Speculative Poetry Fridays

Thus starts a new tradition at After Ever After.  Every Friday my co-author will start us off with her apocalyptic version of a famous poem.  Then I’ll come in with a review of speculative poetry around the web + Asimov’s (if I have that month’s issue).

This Week’s Review: Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Asimov’s

Strange Horizons

This week’s issue of Strange Horizons includes the poem “Maelbrigte’s Woman” by Anne Sheldon.  It tells the story of the wife of a Scottish Chieftan who is betrayed and killed by an invading Norwegian, Earl Sigurd.  It packs quite the narrative punch for being in such a short form.  I was quite impressed.  My favorite moment in the poem came in the closing verse: “And still I go to bed at night alone / as if the morning were a promise / I desire to keep.”  It reminded me very much of a James Kimbrell line: “Her absence is still my best friend” in his book My Psychic: Poems which, though not technically speculative, still has some strong leanings towards evocative imagination as evidenced in this poem Four Tangerines in Gulf Coast.  Which you all should read–both the poem and the book.  Sheldon’s piece also has great rhythm of the line — each one is quite short, but the phrases are easy to parse out (at least on a second read) so you don’t get lost halfway into the sentence and forget what’s going on (which may have happened to me… once).  While there wasn’t an excess of lyricism (sprawling language and imagery), since this is a poem about a hard and stark situation, I didn’t miss it.  Sheldon masters her verbs and nouns so they are crisp and clean.  Overall this is not a poem that I will likely return to (alas I found the narrative too familiar and the one evocative line too little for such a long poem), but it was worth the first few reads.


An embarrassment of riches: Ideomancer boasts 4 poems by 4 authors in this issue.

“Redcap Repast” by WC Roberts  is cute and quick: Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland as a Law &  Order or perhaps CSI episode.  I confess I had to read it twice to figure out was going partly on which I will attribute to the author’s refusal of the comma.  Example:

Alice found a mirror on the table
dusted with a white powder and his prints,

Without a comma after table, I take dusted as an adjective modifying table as opposed to a second action that Alice is doing.  I realize now I never really thought of the grammar of poetry, but I do tend to read line breaks as forcing enjambment–reading both lines as a full sentence rather than as a full stop break unless there is a comma.

But what really threw me, was the ‘They’ that ends the second verse and starts the section that ends the poem.  Who is the ‘they’?  Is it the Dust Bunnies?  I’m pretty sure the ‘he’ in the poem is the Mad Hatter but of that I’m not entirely sure until close to the end.

So really, I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  But it’s quick and has fun sounds.

“The Conqueror of Mars to his Beloved by Megan Arkenberg is a poem that, when I say I had no problems of comprehension, will baffle those who just read my other review.  The You seems to be Mars, but perhaps it isn’t–perhaps the You is a person left behind while the Conqueror went to conquer.  But, what matters with this poem is the use of title.  Direct Address, I find, is a very lenient form which allows a lot of ‘Wait, what?’ moments.  Perhaps it’s because it puts a containing field around the poem.  ‘Ah, this is a poem from one person to another person–I’m eavesdropping or reading a letter over someone’s shoulder’.  The speaker is the character first mentioned, the you is the character next mentioned.  The poem may define more for us in terms of who the you and the speaker are, but much we can take as metaphor or associational leaps.

Comparing titles with the first poem: Redcap Repast–I don’t know what that means.  Repast is a meal and Redcap is a malevolent, murderous dwarf or goblin or what have you… And since cap is similar to Hat then I guess that gives me another clue that it’s the Mad Hatter but again, I’m doing so much sleuthing after the poem read.

Poems do not need to spell it out for us in the title, but they can be a useful way of setting the stage so the reader doesn’t scramble for clues along the way.  Perhaps they do this because they identify the speaker.  Most poems the speaker is presumed to be the author–but with speculative poetry the speaker often has to be someone else–someone observing a fantastical event that since it couldn’t happen in the real world, must happen elsewhere.  As such the speaker is a character in the poem, so we have to both read about the character’s experience and observation while figuring out what character the speaker is (note how in the Strange Horizons poem the title also gives us the speaker: Maelbrigte’s Woman).  This isn’t too hard, generally, unless you play around with imagery and sound and syntax, obfuscating the traditional meaning of things in order to play.  I love play–I love it a great deal–but you do sacrifice clarity that way.  Redcap Repast was a fun little poem–but had it been much longer I wouldn’t have reread as many times as I did trying to puzzle it out.  As it is I reread it three or four times and still don’t completely know all the actions and meanings of all the phrases.

Anyway, back to Ms. Arkenberg’s poem.  After a second read, it appears that the speaker, the Conqueror of Mars is speaking to Mars herself.  When he was very far from her, she was beautiful and alluring but now that he, and others, have traveled to her and mined her for natural resources + the inevitable realization perhaps that Mars’ atmosphere and climate conditions are not conducive to human life, things have changed between them.  I have a great softness for direct address poems, particularly ones that are apologetic and wistful in tone so I enjoyed this.  It doesn’t have the same quick wittedness of Redcap, but I understood it better.  It didn’t have the narrative breadth of Maelbrigte but it would have lost its charm had it been overlong.

Splendours to Devour by Mike Allen gives us our first apocalypse poem!  The poem sets us up right from the start with what is going on… sortof.  We know that it’s an apocalypse of hunger or plague or something that makes people eat each other.  Or perhaps these are mere metaphors for the human drive to devour everything: natural resources, war, etc.  Or maybe it’s a mix.  The poem starts with literal apocalypses and then it merges into the metaphor.  Either way: rich language and imagery.  I get enough of a ‘sense’ of what’s going on that I don’t really need the full diagram.

“Beansidhe” by Shannon Connor Winward is another narrative poem, like Sheldon’s, but told in a direct address form.  I am afraid I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about it.  It had great promise.  The first verse is strong in terms of quick turns but it so quickly turns to writing about other things.  Hate turns to love for the man who drowned her–she misses him and wants to give him peace?  I don’t really know if I’m supposed to trust everything she says–I think I would find it much more haunting if she was actually luring men to their deaths but now she wants to forgive her murderer… rather than the woman who was drowned, sits passively and sweetly in her watery grave and comes to forgive (and love?) the man who killed her.


Note: This is edited from a more detailed critique I posted on a writer’s forum.  Thus rather than a review, what follows is more along the lines of a workshop critique.  If I had the time, and I weren’t lazy, I would scrap most of it and write new reviews but I don’t and I am so here we go.

E by R.M. Kaye

This piece is, quite frankly, peculiar. First off, it takes up 4 pages–far longer than I thought Asimov’s accepted for poetry. Compounding the oddity, each line is one to four words long–it’s basically a list of words and phrases about energy eventually ending with the inevitable mc^2 = E.

The first half dozen lines or so:

loop infinity

It goes on like this for quite a while–occasionally you get some semblance of action: “slime washes ashore / clumps spawn and cling / string upon string”  But the biggest ‘movement’ in the poem is the unraveling at the end:

then somewhere
here and there
glitches unglitch
infintity loops unloops
telomere strings unravel
organic sequences unorganize

etc (many more unverbs)

It’s a very simple idea, it has some strong words and verbs–some of it read almost like a thesaurus–and it’s not too terribly hard to figure out what the poem is talking about: describing energy as it exists in the universe, an impossible to describe abstraction and thus you don’t need to describe it all: just write a bunch of words with energy in them and away you go.

You have your basic space imagery: generations of supernova suns / forge and reforge elements / waft in solar winds / acid / base / mineral / metal / react / in amniotic pools, etc.

For a SF magazine, I think a science poem is going to be your easiest sell. There’s a lot here that “feels” like a poem: the emphasis on the single. strong. word. rather than a beautifully obfuscated narrative.   And the entire thing is written as centered text (author’s choice or editor’s?)

Which brings me to my biggest issue with this poem, the thing that is not part of my aesthetic and never will be: while I love indulgence, I am very, very self-conscious about it. If this had been my poem, I wouldn’t have put single words on lines. Single words are used for emphasis, and while there are some strong words and verbs here, they’re not *that* great. And centered text? Really? </prejudice>

Anyway, I think if the author had striven to write longer lines, he or she would have been forced to cull the images to the strongest ones. Perhaps then the language would have created its own energy (ha), driving the lines forward until the end of the poem. As it is it feels very choppy to me. I skimmed a lot–there was nothing for me to grab onto. All in all, not a poem that I would want to emulate.

But all poems have something worth stealing and I have to say, all the unverbs at the end were pretty cool.

page twentyfourhundredandseventythree by W. Gregory Stewart

This was cute. It’s a basic charm poem. The author states that if you sit a million monkeys at a million typewriters for a million years, you will *not* end up with Shakespeare.

It’s an idea that everyone’s heard of, and he’s playing with it. No, the monkeys will never recreate Shakespeare (“no Hemingway-not even Judy Blume”), but they will, based on the title, manage to accidentally write this poem. Actually I bet that’s just a throwaway. The only other nod to that concept is the line “And esp. not-if punctuation counts.”

So it’s cute. In terms of craft elements: lots of repetition: million appears in three of the first four lines, big banana bill; rhythm for each line is decent: “change the ribbons” being the best example, highlighting the use of short syllable words but with lots of sounds in those words. He has some throwaway words and phrases “if / of course, at all” but it’s more to highlight a ‘cute’ point made earlier. Each line ends with a strong word with the possible exception of that but that can be overlooked.

All in all it succeeds or fails based on whether you find it funny. I thought it was pretty cute, so all in all a decent poem. Just hard to steal from.

Gene’s Dreams by Joe Haldeman

This is by far my favorite of the three.  It sets up the world of the 60s between Jack Kennedy’s murder and men walking on the moon in between which we get Gene Roddenberry’s dream of Star Trek.   The writers/producers/directors “all wishing / that their futures might cure / the present.”

The last two lines I posted seem to be the crux of the poem. It’s about Star Trek, but it’s about the utopian vision of Star Trek rather than a description or commentary on Spock or Kirk (which I’ve seen in other poems). He places it in historical context: the mid 60s, between one tragedy and one great achievement. The poem is clean and tight–quick descriptions giving you all the information you need without excess…


Does anyone else feel like this poem could have been so much more? Perhaps it’s my penchant for description, but I feel like if this poem had been exploded outwards, had reached for more unusual verbs and nouns and syntax, it could have been something really, really special. ‘[t]heir futures might cure / the present’ is a great theme to play with, but we barely get a hint of the present he’s talking about. If he had juxtaposed scenes from particular episodes and news stories at the time–making leaps and associations so fast that the reader has to reread it over and over again just to extract every last juicy morsel–well, I think that would’ve been something cool.

As it is, it’s a nice poem. It’s easy to follow along, everyone loves Star Trek.

ETA 6/18: I changed the pronouns I used in the section regarding R.M. Kay’s poem (explanation to follow in another post) and also wanted to mention:

I did some googling for the Asimov’s poems and I was pleasantly surprised to find some discussion on the Asimov’s forums.  I wanted to add, because it occurred to me after reading that discussion, that what the review for the Asimov’s poems lacks is a discussion of what the poems were about.  I read them and critiqued them originally as I would a workshop piece–where meaning rarely, if ever, enters into the discussion.  I wanted to add this only because there is probably a deeper meaning to some, if not all, of the poems.  Someone pointed out that Haldeman was in Vietnam when Star Trek came out and it reminded me I hadn’t talked about the end of the poem–the view of humanity that Spock has.  I still stand by my argument that the poem should have been exploded outward since that small piece was buried.  If Haldeman ever stumbles across this  blog and allows me to revisit the piece by posting the full poem on the blog, then I may return to my review and reconsider.  As it is, there will be more poems to discuss.


2 thoughts on “Speculative Poetry Fridays

  1. Well this was wonderful. I’m glad to hear that it’s going to be a new tradition. It’s also a good reminder that new poems are out.

    It’s great to see some reviews of spec poetry– sadly neglected elsewhere. Keep ’em coming (please).

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