Speculative Poetry Book Reviews

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

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

Previous years: 20202019201820172016201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2021:

Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley.
(Aqueduct Press, 2021). 178 pp. $18 paperback, $7.95 e-book. aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-197-1.php

Ursula K. Le Guin, who died in January 2018 at the age of 88, is best known for her speculative fiction, including the Earthsea books. She was also a prolific poet, penning a total of nine volumes of poetry.

Aqueduct Press’s Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin was released in Janaury 2021 as a tribute to Le Guin’s work. The book contains two main components: first, sixty-plus poems that pertain in some way to Le Guin’s work or themes she commonly explored, and second, an analytical section that provides an overview of Le Guin’s poetry as well as a critical analysis of each of Le Guin’s nine poetry collections.

The volume is edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, and includes contributions from poets in the United States and Canada, as well as Greece, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, Uruguay, the UK, and Australia.

Roughly one-fifth of the poems were previously published in venues including Uppagus, Mythic Delirium, and Shoreline of Infinity, leaving the majority as new works.

Out of all of Le Guin’s writing, I’m most conversant with the Earthsea chronicles, though I also read The Dispossessed in my university days. Within this collection, I found those poems that in some way addressed universal themes or the Le Guin works I was familiar with the most appealing. That being said, the majority of the poems were universal enough to connect to in some way, even if I didn’t fully appreciate their significance vis-à-vis Le Guin’s works.

Some of the poems, like “Dear Ursula” by Edmond Y. Chang and “Where Are You?” by Jo Walton, are addressed to Ursula. In “Dear Ursula,” for example, Chang notes:

A book of yours told me mountains when I was ten.
Decades later it reminds me of promises made,
Then and today, that words are more than their sums,
That the map of the earth is sea and sky and change.

Other poems touch upon the impact Le Guin’s work had on the poet themselves. Mary Soon Lee, in “On Reading Le Guin,” notes that it has been

Years since I last sailed
the islands of Earthsea,
but everything’s the same:
the swift hawk’s flight,
that brightness on the water,
the fire the dragons woke in me.

Soon Lee notes that though the stories have remained the same, she herself has changed. And yet, reading the books still feels like “coming home,” a sentiment I could identify with.

In “Couch Burning,” Tania Pryputniewicz remembers

hours reading the LeGuin book the parents argued over
behind closed door, then to my face, then gave in,
in which the he doubles as a she in certain seasons to lie
with a lover, something warm to cling to…

Some of the poems deal with issues of aging and grief, themes that Le Guin visited in her own poetry. One such is Lyta Gold’s “Journey,” which notes

Grief keeps its own timetable.
You never know when it’s arriving
or departing, leaving behind
a socketed emptiness, a space
where the sea wind breathes
in, out
the harsh music of the gulls.

Catherine Rockwood, in “There Must Be Darkness,” notes

I have been on that train too
in the continual absence of other passengers
as it halts and rattles through sprawling tessellated cities
toward conjunctions arrived at far too late.

Many of the poems address themes or locales favored by Le Guin: nature, forests, Earthsea, dragons, and the like. Among my favorite works was “Cat’s Canticle” by David Sklar, which begins:

If you speak I will not answer,
if you call I will not come,
if you throw things at my shadow
I will nail them to your thumb.

Also noteworthy was Linden K. McMahon’s “Speculative Fiction,” which contains the lines:

I want there to be a space commune
named Le Guin. It will be on Earth.
We will tell each other stories at night.
We will believe what we say.
The white rhinos will come back
and rampage through London
putting their horns through car windows
and bellowing songs of triumph.

The contributed poems take up almost two-thirds of the book. The closing pages include poet and editor bios and previous publication information for the 13 poems listed as reprints. The remainder of the book contains R. B. Lemberg’s analysis of Le Guin’s poetry. Le Guin started penning poetry well before she dove into fiction, although it is the latter for which she is more famous. Lemberg notes that the subject matter for Le Guin’s poetry differs, for the most part, from her prose: “Readers unfamiliar with Le Guin’s poetry often assume that it is speculative, but those who expect science fiction brilliance from Le Guin’s poetry will be disappointed. Speculative poetry is not front and center in her poetic repertoire, and science fiction poems are quite rare in her work.” Where speculative elements do creep into Le Guin’s poems, it’s mainly in the form of fairy tale and mythic retellings.

Lemberg provides a brief critical analysis of each of Le Guin’s nine poetry collections in turn, starting with Wild Angels, first published in 1975, and ending with So Far So Good, which came out in 2018. This analysis, which includes brief poetic excerpts, provides the reader with a flavor for which of Le Guin’s volumes they might personally find most of interest, should they wish to delve into them.

—Lisa Timpf

Chasing Wild Grief by Sandra J. Lindow
(Kelsay Books, 2021) 66 pp. $16.50 paperback.

Grief is a contrarian thing. The loss of a loved one leaves us with memories that feel real and tangible, objects we crafted that we could as good as hold in our hands. Except when they feel like trying to hold a slippery fish, or a handful of fog. Grieving is an activity we can intentionally pursue—chase even, but if we don't it comes on us all the same. Chasing Wild Grief captures these two paradoxical faces of grief in poetry. Sometimes this is subtle—early in the collection an ice fisherman calls a slushy, blustering day "beautiful." It's the very core of other poems—in "Mad as a March Hare: March 2, 2017" she uses the phrase "a woolly chimera day", and what a wild and perfect way to describe grieving, that will drive you mad if you let it, and sometimes even if you don't.

Striking in many of the poems is the use of negative space. Again, Lindow has no problem being up front with her love of spacing and framing, writing "When grief / has no shape but negative" in "Winged Grief," with an aching lack felt so severely it takes the form of a physical hole in the middle of the poem. But there are subtle uses too. In "After Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese": Grieving Revisited" the first word of each line combines to form the first line of the Oliver poem. Its invisible presence hangs heavy and comforting for all the people, myself included, who have turned to that poem in times of loss.

Most notable as a synthesis of the shapes, themes, and devices that appear throughout the book is the poem "Darning." Another profoundly visual poem, it appears as a dragonfly as well as a needle about to puncture, and weaves together a kind of time travel. All the faces of grief are on full display here:

March you lay dying, heathered wool, / white specks, stars in the Milky Way,
above the smooth black darning egg, \ trilobite fossil I bought long ago
Cambrian you said, palimpsest / of life, half a billion years old

It's also a declaration that there is sometimes more in common across differences than we initially see—here biology, paleontology, and astronomy. Bringing together all of these facets, Lindow reminds us that writing about grief, actively reading poetry about grief, meditating on grief while looking at the stars or the power plant or the skeletal trees is a way to grieve that helps us hold onto and make solid the memories that matter most.

—Amelia Gorman

Cosmic Songs for Human Ears by Greg Beatty
(2021) 70 pp. $4.99 Kindle.

When I was Star*Line editor, I remember how pleased I was when I got a submission or two from Greg Beatty. He recently contacted me to share a new collection: 50 delightful poems, all speculative in some way. Sixteen of the poems won awards, including a Rhysling. Images from myth, concepts from science, and tropes from genre fiction and fables are included. The collection also has an essay from my Dark Poet’s Column, “Blood & Spades,” first appearing in the HWA NL 2005, concerning “Graveyards & Dead Narratives.” I read it again after all the years, and it’s still both informative and amusing.

A wide range of speculative poems follow, among them “Return Engagements”, when aliens arrive in search of Earthwomen, strong postfeminist icons / who sharply rap their knuckloids, / make them say please, strap on strap-ons, / then ride the aliens into mutually/ orgiastic postapocalyptic frenzies.

Back to real world experiences (?) the skeleton you keep in the corner expounds on “Unnatural Poetry Workshops,” ending with and when I was alone again / the only man beside the bay / save oil-clad mallards, five- / limbed frogs, / and a Times / blown past and incorrectly read.

Technology solves everything—or does it? From “The Nanogardens of Detroit”: Most people still starve, of course, / and kill one another, and fear, and long. / We'll fix that later. For now, dead motor city / shines, because technology solves everything.

Because he’s always served up good poems, whether serious or otherwise, Beatty’s collection belongs in your Kindle library—where you can find it easily and smile or nod reading it over again—and again. Two thumbs up!

—Marge Simon

Dancing with Maria’s Ghost: Dark Encounters with the Ghost of Maria Callas by Alessandro Manzetti
(Independent Legions, 2021), illustrated. 64 pp. independentlegions.com/store/p485/dancingwithmaria.html

This book is really two books. First there is a 45-page thematic collection where the narrator follows the ghost of Maria Callas as she transforms into and out of her most famous roles. After that is a nineteen page chapbook section-titled “Uncollected Poems” which are largely from themed anthologies.

For the first portion of the book, it helps to be of a certain age or a certain culture to fully embrace Maria Callas’ place in this book. The real-life Callas was an American-born Greek opera singer famous for her voice, but also famous for her romantic affairs, her protean beauty, her status as diva, and a certain darkness that emanated from her. Aristotle Onassis had an affair with her before he married Jackie Kennedy, and he makes cameo appearances in the book. Callas spent the last years of her life secluded in Paris adding to her mystery, and dying in 1977.

The narrator follows Callas through famous roles confusing her and her acting/singing. The question becomes whether Callas’s opera roles are coloring her ghost, or whether her ghost is haunting the roles as much as she haunts the narrator. I have never survived an opera, so I am familiar with Callas’s roles only through other media. I had no trouble understanding the haunting despite not knowing the source materials first-hand, though I am certain this dark journey would be deeper and richer if I were steeped in opera.

The narrator chases Callas through her roles asking her to favor some and disfavor others. Callas invites him to cross over in “Follow Me to the Other Side.” The poems are rich in religious imagery, partly due to the opera’s subjects, and partly due to Callas’s Greek heritage.

Holy Friday, in my little town
where every stone has a name
and the archpriest knows them all

For the Irish princess “Isolde” the narrator would speak to the ghost rather than the role, but the role is all he has:

but I talk to you as if you were here
instead of this empty bottle
that filled me with thoughts of Ireland.

This is a collection of horror poetry, not just by courtesy of a ghost. There are occasional strong horrific images.

with a pool of blood between her feet
painted blue up to the ankles
—this is how you know the living from the dead

The blood is dripping from her pubis

In the end, the narrator’s story is unresolved, but then ghost stories almost always include the ghost’s problem of unresolved issues as an essential component. So the narrator is left without crossing over, without embracing the ghost. He is left only echoes.

          […] her glue
wonderful ambrosia, strands of honey
stretching from here to the beach
like magic rubber bands
approaching and moving away
life, death and small miracles.

The “Uncollected Poems” start with a very different voice. “Stop Me from Dreaming” written with Joe R. Lansdale, is science fiction clearly resituating the reader for poems that are different from the homogenously moody haunting of the front of the book. The poems that follow are diverse, but a number are tributes though differently and more fleetingly than the tribute to Callas. As a result, the reader will get splashed in references to Beethoven, Lovecraft, Johnny Cash, Charlie Chaplin, the horse of Napoleon, and John Carter of Mars.

In the end, the binding themes are those entertainers who entrance and haunt us. This book is a curious exploration of those themes.

—Herb Kauderer

Everyday Divine by Noel Sloboda
(Červená Barva Press, 2021) 30 pp. $8.00 paperback.

For centuries pious homes included a book of the lives of saints. Sloboda answers the question “What would a book of saints look like if it were written today?” Part of the answer is that the saints would not be high and mighty; rather, they are likely to mingle with commoners. This chapbook contains seventeen poems and each poem title starts with “The Patron Saint of” and the choices are often of ordinary concerns such as commuters, shoplifters, muscleheads, amateur gardeners, the forgetful, cuckolds, piggy banks, and gossip.

As the word “everyday” in the book’s title implies, this is not about exploring or justifying a reality other than our own, but rather identifying or injecting the speculative into the world around us. Aliens and shapeshifters appear only as they are represented in the world around us. Sloboda writes of the weirdness of the commonplace such as “The Patron Saint of Commuters”.

Usually concealed behind
a bug-speckled screen
halfway between today
and tomorrow, I once saw him
up close, propped against
a pump on sclerotic legs,

He also writes of the strangeness that we take for granted such as this from “The Patron Saint of Audience Volunteers”

Cram me into a wooden box
and slice me in half. After
I am pieced back together
I will keep your ciphers
forever sealed in my vaults.

There are strong concrete images, and pieces of narrative, but also the surreal that pushes us step by step away from literalism. Consider this from “The Patron Saint of Plagiarists”:

in search of that desperate glimmer
escaping from under a door—

the invitation for her
once more to brand

names of dead statesmen
on an inner forearm

or tattoo an algorithm
across a lifeline.

The book is both a look from today at the worldview of the middle ages as they created a world of saints, and a look at our culture from those who created books of saints. In the end, there is dislocation, if not transportation, and the book is likely to leave readers imagining their own patron saints. This is SpecPo as it exists around us. Those who want rocketships or the fey, will need to look elsewhere. This is a book of ordinary wonders, of the everyday divine.

—Herb Kauderer

Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota by Amelia Gorman
(Interstellar Flight Press, 2021). 60 pp. $11.99 paperback, $5.99 Kindle.

Amelia Gorman’s Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota is an extrapolation on climate change and increasingly apocalyptic ecological effects the culminate around 2044 C.E. Based on research regarding present day invasive species, twenty-one botanical illustrations and thought-provoking poems imagine odd and slyly horrific environmentally-wrought changes. See the concluding essay regarding Gorman’s research and process.

The key to understanding these complex poems is in “Buckthorn,” the second poem in the collection. Written in second person, the communal “you” seems to refer to the personified body of the ecosystem:

There is only you
reckoning sand,
counting the replicating drupes
until the numbers get too large.
Forcing your way/through the ecophagic wood
as it slavers, quavers, and slivers inside you.
And soon there will be no you.
Just endless, reproducing thorns.

Ecophagy is a term coined by Robert Freitas to describe how human meddling can result in the literal consumption of an ecosystem. It derives from the Greek "οἶκος" (oikos), which refers to a "house" or "household", and the Greek "φαγεῖν" (phagein), "to eat". As a gardener, it is easy to see how invasive species might eat us out of house and home and how increasing global warming and pollution are making it harder for native plants and animals to survive. Buckthorn is an excellent example of a species that consumes its ecosystem. The female buckthorn produces berries that birds love and cannot digest, thus spreading fertilized seeds widely where they germinate easily into fast growing trees that crowd out slower growing hardwoods.

Gorman’s poetry read scientifically-slant reveals how invasive species like Norway Maple, Purple Loosestrife, Queen Anne’s Lace and Garlic Mustard, once purposely planted, have escaped gardens to have long term negative effect on native ecosystems, suggesting that these tough predators will evolve and endure while more fragile species fail. The “Earthworm,” though beneficial for gardening, can damage forest ecosystems. Gorman describes its enviable art of endurance: below the yellow air and lead / we filter yesterday's filth, / squeezing out our statues / and bringing them to life // demi-sister, half-brother / sculptor mother, dirt father. “Flowering Rush,” once introduced in wetlands, spreads underground and underwater, creating masses of hard-to-penetrate tangles along shorelines, laying snares in … sacred spaces.

Behind all these cautionary poems is the unspoken truth that humans are the most invasive species, creating what is presently called the Anthropocene epoch, but humans are often absent from Gorman’s landscapes, having disappeared into their computers. “Grecian Foxglove” begins What good is foxglove / now that we’ve removed our bodies? and continues In Mother Hutton Hall we digitize ourselves / subtract the charcoal lungs and the sloughing skin, thus escaping the ugly effects of overpopulation and climate change: the electrical storms / the exploding transformers / the rising waters. “What poisons the poisoners? Gorman asks late in her collection.

Gorman’s poems slide somewhere between science fiction and fantasy. For instance, “Sea Lamprey” extrapolates:

Then it wasn’t strange when a lamprey that
effortlessly swapped lake for sea over time found
how to induce in itself another kind of liminal change and
attach to the outside of our failed shuttles making for space—

Beginning in the mundane, these poems quickly embrace the unexpected: In “Silver Carp,” a child learns to clean fish, safely removing silver coins like pearls. Gorman understands the place where science ends and magic begins, then masterfully blurs it. Her strength is in depicting the uncanny and in suggesting horror without descent into gore and graphic detail. This may well be one of the best speculative collections of 2021.

Highly Recommended. (Amelia Gorman can be found at ameliagorman.com. A beginners’ guide to invasive species can be accessed at the University of Minnesota’s extension office: extension.umn.edu/identify-invasive-species.)

—Sandra J. Lindow

Horrific Punctuation by John Reinhart
(2021) 32 pp. $3.99 paperback.

Ever seeking to create the unique in chapbooks, John Reinhart’s newest is exactly what it claims to be: horrific (sort of) poems, appropriately punctuated. Some pages feature a poem with an enlarged punctuation mark illustration. For example: “Looking for Stars in Pools of” (here, we have a small footnote indicator after “of”)

Looking for Stars in Pools of*

Redirecting stars
of secondary purpose,
diverting the captain’s attention from the
dash to crash
on the floor of
superfluous light…

At the end of the poem, there is a long dash and the footnote “Mud”

Trying to share how brilliant these poems are is nearly impossible in a review. You absolutely must have the book itself. If you enjoy hilarious nonsense poems, here’s “Silent Killers”:

Caught dumb pneumonia
on tongue island
during the sword tsunami
where knights
feign maligned honor
and pterodactyl psychologists
prescribe gnome phlegm
against the threat of rough gnus.
Half knees are enough like
knuckles to be wrong for ballet.
Even whales know that.

Reinhart gives us an abundance of playful poetry, such as:

Too impatient he is

fear not Darth Vader
when uncertain you are
of sentence structure

Understandably, the collection is not meant to be terrifying punctuation. That’ll be Reinhart’s next collection! Seriously? We just don’t know, do we? Highly recommended for those who enjoy a clever read. You won’t be sorry!

—Marge Simon

* * *

I’m sure my former college English students would enjoy this book, with its spider made of punctuation on the cover. Each punctuation mark evidently has its own good, bad, uncertain, or horrific past, as these poems point out. Do you see Thor as a exclamation point? Do you think the semicolon is a chimera? Good, because Reinhart agrees. From “Thor’s Exclamations”:

all subtleties fade
before the immortal hammer
set to end each world
with decisive blows!

There’s also the “merciless curved blade” that is the comma, in the poem “not dead yet,” and there are sundry other examples, some not fixed to one punctuation mark but using punctuation as a subject, a methodology, and a meditation. The latter is what this book really seems to me to be: a meditation on punctuation marks and maybe how to personify them. I think I hit on that idea after reading “she’s looking for enlightenment”:
I’m just looking for the light switch

(in this darkened cave, cold hard stone—
lanterns swinging in the town squares at noon)

dragged into dappled groves
where parachutes, long since spent,
cover truths buried in

fossils of language growing clouds

Although many of the poems are a bit tongue-in-cheek, such as “Attack of the Saurus” which is an obsession centered around synonyms, some of the poems are serious and meant for more than a moment’s thought upon reading. What does punctuation tell us about Schrodinger’s cat? Is a question mark just a “doomed snake”? I don’t know. But I do know that I will return to these poems to meditate on again. So on that note I’ll end with some lines from “Go Take a Walk, Talk to Your Neighbor” which is more than just a title with a comma splice:

borders separate refined citizenry from illiterate
rabble farming the outskirts unchecked by the
guardians of knowledge.

writing, these words you’re reading now,
are conclusions, concepts to bind the feelings
and convoluted, complicated, often contradictory
thoughts that live within me simultaneously

Some of the poems in this book were previously published in such journals as Star*Line, Leading Edge, Songs of Eretz and others, but some are new to this collection. Highly recommended, and not just for English teachers!

—Denise Dumars

Igor in Therapy by M. K. Garrison (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021), illustrated by Sarah Vosmus. 128 pp. $16 paperback. spuytenduyvil.net/igor-in-therapy.html

Marty Feldman seems to have come alive again, that tragicomic jester, in M. K. Garrison’s Igor in Therapy. Some version of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant arrives in a therapist’s office, troubled not so much by his grisly work as by some underlying professional unease, some existential angst.

To be clear, Garrison’s Igor is not a Mel Brooks slapstick character, but her own creation pieced together from various Igors and Fritzes past. The narrative reads like notes scattered across a desk, incomplete, hinting, puzzled pieces, like the newly conscious assemblage of human bone, organ, and tissue come to life. The free-verse poetry meanders like conversation from one side of the page to the next. Igor describes his work while pouring out his soul under the warm smell of tea, a soothing therapist’s voice.

our Adam is gorgeous…

He is sewn with lightning,
every seam a line of magic
made of surgical floss…”

The concept is both amusing for its references to Frankensteins past and its modern Sopranos-style therapist setting. Here, Igor gets his due, perhaps as much because he is able to articulate his fears and hopes, while “the doctor,” who also visits the therapist, is less able to face himself and his human shortcomings.

Sarah Vosmus’s etchings hint at images, like abstract photos or something under a microscope, complementing the quasi-scientific nature of the story.

This is a lively and enjoyable new side of the Frankenstein story, befitting the 21st century.

—John Reinhart

Infectious Hope: Poems of Hope & Resilience from the Pandemic, edited by Silvia Cantón Rondoni. (IFWG Publishing Australia, 2021). 106 pp. $10.39 paperback. amazon.com/Infectious-Hope-Poems-Resilience-Pandemic/dp/192255622X

In Infectious Hope, 47 poets offer their takes on the pandemic and the emotions, positive and negative, that it has aroused. Though the majority of the poems are not overtly speculative, several of the poets, including Linda D. Addison, Alessandro Manzetti, Angela Yuriko Smith, and PS Cottier, will be familiar to fans of speculative poetry.

The book is structured alphabetically by author surname. Each poem is preceded by an author bio and a brief statement of the author’s motivation for writing the poem. Placing each poet’s comments about what prompted them to write the poem adjacent to the work rather than at the back of the book made it easier to make the connection between the spark that ignited the idea and the way that idea played out in the poem.

The various offerings captured sensations felt during the pandemic: fear, boredom, a sense of confinement. At the same time, many of the poems offered an optimistic slant, either by looking forward to better times or by seeking the silver lining in the coronavirus cloud.

Humor is a feature of many of the entries; Janeen Webb’s “Hotel Quarantina” takes a tongue in cheek look at the shortfalls of quarantine hotels, while Sebastien Doubinsky, in “Is Poetry Contagious?” poses questions like “Can you catch poetry by shaking hands?” Allen Ashley, in “Symptoms May Vary,” offers some offbeat ideas in connection to the poem’s title, including “The inability to distinguish today from any other / SunMonTue-WedBeaughday” and “feeling like you are falling… though very slowly.”

Some of the poems capture darker emotions stirred up by the pandemic. In “The Dance,” Jenny Blackford articulates how the pandemic caused her to fear for her father’s health: “Even when shelves bulged with toilet rolls, I stalked the aisles / glaring like a snake-haired Gorgon at the careless: / I’ll kill you if you risk my father’s life.” In “The Moment Passes,” Joe R. Lansdale expresses the sense of foreboding felt by many: “Disease floats by my window as I look out / thinking its waiting for me in the wilds of the land.” Likewise, Marty Young, in “An Endless Barrage,” notes, “News falls all around / Bombshells / Destroying our lives.” In “They Only Become Dreams When You Wake,” Dominic Hoey speaks to the sameness of the days: “the dog keeps running in its dreams / but we are going nowhere.”

But the title of the book is, after all, “Infectious Hope,” and so the poems also express hope for light in the face of darkness, and for brighter times ahead. In “The Dance,” the same poem in which she speaks about her fear for her father’s health, Jenny Blackford also comments on the way shoppers have adjusted to new ways of doing things, noting:

the supermarket dance flowed graceful, easy,
filled with smiles and excuse-mes and after-yous
as all the shoppers twirled and do-si-doed
and reeled their carts aside,
a care-filled metre and a half or two apart
as if we’d done it all our whirling lives.

Angela Yuriko Smith’s “A New Match” begins with the somber lines, “I stand at the edge / of the abyss—dark, cold, lost / with a single flame” but concludes with a more encouraging tone: “In absolute dark / a small spark makes a difference. / I strike a new match.” Linda D. Addison, in “Here/Now,” comments on the value of living in the present, noting, “As things break / around us, we discover breakthroughs in the / hope of breath, of life shared with a changing world.”

All of the poems are one page or less in length, but rather than creating a sense of sameness, this balances the collection, giving each contributor’s work equal weight. While some of the poems are more lyrical than others, the majority are impactful at some level. Chances are most readers will find some resonance with shared experiences and emotions between the pages.

—Lisa Timpf

The Last Robot and Other Science Fiction Poems by Jane Yolen
(Shoreline of Infinity, 2021) 39 pp. £5.25 chapbook, $2.99 Kindle.

The universe itself is a poem. / No mistaking it for prose.” Grand Master Jane Yolen’s 399th book, with evocative cover illustration by Emily Simeoni, and introduction by Jo Walton, offers 28 sparkling and sparking science fictional poems, divided into four sections: “Planet Earth,” “Outer Space,” “Aliens & Robots” and “The Robot Suite,” providing thought-provoking content that moves from universal creation to robot sex, and finally to an apparently pastoral, postapocalyptic end-times.

Throughout, Yolen deftly combines contemporary science with politics, mythology, and everyday life, creating images that strike a deep memetic chord. The book aptly begins with “Light,” blending biblical mythology and particle physics, then takes an unexpected turn: “A word but not a word / sound but not a sound/ a puff of air, a hiss of breath / a shift of molecules / before there were molecules. // A star born before it has a name, / a garden planted with nouns / green not yet a color and yet / surely a color, pushing up / through what will one day be called / Ground Zero.”

Warnings of environmental destruction often mark crossroads where history meets SF, meets fantasy, meets mythology: Wildfires large enough to be seen from space create a place “Travelers from distant planets […] now avoid.” “We make furrows on this planet / deep wounds with iron/ the fairies warned about. / The world bleeds green/then rust” (19), and “Ashes to Pluto” ends with a prayer: “Forgive us our sins young earth / as we prepare to plunder your hearth.

Yolen’s social awareness becomes a beacon to deeper consideration of our own prejudices. “The Last Robot” parallels robots with slave and migrant workers. It concludes: “Lynched by history, / rotting by roadsides, / hated by fellow workers/ and owners alike. / They never truly died. // They just cluttered the landscape / with their irony / and their iron bones/ a testament to their steadiness / and the world’s bigotry.”

Most of these poems have been selected from Yolen’s blog, where she offers a poem a day that can be read via Mailchimp, at eepurl.com/bs28ab. A video filmed on Yolen’s 82nd birthday introduces the collection, offers a brief interview, and allows readers to hear some of The Last Robot’s poems in Yolen’s voice.

Highly recommended. This is SF poetry at its very best.

—Sandra J. Lindow

Million-Year Elegies by Ada Hoffmann
(2021). 76 pp. Paperback $14.99.

In her debut poetry collection Million-Year Elegies, Ada Hoffmann offers 45 poems focussing on dinosaurs, while at the same time touching upon evolution and humans’ place in the world. Five of the poems have been previously published in Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s. The remainder appear for the first time.

The 76-page book is arranged in three main sections, “The Age of Monsters,” “The Age of Reptiles,” and “The Age of Mammals.” A prologue and epilogue tie the book together nicely.

Each poem is titled with the name of a dinosaur, and deals mainly with that particular creature or matters related to it. Some, like “Brontosaurus” and “Tyrannosaurus” were familiar names; others, like “Blattodea” and “Scleractinia,” less so.

Some poems are told first-person, while others are written as though addressed to the title creature. Still others are framed in third-person viewpoint. This variability does not detract from the overall harmony of the collection. Rather, it keeps the subject matter from becoming stale, and allows Hoffmann to create different moods in different pieces.

Poems like “Proterosuchus” provide an image of what the world might have been like in ancient times:

The world was burned, dead, and rotten,
again. The fabulous beasts
that you draw in your books,
horns and crests, plates and spines,
had not been born. These were the days
of swamp and desert, empty days.
Nothing much lived: nothing you
would call interesting.
Just teeth. Just hungry throats.
Just us.

Musings about paleontologists and paleontology pop up in several poems. Some refer directly to specific scientists, like O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope, who became bitter rivals. Others reference the challenge in deducing what a particular creature might have looked like, based on the sometimes-cryptic clues that have survived the ravages of time. In “Iguanadon,” for example:

…they worked at you from scraps,
puzzling over a thighbone, a knee-joint,
a thumb. Placing the bones this way and that,
revising their own earnest creation
from the almost
nothing left of the past.

In “Plesiadapis,” Hoffmann notes:

There is a missing chapter here.
So the man of science thinks,
squinting at the fossils
and scratching his nose.

The poems evoke a variety of moods. A number of the pieces are matter-of-fact, providing descriptive imagery. Others are ironic, contemplative, fanciful, or even wistful, as in these lines from “Baluchitherium”:

I want to look out my bedroom window
and watch massive beasts on promenade.
I want to see the earth as it was,
or as I imagine it was:
a peaceful congregation of giants.

“Hallucigenia” provides a colorful look at evolution:

…body plans found and discarded
as life slips the cage of single cells,
looks left and right, grins at its freedom,
gets out the brightest biomolecular Lego bricks
and plays.

Poems like “Epilogue: Mememto Mori” wax philosophical:

Who will come after us? After the bombs,
the floods, the meteors, the simple march
of generations. One day, a mind will look back
which is not our own
and cannot fathom us.

Hoffmann contemplates life’s paradoxical duality—its fragility, and at the same time, its capacity for endurance. “Prologue: The Late Heavy Bombardment” advises:

Listen. This world is a breakable bone,
a fragile crate in a sea of ice and flame,
and wondrous creatures cling to its edges.
This world has burned and ended, burned and ended,
more times than you know

Despite what we as humans have done, and might yet do, to our planet, the poem “Ursus” provides hope: “… the earth / below you, poisoned and shaking, / softly smiles. She knows this cycle; / has seen it before.” In the end, “Epilogue: Memento Mori” reminds us, “Life knows how to hide / in the rocks, the swamps, to be small/and rebuild.

Million-Year Elegies whisks us through millennia of time, and makes us like it, providing food for thought along the way. Well worth a look.

—Lisa Timpf

Planet of the Zombie Zonnets, Seasons One and Two by Juan Manuel Pérez
(Hungry Buzzard Press, 2021) 75 pp. $15 paperback.

Zombies make great fodder for poetry for obvious reasons: they are such good candidates for metaphor, symbolism, and so on. To explore all the possibilites of poetic zombies, try this collection, which contains both the horrific and the humorous aspects of a zombie outbreak.

Quite a few of Pérez’s zombie poems in this collection are written in “zonnet” form, but not all of them. Most have been published before in journals such as Terror House, Red Planet, Star*Line, The Horror Zine, and more. While a lot of the poems are funny, sometimes in the midst of the levity the reader is stopped cold by some of the seriousness underlying not only the idea of a zombie apocalypse but also by its acting as a metaphor for reality, as in “Twenty”:

Welcome Back to the Hundred Acre Wood
except now it’s beat-down to the last ten
where Pooh Bear has hard-core diabetes
continuing dialysis, about to
lose his other leg, where gray Eeyore
has been cutting himself...

There will always be nay-sayers about reality; look at this mess we’re in with people who don’t believe in the Covid-19 virus or in vaccinating themselves. Just imagine how bad it would be if zombies were real. Take a couple of stanzas from “Truth” as examples:

“I’m telling you the truth for the last time.
There is no such thing as a damned zombie.
That is just crap made up by Hollywood
to make money while scaring you to hell.”

These were the very words I remember.
Now, with a muzzle covering your mouth
to keep you from snapping at me again,
I want to argue the point I made then.

Not all the poems are grim, of course, and a lot of the poems are tongue-in-cheek or even happily recounting the realities of everyday life during a zombie outbreak. Witness “Road” for example:

“Why did he zombie cross the road?” you ask
well, it wasn’t a chicken, so there’s that
but you are standing vibrantly alive
with a delicious heart and supple lungs
with salty moisture on your healthy skin
with well-kept thighs that make him cry mercy
looking quite helpless just across the road.

And finally, a sample stanza from “Unmasked”:

are you smarter than a zombie, I ask
because they most surely will outsmart you
their drive for flesh will push them beyond the task
they’ll wait for days to see what you will do

Recommended for the zombie fan, of course, as there are several poems that refer directly to The Walking Dead universe and modern zombie lore. Zombies have been the most popular monster in America for well over a decade now. For those who’ve wondered why, maybe something in this collection will help enlighten you. I have to say it certainly makes you think while also inspiring a laugh to relieve the tension here and there!

—Denise Dumars

Robots and Rockets: Poems of Science Fiction Ed. Robin Helweg-Larsen. Illustrated by Alban Low
(Sampson Low Ltd.: Potcake Chapbooks, 2021) 16 pp. £2.60 paperback.

Crash landings, the colonization of Venus, and robots’ feelings about humans are among the subjects tackled in Robots and Rockets. The 13-poem chapbook includes the works of twelve contributors, including Juleigh Howard-Hobson, F. J. Bergmann, and Geoffrey A. Landis.

Most of poems conclude with a satisfying twist or a touch of irony. For example, Robert Laughlin’s “The Greater Threat,” which contemplates the perils of space junk, ends with the lines So, nature’s less a trap/ Than Homo sap’s own crap.

Some of the entries are humorous, while others are more somber. In “The Machines Mourn the Passing of People,” Alicia E. Stallings writes:

How could we guess they would ever be gone?
We are shorn now of tasks, and the lovely work—
Not toiling, not spinning—like lilies that shirk—
Like the brash dandelions that savage the lawn.

“To Live in Hell” by Geoffrey A. Landis revolves around terraforming Venus, and more broadly, the notion that if and when we go into space, humans will eventually adjust to new living conditions no matter how daunting they may seem initially: What we call hell, outside this cramped steel dome/ Our children’s children’s children will call home.

In “Wasp Waste,” Julia Griffin whisks the reader to Wasp-76b, a planet with an unusual form of precipitation, where

… even heroes’ hearts might cower
With winds 10,000 miles per hour.
The place can furthermore rely on
Incessant rain of molten iron.

In “Metamorphoses, Late-Night Sci-Fi Marathon,” Maryann Corbett makes a connection between scary science fiction flicks and the horrors of aging, when the TV viewer might look in the mirror to find The change behind the fables, real at last./ And night outside. And spacetime roaring past.

With their focus on meter and form, the poems contain a beauty of their own. Illustrations add to the chapbook’s aesthetic appeal.

Robots and Rockets serves as the ninth installment in the Potcake Chapbooks series, published by Sampson Low Ltd. Named after “the dogs of the Bahamas and the Caribbean—strays that live off the burnt scrapings of cooking pots,” the series specializes in poems that rhyme and scan, noting, “We subscribe to the use of form, no matter how formless the times in which we live.”

All of the poems in Robots and Rockets have been previously published; four in Eye to the Telescope, three in Light, two in Star*Line, and the remainder in other venues.

—Lisa Timpf

The Smallest of Bones by Holly Lyn Walrath
(Clash Books, 2021) 68 pp. $14.95 paperback.

This book is a physical manifestation of the metaphor of the skeleton as structure. Seven sections are named for human bones and introduced with prose poems that mine the voice of old anatomy textbooks, before transforming into poetic comment. The first ends:

The skull and its bones may form our facial
expressions, but they cannot form who we are

The last ends:

If you keep listening to what they tell you you are, soon
enough you become that thing.

The sections of the book are titled Cranium, Mandible, Sternum, Sacrum, Spine, Calcaneus, and Temporal, and they guide us on a tour of sections filled with powerful untitled open-form poems that are primarily interior monolog, but reach beyond with regularity, such as:

buildings have ghosts
but so do trees

Within the structure of the skeleton we read the woman’s side of a lifetime of conversations between lovers who may or not be dead, may or may not be in some other world. You may or may not have some completely different interpretation. Or multiple interpretations.

you say

the smallest of bones
is a part of the hammer in your ear

love is a heartbreak you can hear

Whether or not the interpretation includes overtly speculative elements such as ghosts is not important. While the verse uses rich metaphor, it also takes important steps away from literalism, those steps that are hallmarks of speculative poetry.

under threat, I cast off my breasts
vestigial organs
regenerated autonomically
with little or no scarring

While much of this book explores the love/hate of long-time lovers in sometimes gentler terms, it still packs the typical Walrath power.

my body is two-thirds
and one-third

Overall the rhythms of the book builds engagement with its seven cycles moving from science to metaphor to interior, all while examining the role of a woman in life, or the afterlife, and as a lover. What better structure for examining the inner life than the skeleton that supports it? The book is dedicated “For Gregory, my bone dealer.” This is a book that deals in bones and that makes Walrath a bone dealer as well.

—Herb Kauderer

Stone the Monsters, or Dance by Ken Poyner
(Barking Moose Press, 2021). 146 pp, $13 pb, $2.99 Kindle. amazon.com/dp/B09B6DZH46

In Ken Poyner’s latest poetry collection, his poems are as easy and approachable as they are edgily dark.

From “Absolution,” the first poem in the collection, we get a sense of Poyner’s surreal and mischievous view of the world:

The flowers are beginning to look like you.
Each day you have run your fingers through their roots
And now one sticks your tongue out at you.
Another bats your eyes …

The references to the reader draw you in, asking you to identify with the flower bed, which is no Little Shop of Horrors, but a perfectly normal flower bed with its own intentions. “Oz” is another second person haunting, a new perspective on Dorothy’s experience.

“The Atlantean Catastrophe” is a perfect reminder about how important our everyday concerns really are:

They thought it could not happen. They hung out clothes…
Miles inland, at the foot of the water’s breaking
Turning from hanging out her fresh clothes, thought
… I’ll have to wash
Them all again …

The ease in reading Poyner’s work belies his care and effort composing it. Many of his poems weave curious dark tales that end with punchline abruptness. Others, like “Geometric Design,” take the reader into meanderingly unexpected places; in that case, a story about throwing children off the third story of a barn. Crowds gathered until

“…there were dozens, couples
For miles around bringing their children …
He launched nine, few having to take the trip
More than once …
Children ran about like ants,
Wanting to climb up and try
And Luther sent hundreds of them out,
Let them buckle in the early summer air.”

The disconcerting combination of children running around like ants and parents bringing their children to be flung from the barn is revealed in the next line: “Then one caught …” as in “caught flight.” Like a distorted parent bird nudging its young, Luther has inadvertently taught the children to fly.

Angel farm? Fred the angel farmer? “The Acolyte” is the kind of poem I wish I had written, though it has the clear tone of a Poyner classic. Nothing more needs to be said about a poem focused on farming angels from a starter kit.

Poyner’s work is pleasantly dark, nicely disconcerting, and oddly enjoyable, and yet that sounds like a surprise, or that maybe it shouldn’t be enjoyable. Poyner works classic themes as easily as unexpected new ones and it all feels natural, easy, pleasantly not quite right, yet all right at the same time. To feel so disconcerted demonstrates Poyner’s gift, the ability to lull the reader into his weird world and accept it as everyday.

—John Reinhart

Warning Light Calling by Peter Graarup Westergaard
(Vraeyda Literary, 2021) 65 pp, $14.99 paperback, $4.28 Kindle. amazon.com/Warning-Light-Calling-Peter-Westergaard/dp/1988034175

The author lives in Denmark, the publisher lives in Canada.

As a book of poetry, this is the occasional story of Spacy Peter and Yelena as told by a twenty-first-century William S. Burroughs intoxicated with SpecPo. This means a spectacle of typography and explosions of non sequiturs and distracted obsessions such as the ham in this excerpt from “Canned Ham”:

my on-off girlfriend yel
ena the author of the inf
amous pamphlet the uns
toppable ham argued for
liberating sexuality from
ham production and intr
oduce a tough ham polic

The vaguely remembered Burroughs binge-reading of our youth recalls that there are plenty of misses, but plenty of swings in this sort of writing, so also many hits. In the midst of the chaos, the reader finds small crystals of light.

I’m concerned about your
inner radio.

Through all of this are sublimely coded political undertones, as chaotic and nonsensical as the politics of the real world. From “Dear Spacy Peter”:

            I know very well
                                    of their new procedures.

They send unemployed
                                                and poets

to work at the old factories,
                                    to work as newspaper boys,

There is a strange sense in the book, as in real life, of some distorted connection between politics and sex. The title of the long prose-poem “The Trojan Love Machine” conjures war, trickery, politics, and copulation. Or worse, lack of copulation as in this:

The machine was the newest invention of a loveless people who were living in a famous city, not so far from here, Diotima explained. Any kind of natural love-making was forbidden in this famous city for many years, due to a plague and it was instated by law that no one was allowed to practice or even think about love.

The book is an experience that ranges from incoherent to silky smooth coherence, from unsatisfying moments, to post-coitus satiation. The summation is dissidence and poetry as fire. Do not look for closure in the narratives whether local or meta. Know that there is more originality in this book than in most careers. Whether the reader finds value in that may depend on how anchored they are to their views, or even their reality. This is not a book for those comfortable in the mundane.

—Herb Kauderer


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