“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.

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“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.

“Harvesting Her Heart after the Accident” – Stacy R. Nigliazzo

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Image: * Firefly Fantasy *, posted at Flickr by Parée under a Creative Commons License.

After the calamity, revelation. That’s the standard formula for light flooding into a darkened room.

This post will be longer than the entirety of Stacy R. Nigliazzo’s “Harvesting Her Heart after the Accident”. In fact, it already is. This poem is a brief whisper that rattles, a storm and its calm, curled into one. Look at the way the poem, spare and situated in so much blank space, stretches horizontally. The effect is a sideways bleed. We feel not that we are sinking into the action of the poem, but that the narrative is unspooling, stretching wide across us. The title tells you what to expect: it promises calamity. More than that, it signals the action that happens after the great devastation: the gathering of what’s essential, of what’s still beating, when nothing else can be saved.

I don’t think I seek out many poems specific to medicine, but I love when work like this find me. That the piece becomes so incandescently speculative, in its final word, unmoors me totally. It’s hard to say how much time I’ve spent with this piece: the poem is shorter than every tweet I’ve sent this month, but the real estate it occupies in the part of my brain concerned with survival, with the human arts we messily perfect to protect ourselves? It hasn’t moved from the prime enclosure of my own speculation, my own creative need, since I encountered it.

Here, then, is the entirety of the poem: a surgeon, piercing the breastbone of a woman dying, or dead, reveals an emanation of light, “a fluttering– / a scatter of fireflies.” You must read it yourself, to feel the poem’s own instruments reaching into you for wonder, for the mining of your hope in hard circumstance, for the finding of the light’s glow.

Read “Harvesting Her Heart after the Accident” here.
Stacy R. Nigliazzo is an emergency room nurse. Her forthcoming collection, Sky the Oar, is available for pre-order from Press 53.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the sixteenth 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.

“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.

“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.