“Terrunform” – Tori Truslow

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Image: Space Hair, posted at Flickr by Jem Yoshioka under a Creative Commons License.

If we change the face of Mars, what are the odds Mars will shape(shift) us right back?

In “Terrunform” by Tori Truslow, a team of women-identified architects, mechanics and Mars-mappers arrives on the Red Planet, trained to temper the place to their specifications. When they land, they seem clear about the scope of their ambitions: “It wasn’t new Earth we wanted, but to be / double-mooned, double-dreamed, multiformed in / mix-matched parts; to put our bodies on / each day, in shapes to fit our hearts”. Surely Mars demands a difference in living: the reasoning of these women seems plain, and preferable, to inhabiting only one form. The more you excavate and mine, the more you find that you, yourself, must survey – and fill – your new hollows.

Give me any good poem about female, womyn and nonbinary ambition, and watch me run with it to a carmine star of my own choosing, to pet and ponder its meanings. So it is with “Terrunform”, a poem that percusses its diction carefully, solidly — see the uses of ‘red’, how solid and sure each one spreads over your visual canvas — to maximum effect. I mean ‘maximum’ deliberately: Truslow has made here a Mars in which multiplicity, and devation from the prototype, is lauded, cherished, reached for and replicated. The expeditionary architecture on display, and referred to deftly in concealment, is what will keep me awake, thinking, when I turn the lights off. Look, I love anything in a poem that cuts the thick armour of human hubris off me, denuding me to some humility of awe and transformation I haven’t previously imagined. This poem has that in its spine.

The best question to ask when you land on Mars, isn’t what have you done to the planet? It’s, what has this red earth made of you?

Read “Terrunform” here.
Tori Truslow is a writer of strange fiction. Visit Tori’s website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the fifteenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

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“Dogstar Men” – C. S. E. Cooney

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Image: Königskinder, posted at Flickr by bswise under a Creative Commons License.

If you love something, let it go. If it builds a spaceship and flies to Sirius, then honey, it never deserved the satellite of you, anyways.

C. S. E. Cooney’s “Dogstar Men” is a stirring, planet-spelunking anti-ode to perfect love, and compatible lovers. All the men they might have loved, our poem’s speaker tells us, have upped and gone to Sirius: “the Dogstar / The Dreadstar of Summer / That Cranberry Bog, that Red Lamp District / Promising Scarlet Women, Scarlet Waves of Grain / A Wine-Stained Sea”. These men, these erstwhile Jack Harknesses, have slipped free from their own braids of hair. They’ve left the braids behind, like so many withered snakes in the speaker’s hands, taking everything else. I picture our speaker standing with an armful of hacked-off locks, gazing skyward and sighing, or cursing.

Mood, and tone, are my favourite things about this poem: we might sympathize, passing the speaker a cup of hibiscus tea in commiseration, or we might steups, helping them sift through lonely hearts e-columns for the names of men more inclined to stay on this terra firma. I love “Dogstar Men” because it reminds us with a kind of animated wistfulness that the world of courtship only becomes more vast, and possibly more inscrutable, with the advent of interstellar travel. This is a brief, and capaciously-bodied poem: a scrapper and a mourner, a dweller on hypotheticals and a determiner of future courses, manless and aware of that absence. Does this take ghosting to another level – nay, another pair of parsecs away?

I want to root for this poem’s speaker, imagining their grin, wry and wine-soaked, as they contemplate the bougainvillea leaves and bloodsoup of Sirius. I want to tell them, as they count and cut their losses, a man’s a faulty object, compared to time and space.

Read “Dogstar Men” here.
C. S. E. Cooney is the author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium, 2015). Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the fourteenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“The Bear’s Daughter” – Theodora Goss

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Image: Sleeping Bear, 2/3, posted at Flickr by Lassi Kurkijärvi under a Creative Commons License.

If you were born in a furnace, you might dream of snow. If you came of age amidst ice-gloved trees, you’d reach for the brazier.

In Theodora Goss’ “The Bear’s Daughter”, heat is on short supply in the Celsius and Fahrenheit sense, but it unspools in other, hearth-hot ways. We meet the eponymous bear’s daughter of the poem as she roams the silent northern castle of her current, nonviolent confines. When we encounter her, she is “Wandering through the silent castle, / Where snow has covered the parapets, and the windows / Are covered with frost, like panes of isinglass”. What a good and true sanctum this might be for an ice maiden, and yet the bear’s daughter longs for heat, casts her wishes to the south, land of pomegranates and olive trees.

Goss gives us a rich, dense history here: the bear-daughter’s mama is a woman of the south, and while her daughter roams the frigid northern castle keep, she slumbers in the arms of her bear-husband, seemingly content. What a captive this poem makes of my curiosity, of my desire to understand how the happiness in this household may have skipped generations. Goss’ poem here functions almost as veiled, suggestive parable: that the mother’s joy may engender the daughter’s disillusion.

The unique longing of the daughter may bear its own unhappiness even surrounded by cold northern beauty. I love this way of thinking of the poem as an enclosure which, when prised open, reveals yet another walled garden. Sorrow and exultation, restraint and excess, layer on each other like this in what we call real life: why not in the castle of a bear king? The least is said of the bear himself, slumbering, breathed into by his wife. Does he sense the heat signature of his daughter’s seeking heart?

Read “The Bear’s Daughter” here.
Theodora Goss is a writer of novels, short stories, essays, and poems. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the thirteenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“the devil riding your back” – Nicasio Andrés Reed

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Image: At the Foot of Giants, posted at Flickr by Eric Vondy under a Creative Commons License.

Sometimes we don’t sense the monster til its hot breath is at our nape.

Not so in Nicasio Andrés Reed’s “the devil riding your back”, in which a young person has come of age in the aftermath of a monstrous invasion. When they were ten, “the ocean spat beasts and they / walked the world with strides the size of cities and i hid / i coward-cowered from the noise of it and the dark”. The beasts settled into mountains, and the world went on with the business of living, even in the wake of so much death, but our narrator never forgot.

One of my favourite things in poetry – writing it, reading it, you name it – is vigilance. I love learning how we remain steadfast when we’re terrified and terrorized, what it means for us to keep watch in peaceful times of indulgence, and how quickly we need to react when the peace inevitably shatters. This is a huge part of why I love what Reed’s done in this poem: these lines keep an unsettled, frightened canter: even if you read it aloud very slowly, very calmly, you can taste the fidget under your tongue.

The poem is its own vigilance. It grows in a small, determined groundswell, protecting itself from the horrors to come: “i lived / the innocuous life i soft-stepped i folded down / and down, careful, prepared, precise.” In contrasts of motion and stillness, of ruin and repair, Reed presents us in a world where what walks out of the ocean can kill you and then take cover. In lines thick with punctuated pauses, culminating in a breathless, barely end-stopped concluding verse, “the devil riding your back” asks you to keep watch from the confines of your writing desk, asks you not to turn your back to the mountains.

Read “the devil riding your back” here.
Nicasio Andrés Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet. Visit his website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twelfth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“La Llorona Comes Over For Dinner” – Jennifer Givhan

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Image: la novia / the bride, posted at Flickr by Rafael Edwards under a Creative Commons License.

They say what you feed returns.

Jennifer Givhan’s “La Llorona Comes Over For Dinner” reminds me that all cultures weave bright, baleful myths of women-archetypes, ones we wield to scare children into submission. Wikipedia will tell you La Llorona “is a ghost of a woman who lost her children and now cries while looking for them in the river, often causing misfortune to those who are near, or who hear her.” But to know her, you’d be better off asking Jenn Givhan.

The poem’s speaker is a mother opening her hearth and kitchen to La Llorona for dinner, despite the uneasy averted glances of that mama’s children. Givhan writes the kind of poem I best like to consume: a wilderness that twists and troubles your understanding of what wild means, how it startles, spreading its wings. Of course a mama seeking redemption is a wild one. Of course you find feral and faith-knotted admixtures in a blend of origin telling and simmering chicken broth. You can smell the bubbling pot these two women prepare together. You can see how one woman shows the other, here, this is what Google says you are, feel them shouldering the burden of whether or not they believe it.

We come to the table expecting to be fed, hoping that when we leave, what we’ve filled our bellies with will carry us through leaner times. Food isn’t all we consume when we need deeper feeding. La Llorona and our speaker salt and sugar each other with the stories of their lives: “she tells me how she visits the Midwest now myth has scattered her / like crushed chipotle / like dried thyme & stone-grey ash / she tells me how a twister picks up the smell of everything it snatches”. This is nurture, too. This sharing is saying grace.

Read “La Llorona Comes Over For Dinner” here. (pages 6 – 9)
Jennifer Givhan’s most recent collection of poems, Girl with Death Mask, was published in 2018 by Indiana University Press.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the eleventh installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” – Tlotlo Tsamaase

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Image: WILLPOWER AFRO, posted at Flickr by WILL POWER under a Creative Commons License.

Where better can we trace our own origins than in the roots of our hair?

Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” is a multiple series of journeys, made in hair and bone, blood and sex, strife and sisterhood. It reads like a fable of self-conjure, and brings us, in echoes of “Daphne”, the female figure excavating herself from inertia, through the effort of pain: “Her afro traced her scalp / Like patterns of poetry. / She dug her nails deep / To carve out the self / And lay herself in a cloak of snow.” So many of the best speculative poems I’ve read are about the self-rescue of women; Tsamaase’s poem is about rescue, and also about the ritual of bringing oneself forth.

“Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” presents us with a hybridized principal speaker, one who is both ‘she’ and ‘I’, ‘myself’ and ‘her’. In her first-person voice, the speaker claims sovereignty over her beauty, but a line later, we see ‘her’ titrations of doubt: “Her make-up, a ghost’s mask, / Buries ethni-cities in layers of bone / ’Cause isn’t it so tidy to be the color of bone / Unwrapped of skin / Instead of the color of sin— / Skin?”

Look, the poem might be telling us through the mirror of its own structural apparatus, nothing about claiming yourself is easy.

The poem pulses with images of gestation and procreation: “belly is full of unborn worlds”; “a womb where oceans beg to seal earth with sea-skin”; “phallic caves”; “a sex digger, mining her loins.” The most startling of images comes when the poem’s speaker has her uterus pinched, by one who is “begging the blood to stop:
“Go back. No, we don’t want children.”” What a darkly conjured reward is Tsamaase’s poem: a pelt, mapped tight, to show a planet, to sound a drum.

Read “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” here.
Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the tenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Daphne” – Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada

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Image: Rome – Galleria Borghese – Apollo and Daphne – Bernini, posted at Flickr by damian entwistle under a Creative Commons License.

Do you love and revere a powerful woman? The odds are good, and terrible, that she’s been chased.

Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada’s “Daphne” leapt at me while I read the poetry offerings in Fairy Tale Review. You may know the tale of Daphne the naiad, pursued with aggressive lust by Apollo — which is a classicist’s way, perhaps, of saying he was chasing her to rape her. She pleads for mercy, and is transformed into a laurel tree by either a rivergod who is her father, or Gaia, depending on source. Much in the manner of men who venerate that which they cannot conquest, Apollo comes to cherish laurels, which then crowned victors at the Pythian Games. We continue to associate laurels with plaudits in popular culture, from the Olympics to film festivals, heraldry to university graduates.

What of Daphne? isn’t the only question this poem asks. Rodriguez-Estrada gives us a grafting: a splinting of the Daphne myth with the tale of another, immediate speaker, one who can measure their coming-of-age through violence: “I will think of all / my greatest hits / my father’s belt against my ass / la fajiada que te voy a dar / the leather-lash and cattails / the eight-fisted whip / the blistering tumescence / of the warped tree I did / become”. The poem is a discomfiting, tautly lyric reminder that we are a world full of Daphnes, still: folk who flee, flinch and transmogrify ourselves in order to evade trauma, the tyranny of the lash, and more violations than can ever be put into poems.

I love this poem for all the reasons that a poem can keep me up at night and crowd my complacency into a corner (then defenestrate it) by day. Rodriguez-Estrada has reined in their use of the line so sharply: this poem flows, yes, but it also bridles.

Read “Daphne” here.
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada is currently working on a collection of stories that riff on myths and fairy tales, taking place between Nicaragua and California in the wake of war and natural disasters.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the ninth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Space Oddity” – David Bowie

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Image: Astronaut, posted at Flickr by Jenni Konrad under a Creative Commons License.

What does this one, blue earth of ours look like, from space? You could ask Major Tom. If you can find him.

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” hones in on Major Tom, who’s lost communication with Ground Control. Tom’s already a tradeable commodity, back home – the newspapers want to know whose shirts he wears, and tell me you can’t picture his professional astronaut photoshoot before leaving for space: square jaw, big white teeth, patrician nose. Blonde, like as not. The poster child of the sort that human international superpowers saw it fit to send out there, first. Tom’s probably the kind of intergalactic emissary you’d still see being sent to represent us all, at the next roundtable meeting.

Why do we put the record on to play “Space Oddity”, time and time again? It’s not because we know a hell of a lot about Tom, that’s for sure, or where he’s gone since his feed went blurry and staticky. Bowie’s lyrics are at once spare and haunting. They flood you with space: you can float in them, imagining Tom’s motivations; the way his wife looks as she sits in front the TV, watching his space rocket launch; his bottle of protein pills hovering in antigravity, within his tin can. Tom doesn’t do much of the song’s speaking, but what he says is enough to fill scholarly essays and stoners’ notebooks with vast reams of speculation:

“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today”

There is so much that is bleakly, absurdly beautiful about Bowie’s lyrics, like the way the countdown to liftoff is interspersed between systems checks and platitudes. Wherever Major Tom is tonight, I hope the stars shine on him sweet.

Read the lyrics to “Space Oddity” here. Listen to the song here.
David Bowie released “Space Oddity” as a single in July 1969. He died two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the eighth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“All Dead Things Shall Come To Me” – Eleanna Castroianni

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Image: Shadows and Bone, posted at Flickr by Matthew Baldwin under a Creative Commons License.

What’s dead might still show up on your doorstep, if you live near the sea.

In Eleanna Castroianni’s “All Dead Things Shall Come To Me”, the speaker of the poem has been charged with an uncommon gift in the ways of death-alchemy. The old inhabitations and spectral jettisons of the lives of others wash up nightly on their shore: “Trinkets and glass, ivory masks / Heart-shaped lockets, diaries, maps / Smashed toys and silver, shiny stones / Beads, bottles, buttons, buttercups, bones / Of whales”. These are the leavings of strangers, the castoffs and curiosities attached to people who they don’t know… but their skill in reanimation precedes them, and they are sought after for the talent of making new life from what is lifeless.

Do we live through our objects of good or bad use? This elegant, mechanical question whirs at the heart of what Castroianni has made here. The poem operates much like one of the creations of the seadwelling architect: it is a construction of hybridities, a vessel laced with sargassum and angelwings, leviathan bones and hopeful monsters in the manner of Frankenstein. Isn’t every poem this, speculative or not? Aren’t we always patching fates and stages and tenses together, shivering over catgut thread, hoping what we make will live into the dawn?

Castroianni’s speaker might be creating objects to keep their visitors going – “Porcelain dreams, cicada husks / Heart-shaped keys and bird-song dusks” – but like all ferrymen between liminal states, we’re left to wonder who brings them gold coins for their own eyes? What is this “gardener of graveyard gods” given, beyond a legacy of grafting new life onto old death? I love this poem because it makes me dwell on an ultimate architecture, of what we say we hold close for its beauty, when we want life to ache less.

Read “All Dead Things Shall Come To Me” here.
Eleanna Castroianni’s writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle and Eye to the Telescope. Visit their website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the seventh installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Witch’s Brew” – Lev Mirov

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Image: Art board cooking – Credit to https://toolstotal.com/, posted at Flickr by John Jones under a Creative Commons License.

If you’re going to trust anyone who beckons you to an unfamiliar table, trust your local witch first. Sure, it didn’t work out so great for Hansel and Gretel, but that’s only one, sanitized part of the story. Me, I always like to hear the witch’s side, and to drink the witch’s brew, too.

Lev Mirov’s poem is an invocation to the table. What’s on offer is “Grandmother’s old bone-broth soup, salted with the tears of the dead / smoked from the resin of dream-trees growing when the world was young”. I love “Witch’s Brew” because it’s seasoned and peppered with what seems like incredible suggestion, but also tastes like the meals of home. It’s a reminder that the best speculations are often in the very place where your navel string is buried. Surely, your grandmother’s soup can raise the dead. It might be said in jest, but you know there’s a part of you that believes it. Mirov’s speaker leans into that gustatory openness, hands you a wooden ladle, asks you to inhale the richness of the fare. All you need to pay for it is your unburnt tongue, your faith in grandmother-magic.

And it is magic. One bowl has the power to let the “gods of misrule take the faces your mother knows them by / and hail you with the family names as a friend.” The closeness of the poem’s speaker, addressing you in second-person present, curls into you like the wafting of that Sunday kitchen aroma, and no matter the kind of soup you grew up on, you can smell it while you read these lines.

Food might be natal magic. We eat of and from our mothers, our they-who-bore-us, to stay alive. Sometimes we need to eat into that remembrance, to find our own brew, and swallow.

Read “Witch’s Brew” here.
Lev Mirov’s poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality Magazine, Through the Gate, and other places. Visit his Patreon here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the sixth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.