Friday, September 29, 2017

Quick Sips - Mithila Review #9 [poetry]

People, there’s a whole lot of SFF poetry in the most recent issue of Mithila Review. Twelve poems from nine different poets means there’s a hell of a lot to experience. The pieces swirl around a lot of themes, but some major ones are growth and imagination. Not surprising, perhaps, given that SFF is about wonder and imagination, about chasing those visions and dreams that are often called foolish or childish. Here we find the value of keeping something of a child’s view of the universe, without borders or limitations. There are other works that look at what happens when we let those borders constrict too much, and how sometimes we might struggle against the injustice of complacency. There’s a lot to get to, though, so I’ll jump right into the reviews!


“Four Moons” by John Philip Johnson

This poem follows a progression of moons, all rising, always rising, as humanity keeps on in the face of some unnamed catastrophe or obstacle. It’s possible that the poem features humans pushing out into space, colonizing a different planet and harassing moons to light it, to keep it always bright, or at least bright enough to work. And that, really, is a bit of what this piece comes to be about to me, both progress in the sense of technology opening new doors to human productivity and skill and progress opening new doors to human exploitation and corruption. Because in many ways the poem speaks to me about the urge humans have for something easier, for something better, the way that we might move seeking new opportunities or put our faith in new technologies because they promise some release from something we find unpleasant. But here every advancement also brings with it innovation in exploitation, the way that we can push each other, and especially those struggling most, to struggle harder, to do more, to be more at the mercy of those offering jobs, security, life. The promise is always out there for more technology pushing larger and larger profits, but the silent caveat to that tends to be that the profits aren’t for those who can’t afford to invest, that it makes for a lot of people that the wealthy consider expendable, that no matter how far we go, as long as we do not progress psychologically or philosophically to view people as worthy of dignity and life, we won’t be able to outpace our own capacity for cruelty and injustice. It’s not in that reading, my reading, an overly happy poem, but I love the complexity of it and the fantastic elements it brings, seeing a future full of a darkness that we bring with us no matter how many moons we raise. It’s wrenching and a lovely way to begin the poetry of the issue!

“Cup of Tea” by Naru Dames Sundar

This poem speaks to me of loaded actions, of meaning and meaning, of trying to navigate in a world where all that is familiar can be twisted into something else entirely, and made to serve something that is hostile and dangerous. The action of the poem surrounds a cup of tea, but beneath that there seems to be a different story, of soldiers and colony and trying to intimidate or bride or otherwise coerce an older woman into going along with something peacefully. Only that very idea, that this is peaceful, is a corruption, is a reframing of the actions that have happened. On the surface the tea is a gift, something nice these men have done, and yet they don’t seem invited, and don’t seem wanted, and every nice thing they present is another violation, is them using their power and the threat of their violence to show her that they are truly in charge, even in her own home. It’s such a small, rather intimate moment that the poem focuses on and I love how it captures the feel of so much, that the whole exchange between the men and the older woman is encapsulating a larger struggle, about how is in control and what that control means. About the freedom even in one’s own mind, even in the smallest and most private of moments. The battle here is no less momentous for being such a small act of rebellion, of resistance, and I like the scope that the poem builds around this, small and huge all at once. It’s a great way to capture something about this situation and draw it out, to show how that one cup of tea can mean something so profound, so shattering. It’s a fantastic poem and you should definitely check it out!

“Her Chemo Friend Explains Capricorn” by Laura Page

This poem seems to me to be about loss and aging, dignity and death. It focuses on the narrator’s grandmother and, beyond that, one of her grandmother’s friends, Marilyn, who is old and dying but still full of energy. In some ways it seems to lean on the idea of faith, and what people have faith in, horoscopes and religions and, perhaps, people. Marilyn is unrepentant and crass, and seems in some ways to represent the resilience and anger and resistance to what age and infirmary do to people. At the same time, there is something of a conflict at the heart of the poem, between life and death and what those two things mean and what might complicate them. [SPOILERS] So Marilyn dies in the poem, and the narrator’s grandmother does not, and yet the different there goes deeper, for all that Marilyn is the one she does, there might be the sense that she dies whole, herself to the end, infected with disease and with a certain mentality that makes her harmful and toxic at times but also, like the cigarettes she enjoys, there’s something about her that’s invigorating and pleasant. She dies, and in the aftermath of that the narrator has to face the prospect of what is better, to die earlier or to linger, your mind leaking away, your life more and more dependent. I appreciate the way the poem portrays stubbornness and the strength it takes to not give in to the easy answers other people offer, to the narrative that sheep are more desirable than goats. Marilyn is an interesting character, and one I don’t feel the poem completely makes its mind up about, preferring instead to confront the reader with the complexity and conflict of the character, the ugly and the beautiful, and leaving them to praise or condemn or neither. It’s an interesting poem that looks at advancing age and illness and doesn’t flinch, that shows the wounds that time inflicts when body and mind start to fail. A wrenching and powerful read!

“Pollen” by R.B. Lemberg

For me this poem speaks of imagination and longing, wonder and childhood. It features a narrator stands in a fairly sparse environment using their imagination to create spaceships out of plant pollen, and to see in that journey that pollen can take, out and beyond, something to reach for, something to want to follow. I love the opening image of that, of the pollen hesitating in that moment before flight, caught in the state between here and there, between staying and going. And then leaving—the narrator, yes, but more than that, leaving the entire planet behind and venturing off into space, finding some other place to grow. And perhaps what I like most about the poem is that the place the pollen finds is no more verdant than the place it left. Perhaps it’s just me recently but that movement, from difficult terrain to difficult terrain, is one that I feel rather acutely, that here the narrator is finding this plant among the stars, so distant, and yet the hope is not that things are easier out there. Or that things are somehow magical. The real strength of the pollen and the real magic of the situation comes not from that alien environment but from that initial moment of connection between child and pollen, the warmth of that hope, and the desire to be somewhere else. Often it is not a trip that is easy, and often it does not go smoothly. But the hope is still that—that the plant has found a place, that it grows, and that the narrator might find it again out there, and that warmth from their first meeting might glow again in both of them, might sustain them. It’s a short and rather simple poem but there is a great warmth from it, a great hope. That people can help people, that kindness and warmth can be enough to escape orbit and reach for somewhere to belong. That pollen we release might end up...anywhere, and that there’s a great beauty in that. So yeah, read this poem!

“Surreal Bucket List #3” by Bruce Boston

This poem captures a bit of fun and fancy while striking, in my opinion, an almost bittersweet note with its scope and framing. After all, the poem is a bucket list, of things to do before death, and while this is something that has gained popularity for everyone, regardless of situation, it’s still something that has a bit of death attached to it, this list of things that, in this case, seem almost impossible. And that’s where the poem twists that idea of the bucket list into something that goes beyond just visiting a great monument or trying a certain kind of food. Here it becomes about something else, an exploration not of the world but of the self and the imagination. Or to put it another way, bucket lists to me are about the actions a person wants to take to make their life seem “worth it.” That they don’t want to look back and regret not having done something. With this poem, though, it seems to be a bit deeper than that. The goal, to me at least, is not to accomplish the list in order to die with a clean conscience, but rather to complete the list in order to live better. Which is something that I like about it, that for me the items on the list are to provoke the narrator to do things that will allow them to grow as a person, to grow into themselves in many ways, and discover things about themselves they didn’t know. To challenge the rational and the accepted in favor of doing things that are different not in order to die in peace but in order to live better and more fully. At least for me part of the surrealism is in that inverting of what the bucket list seems to be for, to push the narrator to live a more fulfilling life, even if it’s one that exists largely in metaphor and imagination rather than in going to places physically. It’s weird and it’s interesting and it’s well worth a read!

“Alternate Genders” “Chronology Of Items Found On The Moon” & “Boatman” by Mary Soon Lee

The poems start with “Alternate Genders,” which explores quite literally what it might have been like for historical figures to have been born differently, raised differently. From great figures lost because they would have been born a woman and so ignored and kept out of their pursuits to how the accomplishments of a woman might have gone quite differently indeed if she had been a man instead. The poem doesn’t really get down to switching genders or themes of transness so much as it reaches for a time in the future when people are not held back or pushed forward because of their gender, where opportunity and access truly are open to everyone and I like that theme, that there might come a time not when it doesn’t matter what a person’s gender is, but rather that they won’t face discrimination for their gender. And it’s a rather soft and thoughtful and lovely examination of that with still this weight of history and the injustice of what has happened.

Moving to the second piece, things get a whole lot more strange while still keeping with the theme of time and dates. Where the last poem looked at dates of birth and death, though, with a progression toward a desired future, the progression here is a little more difficult to chart, not because the dates themselves are obscure but because it’s dealing with finding things on the moon, of the growing mystery of what those objects are and, more importantly, what they mean. They span country and mission and they grow more and more complex and I like that sense of building momentum, not just because of the tension it creates but because it gets at the idea that going to the moon is something that builds on itself, that gets us closer to something, even when we don’t know what that something is. To me, then, the story is about discovery and about pushing to uncover what mysteries we can, with the possibility always looming that we could break through with something, find some answer that will change how we think of and interact with the universe. Which is pretty darn cool.

This last poem feels familiar to me, and it’s possible I’ve read others in the same setting by the author before. It features the titular boatman, Shu, commenting on the strange passengers they get, a small group of mysterious men who come aboard his boat, heading off toward a front, toward a war. It’s a rather quiet poem, though, given that, a calm before the coming storm. It builds a very nice picture of what’s happening, the group of men strange but one in particular silent and guarded and Shu keeping an eye on him, realizing only when a storm approaches who the man is. It’s a realization that gets a bit at why such a man would be revered, why Shu personally would be so impressed and honored by what happens. Shorter poem but one that sets the scene nicely, and gets the feel for a character that is only seen briefly, captured in the power he has to calm horses during a storm, a lovely metaphor for what rulers must do when conflict arises. So yeah, another fine poem and a great overall experience across the three. Be sure to check them all out!

“When We Were Young” by Steve Simpson

This is a rather weird but luminous poem about family and about youth, about learning and growing and expanding. About cycles, such as they are. It features a great sense of childhood, of how it can feel, of the narrowness of it that isn’t felt because of the richness of experience and imagination, with the narrator and their sister existing in the a world of nature and possibilities. There’s a sense I get from the poem that the growth here is captured at first as this grand hopeful thing, the outward spiral of a nautilus, or a galaxy, where the children can still imagine that anything is possible, that anything can happen. And there is a slow dawning realization that things might not actually be that way. The ending, to me, represents a loss in many ways of that wonder and the sense of possibility that existed. The narrator, looking back, can see the narrow confines of their past and look ahead to the future and see...much of the same. That, contrary to what they wanted to be the case, what they believed then, when things seemed freer, life doesn’t always expand in the ways you expect. The endless possibilities constrict until they realize that they’re in a circle, a closed loop, rather than a spiral. It’s not exactly, for my reading, a very hopeful piece, but I think it does capture a nice feeling for how it can feel to inspect what it was like when younger and where that has led. It’s a poem full of lovely moments and great images, but there’s also the sense of...almost betrayal. Like the promise of the past never came true, and the narrator can’t help but be a bit bitter about it. Which makes sense, and feels real to me. It’s a very interesting poem and another great read!

“Traces” by David C. Kopaska-Merkel

This feels to me to be a poem about contact and about distance, about two peoples meeting, or at least select representations from two peoples meeting. The narrator of the poem is a voice of someone who, it seems to me, kinda ceases to be at one point. At least, to my reading this poem shows a group of what might be humans who have traveled across the stars to a foreign planet with the hope of finding some other being there. Whether they expect what happens next is anyone’s guess, but for me there must be some sort of guess to it, mainly because of the narrator, because that voice has not disappeared. Which, to me, makes this poem not one of a bunch of explorers being devoured by an alien entity. Well, not just that. Because something remains of those people, because the devouring is also an act of preservation, allowing them to continue, to survive in some way. Even, it might be, to become sort of immortal, to join with the alien and create something new from the joining, not what any of them were before but some combination that will help them evolve. Which, really, is exactly like a lot of sci fi villains, but told here there’s something almost romantic about it, something uplifting rather than just horrific. At least for me, the poem is about what is left behind from that meeting, from those people, the traces that do not dissipate, that are not lost. The travelers in the poem have rumors that this being is where they find it, where they are found by it, and I like how that works, that it leaves this space that maybe something is going on here that doesn’t fit that vision of what we expect with deadly first contact stories. That maybe what remains is very important. In any event, it’s a rather odd piece that I think still builds a compelling picture of meeting the unknown and finding something different but perhaps not just an evil beast bent on destruction. A fine poem!

“What Kills A Man” & “An Archaeology of Snow Forts” by Bryan Thao Worra

The first piece revolves around what it takes to die, what ultimately kills someone. As the poem explains, it always seems to be something so small. But, more than that, the poem seems to me to explore the size of a life, the importance of a life. We look at what has caused the death of a person, because that’s what people tend to focus on. They emphasize the manner of the death, the instrument of death. A gun or a knife or a war or a cataclysm. These things must seem large, must be big, we think, because then we don’t really have to focus on the other side of this, which is the size of a life. Lives, we tend to be taught, are what is small. Fragile. Inconsequential. But, as I read the poem, it seems to be arguing for a reversal of that. To view the lives as these huge things, as the important thing, and what kills them to be just small, trivial matters. That all things become trivial when the real tragedy is the loss of life. The loss of a person who had so much inside them, so much to say and to be. It’s a poem that excels at understatement, making its point with short lines and lots of space. Again, emphasizing the smallness of what causes death in order to, to me, emphasize the lives themselves, the people. Which makes it a complex and wonderful poem about taking the time to dig beyond the cause of death, which is always small, and focusing on something larger, such as life, and working to preserve it.

The second poem of the pair seems to me to be concerned most with walls. With barriers. With history. It runs through the idea of archaeology, with a collection of stones from various walls, from various places, the whole of human history captured in the divisions we make between us and them, between what is ours and what is not. And conflict comes at the borders, at the walls, and so it’s no real surprise that there’s a whole field of study dedicated what might be considered the history of walls. Of artifacts from the past. And it complicates that idea by bringing things very much to the present, to Minnesota, where children have built a snow fort. Only there’s something going on around that, the snow fort part of a larger story of us and them, in this case those in the North of America, those playing the snow, and those at the end of the line, in Louisiana, in the South, who will suffer not because of what those people in the North have done, but because of the way that we’ve divided the nation, because of how we prioritize life. Like the last poem, there is an echo of that idea that the cause of death is something small, always taken down to this tiny thing, and here it is traced in part to this snow wall incredibly far away from where other walls, the walls to keep the Gulf of Mexico out, might give way and flood so much. It’s a wrenching thought and one that exposes another line and wall, that between present and past, present and future. Where we must confront the walls we have built and those we reinforce and how it all reflects what and how we value people as a society. It’s a complicated poem and a fine way to close out the poetry on a huge issue!


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