I’m always tempted to just keep that introduction, which is how I begin all my poetry reviews, before I return and write something that makes me sound like I have any business at all passing judgment on peoples’ art. My name is Erik, and I read poetry. I also write poetry, and when I can overcome my profound laziness, review poetry. Mostly, I am a jerk with opinions. So follows my opinions on the winners of the 2013 Rhysling Awards.
Introductions are hard. Let’s review poetry.
First Place, Short Form: “Cat Star” by Terry A Garey
(from Lady Poetesses from Hell)
Well, I like cats. I have lost some cats dear to me; the little bastards don’t live long enough.
This is a strange poem. There’s a lot of good in the parentheses that contain most of the poem. What comes before feels awkward, sounds awkward when I try to speak it; awkward in the familiar way that a lot of speculative poetry sounds to me. The invocation of photons and later of molecules throws me, feels like words tacked in to mark the poem as speculative. I know there are ways to invoke those ideas, and I have seen poems use the actual words of science responsibly, poetically, but it’s harder than it looks, and I don’t think this one quite manages its language right.
At the same time, it is compelling, and I notice that SF people and cat people share a lot of circular territory in the Venn diagram, which gives a lot of emotional purchase to the poem. The grief in parentheses is compelling, both in language and in image. I just wish there were no parentheses and nothing before where they were put.
Remember what I said about “Cat Star” and invoking speculative words and concepts? This is a good example of how to do it better.
That said, it does a couple of things here that continue to throw me. “Futurity’s Shoelaces” has good stuff in it, a lot of it, and most of the criticisms I have for the poem amount to picking nits. If I am picking nits, you probably wrote a good poem. And yet.
This is another poem with a poem internal to it that I like much better on its own than the whole. I do enjoy the closing lines. I enjoy the closing lines of the stanza that introduces the child named Futurity. I kind of wish those were the only lines in that stanza.
I’m picking nits. It’s probably a good poem.
Third Place, Short Form: “Sister Philomela Heard the Voices of Angels” by Megan Arkenberg
(Strange Horizons, August 7, 2012)
If there is a theme I can find for the winning short-form poems this year, it’s got to be the placement of a complete poem inside another poem.
This is the only one of the three that truly works for me in this sense. “Cat Star” could have easily been and largely was the internal poem, and “Futurity’s Shoelaces” had some things about the containing poem that didn’t set me on fire. You could take the first stanza of “Sister Philomela” and call it good, but it links up to the larger poem in ways that made me go back and reread the first stanza at the end, and it suddenly reads in an entirely different way. I like that a lot.
Angels never quite get as played out as vampires, werewolves, selkies, Persphone, Loki, or Coyote, but they get a lot of words thrown at them and a lot of images put together for them. This is one I don’t remember seeing: starving plaintive angels coming to an ostensibly human narrator for help. That’s an interesting universe with a lot of potential for speculation.
Oh, look; Luddite curmudgeonliness, workmanlike language. This poem and I are not going to get along at all, oh no, not even a little. Had I not agreed to review it, we would have parted ways with the third stanza, where the kids didn’t notice (Who actually reads books? Turns out it’s the kids.), and I would have obligingly gotten the hell off Sutton’s lawn.
The books take flight thanks, the narrator speculates, to the proliferation of devices. Yep. Once in the air, they do everything you expect and nothing you don’t expect. People react to them exactly how you expect. They leave the planet, eventually, and the jeremiad continues on a little while longer before he lets us go.
Thing is, to an extent, I am with Sutton. I like books. I like paper and binding, and the smell of books. I am a little worried about the some of the implications of how electronic formats are being handled, but I can’t get on board with the technophobic hatred of e-publishing. As long as the words are there and can get to the people who want to read them, or think they might possibly want to read them, I am okay with however it happens. But even if I was fully behind him on this matter, I can’t get behind the poem. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, shorter and better, elsewhere.
I’m not going to lie; I was afraid of this one before I read it. I pre-judged. I saw the title, saw it was from the first issue of a magazine called Ad Astra, saw that it was long form (I am a hard sell on long form on my best days) and my bile ducts were ready. I was totally wrong, and I am very glad of it. This poem does good service to one of the tasks to which speculative poetry often sets for itself: talking about scientific or speculative concepts and distilling them down into image and poetry. Johnson does it quite well here.
Turns out that stream of consciousness, long stanza lines, and concepts running together work pretty well to establish what a person can perceive about the universe in the space of a few seconds as a friend is talking. It’s trippy. I liked it.
And sometimes, when I pre-judge, I am proven right. A weird thing happened to me when I read this poem, though. About a third of the way through its considerable length, I started to get into it. Started, mind; to fully get into it, I’d need the right music, and the right substances. Possibly a blacklight. If “The Necromantic Wine” sounds like the title of a 20+ minute doom metal song, that’s because it should be. I’ve even got bands in mind. This is the poetry equivalent of the van with the wizard painted on it. It hits all the weird fiction points like it’s running down the checklist. Names of stars, check; Lovecraftian language, check; references to ancient Egypt and sunken cities, the full Monster Manual. We’re talking 100% commitment, the full three-wolf-moon treatment.
Is it good? Does it matter? It’s really hard to judge, in the face of infinite swirling outer dark and the metal horns thrown up with no trace of irony. Who am I, a mere mortal, to judge the ways of sorcerers? Okay, it runs on for about ever, does absolutely nothing new or different or unexpected. The language is well, Lovecraftian, and there’s a reason Howard’s not famous for his poetry. But somewhere in there, you just lose yourself, and the spirits swirl around you, and I really have to give it up for that. It does the job, leaving you transported and unspeakably hungry.
At first, I wondered if this was about a reenactor, but by the end I was certain that it was not. At first, the tone seemed a little light, but then it kept getting darker and heavier, never dipping too fast and never overplaying its hand, a steady descent. It never gets darker than the subject matter deserves, though, and the shift in tone comes with the growing realization that no, Gardner means this. What she says is happening is really happening. Except, I can kind of see the mundane side, losing someone to a consuming hobby, that’s something I know from experience, from the other side, being lost. The ambiguity of what’s happening adds to the effect.
I’ve got some nits to pick with the language, because I want you to know I wasn’t replaced by a doppelganger or pod person somewhere after reading “The Necromantic Wine,” but the nits don’t seem so important this time. And like I said before, if I am picking nits, you’ve probably written a good poem. This time, though, I am more certain that this is good, or at least, good to me.
The Rhysling Award Winners are selected by the membership of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and published in the Rhysling Anthology. Learn more about the 2013 Rhysling Award winners, and The 2013 Rhysling Anthology, at the SFPA website.