Speculating for New Wealth: Diverse Excellence in Goblin Fruit, Apex, and Mythic Delirium
by J.C. Runolfson
The format of poetry allows movement beyond conventional use of written language, and speculative elements often take on perspectives beyond the norm; as the intersection of these two, speculative poetry is a genre perfect for exploration, new ideas, the expansion of mental horizons. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some of the most exciting voices of speculative poetry are also some of the most diverse, and that conscious engagement with speculative poetry within the framework of seeking diversity is deeply rewarding.
In this review, I'd like to point readers toward three venues featuring strong, diverse speculative poetry: Goblin Fruit, Apex Magazine, and Mythic Delirium. I will discuss works from the most recent issues of Goblin Fruit and Apex Magazine, and from the forthcoming issue of Mythic Delirium.
While the Autumn 2010 issue of Goblin Fruit, currently available online, does not have an official theme, it struck me in reading the poems that each of them touched on the concept of narrative origins, or where and why certain types of stories might have arisen. The entirety of the issue is well worth a look (and listen, for Goblin Fruit features audio recordings of some of the poems in each issue), a short investment of time at only nine poems, but they are nine with a powerful impact. Among them, one standout is "Ravens," by Theodora Goss. Many cultures around the globe have stories of raven men who take human women as wives, then abandon these wives. As a metaphor, these raven men are multi-purpose, standing for feckless, irresponsible lovers; for husbands forced to leave their families in the country and seek work in the city, in times and places where communication between distances is unreliable, and the work to be had often fatal; for husbands and lovers conscripted in times of war, and never heard from again. In essence, raven husband stories are stories about death itself, and the consistently uncertain boundaries of a woman's life, a truth Goss foregrounds by focusing not on the raven man and the what of his particular circumstances, but on his mourning and abandoned wife, and the why of her perception of his raven nature. His origin is her reliance on and then loss of him, an origin that gives his story meaning.
In contrast, Lisa Bradley's "The Haunted Girl" looks at another common story type across cultures, but her focus is the supernatural creature at the center of the story. Apparitions of dead girls, often the victims of murder or suicide, usually represent the dangers of the unknown, be that unknown a strange road after nightfall, or female sexuality. Obviously, a particular audience is assumed in such stories. Bradley's piece reclaims the image of the girl ghost for the people who inspired it, the lost and missing women who met the danger in the dark before becoming symbols of it.
One of them could have been the narrator of Carolee Sherwood's " When the Wife Brings Love Back From the Dead, She Creates a Monster," a poem inspired by, and featuring excerpts from, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On a meta narrative level, this poem can be read as critiquing both debates regarding Frankenstein's authorship, and Mary Shelley's own part in obscuring her literary legacy in favor of promoting an idealized vision of her late husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his written works. The excerpts from Frankenstein interspersed among the stanzas of the poem serve as strong reminders of how much personal grief was at the origins of Mary Shelley's novel, and of course make clear the original inspiration for the poem itself. A widow decides to revivify her husband, implied in the poem to have been abusive and possibly the victim of murder. The widow is not just trying to bring her husband back to life, but attempting to recreate him in an idealized form, gentler and kinder. Naturally, things go very wrong. The audio recording that accompanies this piece emphatically enhances the reading experience, for the male-read excerpts from Frankenstein seem to express the mentality of the revived husband, wrathful, arrogant, and, in several ways, consuming. The female-read stanzas of the poem convey their own share of rage and hubris, as well as a psyche indeed consumed by her husband. It would be very easy for a narrative such as this to rob its protagonist of agency, but Sherwood is careful to show a woman driven by her own agenda to the very end, even if it brings her to ruin.
The theme of the November 2010 issue of Apex Magazine is well-known: poetry editor Catherynne M. Valente put out a call for submissions from Arabic and/or Muslim writers. The end result of that call is three stunning short stories and three stunning poems, which together showcase the diversity of excellent craft available from an often-overlooked segment of the speculative fiction-writing community.
The first of the poems is "Me and Rumi's Ghost," by Samer Rabadi. I have only read Rumi through the questionable translations of Coleman Barks, which nonetheless convey Rumi's great love for Shams. On the surface, "Me and Rumi" is about that love and the poet's wish to focus on Rumi himself, instead. For such a short poem, though, this one packs in layers of meaning, so that the theme of self-awareness, of writer as participant in their own narrative, echoes and re-echoes in the lines.
Next is Jawad Elhusuni's "Tur Disaala." This poem takes a favorite concept of mine and runs with it, namely, how different the world might be if someone other than Christian Europeans had established an imperial foothold in the Americas. In this case, the author seems optimistic that Muslim explorers would not have wrought the kind of utter devastation Christians did. Certainly, it seems unlikely they could have done worse. One of the things that is really striking here is the evocation of a changed history through the use of Spanish, Arabic, and Native American words, and the ways in which the three are tied together, then separated.
The last of the poems is a prose-poem, "Al-Manara Dirge," by Sara Saab. This is both a dirge and a love letter for the city of Beirut and all its layers of history. Even with only a passing knowledge of that history, I found the vivid details of this poem strongly evocative, and the narrator's connection to, and distance from, Beirut very affecting. This is not just a poetic description of the city, but rather an exploration of how an exile feels on returning to a home that has seen horrific violence and undergone many changes, but which still carries that ancient sense of self, of a continuity that has incorporated changes as they come, though not without cost.
In a roundabout way, changes and their cost brings us to the informal theme of issue number 23 of Mythic Delirium. The changes here are primarily life to death to some form of afterlife, with a few subthemes emerging from the ordering of the poems. One of those subthemes is ghosts, with two very different approaches to the subject taken by Lyn C.A. Gardner, in "Midnight Posture," and Darrell Schweitzer, in "In the Absence of Ghosts." Gardner's poem features a woman who has taken to carrying the ghosts of her beloved dead on her back, bent double with the weight of them. There is some ambiguity as to whether this is more her choice or that of the ghosts, whether their presence is comforting or frightening. Certainly, it is not shown to be an entirely good thing. Schweitzer's piece posits a complete lack of ghosts, but asks the question of whether death would truly be less terrifying if there was certainty about the lack of an afterlife.
Another of the subthemes that emerges in the organization of this issue of Mythic Delirium is an exploration of Hindu mythology. Of this grouping of poems, one standout is "Soma, Ganga, Agnideva," by Shweta Narayan, which interweaves three myths in three parts. One of the myriad things I admire about Narayan's poetry is that she often tackles femaleness and disability in the framework of Indian-ness and Hinduism, creating an intersectional diversity that challenges conventional thinking on several levels. "Soma, Ganga, Agnideva" is an excellent example of such themes, as well as Narayan's careful attention to how the poetic form shapes meaning. Each of the three sections of the poem is a different format, rhythms shifting to best convey a sense of the central motifs: a moonlit night, a long and variable river, a blazing fire. Yet all three sections still create a cohesive whole, motifs and myths connecting in an uniquely exploratory work.
Sharon Mock's "Machine Dancer" is part of a subtheme that's more difficult to articulate succinctly. It's an unusual take on a common literary theme, the objectification of a female dancer. Mock's dancer begins the poem as a literal object, an automaton built to dance for the pleasure of any observer. However, despite a passage of time that indicates there are no more observers, the automaton is still dancing. The reason is clear: the dancer is programmed to dance, and will do so for as long as she has power. Her very lack of self denies the impact of the observer on her, thus giving her existence outside the framework of her objectification and inverting the theme's usual paradigm.
Each of these pieces challenges paradigms that have become the default through a lack of examination, a state that makes speculative thinking all the more necessary, and diverse perspectives vital to that speculation. As more markets expand the diversity of their offerings to readers, it will be exciting to see the speculative field fulfilling more of its potential to get us thinking in different directions.