-Reviewed by Tori Truslow-
Not infrequently, I come across people who are perplexed by the idea of poetry having genres. I suspect some of these people are those who believe that ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ are mutually exclusive. Mythic Delirium, a biannual subscription-based magazine of fantasy, SF and horror poetry, cheerfully puts paid to that yawnsome debate. Its 24th issue contains some damn fine – finely crafted, finely balanced, finely nuanced – poetry; it also, in good speculative tradition, feels like an adventure from the get-go. Editor Mike Allen, in his introduction, lays out a trajectory for the issue: ‘we’ll begin with planets and aliens, shift into the stuff of myth, zip out into alternative futures and curve through alternate histories before finally descending into mediations on the very nature of stories.’ Although there are plenty of places to pause and reflect on the nature of stories and poems earlier on, too.
One thing that becomes apparent quite quickly is that this is a publication for those who like a strong dose of story in their poetry. Hurrah, I say. Burying a story under precarious piles of images can work very well – and there are a few examples here of poems where the what’s-going-on needs to be teased out, like Nima Kian’s lovely, lingering ‘A Semblance’ (‘people sit/at the edge of their prayers below/black clouds that cannot rain’) – but style doesn’t have to negate narrative. The second poem in the issue, ‘The Wine of Mercury’ by Joshua Gage, has just the right balance of both. The poem begins with a technical history of human attempts to terraform Mercury, the language dry and technical:
‘But the deadly crust is rich in helium-3,
enough to fuel a fleet of torch ships.
The soil also abounds in iron, titanium
and magnesium ores.’
This changes, as the planet is colonised and it is discovered that grapevines ‘thrive’. The register becomes lush, full of echoes of Earth’s myths and literatures. Wine is made; one is tellingly described as ‘earthy’ in flavour. In the poem’s vision of space exploration, some things don’t change – we still love a good wine, and we still invent wonderfully precious ways to describe its flavours – but leaving our home planet shifts the way we see, feel, and taste, and this shift is marked in the way the poem describes pleasure. The narrator lists Mercury’s wines, their growing conditions and their flavours, including those of the ‘Boccaccio Estate’, whose
‘…signature is “Decameron,”
a Primitivo grown from old world vines
from southern Italy, rich with the hint
of a naked kiss after a year-long stint
in space against a background of tart cherry.’
I can’t help but read this as a story about science-fictional poetry itself, moving from hard science-language to a headier mix of the technical and the mythic, synthesising space-images with ‘earthy’ ones and carrying old human passions across new frontiers.
Elsewhere in the issue the storytelling waxes whimsical, poems offering flights of fancy with dark, toothy things lurking in their corners. ‘Behind the Greasepaint Door’ by Marcie Lynn Tentchoff is a rhymeless ballad about a questing mime that faces something terrible in the land ‘Where Carneys End’. ‘The Last Dragon Slayer’ by Elissa Malcohn mixes prose-poetry and verse, and from its first lines clearly does not intend to play nicely with the dragon-slaying hero trope: ‘She is the wet dream of every budding knight, the centerpiece of every quest. Her scaly head on a pike makes the ultimate maiden magnet.’ In all these poems the central figure is changed irrevocably by journeying beyond what they’re used to; the reader, too, has their preconceptions of certain archetypes neatly twisted around.
Theodora Goss’s ‘Binnorie’ is short and sharp, and similarly upends a popular balladic motif: the bone harp, made of a murdered woman’s remains. ‘What is it about being made into a harp […] That presents such an appropriate allegory/For being a woman, and therefore an instrument/Of fathers, husbands, or sons?’ it asks. It then goes on to ask whether the harp is actually a metaphor for being a poet. Woman-writer and woman-as-muse clichés are bypassed entirely, and poetry is cast as a father, a husband, a son. The poem is formed in its entirety of two sentences, both questions, which don’t have quick answers; for me, this is the poem that lingered the longest after reading.
Other highlights were ‘Counterfactual Photos’ by Ian Watson, an intriguing alternate-reality concept played out over deceptively straightforward and regular three-line stanzas, and ‘Wisdom’ by Sonya Taaffe, a beautiful musing on Jewish folklore migrating to the big city; both are worth reading a couple of times over. Between those poems that danced and sparked and asked difficult questions, there were a few that simply lay flat for me, made all the more noticeable by the ones that did catch fire. The ones that didn’t stick in the memory, for me, had a certain sense of closedness, a feeling that they had told me what to think rather than leaving me with questions. But I wouldn’t say there was a bad poem among the 20 selected here.
Laying the merits of individual poems aside for a moment, the journey promised at the beginning is well-plotted; Allen is an excellent helmsman, steering his passengers between delight and darkness. To labour the metaphor, the black-and-white illustrations provide pleasing views along the way. And the culmination of the journey, the promised ‘meditations on the very nature of stories’ in the final three poems, is triumphant. ‘The true poem’ by Serena Fusek is light and fleet and pure magic, and perfectly complemented by its woodcut-ish illustrations. Here’s a taster:
‘The true poem
may seem slight
but the must of
and leaf mold
worm through the lines.’
Following it are two library-themed pieces. ‘Torn Out’ by Ann K. Schwader is another mix of prose and poetry, descriptive paragraphs followed by short snatches of stanzas, a form that suits its subject matter – something, we suspect vampiric, stalking prey in a closed library – very well; it’s what’s not said here that makes it so deliciously creepy. And then Shira Lipkin’s ‘The Library, After’ comes along, magical and wry, a prose poem about an abandoned library where the books ‘told each other to each other’. You could read this as whimsy, you could read it as a bit of thumb-biting in the direction of rigid genre classifications – “New genres formed and split and reformed, tangents spilling out like capillaries. Freed of the responsibility to be useful and to fit human desires and expectations, Story explored itself in Mandelbrot swirls” – whichever way you look at it, it’s clever, funny and affirming. Literary fashions come and go – as we learn, ‘The science-noir-unicorn genre was shortlived’ – but story keeps on going. The image of stories continuing to twist and transmute after we’ve stopped looking at them is a perfect note to end on.