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 2017:

Built to Serve by G.O. Clark; cover illustration by Sandy DeLuca
Alban Lake, 2017. 24 pp. $6 paperback; $1.99 Kindle. albanlake.com

I’ve read a lot of G. O. Clark’s poetry, but I can’t remember a collection I enjoyed as much as this one. Clark takes all our favorite robot tropes: Robby the Robot, Asimov’s Three Laws of robotics, Gort, Bradbury’s the Electric Hound, and even the Tin Man, and puts them into a collection that covers a lot of our hopes and fears about our A.I. friends.
It never occurred to me that Baum’s Tin Man is indeed an A.I., but Clark makes that clear in his simply titled “The Tin Man”:

He’s heard tales
about the wizard, who
performs miracles in the
mythical city they just happen
to be traveling to. A good heart
specialist would be more logical,
but he lacks insurance

Ah, yes—that’s always the case with robots, isn’t it? Their logic is superior to ours, or at least they consult it more than we do. And speaking of heart, here’s a stanza from a poem that is right after my own clockwork one, titled “The Steam-Powered Robot”:

The steam-powered robot
is from another era, one where he still
had time to dream at night, the 24/7
work week not yet standard.

There’s no shortage of sexbots in this book, either; mostly they are treated with humor, although “Lady Robotica” is pure horror:

Your bones are but
balsa wood in her embrace,
and your flesh a practice hide
for this tattoo artist’s painfully
intimate caress.

With all the fun ideas there is some lovely imagery, too, as in “Distant Target”:

The engines of darkness
are idling in the night, awaiting
the slow alignment of the stars,
destination blessed.

I’d say that Clark does a pretty good job combining robots from popular culture with the conflicting emotions we have about the whole idea of mechanical men and artificially intelligent beings. This is accessible poetry, and I’d highly recommend the book not only to poetry readers who are SF fans, but also to robot fans who have yet to see how much fun poetry can be. So score this one highly for me, as it’s the kind of book I’d give as a gift to any robot fan.

But just as I’m about to smile and say how fun this one is, I reread the selection titled “It’s All in the Programming.” Perhaps Clark hasn’t been talking about robots at all, at least not completely…

It’s a discontented robot
who lounges upon an old park bench,
head propped against the rusty, cast iron arm,
all too aware of the waking nightmare
of existence, wishing its processors
would just fail.

In the end, robots are just reflections of those who made them. Nothing makes that clearer that this set of highly enjoyable poems.

—Denise Dumars


Built to Serve: Robot Poems is a book of great science fiction ideas. If one of the keys to speculative poetry is to speculate, or ask questions, then G. O. Clark spreads his imagination wide and asks some bizarre questions about robots. How would electricity taste for a robot? What would a robot be like if it were a Luddite? What would a robot prostitute be like for a human being well past one hundred years of age? What would a peeping Tom see if he caught a robot undressing? Clark attempts to answer these and other questions with his poems.

Unfortunately, Clark’s craft is not up to the task. His poems suffer from basic flaws. For example, Clark’s lines are littered with abstractions that leave the reader with vague impressions of his visions, but little else. Describing a robot Casanova in the poem “Built to Serve,” we are presented with a robot who

is ever ready to serve
its mistress, and

is fully functional,
programmed in the arts
of pleasure, classic
and modern.

Lines like these possibly allude to something sexual, but the language is so hazy and unformed as to mean almost anything. This sort of language seems especially prevalent at the end of Clark’s poems. There seems to be an idea that ending on abstract language sums the poem up in some profound way. So a poem about robots preparing to build the human bodies of their masters after a long space journey ends with the fuzzy lines “memory banks ready/to download the essence of those/too finite to go the distance,” which provide a vague understanding of the scene at best, but offer the reader no way in to the poem, no way to experience the situation for themselves.

Occasionally, Clark produces a stanza of strong imagery or language. For example, describing a robotic dance that occurs while the humans are still in cryosleep, he writes

Bathed in red light,
the robots twirl beneath the
view-ports, whirl about like dervishes
before their god, gravity and
the dance intensifying.

While not perfect (“dervishes” is a particularly weak and obvious vehicle for “whirl”), there is at least some visual imagery here for the reader to participate in. There’s also this section from the poem “Museum Piece,”

He has a coffee pot
for a head,
an aluminum hot water urn
for a body,
two stainless steel, conical
lamp shade breasts,
arms and legs shaped from
miscellaneous pipes and scraps,
and a billowing skirt made from
an aluminum saucer-sled.

Again, readers can clearly visualize this robot. Examples like this are rare, and stand out all the more so for it. It’s clear that Clark can use imagery, but for some reason chooses not to in the bulk of his poems, and the reader suffers for it.

Apart from the issues with the poetry, there are clear editorial and design issues as well. The pages are littered with basic errors, from missing or unnecessary punctuation to some misspelled words. While one might expect one or two of these errors in any given text, the overabundance of them here makes the reading and enjoyment of the poems difficult. The biggest issue, though, are the three two-page ads for Clark’s other books on the press. These are major distractions for the reader. One argues that song lyrics are poetry, which is problematic in itself, and uses some of the most unpoetic lyrics to prove its point and sell Clark’s other book. The other two ads are for Clark’s fiction books, and have nothing to do with poetry at all. The overall effect of the ads and other issues is that this book is merely a vehicle to plug Clark’s other works, and that the poetry is secondary to the money.

There are a host of other problems in this book, from clichéd language to misunderstandings with poetic form to ineffective line breaks. Primarily, though, the abstract language and extreme lack of imagery is what separates this book from the reader, and that’s a shame, because the ideas behind these poems have a lot of potential and deserve to be explored fully. Ultimately, this is a collection of really great questions and concepts that are poorly executed.

—Joshua Gage

A Catalogue of the Further Suns: Précis of Reports Compiled by the Preliminary Survey Expeditions by F.J. Bergmann.
(Gold Line Press, 2017, winner of chapbook contest). 48 pages, paperback. $10.00. goldlinepress.com

In A Catalogue of the Further Suns, F.J. Bergmann has given readers 29 dense and well-wrought poems, each a chilling cautionary tale reflecting a space-faring culture’s dangerous preconceptions and damaging cultural misadventures as it careens across the universe. With the neocolonial smugness of the irrevocably unempathic, the scientifically detached reporters summarize their alien first encounters, dwelling most often on the final facts that precipitate their departures. For instance, the initial poem, “Overtures,” describes a culture where infants are given open wounds that are kept open by plugs and slowly made larger, an intentional “emptiness” that’s interwoven with the sexual and the spiritual. Bergmann describes the haphazard process by which sharing begins: “When they caught our chief / zoolologist with her favorite / sex toy, they seemed satisfied / and began sharing their private / cultural practices,” but there is always a dangerous moment where recognition of apprehended similarity turns to reveal inevitable, unacceptable differences, familiarity breeding contempt and taboo commission, apparently unavoidable:  “We had to leave precipitately. / Our departing ship tore a hole / through the skin of clouds.”

Bergmann is the poetry editor of Mobius: the Journal of Social Change, and her poetry explores the morality of social change, interweaving our anthropological past with present trends. “Code of Ethics,” “Cultural Climate” and “Hydromorphology” describe the folly of ignoring a culture’s effect on its environment. In “Xiphiarchy,” which means “rule by the sword,” she slyly takes aim at the present trend of rearming America: “Their children were trained to bear / arms from the earliest age at which / they could be induced to ask for them. / All their toys were dangerous.” In “Cultural Exchange” first contact itself proves mutually destructive, a worst case extraterrestrial scenario based on European explorers’ first contacts with aboriginals. In “Ascendance,” the issue is the connection between cultural (in this case culinary) rigidity and shame. Correspondingly, “Exobiology III” is a horrifying culinary example of the complicity that can be involved in racism. 

Like Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury before her, Bergmann reflects on the damage that even the well-intentioned can cause. Overall, these powerful SF poems explore the Alien within, implying important moral questions about boundaries and balance, and acknowledging that fools do indeed rush in (and afterwards rationalize their lack of responsibility for what happened because of it). Highly recommended.

—Sandra J. Lindow

Flying Solo: The Lana Invasion (a novella in verse) by Herb Kauderer.
(Author Series 36, The Poet’s Haven, 2017) saddle-stitched chapbook, color cover, $6.00 US/Canada. boutique.poetshaven.com

Flying Solo is a very small book. It’s about 5” high by 4” wide. Thus, the contents are no more a novella (and no less) than a typical graphic novel is a novel. 

The story of Earth’s invasion by an advanced avian culture is told in 30 short poems. The lana possess advanced tech and a mission to assimilate the cosmos. Their standard procedure for invasion of a new solar system has never failed, as far as this ship’s crew knows. The cloaked mothership enters orbit and deploys a cadre of solitary scouts to infiltrate and find out what makes this new world tick.

From “Indigenous peoples”:

noble birds of prey
feasting on wildness
and defending the skies
processing remains
of frequent brawls
among the chaos of lower lifeforms

modest sentinels
roosting on defensive wires
strung across landscapes

The story focuses on the adventures of a single scout as she struggles to comprehend the essence of this world. One of the first tasks is to communicate with the natives, the intelligent avians who rule this world, as the natives do every civilized world they’ve found. For the first time in her memory this proves well-nigh impossible.

From “first contact”:

feels the thrill of the bird of prey
closing on her at full speed

she waits for the wind
of the sudden halt of its flight
and the modest pecking of dominance
that will open communication
with a new world

This world is unique. Not only have the avians seemingly failed to dominate (and what kind of creature rules in their stead?), but the scout begins to harbor heretical thoughts. The longer she spends on this bizarre world, the more deviant her thoughts become, and the more secretive her behavior. As the true nature of life on this peculiar double planet becomes clear to the lana, they have to utterly rethink their plans for conquest.

I thoroughly enjoyed Flying Solo. This sequence of poems tells its tale well, building suspense, creating character, and bringing the reader along as the story unfolds. Also, each poem works on its own both as chapter and verse, advancing the plot with a light touch. This charming SF story makes no attempt to explain how avians mastered or invented advanced technology, but if you take that as your one big assumption, your reward will be a fun read.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Strange Land edited by Vertigo Xi’an Xavier.
(Poet’s Haven Press, 2017). 64 pages, wallet-sized. $8.00 US and Canada. boutique.poetshaven.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=139

Poet’s Haven Press occasionally dabbles in speculative works, including the 2014 Elgin 3rd Place collection Inhuman: Haiku from the Zombie Apocalypse by Joshua Gage. Strange Land is a thematic anthology, and also serves as The Poet’s Haven Digest #3.

Strange Land contains 27 poems and 3 short stories about the view of earthlings by extraterrestrials. I suggest that this is also a subconscious metaphor for how those outside the SF field view those of us within. To make this viewpoint a few steps moreinteresting, the contributors are a mix of SF veterans and non-SF writers. The SF veterans include Joshua Gage, Mary A.Turzillo, Geoffrey A. Landis, Deborah Davitt, Herb Kauderer, M.X. Kelly, Brian Rosenberger, Mathias Jansson, Vince Gotera, and Rie Sheridan Rose. The “aliens” are impactful poets from many places across the US, and also from England, Sweden, and South Africa.

As expected, the results are a mix, with some lovely surprises. The argument in literary circles is that speculative fiction is written in code which acts as a membership handshake, and provides shortcuts and backgrounds for the “in-group,” and presentsan obstacle to the “out-group.” Some of the works here are writing without access to the codebook and therefore there are extra explanations, and times when well-used SF tropes are revealed with an expectation of freshness, most commonly the image of humans as children whom aliens need to punish/elevate/fix. But there are also times when this causes the re-examination of “in-group” SF, and I think that’s a good thing.

In addition, placing veterans in proximity to outsiders highlights issues of accessibility. For example, the book opens with “#GREENLIVESMATTER,” a scifaiku suite by Joshua Gage. This is the sort of stuff I find pleasurably entertaining, with an occasional hidden needle to provoke thought. But it does appear written in code. I doubt that my clever eleven-year-old daughter would get much out of the ten ku, despite her wide reading in YA SF. For example:

keg stand
a fratboy in greenface
holds her ankles

To be fair, there are cultural barriers as well as genre-code barriers in the ku.

The last poem in the book, “Just a Stranger in a Strange Land,” presents the counterargument for the insider/outsider dichotomy. Lori Ann Kusterbeck is a mainstream poet without genre credits, and she has done a respectable job of creating a long poem out of Heinlein titles and quotes. Certainly this work has all the hallmarks of “in-group” work. So I have to ask if my daughter would understand:

and when Starman Jones and the Farmer start spinnin’ tales
we learn about the great Star Beast and the revolt in 2100
how the menace from earth and all of Methuselah’s children
escaped from the black pits of Luna
only to cry—“well, blowups happen”
grumbles from the grave are all that’s left.

Of course there have always been different levels of accessibility in the diversity of written SF. The point here is to note that the academic presumption of the barrier being generated by in-group creators does not hold true in this case.

What’s more, this is not to imply that poets (literary or SF) have not perpetrated “literary” poems within the book. Mark Williams’ “Greeting” certainly owes more to the beat poets than to SF. Geoff Landis and Melissa Mulvihill also present work more in the literary camp.

As a reader I have a special spot for works, SF or literary, that cause my world-view to shift. Given the theme of the anthology, it’s no surprise that there are a good number of those, though none of the handful of poems involving recent politics did much to surprise. In terms of worldview shift Mary A. Turzillo’s “When the Aliens Come to Tea” nicely and amusingly questions societal conventions.

We must pretend we live in arranged group marriages
in tents of fake plastic zebra skin.
We must invent creoles of obscure languages
and possibly communicate with scents
or with burps, or with LED screens glued to our chests.

Vince Gotera’s “Astro-Archaeologist’s Log” revised how I think of driving. “Aliens Come In Threes” by Allen Ashley hit me with a few questions about what humanity really wants. I took a different view of naming things after reading “International Star Registery [sic]” by Jack Merrywell.

The penultimate poem, “Mr. Allen’s UFO” by Bruce Deitrick Price, ends powerfully with:

I go to another world,
talk to gods, what does it
change? This is the life
you go on living.

By now you have a clear idea of whether you want to visit these lands. I’m pleased I took the trip.

—Herb Kauderer

Through Immortal Shadows Singing by Mari Ness.
(Papaveria Press, 2017) papaveria.com. $4.99 Kindle, $9.99 paperback.

Few poets today seem willing to accept the challenge of the epic form, an admittedly daunting task; of those that do, fewer still can do so with the powerful delivery of Milton and combine it with with the elegance and grace of Sappho. One poet who does dare to rise to the challenge is Mari Ness, whose debut novella-in-verse, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, published this April by Papaveria Press, emerges as a very enjoyable poetic journey through classic times. It is the story of Helen of Troy, as told through the eyes (and voice) of Helen herself. The voices of women are all too often absent or ignored in today’s modern narrative and Ness demonstrates historical knowledge (and confidence in her poetic ability) as she adroitly imbues this Helen with a voice that is at once uniquely feminine and strong enough to echo across the millennia.

From the opening line ‘My mother taught me the use of drugs …’ the reader is swept up in this enthralling re-telling of a classic tale, winding their way through a landscape carved from the mythology of the ancients. Ness brings this landscape to life with a quality of writing not usually witnessed in a writer’s debut effort. Fresh and inventive in her use of metaphor and imagery, Ness submerges the reader in Helen’s story of love and glory. Consider the following example:

“… the waters tight about me,
like a newfound lover,
molding the river to my skin …”

Ness seems to have an ample supply of tools that poets value most, but most importantly she seems to be willing to take risks, all of which makes for heady brew of poetry. Consider the following description of her Helen:

“… I am abducted, abductor,
lover and wife, chaste
and whore.
About me coil
a thousand songs, a thousand lies,
and even this song may be a lie,
a song I whisper
to take command of my own tale …”

Comparisons to Milton and Sappho aside, I cannot stress how impressed I am with this novella, particularly in light of the fact that it is a writer’s first published effort. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

Join Mari Ness and Helen of Troy—‘Child of thunder, child of swans’— on their journey through classic times and immortal lands as Helen takes command of her own tale.
You just might find yourself singing.
Highly recommended.

—Daniel C. Smith

Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest by Bruce Boston & Robert Frazier.
Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017. 245 pp. $3.99 ebook. CrystallakePub.com

Over the years, Bob Frazier and Bruce Boston have written poems and short stories set in the mutant rain forest, a fantastic place of dangerous wildlife, both animal and vegetable. Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest brings that narrative together, a history in prose and poem of what happens when nature’s limits are not just exceeded, but torn apart. The book contains 8 stories and 39 poems, some written in collaboration, some by Boston or Frazier alone. I’ll focus in this review on the verse. Full disclosure: I’ve published poems by both of these authors in Dreams and Nightmares.

From “Night Fishing on the Caribbean Littoral”

I’ve heard a Carib whisper of stunted duendes,
hairy four-fingered throwbacks who fly the canopy,
fleeting as ghosts, and “cut de t’umbs of de unwary,”
because “dey so bad wanna be like us, mon.”

I could have sworn that the Carib were exterminated long ago, but perhaps I am mistaken. Be that as it may, this account of a foray in questionable company, and perhaps straying a little too close to the mutant rain forest, takes the narrator into a sea where he can’t depend on natural law, known fact, or anything else. The rain forest spreads its arms and lunacy flourishes in its shadow. Human devolution is accompanied by every kind of evolutionary change that’s possible, but magnified and accelerated beyond all possibility of humanity to deal with it, or even apprehend it. Here, we doesn’t have to wait for bacteria to carry genes from a squirrel to a rat, or from maize to dandelions, one by one. Any two or more species can form chimeras, any can borrow traits and organs, capabilities and aspects, from any other. And they do. Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest are dark, as befits a book based on the (only slightly) outlandish idea that, one way or another, for our cavalier treatment of the planet there’ll be hell to pay.

From “Phantom Limb”

Flesh made of wingless bees
A skin of interlocking mites
In this way he strides home
On the rebirth of his sole

Some few do leave, returning, if not to sanity or normalcy, at least to humanity’s realm. There’s plenty of irony in Visions, but little out-and-out humor. So I hope you at least let out a chuckle. If this is the exception that proves the rule, what is the rule? Life may be grim, but it is surprising and wonderful as well. Keep your eyes open, and be ready to offer up far more than most would expect.

From “A Gourmand of the Mutant Rain Forest”

the pains which
rack his portly belly
do not lessen his desire
for spiny bone-white guavas
seasoned with banana moss.
The rash of radiation welts
which erupts upon his chest,
his throat and forearms,
does not delay his hunt
for the perfect table red

These poems are rife with imagery, as if attempting to capture on the page an ecosystem so complex and so unfamiliar that one book is not enough. Which is nothing but the truth. How much has been written about the mundane rain forest? Do we understand it yet? This poem is one of the few in Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest that does not take place in or adjacent to the forest itself. The gourmand has illicit rain-forest products imported to his home in a domed city. The domes are the only bastions of safety that remain in a world wracked by pollution. But what do the elites do? Perhaps it’s a form of cabin fever. Some explore the rain forest, usually coming to bad ends. Others bring the rain forest to them, with equally problematic results. This poem reminds me of Tim Powers’ Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, which features a dinner of similarly dangerous treats.

Frazier and Boston are doing the kind of worldmaking that usually calls for a novel. Or three. Imagine that trilogy torn apart, and most of it recycled. This is what’s left. Images, scenes, and sequences sampling a fecund world not so much mad, but alien. One senses that there are rules, there are reasons for trees with faces, cats with words, carnivorous butterflies, and so on, but we don’t know them. We can’t. They’re changing too fast for that.

So, I’m thinking that before it’s too late, you should buy this book. It won’t help you navigate a natural disasterscape, but it might help you prepare for one emotionally.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

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