“How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” – Genevieve DeGuzman

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Image: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Teatro Arcimboldi, posted at Flickr by Elisa Banfi under a Creative Commons License.

The Dhammapada gives us what might be one of the most perfectly concentrated poems:

“There is no fire like passion;
there is no losing throw like hatred;
there is no pain like this body;
there is no happiness higher than rest.”

The fact that there is no pain like this body is the root, the seed, and the fountain of so much that calls itself poetry. “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” is cut from that vast fabric, too: an understanding of the body as an active site for pain, perpetrated by one who both wounds and repairs it.

DeGuzman sets a narrative stage of trauma: “bull / horn temper breaking china” threatens the grace of the speaker, whom we read as the dancer. Undeniably, the dancer suffers, but retains a resilience that can withstand their aggressor/medic’s worst violence. The poem takes us through the aftermath of one kind of violence, through the routine of another, ‘healing’ ritual: the repair of the dancer, which is its own tenderness, and, we suspect, its own subversive brutality too.

I best like the ways in which DeGuzman renders the body for us, in terms both medicinal and mechanical: “Life begins in the joints / and facets, yanked cords and pulley systems. / Lumbar and sacral spine spindle.” Though the dancer’s body is ostensibly at rest while being sutured and scoured clean — a “clean slate” and “restart, erase” — the poem sparks, grinds and rotates with an uneasy kinetic energy.

The speculation of repair — its possibilities, its limitations — is under the microscope in this puissant, fierce poem. At its end, we’re given the speaker’s resolve to hold: told to ‘bear it’, they say they will. But we don’t know what will be broken the next time, no matter what arts of medicine and malice may emerge.

Read “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” here.
Genevieve DeGuzman is a poet and writer of fiction. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-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.

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“Pollen” – Rose Lemberg

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Image: Three’s a crowd., posted at Flickr by Naveen Lakshmanareddy under a Creative Commons License.

What you send into space may yet await you, its compassionate tendrils ready to pet your face.

Rose Lemberg’s “Pollen” is a microcosm of a much larger story. This is how some of the best poems situate themselves: they focus on the minor wars unfolding on the tip of your eyelash. For the beings living there, the war isn’t minor. Nothing feels small about the world that greets us here, where a narrator tells us in reminiscence: “When I was a child, rocketships bloomed between my palms like dandelions.” On its own, this is already a speculation. It’s presented by a speaker who is no longer a child, but who did spectacular things when they were one, who is still deeply invested in the future of their creations. We all untangle our own handful-skein of the God myth when young: we either reconcile that myth through what we make, or live long enough to see our myths mutate into something else, entirely.

The passage of time sluices through the emotional undercurrents by which Lemberg gently steers us. The poem relies on a solid willingness of the reader to untether from orthodox concerns, or ‘childish’ ones. You must believe a child can manifest rocketships. You must believe “pollen cosmonauts I made from the tundra in bloom /  that clings to thin life above the chasm of permafrost” can inhabit the distant stars. More than this, you must want to believe: it is the wanting, the childlike optimism, that I find to be the most resilient and aware mechanism of this poem.

What a calm, cavernous industry Lemberg has made for us in trusting our creators, even (especially) when they do not bellow in terror, or consume their children. Why can we not believe that what a child makes might save us all?

Read “Pollen” here.
Rose Lemberg’s debut collection of poems, Marginalia to Stone Bird, was published in 2016 by Aqueduct Press. Visit Rose’s website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-fifth 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.

“An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” – Maya Mackrandilal

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Image: Goddess Kali, posted at Wikimedia Commons by Piyal Kundu (পিয়াল কুণ্ডু) under a Creative Commons License.

You don’t see the Goddess coming til her foot’s on your throat.

Maya Mackrandilal’s “An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” sings right into my Hindu-heathenish soul. A poem in five increasingly bloody movements, the narrative unthreads Kali’s unsavoury encounters with men who seem determined to misunderstand her. Oh, they mean well. Don’t they almost always mean well, these men who are hockey players and passive aggressive dinner companions, these men eager to explain why her opinions are all a bit askew, or to convince her that a post-racial society really is possible. If you’ve dated men like this and despaired, read this poem to taste vicarious, goddess-distributed comeuppance.

I love this poem because it’s sublimely, hilariously relatable. Of *course* men mansplain to the blackskinned wielder of sword and severed head. How many “well, actually”s do you think Mary, Mother of God heard, bringing up JC? Mackrandilal balances each movement of this poem like a goddess-arm, calling out careless patriarchies in gestures both subtle and sharp. Witness this not-so-innocuous exchange, post-date, between Kali and her van-driving beau: “She says that the Tarkovsky film was fine, but all the mommy issues were a bit / tiresome / Hurt, he says she is self-centered, myopic, unable to see it his way.”

Does the evening end with a half-hearted grope under Kali’s sari? No, it ends with a literal sanguinary shower: “She bathes her hair with his blood in the moonlight / Before advancing into the dark.”

Call it celestially-curated wish fulfillment. Call it giving the white cishet macho club a reckoning in dancing feet and rouged lips. This poem is a playful, precise shiv between the eyes of oppression, even – and perhaps especially, as the last movement shows – from those who want to touch your feet wrong, and call it love. Kali forbid.

Read “An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” here.
Maya Mackrandilal is a transdisciplinary artist and writer. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-fourth 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.

“Ciguapa” – Mario Ariza

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Image: Yellow feathers, posted at Flickr by Claire Dickson under a Creative Commons License.

The difference between what is horrendous and what is beautiful is only the defect of our own eyes, not what we regard.

In Mario Ariza’s “Ciguapa”, a woman offers cocaine, then tells her listener a story. The ciguapa is the character beneath the folkloric mat, revealed for tongue-dusting. Nocturnal, mountain-dwelling, with feet turned backwards, Dominican ciguapas make me hearken to Trinidadian douens/duennes, with a notable exception: douens are unbaptized children; ciguapas are human women. This puts them in a juxtapositional league with churiles, of Hindu origin, who are the spirits of pregnant woman who died during childbirth. Douen, ciguapa, churile: all orthodox instruction warns you to avoid them, as they are all ‘dangerous’, with varying degrees of vindictive malice beneath their straw hats, knotted in their long ropes of hair.

Ariza’s poem is speculative and stabilizing in particularly the ways I like. It aligns the folkloric real — the horror of the ciguapa we can imagine — with the immediate brutality of everyday living: its victims here are malnourished children, so hungry their parasitic worms are starved. I admire the capacity of what Ariza seeks to do here, vaulting horror against horror, embroidering our bare palms with many different ways to be scared.

The poem turns doubly speculative in the heavy vaguada rains: not only is there a ciguapa, but she is presented here as a lodestone, in a story of ancestral recall. The speaker accesses her through reflection on another self, another time: “women with their feet turned / backwards, vengeful Taina women with matted hair / and the thin moon in their obsidian teeth / drove my body in its past life away from its home”.

Think, then, of all the visitations wafting, stirred into the dark blood of your ancestry. How many spirits have stalked you in the dark, teeth so ready?

Read “Ciguapa” here.
Mario Ariza is executive editor of Sinking City Magazine, and an editorial fellow at The New Tropic.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-third 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.

“No Poisoned Comb” – Amal El-Mohtar

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Image: Core values, posted at Flickr by genericavatar under a Creative Commons License.

What we call wicked in a stepmother might be only the tip of the poisoned dagger.

Amal El-Mohtar’s “No Poisoned Comb” is a subversion of fairytale that, mid-twist, turns the knife deeper into the rosy red core of what you think you know. We hear the testimony of the Evil Queen of Snow White, who tells us we’ve got the original tale all tangled up. She’s convivial about this mangling of history: “I bear no grudge. / A story in the teeth of time / will shift its outlined shape, be chewed / to more palatable stuff.” We almost feel she might be setting the record straight not in a court of law, but by a roaring hearth, while we raise glasses of cherry wine to our lips, listening. We drop those goblets to the parquet, when the Queen spins her story darker than the Brothers Grimm themselves might have penned.

I love a fairytale-comeuppance in verse as much as any other Disney-cartoon contrarian, but El-Mohtar is spinning something here I like even better than the tale of the wronged villainess. Think less Maleficent, more Lady Macbeth without madness dropped in as a plot restriction. “I cored her”, says our speaker, who knows history misremembers her not as murkier than she was, but better, more sanitized, scrubbed and desexed for public consumption. The poem’s title serves as a possible clue – no poisoned comb signifies one less step to the ultimate savagery enacted by Queen upon Snow. The comb, in the Grimm versioning, is a sort of trojan horse: a parcel of venom wrapped in a gesture of goodwill.

Why tease goodness, this Queen seems to ask us, when you know the epicentre of your motives? The huntsman is merely a hungry prop here: it’s the speaker’s red ambition that will colour your cheeks.

Read “No Poisoned Comb” here.
Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-second 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.

 

“Sealskinned, Crowned” – Hester J. Rook

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Image: Don’t breathe, posted at Flickr by Petra Hromádková under a Creative Commons License.

We move from skin to skin, sloughing ourselves in the pursuit of something resilient and strange.

That human beings crawl out of skins is no foreign concept to folk of the Caribbean. So too for the mythos at the heart of Hester J. Rook’s “Sealskinned, Crowned”, which immediately conjures associations of selkie culture. The poem’s speaker, who describes their skin as “misshapen from disuse / stretched and constricted / all at the same time: / a snakeskin left too long in the grass”, is in the throes of a transformation. The poem begins with starkly action-fuelled language: there is the immersive symbolism of the speaker, pouring themselves “full and thick / like the syrup left from poaching pears”.

I hearken to poems that highlight the body as transport, and I pay attention to poems that preoccupy themselves with the limits of that transport as alchemy. Rook’s poem does both. See how the speaker laments the skin’s suboptimal condition, yet purposes it anyway for another journey. Their talismans are “garlands of feathers”, their surgical thread is “roughened shell shard splinters”.

In this world, the poet presents us with a speaker whose awareness of their physical limitations is lifted and lilted with objects of beauty and best purpose. This adornment and alteration – making sure the skin can be of service, can surround safely, bedecked with an avian crown – is nothing short of what we do in ‘the real world’. Surgery: isn’t that the scientific speculation that the wounded body might yet persist, that crushed limbs can be uncrushed, that a shattered face can be removed and replaced with the face of another?

Back into the sea our speaker goes, freshly restitched and feathered, ready to be “flooded, familiar”. See their skin shine amid the sargasso. Count the trail of kingfisher plumes they leave on the shore.

Read “Sealskinned, Crowned” here.
Hester J. Rook is an Australian writer and co-editor of Twisted Moon magazine. Visit their website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-first 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.

“After Selling Your Soul to the Trickster God” – Sara Norja

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Image: Bonfire, posted at Flickr by Lee Haywood under a Creative Commons License.

How close do you dare hold your feet to the fire, if you’ve already paid a ransom for your stride?

“After Selling Your Soul to the Trickster God” by Sara Norja is a segment of time, cleaved from the orange of the world, held to the reader’s gaze for an object lesson in payment, in consequence. The poem’s speaker has done precisely what the title says: a bargain has been met. The contract is already drawn up, and we meet the speaker on their last night of freedom. The present-tense second person in which the poem is told seems all the more urgent, since we know that tomorrow the trickster god comes knocking, her fingers curled in mandatory invitation. There’s no refusal when you’ve signed yourself into service.

Music and movement are the speaker’s last solaces before what nebulous, possibly grim future awaits. We aren’t told into what kind of service our speaker will be pressed, but we imagine it to be a world deprived of melody, constrained in range of motion. Why else reach with such plaintive need for the rough chords that gouge skin, the juddering dancers who twirl away? I like this poem because it has selected words and contexts with the care of someone performing last rites — and what could be more fitting? Finality is no less final when it’s speculative: you may doubt, for example, that the blue-skinned debt collector is the one foreclosing you, but you can’t contest that your house has been sold.

The poem also pays judicious attentions to movement and stillness: we see our speaker go from muscles burning and sweat rilling, to the stasis of an unforgiving earth, a binding bargain. This business of being god-sworn takes you close to the fire, but how you’re burned is up to you.

Read “After Selling Your Soul to the Trickster God” here.
Sara Norja’s poetry and fiction have appeared in multiple venues. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twentieth 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 Hallows” – Louise Glück

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Image: Muertos_1989, posted at Flickr by Omar Bárcena under a Creative Commons License.

Who sits with you at the table for supper? Whose hand, when you are weary, lifts the soup spoon to your mouth?

Louise Glück’s “All Hallows”: it doesn’t get more sublime, or more terrifying. If you know your horror, you’ll know it’s the speculative unfurling that steals your sleep, far more than the manic clown’s face dripping with blood. The blood in this poem is hidden: it sits under the skin, patient and clever as any ghost biding its time. Glück’s pastoral gothic, which brings us darkening hills, fields picked-clean, oxen sleeping in their blue yoke, is an anticipation. Let’s think about that quality of a poem when it’s picked clean. It makes me muse on how sparely Jean Rhys furnished the narrative rooms of Wide Sargasso Sea and her other works, because every word had to matter, had to be relied on to count. You could read “All Hallows” the same way: it not only draws in with an emotive anticipation, it gathers tension like the dropping of superfluous sheaves.

The poem is notched, mounting in a slow, arid expectancy “as the toothed moon rises”. You don’t know what to expect, waiting with it. You find that the poem makes you complicit in the act of an unsettled spectatorship. “This is the barrenness / of harvest or pestilence”, says the omniscient narrator, so we don’t expect a bountiful gathering. This is no scene with Hallowe’en pumpkins, bursting golden with the rewards of a rich harvest. This All Hallows sees the wife, beckoning the soul out of the tree, her “her hand extended, as in payment, / and the seeds / distinct, gold, calling / Come here / Come here, little one“.

When picked this clean, the very bones of the poem gleam, currency for the boatman. Who are you calling down from the tree?

Read “All Hallows” here.
Louise Glück’s most recent collection of poems, Faithful and Virtuous Night, was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the nineteenth 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.

“Love in the Cemetery” – Lord Kitchener

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Image: Montmartre Cemetery, posted at Flickr by Anna Fox under a Creative Commons License.

You catch a feeling like somebody walking on your grave? That takes on a whole new meaning when you’re underfoot at Lapeyrouse on Valentine’s.

Lord Kitchener’s 7″ single “Love in the Cemetery” was released in 1962, and I wish I were a time traveller, to be present the first time the needle slid into that groove in the sixties. You know how Trinis can say something was wicked, with a certain measure of headshaking respect? Yuh wicked, boy, but I eh go lie, that was a good one. 

There’s a wicked humour rustling in the grave goods of this calypso — and while so much of that is to do with how it’s performed, that cheeky speculation is rife in the lyrics themselves. One of the many things I love about “Love in the Cemetery” is how convivial the ghosts seem: “When a voice said, Mister yuh brave / To be bringin’ yuh girlfriend on top meh grave”, to ‘”A ghost say, Doh’ run meh lad / Come leh we play a game of cards”. Much like the aunties and grandpas who weren’t your blood but would beckon you on their verandahs of an evening, pouring lime juice and gently gathering your family gossip, but without any real malice? It’s Uncle Horace and Grandma Myrtle all over again — only this time, they’re chiding you and cajoling you from another angle.

Perhaps my favourite part of this song is when the speaker, running for his life from the graveyard’s chatty inhabitants, stumbles across a kindly stranger, regales him with his tale, only to be told with a chuckle,

“I can understand
You’re a wild young man
But still you’re not to be blamed
When I was alive I was just the same”

Think about that next time you knock boots in the dead people dem roots.

Read the lyrics to “Love in the Cemetery” here. Listen to the song here.
Lord Kitchener, Aldwyn Roberts, was born in Arima, and has been described as the grand master of calypso. Check out Anthony Joseph’s fictional biography of Lord Kitchener, Kitch.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the eighteenth 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 Metaphysics of a Wine, in Theory and Practice” – Brandon O’Brien

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Image: valsa quase antidepressiva, posted at Flickr by Giovanna Dias under a Creative Commons License.

What happens in the party lingers on the psyche, especially if it’s got you raising your hand skyward mid-flex.

Brandon O’Brien’s “The Metaphysics of a Wine, in Theory and Practice” brings you into the heat, urgency and hunger of the dancehall. Our narrator is a faithful adherent to the gospel of good soca, to the waistline-wukking titillations it provides and produces, and a caster of the gyrating die when it comes to getting down (up, or sideways). Friends, in other terms, a sweet, sweet wine was had. (Unfamiliar with wining? Read here. Responsible wining is always predicated on consent.)

The poem’s speaker casts the die, and receives resounding, hip-rotating favour: “because in that night / God’s name in her native language / was on my hips / tempting my echo of its swaying syllabisms / never illegible / but forever unpronounceable”. The recipient of a wine, dear bacchanalists, is also often its giver, and in the chorus of juk, cock back, siddong pon it and wuk up, it’s easier than you might fathom to lose your tongue, but gain something far better.

O’Brien’s poem would be persuasive if this were all it was, a tender, raunchy night trading sweat and sultry Guinness-fuelled one-liners, ass to crotch in that new place on the Avenue. What makes it puissant is the ricocheting relationship it creates between wining and astral travel. The footnotes in this poem are their own codas to speculative sugar, while the stanzas here face themselves, demotic dancing up on academic, making a limblocked marriage of language that I love. We raise our Caribs and club sodas to this series of testimonials and theorems, as we plan to jam on a town ting or a Moruga maven, a Quito-Quito queen or a Maracas mama’s boi, as we roll the dice of our own hips, betting.

Read “The Metaphysics of a Wine, in Theory and Practice” here.
Brandon O’Brien is the poetry editor of FIYAH: Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. Visit his Patreon here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the seventeenth 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.