What better way to close out the year than with a bit of poetry?
So, I've written up a bunch of reviews of English-language science-fiction/fantasy poems first published in 2018 that I think are worth a good hard look from regular readers of speculative verse. Most of these poems are readable online; I've included links wherever possible.
My recommendations are divided into two lists: long form (50 lines or more) and short form (fewer than 50 lines), for the convenience of anyone browsing this post with Rhysling Award nominations in mind. (If you aren’t familiar with the Rhysling, you can read about it here.)
These lists are not meant to be seen as exhaustive. I’m far from having read everything published this year, and in the interest of time, I’m leaving out lots of Rhysling-eligible poems that I did read and enjoy. If you’d like an idea of what’s gone through my head when deciding which of the poems I’ve read to review and recommend, all is explained in the paragraphs immediately following this one. If, on the other hand, you want to jump straight to the good stuff, scroll on down to the big blue “LONG FORM POEMS” heading below, and enjoy!
I’m putting this up on the Internet primarily with members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) in mind, since they’re the ones who nominate and vote on poems for the Rhysling, but non-SFPA-members are very welcome to poke around.
For present purposes, I’ve decided to pass over poems of 10 lines or fewer. Pieces of that length (or, perhaps better put, of that shortness) are, I think, well covered by the Dwarf Stars Award (another prize administered yearly by the SFPA). This isn’t to say I don’t have any thoughts on recent short-form science-fiction/fantasy (SFF) poetry. If anybody’s interested in my take on this year’s minimalist specpo, let me know, and I’ll quite happily wax on about that, too. But in this post, I’ll restrict my commentary to poems 11 lines and up.
With the exception of Susan McLean’s “Wolf Moon” (a tribute to the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin that’s more about sci-fi than it is sci-fi), all of the poems listed below fit snugly into the “speculative” category of fiction. In theme or topic, that is, they’re clearly classifiable as sci-fi, fantasy, surreal horror, or some combination of the three.
Furthermore, these poems unabashedly feature, front and center, elements of plot or setting peculiar to SFF. Here there be dragons, and the dragons are literal as well as figurative.
(Naturally, possession of this trait doesn’t mean the pieces I’m singling out are better poetry, as such, than works more vaguely or hand-wavingly speculative. Neither does it mean they’re somehow more imaginative than works that make only passing reference to genre elements! Focusing on poems that meet this criterion has, however, helped me out by providing at least one relatively rigid boundary for my otherwise very nebulous search for poems I feel I can, without reservation, promote to the membership of an organization with the SFPA’s stated aims as highly deserving of its attention and celebration.)
Of course, the question of which elements of fiction fall explicitly under the umbrella of SFF and which do not, as well as the question of whether SFF should be restricted by definition to fiction in the first place, are not above debate. But I’m going to blithely kick that can of worms way off to the side for the moment.
In the meantime, moving on to even more flagrantly subjective criteria involved in the creation of this post:
Each of the poems I’ve linked to below has conjured up strong feelings in me (wistful longing, delight, bittersweet amusement, you name it). In many cases, emotions raised in the reading have colored my whole day, whether I wanted them to or not.
Each of these poems has also impressed me in its demonstration of what can be achieved via forms and techniques specific to the medium of poetry. In other words, none of the pieces I review below strike me as merely skillfully-written SFF prose with line breaks thrown in. Instead, they do things that I’d argue only poetry can do. And I hope most of you will agree that they do them very well.
(I know, I know… wherever you draw the dividing line, the very existence of a poetry/prose dichotomy is another concept that lends itself to controversy. My love of formalism is probably showing. NB, though, that free verse is well represented in the lists below, alongside more metrically constrained forms. Rest assured, too, that despite the conspicuous absence of prose poems from this post—unless you count Claire Bateman’s government-form-imitative “Seeking Exemption Status?”—I’m not opposed to prose poems in principle. I do believe that there’s a discernible difference between prose poetry and prose plain-and-simple. I just haven’t stumbled onto any SFF prose poem published this year that’s really dug its claws into me, yet. I did come close to adding Laura Kasischke's restless “The Eavesdropper, or What I Thought I Heard My Mother Talking About on the Phone, in Another Room, Thirty-Six Years Ago,” a very prosey example of free verse, to the list, but on eventually working out that my reaction to the poem overall amounted to bemusement and little else, I decided I was not the ideal person to review it. If you have a favorite SFF prose poem of 2018, though, I’d love to hear about it! Hit me up on Twitter.)
It may also be worth noting that I’m an avowed fan of the K.O.-kick or penny-drop variety of final line: if the last few words of a poem punch me in the face (à la Regina George) with the full weight of the message being conveyed, I usually think that’s awesome. So, many of the poems I link to below end with a bang. There are a few pieces in the mix that get their points across by subtler or quieter means, but they’re in the minority.
For any or all of the reasons given above, you may not find my recommendations quite to your liking. You may wish I’d concentrated instead on poetry with a more delicate approach, pieces more tenuously speculative in nature, or writing that tackles topics other than ones covered by the poems I’ve chosen. If this is the case, please do remember that the lists below reflect, more than anything else, the personal tastes of one individual human being. The last thing I want to suggest by this post is that the many, many other things published this year in the wide world of SFF poetry are devoid of value. If you’re inspired to build up alternate Rhysling reclists of your own in response to mine, the more the merrier, I say!
In the end, I’m just hoping these lists will prove interesting and useful to SFF readers who share at least some of my preferences in poetry but who, due to time constraints or other factors, haven’t yet come across the pieces below. (And if the links I post here lead anyone, however indirectly, to discover a new favorite magazine or poet, I’ll consider this whole exercise beyond worth it.)
Now that that’s all squared away, without any further ado, here are my favorite Rhysling-eligible SFF poems—so far—of 2018:
LONG FORM POEMS (50 lines or more)
“You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm” by Paige Lewis, Poetry Jan. 2018
This dramatic monologue has a lot going for it on the SFnal front, incorporating intriguing sketches of Pynchonesque astronauts, reverse-Babel proclamations of instantaneous universal language acquisition, avowals of Ororo Munroe-like weather-control abilities, and other chimerical digressions to give the piece a memorably otherworldly feel. Vivid as the details that come together to create the dreamscape setting of the poem are, however, they don’t distract from the characterizations of speaker and addressee. Instead, every surreal image and each highly improbable proposal signposts the way to an understanding of both these people and of their fraught relationship.
You may dismiss the speaker’s professions of superhuman control over almost every aspect of their physical surroundings as completely delusional, in line with their despotic (and ultimately disproven) view of themself as the rightful regulator of all aspects—external and internal—of the addressee’s existence. Or you may take at face value their scrabbling offers of pears unending, inflatable deer, and other clearly off-base guesses at what incentives to stay the addressee might find irresistible. Either way, a few of the reasons the “you” of the poem has made the decision she enacts at the narrative’s turning point should be readily apparent to most readers, despite the speaker’s emanation of disbelieving horror at the failure of this "whelp of a woman" to happily accept the assurance that “the winter / summer children” the speaker intends to foist upon her “will barely hurt,” the promise that in staying with the speaker she will be forever surrounded by “the sweet rot of it all,” or the insistence—presumably in wounded response to the addressee’s off-stage protest at never being listened to—that the speaker is, in fact, “always glistening.”
The astute portrayal of an abuser’s point of view and of the tactics of abuse, the deft amalgamation of weird and mundane imagery, and the dry humor and wordplay of “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm” all contribute to putting the poem on this list. But I can’t tie off this review without also mentioning Lewis’ outstanding use of arrangement of text on the page as a storytelling tool. It’s a simple but highly effective strategy the poet has hit on to reflect the speaker’s initial swaggering confidence and—shortly thereafter—their dissolving sense of total authority: frame the monologue’s opening lines as an orderly stack of neat couplets, then shatter that neatness into a spreading chaos of unevenly broken fragments of text. The unusual shape the poem takes as a result of these form-content parallels is conspicuous even on the first read-through, but the payoffs of the careful consideration that went into crafting this layout only grow more apparent on re-reads.
“pacemaker” by D. A. Xiaolin Spires, Eye to the Telescope 28
This poem is just plain fun. Though an account of an unusually young heart disease patient coming to terms with her reliance on an electronic device hooked up to one of her vital organs could easily have been a very somber affair, “pacemaker” is surprisingly lighthearted, even exuberant, in tone. The syllable count from line to line seems to be intentionally inconsistent, superficially erratic enjambment propelling the reader rapidly down through a cascade of verses of variable length and shape. Except where the refrain “pacemaker / pacemaker” intrudes, iconically, to act as a caesura and provide some regularity in counterbalance to the chaos, the flow of words feels as unpredictable and uncontainable as the passage of time (we are told) feels to the protagonist before her surgery.
Much of the enjoyment of “pacemaker,” for me, lies in the whimsical wording of the contrasts drawn between Ya-Ling’s pre-op experience of time as an ungraspable entity that leaves her repeatedly “drawing a / chronoblank” and her post-op perception of time as a substance that can be manipulated, “beguil[ed], / maneuver[ed].” And with the protagonist (who is painted in a very sympathetic light) going from resignedly seeing herself as helplessly “out-of-sync” with the rest of the world to perceiving herself as in command of her environment, the poem ends on what feels like a triumphant note. Recommended for anyone currently hankering for a quick read to put a little pep in their step.
“Mother Giant” by Peri Fae Blomquist, Mythic Delirium 4.4
The titular character of “Mother Giant” is somehow instantly familiar. Although I’m pretty sure she’s a character of Blomquist’s own creation, she inspires the sort of nostalgia one might feel for a recurring figure of the bedtime stories of childhood.
Maybe it’s Blomquist’s straightforward and unadorned yet lyrical style of narration—reminiscent of so many classic English retellings of folk stories and fairy tales—that does the trick. Or maybe it’s the fact that the qualities and habits attributed to Mother Giant render her, like countless figures of folklore and myth, paradoxically intimidating and comforting all at once. Or maybe it’s the way the workings of Mother Giant’s world as a whole defy the mechanics of our reality, resisting empirical logic while smoothly connecting on an emotional level, another feature almost all the best fairy tales have in common.
In any case, “Mother Giant” is a striking character sketch any reader of the fantastic is likely to appreciate. While talk of monsters devouring monsters, inhuman children playing “[k]illing games,” and the malevolent approach of a crushing force of darkness may inch the poem toward horror territory, there’s a great deal of warmth and affection at its heart. The darkness and the light, in equal measure, make this one a recommended read.
“My Husband, Lost in the Wild” by Jayme Ringleb, Poetry Sep. 2018
A picturesque study in melancholy resignation, “My Husband, Lost in the Wild” seamlessly blends the ordinary and the incredible to create an engrossing portrait of an unfulfilling marriage. Up to the end of the poem, the speaker’s relationship to their drifter husband is defined by a cycle of fragile hope and seemingly inevitable disappointment, and the almost monotonous regularity of the series of couplets used to sketch out this situation reinforces the pervading sense of continuous heartache.
In the closing lines, the speaker does finally choose to abandon this arrangement and depart for new horizons. But unlike the earth-shattering exodus of the addressee in Lewis’ poem, above, or the climactic prison breakout in Zannou’s piece, below, the decision effects little change in tone. Still quietly regretful, the only difference to the narration seems to be that hope has now been subtracted altogether from the equation. Perhaps the speaker’s goal is not real freedom or happiness in another life, but merely the replacement of their sorrow with an emotional numbness. Even that dubious victory, however, is not won before they pass beyond our view.
What really makes this poem for me is the tour of prosaically believable American locations—a byroad in rural Georgia, “a small North Florida diner,” the Wisconsin countryside, a Manitoba pawnshop, a credit union in the woodlands of Oregon—used to give the narrative a matter-of-fact, routine feel despite the bizarre and impossible goings-on throughout. Even when the end of a relationship comes in slow, predictable stages and with little fanfare, “My Husband, Lost in the Wild” seems to be saying, this does not mean there’s no mourning involved.
“Black Rapunzel” by Doxa Zannou, FIYAH 8: Pilgrimage
You have to buy the 8th issue of FIYAH to read this poem, but it’s worth it. (In any case, if you’re interested in financially supporting small spec publishers and currently have a few bucks to spend that way, FIYAH isn’t a bad choice. A lot of love clearly goes into making the magazine, and in exclusively showcasing work by black SFF writers, it fulfills an apparently unique function in modern spec-magdom.)
An achingly personal allegory delivered in forthright but meticulous strokes, “Black Rapunzel” places the reader in the shoes of a Beninese woman as she painfully navigates her relationship with the European fairy tales she is inundated with as a child.
The poem opens innocuously enough with a mention of the protagonist’s foundational encounters with many of the staples of European folkloric tradition, stories brought to her bedside night after night by cultural forces Zannou anthropomorphizes as “the Grimm brothers.” We’re very quickly disabused, however, of the notion that these men have the protagonist’s best interests at heart in exposing her to tales of “white, blonde skinny princesses” to the exclusion of all other narratives. Heroines like Cinderella and Rapunzel “inspire” the young girl, yes, but the dreadful shape their inspiration takes in this case becomes horrifically apparent as, year by year, we watch the protagonist “wash [her] skin with lemon each night, / so it can fade, lighter”; pine after fine, golden hair in place of her thick, dark curls; cut all ties to her family—mother, father, sisters—due to their divergence from so many of the white-centric ideals and social mores her role models represent; and, in her unending wait for a promised prince, even accept lonely confinement in a “tall, cement tower” over the exhilarating freedom of the great outdoors or the lively warmth of her childhood home.
The metaphors Zannou uses to detail the predicament of a woman who has been constantly fed the false dichotomy black vs. princess, and who finds herself on the former side of that insidious paradigm, are straightforward but powerful. As one familiar Western symbol of beauty and femininity after another is brought into the narrative only to immediately take on the flavor of captivity, it becomes clear that any “happily ever after” the protagonist might achieve will necessarily look very different than the archetypes she was taught to dream of as a child.
We are left in no doubt that carrying out the decision to break free of her elegant prison to forge her own path will be agonizingly difficult for the protagonist. But as the poem closes, she seems to have finally, liberatingly, recognized herself as the heroine of her own story.
“The Cat’s Daughters” by Nitoo Das, Uncanny Magazine 20
The surreal scenario on which the story of “The Cat’s Daughters” hinges is original to the poem, I believe—certainly, it’s not quite like any I’ve encountered in spec fic before now. But somehow, Das’ free verse comes across as a modern retelling of a timeless folktale all the same.
The human speakers’ evolving understanding of themselves and of their cat mother is related with a spare eloquence that keeps the reader engaged even when the poem is at its most esoteric. Das is a skilled storyteller, uncovering each new detail of her curious plot in a way that intrigues rather than bemuses. Elements of backstory and characterization, insights into the tangle of conflicting feelings the speakers harbor toward their mother and vice versa, are unfolded in an order that makes every line a revelation. Beautifully unusual, "The Cat's Daughters" offers a touching look at mother-child relationships that acknowledges every such relationship—no matter how it comes to be—is unique, complex, and challenging in its own way.
“The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World” by Shane McCrae, Poetry Nov. 2018
The last of a triptych of poems presented in reverse-chronological order, “The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World” takes subjects of literally biblical proportions and wryly siphons them through the all-too-relatable perspective of an awfully human-like angel.
Summarily hurled into the world to make his way as best he can without the help of any previous experience or guidance, the protagonist catches only glimpses of Heaven—monumental figures like Gabriel, Azrael, and even “a pinkish light that was or was- / n’t God”—before plummeting alone to the Proterozoic Earth to do a job he has no context for understanding. Even the one piece of instruction he’s given before his unceremonious send-off, the other angels’ doctrine that “It’s / all clouds,” proves useless to him as he struggles to come to terms with himself and his unheavenly surroundings; after all, “what difference could it make to the angel / Built to monitor the Earth from the surface / Of the Earth what was or wasn’t true in Heaven”?
The Hastily Assembled Angel’s bewilderment in the face of a universe that shows very little interest in explaining itself and his confusion, doubt, and fear as he embarks on a new, unasked-for existence are entertainingly captured in the poem’s stammering structure, broken trains of thought dumped over the page in slapdash lines of text punctuated only by gaping, irregularly placed blanks. His feelings will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried and failed to get to the bottom of life’s big questions—anyone, that is, who has ever wondered just what the point is, anyway, of it all.
I imagine that’s all of us.
SHORT FORM POEMS (11 to 49 lines)
“Meisho’s Dodos” by Mary Soon Lee, Grievous Angel 30 April 2018
This poem is set in a version of present-day Earth only a hop and a skip down the interdimensional conga line from our own, a fact deftly established in the first few lines, where we learn that a Japanese garden of historical interest now open to the public is “overrun” with dodo birds. That premise is amusing enough in itself to make for an entertaining short poem, but Lee doesn’t leave things there.
Instead, “Meisho’s Dodos” turns out to be a compassionate look at a figure recognizable from our own history: Empress Meisho of the Kan’ei era, a somewhat enigmatic monarch who abdicated the Chrysanthemum Throne before the time of the fictional events related in the poem.
In the dry tones of a professional tour guide, we are told of Meisho’s empathy for a dodo taken into a captivity that keeps it far from all its kind, and of the lonely noblewoman's resulting project “to procure companion birds.” Though the story is relayed in superficially cool and impassive terms, Meisho’s identification with the dodo’s forlorn situation and her ultimate success in giving it the friendship and care she lacked in her own life make for a moving read. An entire species saved from extinction as a byproduct of one marginalized individual’s act of quiet kindness—whose heart doesn't warm at the thought?
“Concerning President Carter and the UFO Sighting” by August Huerta, Strange Horizons 19 March 2018
Can you put a name to the shape of this poem? I can’t.
That’s not to say the text of “Concerning President Carter and the UFO Sighting” is shapeless. A brief run of verses of varying sizes that shimmers down the page in lines of irregular length and indentation, the visual form it takes is at once distinctive and elusive of precise description—at least if you want to keep things down to a few words.
Like the UFO it discusses, the poem defies easy comparison to the silhouettes and contours of everyday life. This is not a “pillar” of text, really, or even a prototypical “tree,” and though the poem ebbs and flows in a way, it doesn’t shout “river” or “waves.” Probably the “mirage” or the “lightning” Huerta mentions twice apiece are as close as you can get to conjuring up this form in metaphors of a single word, but that’s only because mirages and lightning are famously mutable, unpredictable in outline.
Through this graceful use of visual structure, as well as through admirably controlled wording and an acutely selective use of the source material, Huerta takes an incident probably familiar to most only as a piece of tabletop trivia and works it into something hauntingly profound.
“In the Belly of the Wolf” by Kirsten Kaschok, The Threepenny Review 152
I suspect everyone reading this post has more than once encountered, in some form or other, grisly reworkings of old folktales. The subgenre’s a curious one, since old folktales are often grisly things to begin with, but many writers and readers of the fantastic (myself included) find themselves drawn to it time and again.
Kaschok’s “In the Belly of the Wolf” is a worthy addition to the ranks of such dark retellings, venturing further into the realm of body horror than any other poem on this list (no mean feat in a round-up that includes the pieces by Blomquist, Ringleb, and Das reviewed above). “In the Belly of the Wolf” is short and to the point—every word counts, and those words add up to an unequivocally gruesome whole. The imagery, my dears, brought me satisfying chills.
“Singularity” by Julie Schultz, Rattle 61
This simple sketch of life from the perspective of a member of a human society that has discarded organic bodies in favor of factory-produced parts—exchanged synapses for circuits—carries obvious metaphorical applications to the mechanized societies of many countries today. But I find the poem most enjoyable when taking its futuristic elements at face value.
Although there’s nothing particularly archaic about Schultz’ wording, the piece reminds me of several American sci-fi classics of the 50s and 60s: robopsychologists casually discussing the Three Laws in Asimov, modern families contentedly singing the body electric in Bradbury. The tone of “Singularity” remains level throughout the poem, coolly efficient terza rima delivering the speaker’s thoughts in clearly defined sentences before the exercise resolves itself neatly in a final, dry couplet. (Oddly, this is not the only terza rima piece on this list. Maybe the form is enjoying a moment? See Schwader’s “In SETI Silence,” below.)
“Singularity” is, apparently, Schultz’ first published poem. I hope we’ll be seeing more from her down the line.
“Fortune Favours the Cold” by Katherine Inskip, Abyss & Apex 68
At first glance, “Fortune Favours the Cold” might be taken for a space-operatic ode to the allure of the Wild Blue Yonder. After all, Inskip’s rapturous flood of eons-spanning imagery (something the poem’s punny title did not lead me to expect) adds up to a breathtaking spectacle. As the mind’s eye is guided over untried horizons that faintly echo earthly landscapes and climate features—“shallows of matter” rivering through our suddenly vast field of vision, “shower[s] of nitrogen snow,” “cometary swarms,” “gentle rain[s] of planetary ash”—the most decided of homebodies may find themselves aching for a bit of idealized Age-of-Sail-style adventure.
On re-reads, however, it’s struck me that this poem has, in fact, next to nothing to do with exploration. It does not even concern itself, really, with humanity’s place in the universe, except perhaps in the most tangential sense. With the possible exception of the very familiar-sounding “blue-bright cinder” tagged in the penultimate stanza, Earth and its inhabitants never overtly enter the picture.
It’s in our nature to project, to find ways to identify and connect, even with the inanimate. And Inskip wields simple metaphors drawn from our planet’s flora and fauna—whales, snakeskins, dandelion fluff—to great effect as she lays out the grand panorama of the matter at the outermost reaches of our solar system. Outside of figures of speech, however, there’s not a single living creature to be seen in the poem. (There’s nothing “alive” in the usual sense of the word, anyway. The precise identity of the 1st-person plural speaker and of the “you” that goes speeding by “dagger-fast” in the fourth stanza are up for interpretation; I take the former to be planetoids and asteroids, and the latter to be a comet.)
Instead, for all that the poem’s “resonant parade” of astronomical objects leaves the reader with lingering, electrifying impressions of dynamic movement, and for all that each action-packed stanza exudes theatrical development, every element of the story told is reducible to the predictable movements and emissions of inorganic bodies in space. And these events are not presented in terms of their relationship to human beings, the farthest-flung regions of the solar system portrayed neither as an exciting challenge for us to tackle nor as a forbidding and perilous environment for us to avoid. In this discussion, it seems, we are simply beside the point.
That neither the speaker nor their subjects are recognizably human, however, does not mean that “Fortune Favours the Cold” is devoid of emotion. As the burst of activity of the first stanzas settles into a more orderly stillness toward the poem’s conclusion, touches of subtle regret bleed through the narration. The final stanza faintly recalls the stars of William Blake’s “The Tyger” that “water heaven with their tears” on witnessing the birth of a terrible—if beautiful—aspect of the universe. Whether the allusion is intentional or not, it reinforces the wistful abstraction elsewhere produced by talk of unfulfilled potential, of planets that never quite came together, of far-flung satellites swimming endlessly in elegant but unbreakable circuits.
“Glut of Norths: A Purgatory” by John Philip Johnson, Mythic Delirium 4.4
Johnson says he took inspiration for “Glut of Norths” from John W. Sexton's "False-North." (The earlier poem was published in 2015 and is therefore not eligible for the next Rhysling, but you can read it on p. 16 of this PDF.)
Viewing the two works side-by-side, some shared elements are obvious from the get-go. Johnson’s title contains overt references to major ingredients of Sexton’s poem; both are set in an unsettlingly ethereal afterlife, complete with phantasmagoric horses in echoes of long grass; and the protagonists in both grapple with the concept of their recent demise. At a deeper level, however, the poems diverge dramatically.
To the protagonist of Sexton’s “False-North,” death is a comfortless prison, a “place of no leaving” paradoxically at once claustrophobically small and unremittingly vast. An “overgrown corner” at the edge of the hereafter tucked just out of notice of the living world, his lonely habitat unfolds endlessly, but never onto anything different. As each new turn merely reveals more of the same, “like […] an / onion inside an onion inside an /onion,” the protagonist is gallingly haunted by himself, making lonely circles in a tedious nightmare scenario reminiscent of Flann O'Brien’s The Third Policeman. Sexton’s dead man is painfully aware of his situation and the fact that, somehow, he has brought it on himself; he has no hope of escape or of improvement of his present situation. He resigns himself to his fate, but resignation does not equate to contentment. For him, as Sexton puts it, "Purgatory [is] utter Hell."
The protagonist of “A Glut of Norths,” on the other hand, is more hopeful and therefore more desperate. He never accepts his apparent doom. Unlike Sexton’s character, Johnson’s protagonist does not leave the ghostly horses that mill about his personal limbo off to the side. He straddles one, and rides it. We last see him charging ever onward, "seeking form, chasing flesh," questing for a change of state—perhaps, even, for a return to his old life. Although the “endless retreat of [the] solid morning” he pursues seems suggestive of failure in this endeavor, the mere fact that Johnson’s dead man is set on trying to change his circumstances makes the poem less bleak than “False-North.” And while Johnson’s protagonist may be every bit as lacking in human camaraderie as Sexton’s, the former’s choice to give himself an equine companion on his travels renders his journey the less lonely of the two.
“Glut of Norths,” then, does not merely recycle the images of “False-North.” Neither does it simply put Sexton’s ideas into Johnson’s words. Rather, it responds to the weary despair of Sexton’s poem in a way that renders both works more interesting when read in conjunction.
“Vulpine Rede” by Rufina Jinju Kang, Liminality 16
Kang seems to have a special affinity for shape-shifting foxes. “Vulpine Rede” is not the only poem she’s had published this year featuring a speaker who fits the profile; see also “A 구미호 Invites a Soucouyant to a Picnic” at The Future Fire. But “Vulpine Rede” displays an economy of expression and command of incisive language that, in my opinion, makes it the stronger of the two.
The “rede” of the title, an archaic word meaning “good counsel” or “sage advice,” primes us to expect ageless wisdom, dispassionately delivered. And what we get—an even-keeled column of measured lines—does indeed present as an inventory of well-worn maxims. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that not only is the speaker of the poem not human and their store of gnomic insights drawn from outside the domain of human experience, but humans are not even the intended audience. Instead, we’re the menace lurking at the heart of every warning issued in the poem, the peril that compels the speaker and their addressee to keep their guard up at all times.
The knowledge that we ourselves are the menacing figures against whom the speaker cautions—the thoughtless usurpers said to steal the voice, the agency, and the very life of the unwary—makes reading “Vulpine Rede” feel slightly transgressive. We’re trespassing on another’s world.
At the same time, though, it’s easy to identify with the fears and desires the speaker addresses. We’re not literal shapeshifters in the way gumiho are, but anyone who has found themself putting on figurative masks over large periods of time for the benefit of family, friends, or society at large can see the truth in the statement “Spend too long inside a shape / and the shape shapes you.” And though most of us likely don’t worry ourselves over magical spells or curses, those who have been in otherwise draining relationships probably find themselves nodding at the caution “Kiss another’s mouth too deeply /and you will lose your own voice.”
Does this mean the speaker’s advice to close oneself off emotionally, taking no chances on deep relationships and fleeing at the first signs of conflict, is sound? I’m sure every reader has their own opinions on that front.
“Seeking Exemption Status?” by Claire Bateman, SFPA 2018 Poetry Contest (Short Form Winner, 3rd Place)
If you were to describe this piece as “a simple joke stretched into 30+ lines of free verse,” you wouldn’t be wrong. But I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. Humor has as much of a place in poetry as grief, rage, or awestruck contemplation do, even if joke poems aren’t generally as likely to make the ranks of “best of” round-ups like this as are more serious fare.
In the case of this particular joke poem, at any rate, Bateman keeps things entertaining from start to finish, delivering her punchlines with a shrewd sense of progression and then bowing out before the central conceit grows tiresome.
“Seeking Exemption Status?” could easily make the leap into sketch comedy territory. (I’m thinking Stephen Fry as the less-than-helpful government clerk and Hugh Laurie as the hapless entity who just wants to know what boxes to check to get this over and done with.) I find that's a quality I like.
“Tea Leaves” by Hilary Biehl, Abyss & Apex 66
This slice-of-life portrait takes on a subject unusual for the genre: a genuinely clairvoyant tea-reader.
Much like her serenely professional protagonist, Biehl exudes calm self-assurance in her work, balancing singsongy sweetness against bitter candor with a skill that is never ostentatiously showy, but always impressive. A lulling use of meter and rhyme, imagery drenched in warm clouds of spice and packed with plump cushions, and invocations of a sense of comfortable companionship offset the ominous picture of “damp dark clumps, burnt umber diagrams of death and loss,” disclosures of a longstanding sorrow the protagonist hides from her clients, and mentions of the tea-reader’s fatalistic acceptance of griefs to come.
“Tea Leaves” ends on a wistful exhalation that ties off the scene in a fairly bleak but pretty bow. While it can’t be said to be a happy poem, per se, its wry narration, steady meter, and pleasant protagonist make it a relaxing read.
“Note to Our Guests” by Amy Miller, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine May/June 2018
This one’s not up online for free; you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of this year’s early-summer issue of Asimov's to read it. But it’s well worth a read—an empathetic yet cutting PSA for near-future tourists of Saturn that hits all too close to home for residents of 21st-century Earth. “Please remember our history,” the speaker cautions their fellow humans, “our passenger pigeons, moas […].”
As the poem takes the guise of a committee-constructed spiel, there’s the odd corny one-liner expected of tourism boards everywhere (and don’t lie, you’d be disappointed if there weren’t a pun or two to groan at). But the piece’s humor only accentuates the somber character of its central theme, i.e. the troublingly predictable nature of many humans’ destructive impulses when given access to a new environment or set of natural resources, and the very real and present need for this aspect of our behavior as a species to change.
“The One” by Brandon O’Brien, Uncanny 23
The optimism with which O’Brien has infused “The One” is contagious. Even after centuries of disappointment, the protagonist, an immortal (or at least unnaturally long-lived) man, remains indefatigable in the hope that someday, with someone, he’ll be able to forge the kind of mutually fulfilling relationship he’s tried for and failed at time and again (962 times, in fact, by his count). While the wearying cumulative effect of these let-downs is acknowledged in a free-flowing narrative style that gives readers immediate access to the protagonist’s mindset, it doesn’t take long from our perspective for the poem to turn from this frustrating track record and instead deliberately zero in on the first, exhilarating moment in the protagonist’s existence that his hopes come to fruition.
The fact that the deep-rooted companionship the protagonist finds with a mortal woman who’s “read enough lifetimes to / feel just as old as he does” must, presumably, end with her eventual death doesn’t cast a pall over the poem. If anything, the knowledge that this state of affairs is temporary spurs the protagonist on to a more thorough enjoyment of the present, where, “[i]n the small spaces between lines of postmodern poetry” he and his sweetheart read together, he discerns “entire continua.” Through to the last word, “The One” wholeheartedly celebrates love and shared understanding, no matter how belatedly it enters our lives or how fleetingly we experience it for ourselves.
“Wolf Moon” by Susan McLean, Star*Line 41.2
This thoughtful eulogy for sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin combines an insightfully academic look at her work’s groundbreaking engagements with issues of gender and sex with a moving expression of McLean’s sense of personal loss at the author’s passing. Le Guin and her writings mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but “Wolf Moon” eloquently focuses on the aspects of her fiction that had the largest impact on McLean in particular, and the resulting tribute clearly demonstrates how much McLean looked to Le Guin as a mentor and guide, and how sincerely she mourns.
The language of “Wolf Moon” is careful, but unpretentious. Quotes and references have been seamlessly incorporated at every point to develop or underscore the poem’s main ideas, and McLean’s expert implementation of meter and rhyme enhances rather than distracts from the contemplative tone of the piece. All in all, a tour de force. I think that it does the poet’s feelings credit, and that it is likely to speak deeply on many fronts to others who grieve Le Guin’s passing.
“The Mummy Matriculates” by Noel Sloboda, Abyss & Apex 67
Short, witty, and slightly acerbic, “The Mummy Matriculates” gives us the amusing scenario of an ancient power, the “Scourge of the White Sands, / Embodied Nightmare,” etc., etc., confronted with the perplexing enigma that is the modern U.S. college system. Though he has witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations, it remains to be seen how he’ll fare at first week registration, university parking, and beer pong.
University bureaucracy, for their part, seem to have little trouble accepting the presence of a reanimated corpse on campus, as long as said corpse is financially solvent.
I’m tempted to quote a few of the cleverest lines of the poem here—Sloboda’s wording throughout is highly quotable—but the whole thing is so brief that I’d run the risk of copyright infringement if I did. You’d better just go read all the clever bits in context.
“Persephone Explains the Dark” by Neile Graham, Eye to the Telescope 29
This is a dramatic monologue that really lives up to the label. Delivered in the passionate and commanding voice of a goddess of ancient Greek myth, “Persephone Explains the Dark” would not be out of place as the centerpiece of an archaic-style stage play.
From the sucker punch of an opening line through to the poignant conclusion, Graham paints a riveting picture of a figure equal parts tragic and heroic. This Persephone is something more than the helpless abductee or the sedately morose queen of so many frescoes. Having been dragged to the underworld against her will, she does not passively accept her fate, but clearly voices her protest at the hand she’s been dealt even as, with a fierce pride, she shoulders the terrible responsibilities of her unasked-for custody of the dead.
Though the denizens of Hades hurt her with their constant fumbling neediness, Persephone does not display anger toward them. Instead, trapped as they are, she seems to understand their plight. And when it would be all to easy to subside into stillness and despair, she chooses instead to speak not only for herself, but for the silenced dead as well. Graham’s poem elevates this choice to an act of valor.
“Rewind” by Todd Dillard, Superstition Review 21
Yes, this is a “what if time went backwards” poem. Yes, I’m aware that the concept of events occurring out of the conventional order is nothing new to even the most casual consumer of SFF. Yes, I’ve heard of Merlin, and of Benjamin Button, for that matter. And yes, I saw that one episode of Red Dwarf.
It’s not the “stuff happens in reverse” premise in itself, however, that puts “Rewind” on this list. It’s Dillard’s masterful treatment of that premise.
For one thing, Dillard’s wording, line by line, is a delight. It imbues what would be nonsensical actions in the regular way of things with a casual intentionality as the speaker “plucks the bruise” from his brother’s face, “eat[s]” his words, “hock[s] shots into glasses,” etc. And it assigns inanimate objects agency: “teeth spider” into mouths, “trees / fling lightning / into the sky.”
For another thing, as the poem progresses, it becomes apparent that either way you sequence the story, very little changes. In defiance of expectations, the overall evolution of the speaker’s life as viewed from one side of time is not the opposite of his life as viewed from the other side. Or rather, it is the opposite, but startlingly, his existence is a palindrome; the same narrative threads run both ways.
Viewed through the lens of standard chronology, the speaker moves from a seeming acceptance of his circumstances into a state of roaring discontentment, his desire to escape what he sees as the stifling hold of family driving him into a fistfight with his brother we never see the end of. In the new chronology of the poem, the speaker spends a few years doing not much before suddenly leaping from the safety of his father's arms to precarious heights and then attempting to fly, screaming, from his family’s life—though he in fact remains with them, as part of his mother and his father, unable to untangle his existence from theirs.
Though “Rewind” tells a tale of restless dissatisfaction, it ends on a delicately philosophical note. That choice, along with the neat narrative symmetry of the poem, its overall light tone, and the generous helping of entertaining imagery sprinkled throughout, make it less gloomy a read than a bare-bones summary of the plot might suggest.
“Porphyria’s Other Lover” by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Mythic Delirium 4.3
Though the seasons of darkness and cold are the traditional domain of Western ghost stories, “Porphyria’s Other Lover” demonstrates that spring and summer, in all their brightness and heat, can set the stage for a haunting to just as eerie effect. In fact, it may be because we’re so unaccustomed to looking for ghosts amid drifts of pollen and nodding wildflowers that Clarke is able to achieve such unnerving results by surrounding her phantom with them.
Also effectively disquieting is the almost impassive way Clarke's speaker recounts their ill-fated encounter with Porphyria (the spirit of the murder victim, of course, described in Robert Browning’s creepy Victorian classic). It’s rare to come across a tale of such spine-tingling quality communicated in such serene terms, or characterized by such an unbroken succession of exquisitely lovely imagery.
“In SETI Silence” by Ann K. Schwader, Abyss & Apex 68
Schwader was recently awarded the title of Grand Master of the SFPA in recognition of more than 20 years of contributions to the field of speculative poetry, and several qualities of her writing that made her a logical candidate for the distinction shine through in this piece.
For starters, Schwader has a knack for tackling speculative subjects head-on, and in highly explicit terms, without resorting to over-technical jargon or stiffly formal language. “In SETI Silence” covers topics like the inhospitable vastness of space, the probable futility of our search for life of otherworldly origins, and the rise and fall of civilizations in utterly unbroken isolation; with such items on the menu, it would be easy to descend into either flowery pathos or scientific gobbledygook. Instead, Schwader keeps every sentence both simple and emotionally precise.
“In SETI Silence” also demonstrates Schwader’s discerning sense of poetic structure. Jumping straight to the crux of her bleak theme with the uncompromising assertion, “The Drake Equation failed us,” she establishes in line 1 the tone of embittered disillusionment that characterizes every pronouncement to follow, right down to the poem’s last four words. Her choice of terza rima as the platform for a caustic message of this type may initially strike some as counterintuitive, but in her hands the form proves very well suited to the purpose. Impressively, the same tight-knit rhyme scheme employed by Dante as a vehicle for his awestruck contemplations of the infinite marvels of God’s universe is wielded here to inexorably hammer home what seems a dismal antithesis to the Commedia’s worldview: the conviction that humans are ultimately alone in the cosmos—and that aloneness entails loneliness.
The previously mentioned natural-sounding language with which the ideas of “In SETI Silence” are expressed becomes even more impressive when you consider the finicky constraints imposed by the terza rima form. Schwader’s steady grip on meter and rhyme, as well as a practiced willingness to be somewhat flexible on both counts, where flexibility will improve the poem, are clearly key contributing factors to the success of this poem.
. . . That's All, Folks! Thanks for stopping by. I wish you all a very happy new year!