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 2022:

Angels of Hell: Poetic Tales of the Apocalypse by Christopher Reichard
(Apocalyptic Vision Books, 2022). 200 pp, $19.99 hardcover. $5.99 Kindle. amazon.com/Angels-Hell-Poetic-Tales-Apocalypse/dp/B0B2HZGFQY

Reichard’s foreword mentions his inspiration from Dante’s Inferno, Homer’s Odyssey, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Epic. He set out the goal of writing a poem each day of 2021 to form this series, all related to his Angels of Hell graphic novel universe. It’s an ambitious goal of a project, an even more ambitious goal of a book. This one clocks in at 190 pages of material, about 155 of which is poetry.

I find myself skeptical with any poetry today working in rhyme and meter. Not opposed to, but I definitely set a high bar for work that sets out to be compared with Milton, Dante, and Homer.

Most of the poems are centered in the middle of the page, each written in ABCB quatrains.

Reichard’s work demonstrates an engaging use of vocabulary and sound. The first poem, “Forsaken Knowledge,” which starts with a pleasantly chewy title, contains several alliterative examples: “many millennia … measured by might … reason’s rhyme … raised from ruins.” These instances are punctuated with a balance of hard syllables:

If only Babel had never fractured,
splitting tongues beyond reason’s rhyme.
Erasing ward, word, and dialect.
Incantations lost to the sands of time.

The narrative describes an apocalyptic vision starting in Las Vegas, which is as fine a place to start the apocalypse as any, probably better. Characters are introduced in one poem after another. The narration leans heavily on overt description and occasional conversation:

Pushing past decaying corpses,
corporeal casualties caught in flux
that strain to claim a piece of Terry.
To avoid their clutch, his driving crux. (“Escaping Lust”)


“So, if I'm understanding—” War probed,
“—all you wish is a blind eye?”
Asmodeus remarked, “Yes.”
“To everything?” “Yes!” Asmodeus cried.
“Absolutely not, you'll return to Hell.”
Flared Death, “In pieces if necessary.”
That dev’lish grin points at himself,
“Surely you can make exceptions for me—”
“—I mean my sins are no worse than yours.
Tisn't the first Christ you've let down.”
“Watch your tongue, that's your last warning!”
Asmodeus and Death locked in showdown.
(from “Boiling Tempers”)

This makes the story more accessible than it might otherwise be, trying to step into this dark vision of end times, but is also sacrifices a poetic immersion that might help balance the action. The poems are consistent stylistically throughout the collection.

One of the dangers of writing in meter and rhyme is the sacrifice of more natural grammatical structure, which Reichard regularly slips into, though whether the rhyme and meter is the driving force or it is a stylistic choice is unclear.

There are black and white graphics between each canto, which must connect this collection to the broader Angels of Hell universe. These are highly detailed and make for interesting additions, though not necessary and possibly distracting for the reader’s immersion in the imagined visuals of this world.

There is a 30-page section of sketches toward the end of the collection, followed by a glossary of people, places, and events mentioned in the book. Each of these entries is written in bold when it appears in the poem, which might be helpful to some readers, but also might prove distracting to others. The glossary is 8+ pages. The same risk is there with the sketches and I did not find supportive of the poetry, though perhaps they are a nod to the Reichard’s graphic work.

In a world of immediate gratification, epic works have an uphill battle, though there are regular reminders that we can still be drawn into their spiraling sagas. This collection might benefit from a graphic rendition, or perhaps it is just calling for me to read Reichard’s other work.

—John Reinhart

Codex Yith by Cardinal Cox
(17th Lovecraftian poetry pamphlet, 2022). 16 pp, free for SASE while supplies last from 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB UK, or email cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

This little booklet has the same form as its predecessors. Each page bears a poem, which in every case leaves enough room at the bottom for a brief but authoritative archeological-style explanation. These give context and link the poems together. The whole thing is like a series of snapshots, peeks at a narrative that does not actually exist. Edward Gorey did something like this to good effect with cartoons. These explanations, which deviate remarkably from the world as we think we know it, are my favorite part of Codex Yith. Did I mention that some of them are funny?

Some things about Codex Yith I like very much, and some I do not.

One thing I love about this pamphlet is its nonlinearity. Successive poems jump back and forth in spacetime, which focuses the reader’s attention on time, place, and sequence. The booklet becomes a historical puzzle to be solved, but one whose scope spans billions of years. Earth is a part of the story, but as in much Lovecraftian literature, Earth and our species are by no means as important as we humans tend to think.

In “Tsan-Chan” empires fall and new worlds are colonized

In rough years firm neighbours became raiders
As vultures the strongest stole from the weak
Thieves became the beggars’ grim-faced gaolers
Power alone became what the free seek

Science marches on. From “Nevel Kingston-Brown”

A star-drive to open the galaxy
The Earth’s billions to be offerred new homes
Galleons set upon this darkest sea
Fresh high roads cobbled with stardust to roam

But (“Mercury”), what does it matter?

Other worlds in orbit are now cold husks
Even Venus cooled – atmosphere frozen
Rotten Earth falling into final dusk
Mercury remains the only chosen

What I don’t like about this mini-chapbook: some of the rhymes seem forced, and this always bothers me. However, Cox’s poetry often affects me this way, and the poems in Codex Yith flow more naturally off the tongue than those in recent pamphlets in this series.

This a fun read, thought provoking and imaginative. Get it if you can.

—David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Foundlings by Cindy O’Quinn & Stephanie Ellis
(independently published, 2022) 93 pp, $8 paperback, $4.01 Kindle. amazon.com/dp/B09TMTCLTD

Using the works of Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti, O’Quinn and Ellis conjure monsters that are simultaneously undefinable yet familiar in their collection of bite-sized found poems. The collection possesses an overall somber tone. With a combination of violent imagery alongside beauty, the work reveals a romance in suffering.

From “Broken, Fragmented”:

… a frozen gift of dead flowers, broken like her neck

Angels and demons populate many of the poems, as the authors explore themes of mortality and the dark corners of life.

From “Garden of Delights”:

I, the leech of angels,
plague’s brother, am walking
In the garden of delights

From “Medusa Smiles”:

Demons lead her captured dead
to the streets of hell.
red matter to be drawn everyday
and everyday

and everyday

While many poems depict companionship at the end of life, one poem stands out while discussing birth with an opposing image of loneliness.

From “The Resucked”:

A universe of sorrow in the cell of my brain
An imperfect newborn screams of revelations

The collection is aptly divided into five parts; Part I with poems solely by Cindy O’Quinn and Part III by Stephanie Ellis. Part II is a collaboration of both authors on every poem. Yet Parts IV and V delve deeper into the concept, with found poems created from the found poems in the previous sections, resulting in poignant haikus that entirely transform from the original source material.

From “Smiles,” found from the poem “Medusa Smiles”:

men drawn to pain, everyday
demons lead her to hell

Each poem references its source at the bottom of the page. While personally unfamiliar with the poems of Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti used to create these found poems, the collection is coherent and enjoyable with the implication that all poems have been transformed into something unrecognizable. For fans of the source material, this collection might offer a deeper reading experience that this reviewer missed out on.

Overall, both authors work together seamlessly, with neither voice eclipsing the other in style. All poems fit together thematically and tonally, making the collection a cohesive reading experience. However, to some readers, this collection might feel monotonous, with little variation from the core themes.

—Robin Rose Graves

From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum by Kathleen Balma
(Black Spring Press Group, 2022), 96 pp, paperback, £10.99, blackspringpressgroup.com/products/from-your-hostess-at-the-t-a-museum

Sirens, ghosts, historic figures, GMO crops, and the notion of stopping time are just a few of the subjects explored in Kathleen Balma’s first full-length collection, From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum. The book’s first section, “Harlequinade,” contains 26 stand-alone poems, while the second, titled “Snubbed: A Motion-Picture Ekphrasis” is a collection of poems forming a narrative about a pair of monkeys called Prince and Pauper.

One of the collection’s most likeable aspects is the humor, which comes in a number of forms including sly, absurd, and irreverent. For example, the poem “Abraham, Honestly” is prefaced with the snippet “With his own two hands, Abe Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in. —from an American college student’s history paper.” Balma plays with three different scenarios suggested by this statement.

“Homage to the Twelve Steps” applies The Twelve Steps to gardening, and in “Escape from the Abhorrent Vacuum,” Balma wonders if nature is “tired of being a mother,” and asks, “… What if she isn’t / a she at all, but a beautiful bearded mountain // man, all oceanic swagger and volcanic lisp?

In “A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District,” Balma notes;

Along the top
edge of hall

(where a wall-
paper border

might go) is porn so old
we feel safe

saying “art”
and smiling.

“The Causes of Cyclone Formation Aren’t Well Understood” blends meteorological references with allusions to The Wizard of Oz, and concludes, “A weatherman is an elemental wiz. As such, he can do nothing but try to predict what air already knows, then instruct you to use the dead’s shoes to find a way home.”

Balma juxtaposes the concrete and abstract to powerful effect, sometimes adding a dash of absurdity and throwing it all in the blender to produce a punchy concoction that makes you feel as though you’ve been there too, even if you’re not sure where “there” is. For example, in “What the Traveler Knows,” Balma states

Every country is a cure for something;
Every cobblestone a lozenge
For some scratchy, sore spot
In your pedestrian head …

Balma’s work contains masterful imagery. “Stopping Time is Not as Useful as We Thought” includes references to “frozen smoke curls,” and “the way pellets of rain disappear where we walk, leaving body-shaped paths in the air.”

The second section of the book, “Snubbed: A Motion-Picture Ekphrasis” contains a number of short poems separated by page breaks. “Snubbed” was inspired by a documentary by Xi Zhinong. The poems primarily focus on two monkeys, Prince and Pauper, as they grow up under different circumstances. The poems blend in cultural references including children’s songs, and facts about monkey behaviour.

Though this is Balma’s first full-length collection, she is not new to the publishing scene. The poems included in From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum appeared in magazines such as Atlanta Review, Dunes Review, and Fugue. Some were also anthologized, and “From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” was reprinted in Pushcart Prize XXXVII.

—Lisa Timpf

Not a Princess, But (Yes) There Was a Pea, and Other Fairy Tales to Foment Revolution by Rebecca Buchanan.
(Jackanapes Press, 2022). 170 pp, $15.99 paperback. jackanapespress.com/product/not-a-princess-but-yes-there-was-a-pea-and-other-fairy-tales-to-foment-revolution

In Not a Princess, But (Yes) There Was a Pea, and Other Fairy Tales to Foment Revolution, Rebecca Buchanan offers new and varied perspectives on traditional tropes. Buchanan uses fairy tales, nursery rhymes, fables, and folklore as the straw from which to spin these poems. In so doing, Buchanan crafts tales that are at the same time familiar and startlingly new.

Five of the works in Not a Princess have been previously published in venues like Corvid Queen, Gingerbread House, and The Future Fire, but the remaining 29 are offered for the first time in this collection. Most of the poems are also complimented by a full-page illustration, drawn from classical art by Albrecht Dürer, Walter Crane, Gustave Doré, and others.

Buchanan provides a list of source works for each poem. In many cases, poems play off a single source, such as “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Three Little Pigs.” Some of the poems, however, are a mash-up of different tales, as is the case with “The Green Knight,” which blends Arthurian lore with the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Buchanan visits some of the source materials multiple times. For example, there are several poems providing different takes on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and more than one poem draws from “The Frog Prince.”

Buchanan’s poems evoke a variety of moods. Some deal with darker issues like abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder, while others are more light-hearted and even optimistic.

Buchanan uses humor to good effect. For example, “Not a Princess, But (Yes) There Was a Pea” contains the lines,

I certainly wasn’t lost.

I knew exactly where I was.

Hard to miss that monstrosity
of a palace, even in the middle
of a storm.

In “The Frog,” which visits “The Frog Prince” from the Princess’s viewpoint, the lead character states:

Don’t misunderstand.

I like frogs:
the way their legs move,
the arch of their backs,
the bump of their hearts in their throats.

Just not
when they follow me home.

Buchanan’s twisting of the tales also means that the moral of the story has, in many cases, changed. In “Seven,” which plays off “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the happily ever after is the hope for a better and kinder world. In “The Sisters and the Knife,” which uses the “Cinderella” tale as its takeoff point, the stepsisters realize that they might be the lucky ones because the prince isn’t such a prize, and not being chosen comes with a kind of relief.

As one might expect from a book that has the words “Fairy Tales to Foment Revolution” in its title, some of the poems contain social commentary. “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe: An Analysis, with ‘Questions’,” investigates the nursery rhyme mentioned in the title section by section, making observations like, “this is what happens without access to viable birth control and prenatal care.” “The Cobblers,” which plays off “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” ends with the helpful elves kept in servitude. The shoemaker’s wife can hear “their chains / clinking all through the night” but despite her discomfort, she’s willing to live with that situation because she and her family can live warm and well-fed as a result of the elves’ labors. “Enchanted Forest News” provides a humorous and satirical take on a self-serving and PR-savvy Fairy Godmother.

In the Author’s Note, Buchanan states that “Fairy tales—or faerie, if you prefer—are revolutionary texts,” and advises,

… dig a little deeper, pay closer attention, and read between the lines. The princes are not always so noble. The princesses are sometimes out-spoken, and are punished for trying to make their own life choices. The witches are not evil, but powerful women who are feared by those around them.

Not a Princess offers intriguing glimpses of alternate possibilities underlying familiar stories. For those who enjoy the interplay of “what if” scenarios, delivered with a dash of humor and a generous supply of satire, Buchanan’s collection is well worth a look.

—Lisa Timpf

The Saint of Witches by Avra Margariti
(Weasel Press, 2022). 81 pp, $12 paperback.

The title poem closes the collection and might suggest a tightly thematic book, but it is not that. Witches occasionally appear, for example, from “Unmaking”:

This, the secret all hedge witches learn the hard way:
how to unmake a person
before they unmake you.

There a few references to religion that might harmonize with saints, such as “Pterotillomania”:

If I ever awaken, will anyone want this grisly angel
who cannot stop recreating their own fall?

But overall, the book is more thematic in mood than content. It is full of animals, bugs, and other creatures, including the wonderful “Pity-Party Fairy”:

and bought myself a pity-party fairy in a jar.
Careful, it’s carnivorous, the ragged shopkeep said.

Perhaps related are Point of View experiments to be found in poems such as “Ruinous Beauty”:

Fissures traverse my stone legs,
my marble arms,
my battered brick and mortar.

Of particular note among the POV poems is the exploration of the difficulty of being a muse in “Maiden, Muse, Crone: A Self-Portrait”.

There are explorations of alternate romances in “Behold, a Rabbit-Footed Boy”:

I wondered if he would like me
with my teeth filed sharper

just for him.

And “Hanging Fruit”:

of lovers standing side by side,
mutual pain acquitted, compressed into compost
to nourish hybrid roots.

Sprinkled throughout are glimpses of sweet language and high vocabulary. “In the Ever-Night”

[…] the paper moon
is wrinkled again. Soon it’ll fold into itself
too small to notice, leaving the sky
ripe for the raven taking

From “River-Mud Rose”:

I am adulterated sand, dying before I can
become a freshwater pearl.

From “On the Genesis of Ghosts”:

Everything humans don’t know, they name
dark matter.

The author’s bio identifies Margariti as a “Greek sea monster” (among other things). Beyond the fun of the metaphor, it captures the mood of much of the book as largely Southeastern European, and fantastical. The works are certainly not limited by that, for instance, later in the book there are two explicitly Arthurian poems. Similarly, while the book is largely dark fantasy, it includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and sometimes blends them. A high concept example is “The Little Medical Experiment Who Ran Away” which includes the titular experiment asking for:

A kind touch, maybe even a fairy tale.
(A name. Oh, a name.)

In the end, this is a moody and diverse collection full of devils, harpies, medical experiments, strange creatures, and stranger humans. And it is largely in a voice a little different from the common Northwestern European roots that inform much of specpo.

—Herb Kauderer

Some Disassembly Required by David C. Kopaska-Merkel. Introduction by Marcie Tentchoff.
(Diminuendo Press, 2022). 96 pp, including 30 poems first published here.
Price: Print copies $10 postpaid (jopnquog@gmail.com via PayPal, or, a check made out to David C. Kopaska-Merkel at 10055 Goodwood Blvd, Baton Rouge LA 70815); ebooks from me $3, PDF, ePUB, MOBI, LIT, LRF.

The title of Kopaska-Merkel’s latest collection is fittingly simple yet twisted. Like eerie Ikea instructions, it delivers a result that will require revisiting.

The collection includes six ominous black and white illustrations by Henk-Jan Bakker, and 96 pages of poetry.

Kopaska-Merkel uses forms to highlight different characteristics in his stories—from haibun to fibonacci to lists—but writes primarily in free-flowing short lines.

Like the title, many of Kopaska-Merkel’s poems are deceptively simple in concept, like the girl who built a freeze ray and brought it to her sixth-grade science class, for the momentary ridicule of her classmates. The poem could easily play on revenge against “those pigtail-pulling, / lunch-tray shoving, / mean-mouthed boys,” but also presents the mystery of where Megan acquired the plans and parts to build such a weapon—aliens? supernatural possession? a government experiment? The questions are more unsettling than the poem’s actual narrative.

Some of the imagery is surreally nightmarish. For example, this passage comes from “Host.”

I dreamed,
thousands of tiny spiders emerged
from my open mouth,
crawled from my body,
floated from the bed.
I couldn’t move,
and as I lay I shrank;
more and more emerged,
and still they come,
and still I cannot move.

Kopaska-Merkel’s poems are a steady and consistent ride along the weird. These poems aren’t in-your-face, but the kind to leave you scratching your head, disturbed, or just chuckling quietly to the discomfort of everyone else in the room.

For instance, in “Adult Female, Deceased,” a fine setup for a dark and twisted poem, Kopaska-Merkel holds back from gore or shock, hinting just enough to make the story unfold in the reader’s head.

Lashes flutter under the sheet …

A student screams
Dr. Pierce looks up.
What will you say when we cut
into tonight’s body,
she asks,
if you scream at a little passing gas?

What indeed.

One of my favorite twisty poems is “Conversion Therapy,” one of the longer pieces in this collection, which starts:

Blood sucking, a lifestyle choice,
abominable in the eyes of God;
it stains the soul.
In compassion and love,
we’ll expose your son
to the sun’s
restoring, holy light,
a little more each day,
until he returns
to the bosom of God’s love.

You’ll have to get the collection to read the rest of that story. “Swamped” is another topical poem, focused on immigration.

The last two and a half pages contain scifaiku, where Kopaska-Merkel displays his ability to generate worlds in three lines.

Emy’s doll
has 2 arms, 2 legs
poor crippled thing

This is a strong collection from start to finish and sure to please spec poets who lean all directions, whether toward fantasy, science, or horror.

—John Reinhart

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