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: 2022202120202019201820172016201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004≤2003

For books published in 2023:

Complete Poems: 1965–2020 by Michael Butterworth
(Space Cowboy Books, 2023). 212 pp. $26.03 hardcover, $18.59 paperback. spacecowboybooks.com/michael-butterworths-complete-poems-1965-2020-out-now/

This whopper retrospective contains 187 pages of poetry. As Butterworth comments in the introduction, there is a clear autobiographical arc to the work, which is the overriding theme throughout the book, punctuated by speculative elements:

… The universe
for its beautiful wife
and pours
of cold
over its son’s head …
(“Until Now”)

Butterworth often spins the ordinary, as in “hoover & writer,” twisting reality a little to the left, generating an awkward blob of silence while his reader ponders:

it spits out the rubbish
and takes up the words
and then it
clatters away
down the stairs

leaving an awkward
of silence

Many of the early poems address war and the post-atomic age. “Sergeant Pepper’s Postatomic Skull” pulls the reader into a tortuous ride, where the poet asks “what use are words but the niceties of a race best left out of this place… there is no advert to fill the vacuum… there is no recollection…” existential questions that already hint at the Twitter age.

“… i can speak but i can speak to no body… there is no mind to speak to… there is no machine to sate the vacuum of desire left in my skull for a mechanical aid… any mechanical aid no matter how simple in structure or in ease of appliance would suffice… there is no advert to fill the vacuum… there is no recollection but what i can recall is confused and garbled like the effects of a hallucinogen
how it all started… how did it all start… why write anything…why bother… once a man has had his skull cracked and brutally soddened with a heavy kick he is not there… his mind… his body… has gone… the universe revolves ceaselessly… the drug is on the table where the man left it… the ant crawls… the advert flickers…
this must be a rooming house in Manchester where i had an affair with a girl who turned into a rocking horse…”

While many of the earlier poems are not speculative, poems like “The Astronaut,” reach for familiar speculative themes and images, “His suit protects him from the real cold and the real vacuum. But his confused mind (accustomed to a keen perception of space/time) flips,” also working as a metaphor for our own challenges between physical and mental realities.

The section from 1975 to 1979 marks a distinct shift into more speculative realms. The historical and autobiographical aspects of the Butterworth’s early works form an engaging backdrop, but this is where I found the collection strongest - which may also just expose my bias toward the speculative aspects of his work, as in “The Chemical Genesis of the Known Universe”:

“On the first day
The cyclohexylaminic dawn
Broke over the chloral anhydrones
Of the dipentane landscapes
In the ionones
And the upper ketones…

… On the seventh
There was industrial unrest among the technical staff”

The forms of the poems vary from the longer prosey lines to short poems, short lines, rhyme, and more experimental use of the page. (Compare the earlier selections with “Bus Stop”: “Standing in line / To the call of Time.”) Butterworth’s voice is clear throughout, with a raw energy that shouts from the page. Even the later Buddhism-inspired poems pack a punch from their short lines full of hard consonants, though they’re softened in tone and content.

Overall, this collection makes for a fine retrospective and an intriguing mirror to Butterworth’s full and eventful life. The brushes with historical events and the speculative themes sing the loudest for me, but others might find the personal undertones more enticing.

—John Reinhart

Messengers of the Macabre: Halloween Poems by LindaAnn LoSchiavo & David Davies
(Audience Askew, 2023). 36 pp. $9.99 paperback, currently $0.00 Kindle.

These are well labeled as Halloween Poems. Some have fun with familiar tropes and some mine new territory. For example “A Sleepy Hollow Hallowe’en” is based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow”, and “Rebecca, Manderley, Murder by the Sea” is based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and “Night on Bald Mountain, All Hallows’ Eve” based on the story “Night on Bald Mountain” by Gogol.

Other poems explore more obscure but also strong source material such as “Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, Cemetery Superstar” about a woman from history who was a dramatic creator and artists’ model who may have been cursed. From that poem:

Rossetti’s poems sweetened maggots’ meals.
Worm-eaten scraps had crowned my coffined head,

There are Macbeth references in “Secrets of the Spell”:

Distrust of women’s power led to laws.
In 1542, King Henry VIII
Signed Britain’s first Witchcraft Act. Hundreds died,
Even if those accused denied the charge.

An example of work not using familiar tropes is:

“How to Curse”

It starts below the lungs, where the bile runs thick,
where things suppressed rot and rage
and rise bitter at the back of the mouth.

While much of the verse is open-form, some is formal. The book is broken into six sections, and the entire section ‘Day of the Dead’ is composed of modern haibun. Haibun appear elsewhere, as does occasional rhythm and rhyme. While the book has dark moments, at other times it’s playful such as the sonnet “Emily Post’s Etiquette Book for Ghosts” which is high concept. The whole is generated from the title. It opens:

Emily Post’s Etiquette Book for Ghosts
Is a must since spirits are unruly,
Annoying, crass, and insistent—truly.
Tactless phantoms offended? Just quote Post!

The Post poem is in the final section named “A Lighter Shade” which concludes with the particularly playful “‘To Die’ in French” which takes the mundane topic of learning foreign languages is school and makes them important by applying them to dying in a foreign place. It is smattered with French, so if that’s not in your toolkit, be prepared to use a translator. Though most of it is apparent from context, such as:

I’d hoped some British visitors might ask for a séance,
and I could have a
tête-à-tête in English just for once.
I follow every tour I can, and shout
“Je suis ici!”
The fact they never hear my words is painful irony.

Overall, the collection is so diverse, that it may seem uneven. But gems come in many colors and varied values. Some might be mined here.

—Herb Kauderer

Seren of the Wildwood by Marly Youmans, illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jensen
(Wiseblood Books, 2023). 72 pp, $13 paperback, $16 hardcover.

The book starts with quotes from Genesis, Tolkien, and Gilgamesh, which contrive to set the tone—epic and fantastical. Hicks-Jensen’s ten folk-art style illustrations support that direction and are spread throughout the collection, each image suggesting a relationship to the story without being merely illustrations.

Throughout the 72 pages of poetry, Youmans remains consistent in her style and format. While forming a cohesive and linear narrative, each episode is kept to one page of 21 unrhymed iambic pentameter lines followed by a sort of interjection line and a rhyming quatrain. The repeated form and the consistent meter also feed the epic, mythic fairy tale feel of the book.

From the beginning, the prolegomenon, Youmans drops in references to various mythologies, fairy tales, and the Bible. Seren is the child of grief, her brothers dying as she is born:

She spired up in a solitude of three
Remembering the two who’d gone before,
Her father sometimes bursting forth with fire
Or hardening to silences of ice

In that sense, she seems as if she might usher in a new era, but she moves from an Enkidu-like girl at home in the forest, to a victim of a god’s voracious sexual appetite. The woods play a complicated role, and Wildwood itself rising to the level of a character in this drama. Not only are the woods home to the innocence of Seren’s youth, they are full of treachery from elemental and supernatural forces.

Youmans’ use of language is fine-tuned, clearly well-practiced, and flows easily. For instance, the section at the end of “26” is full of consonance and, moreover, Ss and Ls that compliment each other ethereally.

And snared by loveliness,
She listened, looked, and found
A longing self’s not less
But more when lost in sound.

Without spoilers, this feels like a melding of many different stories into a hero’s quest, both satisfying in its familiarity and a little surprising. The feminine stream fuels this narrative even when Seren is manipulated by the whims of male figures. Seren’s carefree childhood, rape, childbirth, and the support she receives from a woman called Wren, all express a different side of the traditional quest:

Yet Seren didn’t give up on her boy,
Reciting tales that once her parents told
When seated cosily beside the hearth:
The stories of good-hearted fools who thrived
By kindness…

Youmans’ technical skill, vocabulary, and clear absorption of so many different mythologies weave this into a compelling and engaging story. Unlike some collections where a reader might flit from one poem to another, this collection requires reading from beginning to end, a worthwhile endeavor, and perhaps a little taste of what bards shared before modern entertainment took hold of our attention.

—John Reinhart

Star-Tent: A Triptych by Amie Whittemore (Tolsun Books, 2023). 96 pp, $20
paperback. tolsunbooks.com/shop/star-tent-a-triptych

I often encounter poems where I think, I love it! and I wish I had thought of that … and sometimes a poem crosses my desk where I am awed because the concept itself is so beautiful and well-executed that I can only sit back and appreciate the whirrings of another writer.

Amie Whittemore’s 80-page collection is composed in three sections: letters “to the aliens,” transmissions from “the indestructible observer,” and “the voyager sestinas.” The last section is turned 45 degrees. The poems in the first two sections have shorter lines and the generous spacing between lines gives the poems breathing room. The sestinas take up more page, even at their unexpected angle.

The book’s title refers to a tweet by Robert Macfarlane whose work marries the preservation of words and human engagement with the natural world, specifically the word “Sternenzelt,” which translates literally from German as “star-tent.” Each section begins with a quote, each from notable science writers Loren Eiseley, Natalie Wolchover, and Timothy Ferris. These help frame the book as a kind of anthropological document.

I read the first section in one sitting, even going back over to reread passages or review references. There is nothing cliché about the narrator’s encounter with aliens, although there are hints at how others might perceive it that way. Their encounter is exploratory, perhaps romantic, perhaps better described as world-opening.

You came,
as perhaps I hoped, pushed your

triangular mouths to mine and sucked,
so gently, my stomach clean.
(from “To the Aliens, Letter #1”)

Some of Whittemore’s work serves as narrative, but her work is rich with imagery.

“… you
drew your visions
on my forearm

as if my skin were sand, as if all you wanted was to be an ocean” (from “To the Aliens, Letter #3”)

and “I eat like a window chews / sunlight, wanting a little to be broken” (from “To the Aliens, Letter #11”).

The second section is focused on reflections from “the indestructible observer,” the presumed extraterrestrial referred to in the initial letters. Notably, “The Indestructible Observer Admits” won second place in the Short category of the SFPA 2020 poetry contest (sfpoetry.com/contests/20contest.html), where judge Neil Aitken remarked, “I find myself surprised turn after turn the world this poem unfolds in its exploration of interstellar communication. Each image fractal and infinite, while also constantly building and moving forward toward the next discovery.”

The hints from the indestructible observer are tantalizing, all delivered in a new tone, more direct than the letters of the first section, though no less fascinated by the relationship.

This is a transmission
of desire, which I’ve come
to believe is all the universe
(from “First Transmission from the Indestructible Observer”)

Two references that appear regularly in these transmissions are “mother” and “vastness,” which might as well mark the movement of this entire collection, inward, right to our very beginnings, and out to the unfathomable. As the observer remarks in “The Indestructible Observer Considers Infinity,” “You know nothing / of not dying, nothing / of actual emptiness… / You know nothing / of weatherless, thirstless, / sexless harboring of thought / upon thought upon thought / upon nothing…” just as “Every transmission is a love poem / to Someone, yes, but also to flowers / whose bonnets suggest kindness” (from “The Indestructible Observer Admits”).

The last section shifts tone again, quoting from Timothy Ferris, who produced the golden phonograph record of earth sounds that went into space on the Voyager in 1977. The narrator seems to be the discoverers of the Voyager’s record:

“We are what you envisioned us to be—” (from “Who”)

Whittemore uses words like “feargaze,” “sightframes,” and “moonslop” to conjure a sense of alien consciousness, a throwback to Old English kennings, a merging of two words to generate a new term out of imagistic meshing. However much these beings imagine that humanity has imagined as they are, these poems ponder earthly life from a distance and from the limited clues available from the Voyager.

At the end of this collection, I found myself wondering how often we might be writing to aliens or what it means to be an indestructible observer pondering the universe, relationships, and the meeting of vastness with zinnias. This collection is narrative, historical, mysterious—a collection I look forward to reading over and over again.

—John Reinhart

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