I'm posting critiques of a three-year-old anthology in hopes that the current one will not be dissected publicly before the voting is done. Discussion of poems whilst in the midst of the voting process can be misinterpreted as attempts to influence votes inappropriately, and puts poets in the uncomfortable position of having to defend their own poems or those they nominated. So let's converse about those of former years instead—the sting should have worn off by now. I figure a dozen at a time will be about right.
Perhaps I'm a bit focused on the lack of attention to grammatical details that should have been caught at some point of the proofreading process. Imagine, if you will, that you are listening to a poem being read aloud, by a reader who mispronounces words, uses the wrong words, runs words together, inflects sentences incorrectly, and periodically hawks up boogers. The effect of reading typos, misspellings, absent italics and hyphens, and incorrect punctuation on the page is quite similar, in my opinion. Naturally, this doesn't apply to poems where the style is deliberately experimental.
"Be True” by Mary Alexandra Agner
This lovely poem, one of my favorites in this anthology, is a tribute as well as an address to Isaac Asimov's well-known fictional robotics expert Susan Calvin, who is betrayed by her own creation's desire not to see her harmed. There is a strong sense of rhythm, despite very loose adherence to meter. The central metaphor is fabulously expressed: “you laid down calmly on the tracks/and called out, singing, to the train.” My initial impression was that the POV changes awkwardly in the poem from second- to first-person; however, given Agner's widely apparent high-end writing skills, the first two lines of the following stanza are obviously in Calvin's voice and should have been italicized and preceded by a colon: “Don't save me. Let the wild metal men/kidnap me, blow up my trappings of humanity.” The failure to include italics, hyphens, and other typographic aids to literary precision has been regrettably widespread in the last three Rhysling anthologies and, frequently, the publications in which the poems first appeared. Omission of these conventions is not an editorial style; it is a serious impediment to reading comprehension and a great disservice to the poet who intended them to be used.
"The Marian Lee” by Mary Alexandra Agner
In the style of a traditional ballad, this wistful and tragic poem is somewhat generic, and undeveloped rather than mysterious. I could wish that the attention given to form were more rigorous; it frequently drifts away from scansion, losing meter more than rhyme. I imagine that it would be much more suitable for being set to music. The “murals with their glowing” which give Candleton (a much more suitable title—a nameless ship would have been far more poignant) its name are the most evocative image in the poem.
“Giving Back to the Muse” by Mike Allen
Lucky Mike gets to have italics in this punchy poem! Nice, violent personification of the deity we poets love to hate. “Your loins avalanche blood” is an especially graphic line, with the sexual overtones that add so much to a poem's impact.
“Dark Matter” by Rae Armantrout
I'm especially pleased when nominations occur from outside the genre markets (in this case, from the Colorado Review); it's a sign that at least some members have the broad range of literary interests that prevent stagnation and parochialism. A tentative but by no means certain interpretation of this poem would be disappointment with the difference between an idea and its execution: betrayal by one's own standards (although the Judas-kiss image is a heavy-handed cliché). As Leonardo da Vinci said, “The greatest tragedy in art is when theory outstrips performance.” But I'm most smitten with stanza 2, where the poet returns us shivering to the ancient idea of the night sky as a pierced dome: “Each one/is the inverse/shape of what's/missing.”
“Ice Palace” by Margaret Atwood
A weird and mightily attractive dream-vision of an ice hotel (yes, Virginia, there are ice hotels), combined with suggestions of the invisible servitors from “Beauty and the Beast” and other fairy tales “clean out the wad of hair/you left in the porcelain shower.” Free verse, with some lovely internal rhymes. And then it moves into darker territory: “Red petals on the floor./You hope they're petals,” and Bluebeard's chamber, “the one forbidden door,/the one inscribed//Staff Only,” which adds humor to the terror. She gets italics, too! Disclaimer: I believe I nominated this poem, and I'm still enamored of it.
“Eating Light” by F.J. Bergmann
Mine, disclaiming up front. It won and I'm proud of it and had fun writing the poem. Italics present in its original published form were omitted. The poem can be read here.
“The Crone Meets Her Son (on a battlefield)” by K.J. Bishop
I would have preferred this otherwise fine poem to have been simply titled “On a Battlefield.” The expectations of kinship and discovery set up by the major title are not met—nothing in the poem indicates a maternal or filial relationship, and the assumption that the presumed parentage will be eventually revealed keeps the reader from focusing on what the poem does contain: a surreal and color-filled excursion into the struggle in which art and memory continuously engage. The dialogue in the poem would have been easier to follow had it been set off by the use of italics or quotation marks, and the kerning (letter-spacing) is noticeably off.
“If We Had No Moon” by John Borneman
This elegant poem epitomizes the “what if” aspect of speculative work, and brings us back, tragically, to the mundane world at its close. The subtext, for me, is the escape from the vicissitudes of reality that SF&F has always represented. My favorite line: “watching you place my future back into its felt box.” The second stanza should probably have ended with a period rather than a comma, and I find the capitalization of “Moon” intrusive (as well as inconsistent).
“Mrs. McGregor” by Robert Borski
A funny take on Peter Rabbit, this persona poem in the title character's voice mixes up the distaff side of Potter's shadowy human villain with infidelity, impersonation of the Green Man, and bunny bestiality (although any speculation concerning the origins of Peter himself is absent). I had to Google “Beveren,” but it was worth it. The “your” in stanza 8, line 2, should have been “you're.”
“Beyond the Clouds of Paradise” by Bruce Boston
This poem is lyrical, but opaque. The first stanza appears to be a straightforward description of enjoying cloud-watching, but the second introduces entities that seem to be actual residents of a theological heaven. The third mentions “stratosphere” and has a few of these individuals falling off the edge; the fourth, where the quatrain structure is abandoned, tells us that they break when they hit—and then we're talking about no clouds at all in the fifth stanza, followed by pure, NASA-filtered starlight. I'm not sure where the poem wanted me to go. I got lost, somewhere between heaven and Earth.
“Reservations Suggested” by G.O. Clark
I had to reread the first stanza several times to figure out the syntax. While most of the commas here are not actively incorrect, a more pleasurable reading experience would have been obtained by judicious use of semicolons and parentheses. “Motel 6,” “Cloud City,” and “wish/you were here” should have been hyphenated. Nonetheless, an entertaining poem about ordinary vacation parameters superimposed upon SF tropes.
“Falling” by David Livingstone Clink
Again, punctuation quibbles, but otherwise this is an excellent prose poem, demonstrating admirably what differentiates a prose poem from flash fiction. Superficially a comparative memoir, the subtly jarring digressions into a view of a pure-SF future subsequently link us back to solid ground with the ordinariness of hospitals and graves (even though on the moon) and travelers returning home.