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:

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

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

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

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