars, like those quoted above, are narrated in the first person. An initially ambiguous “I” and an unnamed “you” stretch the imagination and affinities of the reader. In “Language,” for example, someone is learning how to speak in spite of a mouthful of rough-edged grimy marbles. Then, in “Watching,” the creature finds his tongue:

you paint me as heaven-sent
yet your skin prickles
when you think you’re alone

The monster is less than monstrous. The scientist is more than grotesque. In “Less Than Life, Less Than Death,” Dae warns the reader:

he could lay your body
bare on his slab
and dissect your flaws

After much effort, having mastered speech, the creature speaks elegantly (as the creature speaks in Shelley’s novel). The creature challenges its fictional creator at the same time the poet seems to be addressing someone else outside the frame. In other verses, the scientist speaks back. A dialogue unfolds into which Mary Shelley herself plays the part of the high priestess of the tarot. Shelley’s miscarriage resonates in “Unplanned Parenthood” in uneasy sympathy with Dr. Frankenstein’s character:

butterfly trembles fill my heart
at your continued growth
an entire body
extracted from my own

Many of the poems contain imagery of assembly and disassembly; of cutting and sewing; the fictional doctor’s horrid undertaking in his laboratory—as well as a 19th century woman’s domestic chore—to knit. To sew.

Sewing is also the writer’s (and the poet’s) task—the stitching together; the discarding of text; the unearthing of it, the shaping of it. The pain of it. The anxiety. And then the stepping back and watching it animate and take on a kind of life of its own. The creation rises from the slab. In “Free Will,” it rebukes its author:

you claimed the greatest love for me
but you slice me from you

Finally, Dae’s poem “Science” somehow encapsulates the sum of the library shelves bursting with the last two centuries of literary criticism and Frankenstein scholarship with these spare words:

we classify
and call it science
but it remains uncertain
whether these categories
will hold

after our death

generations will prove
our crass misunderstandings
of ourselves
and the other
that never was

Is this the doomed creature speaking? Is it Dr. Frankenstein? Mary Shelley? Her lover? Perhaps it is all of them. Perhaps it is a chorus.

Dae has blessed us with this chapbook. Her creation is many magnitudes richer than any base mixture of dead tissue and electricity.

—Thomas E. Simmons

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

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

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

eroded cliff
the slow emergence
of her past

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

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

plate tectonics
we rub each other
the wrong way

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

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

climate change news
the constant drip
of an icicle

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

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

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

—Joshua Gage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Sandra J. Lindow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because the kingdom needs a king.”

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

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

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

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

—Lisa Timpf

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

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

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

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

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

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

—David E. Cowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John Philip Johnson

Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale by Andrea Blythe
(Interstellar Flight Press, 2020). 62 pp. Hardcover $16.99; paperback $9.99.

Daughters were meant to be placid, pure, idle beauties who accepted their role as tokens in the bartering of treaties. They were not meant to have minds of their own.

Their story did not end with happily ever after. Or even happily. Yes, the eldest princess (reluctantly, bitterly) married the soldier who canceled her future nightly forays into the underworld. But what of the other eleven? What fates awaited them, as dictated by the men in their lives? Or would the princesses wrest that control away and decide for themselves who and what they would be?

As author Andrea Blythe notes: “The heroine’s journey is vast with possibilities, the roads fork and then fork again. The power comes in the choosing.” In Blythe’s skilled hands, those forks in the road are sometimes tragic, sometimes adventurous, and always fascinating. Sometimes these fates bear a resemblance to other known fairy tales: the sister consumed by dance, the sister who takes up needlework to contain the ghosts that torment her, the sister who loved apples and whose belly now swells with unknown life. In other cases, the princesses’ post-terpsichorean adventures are completely original—alchemist, thieves, wandering hag—but still somehow in keeping with the spirit of the classic tale. To quote Blythe’s postscript again, such princesses as these would not return quietly to their sitting room. They would “rove and vanish and tear through the world. They would claw their way back to magic and beauty and power.

Blythe’s Twelve is laced with a venomous critique of gender construction, social expectations, and patriarchy. Those same critiques challenge the reader, through the lens of a fairy tale, to examine our own expectations about our lives, our society, and what we demand/expect/compel from one another and ourselves. It is equal parts inspiring and uncomfortable. Highly recommended to fans of C.S.E. Cooney, Theodora Goss, Mari Ness, and anyone with an interest in feminist poetry and in fairy tales and the reconstruction thereof.

—Rebecca Buchanan

What the Gargoyle Sees by Gene Twaronite
(Kelsay Books, 2020). 46 pp. Paperback $16.00.

After the “wholly trinity” pun rolled my eyes on the first page, this collection had to fight its way back into my good graces. But that is my weakness; let's look to the later poems. There are lovely responses to Bradbury and Verne, and a truly great simple stanza “From Your Mouth a Flower Will Come” inspired by Charles Perrault.

I feel the poems here are more powerful the more he takes out, so the diminutive size of this collection is misdirection: the title poem is forty words but packs a visceral punch about war and the distant observers of it. (That's you and me, kind reader. Sucks to be reminded we're the gargoyles, don't it?) Clever little tweaks abound that are much better than the opening pun, and Star*Line readers may already be familiar with the playful, vengeful little “Afterlife” which calls out to each atom in the poet's body to do certain good and necessary deeds after death.

The only concern I have is with the Lovecraftian poems, and perhaps this is my dunce-level understanding of the ongoing dialogue about Lovecraft and his racism. I hold nothing against “Azazoth,” which is a sharp little miniature disturbance in the cracks between reality, but the summoning “Prayer to Cthulu” uses the unfortunate phrase “master race” in a way that initially seems rather supportive. But perhaps I need to think harder and read between the lines about this: perhaps this is not a generally cynical indictment of humanity as it reads, but instead a sarcastic assault on cynical indictments. In that case, I support it fully. Sure, humanity sucks and we're destroying the planet just as well as the Elder Gods could, but there's beauty in there somewhere still.

—Daniel G. Fitch

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