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Review: These Burning Streets, poems by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

by Mike Allen

While it's nothing strange for poetry to serve as a channel for the language of protest, speculative poetry's deliberate courtship of controversy tends to be considerably more rare.

It's perhaps no surprise then that though Kelly Rose Pflug-Back has been published in small press speculative venues such as Not One of Us, Goblin Fruit, Ideomancer and my own Mythic Delirium (in an issue guest edited by poet and editor Amal El-Mohtar,) her poems work more as personal reflections that happen to venture into mythic and magical turf from time to time.

How else to explain the presence of these poems in These Burning Streets, Pflug-Back's debut collection, published by the anarchist culture press Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness to raise funds to help her while she's imprisoned for acts committed during protests at the 2010 G-20 summit in Toronto?

Pflug-Back's case received considerable attention in the Canadian press, although as a former courts reporter I found the coverage maddeningly vague. Canadian authorities accused her of being a ring leader of a protest group called the Black Bloc, which she has denied in interviews. Her conviction came after she pleaded guilty to acts of property destruction including setting parked police cruisers on fire and breaking store windows.

These Burning Streets begins with a resounding introduction from anarchist and activist Juliet Belmas implying that the poems within constitute a call "to join as one in the instinctual ancestral path of the collective unconsciousness." A quote promoted by the publishers from the opening poem, "Sweet Mercy, Her Body an Ark of Wild Beasts," seems to deliver on that promise.

       Somewhere, a revolution is happening
       that will never be broadcast.

       Somewhere, the sun rises on a world
       no longer drawn as if by some hand

       of human pain.

Yet if these poems are calls to arms, they're awfully subtle about it. I'll go so far as to say that presented outside of the context of the poet's high profile legal controversies, battling the system won't be what these eleven pieces call to mind in the reader. Rather, these are poems that explore love, loss, hard living, alienation, hopes and fears of the future, that happen to be written by a controversial activist.

They are not poems overtly concerned with polemic messages or narratives. Often I experienced them as tiny vignettes in verse strung together like beads on a chain to form a single poem unified by tone.

Her juxtapositions can be sharp and startling. Consider how she encapsulates that sense of being out of step with the norm in "Makeshift Ballroom":

       I think that you and I were never built for this dustless spill;
       neither seraphim nor parasitic gulls

       but atrophied tin soldiers
       in this blue-choked parade of pretty girls.

Her beads of language glitter with intensity, veering instantly from disturbing to beautiful, even as a poem's overall thrust remains elusive. In "Hepatomancy" she imagines composing letters to an absent, perhaps estranged love:

       in the city I part my hair down the centre like one of Ted Bundy's victims
       & write you letters in my head:

       your beauty is the flight paths of migrating geese
       whose silhouettes flap, transient
       against my closed eyelids.

Those hungering for something more blatantly political will perhaps be better served by the powerful essay that concludes the volume, "Every Prisoner is a Political Prisoner: A Memoir," in which Pflug-Back, while not discussing her charges or case in any detail, recounts her arrest and her time spent incarcerated in a woman-only facility before being released prior to trial. Americans who daydream of Canada as a place to escape the perceived political oppressions of the United States would do well to heed her account of how the Canadian justice system, too, pervasively targets indigent women.

"A lot of them were arrested and presumed guilty for unequivocal bullshit; for being homeless, poor, racialized, using drugs, working in the sex trade, or any combination of these factors. Others were arrested for crimes of necessity: for stealing food because they were hungry, or robbing a store to feed their young kids, for needing a way to pay rent. A few had been charged with assault after having fought back against abusive spouses. … Humanity is a privilege awarded to those who help perpetuate capitalism, and once you cease to do that, you're a burden. You're expected to express gratitude to the system that ghettoizes you, that doles you out a few table scraps and a thin blanket."

Though nothing like a manifesto, the collection demonstrates that Pflug-Back is an observant writer full of promise in whatever format she tackles.

These Burning Streets is available at $8 from the Combustion Books website.

Mike Allen is editor and publisher of the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, and thanks to Kickstarter he'll be releasing a fourth volume in 2013. He's also editor and publisher of the poetry journal Mythic Delirium.

His first short story collection, The Button Bin and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Dagan Books, and his first novel, The Black Fire Concerto, is slated to come out from Haunted Star Press. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Not One of Us, with more on the way in Solaris Rising 2: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction. He lives in Roanoke, Va., with his wife Anita, a goofy dog and two irascible cats.