I almost thought this was going to be a light three weeks from Strange Horizons. Trust providence to throw an extra-big issue on the penultimate day of the month! As much as a beleaguered reviewer might find such last-minute work a bit harrowing, it's impossible for me to be anything less than thrilled because the work in these three weeks is pretty awesome, and finding out that instead of one poem a major SFF pub has released six? Well, that's a pretty good thing. So between these three weeks there are two original stories and eight original poems, plus many reprinted poems and nonfiction that's worth checking out, including two different awesome round tables (one of which I got to participate in!). It's an excellent assortment of pieces that tackle resistance and colonialism, passion and pain. So let's get to these reviews!
|Art by Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy|
"Bluebellow" by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (4896 words)
This is something of a strange story about connecting with the past. But really it seems to go deeper than that. The story is about being contacted by past, transfixed by it. It imagines the past as something just below the surface of the water, alive and waiting and aware suddenly in a way that it hasn't been. The story features Serena, a black woman with Afro-Caribbean roots who travels to London only to find that in the crossing of the Atlantic she has crossed a sort of barrier. And now the mirrors that she looks at, any reflective surface at all, no longer conceal people on the other side. Ancestors who died while being forcibly moved across the Atlantic toward the Americas. This is, understandably, a rather traumatic event. Unsure of whether or not she is breaking with reality, her anchor comes from her family, from her twin sister who is still in America, who is able to reassure her in some ways that she's a part of something. A part of something new. And I love that the story takes the direction it does, part historical examination of a period of history that is often glossed over, and part narrative of people reconnecting with that history, with that lost ancestry. I love the way that the story uses mirrors, that these people who are chosen find the past by confronting themselves, by confronting how they look and who they are. This movement comes from the crossing of borders, from the crossing of oceans, and remembering that the nature of that crossing has concealed some of the greatest atrocities ever committed. That the surface of the mirrors, like the surface of the water connecting the continents, is not empty. It is full of ghosts, full of lost people. And the story seeks to bring them back. Or, at least, to meet them halfway. So that they are not forgotten any longer. And it also isn't afraid to play with form and to play with structure, slowly building this cohesive piece across multiple styles and flavors. It shows the different worlds that the main character passes through, that inform her experience and bring her to the place where she is working to reconnect, where she isn't running from it and isn't worrying about her job or her dog or her phone but treating the past as being something worth her time and attention. And it's a startling, complex story that you should definitely set aside some time for. A great read!
"Take Us To Your Cheif" by Drew Hayden Taylor (4116 words)
This is a delightful story about communication, about rolling with things, and with First Contact. For three Ojibway men, seeing an alien craft land right in the middle of their peaceful relaxing/drinking time is something of a surprise. But not anything that they want to get too worked up about. I love the framing of these men, the central trio of the story, who have spent so much time together and are rather content with their lives to the point that they rarely feel the need to speak. They are so in tune with each other that normally all they have to do is nod and smile and they all know what's going on. So when they're approached by an alien to act as representatives of Earth, they don't really know how to respond except to keep a firm grip on their beers and try not to ask why the alien smells of farts. And people, this story is hilarious. The deadpan with which these men and really the entire band receives these visitors is great, speaking to a definite awareness of how important this moment might be but also how it could go wrong, and so the safest thing is often to be rather silent and wait to see what the situation is really like. The characters are all slow to judge, which is incredibly refreshing to see, and it's great to see just how that plays out in a situation where it might be easy to act rashly. It's also a deeply funny read with nods to Star Trek and to the relativity of strangeness. It also speaks to the way that people communicate, to the idea that if you don't need to say something, then maybe you shouldn't, because in the silence there might be a greater understanding. Especially when looking at how that form of communication can be so much more complex than spoken words is interesting because it flips the value that most people have on sounding smart. And it's a charming piece with a great sense of fun and humor and you should go read it!
"Constellations of You" by Tlotlo Tsamaase
This is a rather wrenching and at time difficult poem about identity and about self-censorship and thought policing and the results of the internalization of racism and hate. The narrator of the piece is someone who took the messaging from growing up, from popular culture, that their skin color made them inferior, that their dialect made them inferior, and sought to become more acceptable, more like what they thought people would want. They accepted the standards of intelligence and beauty that would never really allow them to be fully human, would never truly accept them because of their skin, because beauty and worth were so tied up in this idea of race. And poem explores the narrator's lament of that, their shame that this push in their youth blinded them to their own value and to the value of their family and their history, marked them because they can't unlearn those things wholly. They can't fit in so naturally because of what they've done but they're trying to reclaim that part of themselves, that thing that they thought was lost. And discovering that they can recovery some of it. Not everything, and this lack, this loss, is a wrong that has been done to them, a violence and an erasure, but they are able to come back from it, to celebrate themselves, to see beauty in skin like theirs. It's a beautiful poem with a reaching, yearning feel to it, a subtle sensuality, and a great sense of identity and time and culture. It's an excellent read!
"Humans of Olympus Mons" by Arjun Rajendran
This is a moving poem about place and about immigrating and about hope. About space and about Mars. I love the opening of the piece, the joke that I must admit I chuckled hard at because space puns are amazing. But also because it speaks to this idea of what Mars might be like, this fringe and this other planet that Earth doesn't seem as concerned about. A place for the wealthy but also the poor, a place of dreams for those who have found Earth wanting in that regard. So the joke at the beginning grounds the poem for me, makes it sound like something students would say of a place that isn't exactly the best school around. But is still a place that they take pride in. That here, for all its faults and foibles, is where they call home and where they can seek to escape the gravity of Earth and the old problems of it. That here is Olympus Mons, which puts other mountains to shame, and here the idea of mobility and achievement are not dead. That even the child of a poor immigrant can find a place to live and love and have a small herd of ferrets and a cat. It's a poem that I just can't stop smiling about, because it is filled with this hope and this reaching, the narrator obviously from a situation that has been hard but still full of humor, refusing to play the game of life by the rules that Earth decrees. Refusing to assign value based on what Earth values. Knowing that on Mars things can be different and should be different. It's a lovely poem filled with a quiet power and subtle laugh and you should definitely give it a read!
"I Learn the Police Once Beat My Uncle for Smudging" by Halee Kirkwood
This poem catches a certain kind of knowledge, a certain kind of legacy, making very personal something that has happened, that is happening, completing the circle of the wheel that continues to roll over so many people. As far as plot goes, the poem is exactly what the title describes, the narrator discovering that police violence is not new, and is not even new in their family, that the things that the narrator is protesting, that the main character is fighting against, have roots that have been hidden in the hopes of protecting them from conflict. This is a type of erasure that happens all the time, where people don't want to tell young people about their personal histories, their family histories. Because they don't want them to grow up angry, which in turn might make them want to seek out conflict more. And yet the erasure of these stories, the sheltering of young people from these stories, doesn't really protect anyone. And knowing, having that story and that knowledge, deepens the connection to the struggle, the knowledge that these things will not change unless people talk and share and stand together. It's a powerful piece that ties the narrator back to more than other people's struggles because it makes it their own, their inheritance, standing up now for the injustice going on but also for the injustices that have gone unrevealed and unpunished. It allows people to reclaim from history and even from their own past the people and the events that give them more resolve to fight and to push for justice. A great read!
"The Consonance Among Waters" by Halee Kirkwood
To me this poem speaks to the connections between people and between people and their origins, their beliefs. The narrator of this piece speaks of themself and another, speaks of a "we" joined by what feels like a deep relationship (romantic perhaps but also maybe one of friendship) that reaches across two cultures, two visions of how the world was created. And the connections run, as the title implies, not directly, not as in easy analogy or synonyms but with consonance, the repetition of certain sounds, certain ideas. The image of deep waters and the feel of that being foundational. And that for this relationship that the narrator describes the repetition is something that forms a connection and is borne from respect and mutual admiration. That they both understand each other's beliefs and don't try to deny the other, don't try to disprove or rank. Instead there is just this recognition of themes and a knowledge that either could be right or, perhaps more likely, both can be. Even when they seem to contradict, because each person can find meaning in their own story, and that pushing for one to be valued over the other seems to be losing sight of the lessons of both stories. That people need to come together. That there might be floods to come and that if they do it will take people working together to save what can be saved. And it's a lovely piece about the nature of origin stories and the way that people can use them to bond or to push each other away. But that there are common sounds through each, and a connection to water and the land and each other. Another fine piece!
"After My Grandfather's Teeth" by Halee Kirkwood
This poem to me approaches the drive to live up to the past, to the figures who have inspired us. Here the narrator remembers their grandfather, a person who was something of a legend, and who obviously knew how to havea lot of fun. For the narrator their grandfather is captures in the way that he would chase them, his teeth in his hand, laughing in delight. It's a great image and reveals a lot about what kind of person he might be, but also leaves a lot of mystery, a lot unknown, because the person then is hidden behind this image of himself. And the narrator wants to him to be proud of them, wants to know that he would have approved of what they were doing. The poem itself is a bit more prose-ish than the other two, constructed in very long lines that look a bit like paragraphs. It makes the shorter lines sharper, more impacting, and draws out the descriptions of the man two is gone, who cannot be reached. He lives in these stories, these blocks of text and memory, and the narrator lives in these lines, in the more immediate now. The images of the pieces are clear and moving, the situation of trying to imagine what a passed relative would think and feel rather familiar to anyone who has looked up to and lost an older relative. Or an important figure, really. And with the other poems from the author this completes a kind of cycle of looking back and looking forward, maybe a circle of the past and the future where we are connected both backwards and forwards. At least for me the ending of this piece suggests considering the world as a mirror through which the narrator might see themself and their struggle, as part of something much larger and no less personal for it. It's a great triad of poems!
"Why Storms Are Named After People & Bullets Remain Nameless" by Tanaya Winder
This poem seems to take on names and storms, bullets and longing. The narrator is a person being painted but there's a lot going on here, the love of an artist, the love of art. The narrator seems to be speaking to some artist, some unnamed he. And the narrator seems to be struck by this person, wrapped up in the strength of his current. But as the title of the work implies, this unnamed person rides the line between bullet and storm. He arrives and he sweeps everything away and the narrator seems to get lost in him, in the power of him and the passion of him, but they aren't sure if he's bullet or storm, doesn't know if he's something they've weathered or survived. Part of that might be that there is a feeling of immediacy in the text, that this is all going on and there is no distance for the narrator to get perspective, only the consuming here and now of bodies and hunger and pain. What's left in the aftermath is something else entirely, and I love the way the poem brought me to the point of wondering what to do next. Because the act of naming then becomes a way of conceiving of the events that preceded and putting them into a context. A bullet seems much more traumatic but impersonal while a storm seems more intimate, more all-consuming. But leave damage in their wake, though, and I just like the way the poem ends on this unanswered question, leaving the he unnamed and therefore in some ways already categorized but with the potential of something to change. An excellent read!
"What It Takes to Disappear" Tanaya Winder
This poem continues the sensuous notes laid down by the first and further complicates relationships and passions. Here the narrator is again talking to an unnamed he, and their relationship seems long and relatively happy, but more nostalgic now than satisfied, happy in the past and reaching backwards but apparently unable to deal with the current situation, the current feelings and hurts. The he is again an artist, a painting, and here his work seems to reflect their relationship, to show the melting nature of it, as hot as the desert but that heat burns both ways, leaving them damaged by it, singed and melted. The narrator beseeches this him to change, and as I read it I think this is imploring him first to fix his paintings. That if the paintings are indeed reflecting their relationship then his magic is to be able to paint them better. To take more care of his brushes. It's like the portrait of Dorian Grey except that as his painting care slips the cracks in their relationship show through, leaving the narrator to look back at older work and yearn for those days. Meanwhile the narrator has magic of their own in the form of their voice, their song, which seems to inspire the he of the poem but only to a point. It's as if the passion that drove them together has cooled or evaporated, like their sun has set, and if the narrator truly lets loose with their song it would shatter whatever tenuous thing remains between them and she would disappear, would leave. It's another evocative and deep piece looking at love and relationships and damage and another you should definitely check out!
"Notes From the Road" by Tanaya Winder
This poem nicely circles around to the previous two and here focuses more on the narrator as a person seeking through their relationships something freeing and fulfilling and finding really only damage. Only pain and madness. They recount the way that those they are with all leave, all seem to change before their eyes. And I love the idea that all their exes live in stories. That they all come to say something, more than real life is exactly capable of, and it's that I feel this poem plays with most, that idea of the literary bleeding its way into the real, the actual. The way that the main character goes past Echo, a city, and shouts a question, hoping to hear themself respond. The way that each of those exes becomes something more than a person and less than a person, becomes a character whose actions then reflect back on the narrator, so that how each one moves on becomes a metaphor, shows the arch of the narrative being told. And it's hard to tell whether the narrator wants their life to mirror story, wants it to be so full of meaning and weight, or whether it is something that they find inconvenient and painful, and seeing their life in terms of literary interpretation makes it more difficult to actually live it, or at least to live in the moment without trying to analyze it. I like the way the poem captures a lot of the same feelings as the previous two pieces, though, the damaged people and relationships that those revealed, and brings them into this other umbrella of meaning, of interpretation. This poem steps a bit back from the other two and acknowledges the nature of poetry and life and makes something of a meta-statement on them, while still focusing on the ways that people damage each other. It's a great read and an excellent way to close out both this triad of poems and this issue!