Thursday, October 1, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 09/21/2020 & 09/28/2020

I close out my reviews of September’s Strange Horizons issues with a look at one more short story and two more poems. The fiction deals with totalitarianism, with borders, with touch. With a relationship fracturing under the strain not only from without, but from within as well. The poetry keeps things heavy, dangerous, mysterious. Things aren’t all doom and gloom, though, with a bit of humor mixed in as well, and a spot of meta-textuality as one of the poems evokes and complicates a different text (one probably familiar to most people reading this). The publication crosses the three quarter mark on the year in style, with a strong range of works that do not disappoint. To the reviews!


“Quiet” by Aqdas Aftab (4886 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has come to home to the place he grew up, bringing his partner along with to meet his sister, to see his city. It’s a city that he mostly escaped, though, one that has been slipping more and more into a totalitarian state that outlaws touch. Under the guise of wanting to prevent abuse, all touch is increasingly criminalized, and that eventually spreads to communicating as well, as in one swoop a fence is activated and everyone in the city loses the ability to vocalize. Not that they can’t still talk, but to do so they must violate the law keeping people apart, as only through touch can people still “speak.” It puts the narrator and their partner into a very difficult situation, and builds to a wrenching and devastating decision that the narrator ends up making. The piece is not all that happy, but with its bleakness comes a statement on human touch and connection.
Keywords: Fences, Language, Silence, Touch, Relationships, Family
Review: I love how the piece draws the relationship between the narrator and their partner, Rooh. How they bring her to this city in part to show her what he escaped, to meet with the sister he’s mostly a stranger to now. How they get caught by a sudden shift, the city suddenly locked down. And I love that Rooh is the first to reach out, the first to touch, the first to sort of push people to fight back, or at least to reach out to each other with compassion. This despite coming from a place ripe with violence. Despite having nightmares every night. Despite her racing thoughts, her PTSD, her anxiety. She’s still the one to go out, to touch most boldly, to reassure and try to comfort. Which in turn sort of throws the narrator into a strange place. Where he feels like he’s beyond the stifling beliefs of his city but still isn’t really where he could be. He still pulls away when he feels everything that Rooh feels. Still flinches, still tries to keep distance between them. Because her hurts are too intense, her thoughts so much more than he’s used to handling. And I feel like he’s dealing with shame, shame that for all he hates his city and wants to be away from it, for all he disagrees with what’s going on, he’s still rather willing to go along with it if it makes his safer. And seeing that reflected in Rooh’s experiences unsettles him. And I just love that complicated nature of resistance, of home, of growing up with constraints, of leaving and coming back. It all builds to this sort of tragedy, to the narrator out by themself, listening to the birds, almost happy to be free from the voices of suffering, from the weight of knowing someone is in this acute pain. It’s a gutting moment of...not quite acceptance, but a step in that direction. Where the narrator has this deep failing to stand by the person he’s supposed to love. And it’s brilliantly rendered and achingly told. A fantastic read!


“Back Story” by David Clink

I think as a reviewer this poem makes me particularly happy because it seems to be about a certain kind of questioning that happens in poetry. Where readers will look for...hidden meaning, as it were, or something that might seem random, a bit of mood, a line that is doing its job but might, just might, have some incredibly hidden depths. In some ways it speaks to the ways that people will read into texts, the ways that they will disect and take apart poetry line by line, word by word, image by image, hoping to expose some heretofore unknown and uncommented upon bit of meaning and truth that will add to the discussion, to the discourse, to the Body of Very Important Criticism that is being done. Or, failing that, it might play with how people can be very insecure when they read poetry, because it’s always seemed to them at least a bit rubbish, flimflam, like they were in English class and the teach explained casual as you please that this image meant something deep and intimate because the author was actually referring to something, that urn not an urn but an allusion, an homage, a metaphor and piece of buried treasure just waiting for students to unearth if only they can guess, if only they can get the scoop. And so reading poetry can be like an exercise in wondering what’s beneath the surface, sometimes to the exclusion of, well, enjoying the poem. And when that happens, the poem seems to be saying, there is perhaps too much being placed on that buried meaning, too much emphasis on the backstory or some poetic choice, when more attention could be put toward just sort of appreciating what’s there, and reflecting on where the poem moves the reader. And, I mean, the piece is also just a lot of fun, a dense brick of text without formatting or anything, giving readers this ever-expanding paragraph like the world’s longest run-on sentence that really isn’t going to help anyone appreciate what that previous poem with the planet was doing but heck if it doesn’t make for an entertaining monologue in its own right. It’s clever and fun and you should definitely spend some time with it. A great read!

“Undiscovered Hells” by Maggie Damken

This piece is a blackout poem, or a poem made from using marker or other censoring agent to block out bit sof a preexisting text in order to let a new text, the poem, break free. And the piece that the poem is using to black out is the opening of Frankenstein. Which, I mean, it does help to do the spot of research to figure that out, because for me personally that adds a nice layer into what this new work is saying. And I guess I’m also not being entirely right in calling a blackout because the work also takes the words and moves them into a new configuration. So it’s part blackout, part collage, and that makes it, again, fit so well with the source, the idea of a person stitched together, something of a monstrous creation, which poetry certainly fits to a letter most of the time. More than that, though, the actual text, this new revealed poem, is grim and acts as something of an ill omen. For me at least, the piece is rather clear. It begins “disaster arrived” and that speaks to something not exactly great happening. Something big and baleful, something that the narrator has reason to regret. When taking the piece as maybe a commentary on the source, it’s easy to read the poem as a kind of summary, the book in question very much a case of disastrous arrival brought about by the banished wonders of undiscovered hells, and the way those wonders, brought screaming into the world and rejected, reassert and reclaim space that had been denied them. As a text separate from the novel, it’s a creepy little poem that still packs a punch, the effect sinking, like seeing something huge on the horizon and only growing bigger. It works into the ideas of chiaroscuro and the sublime which worked into a lot of romantic and gothic works, complicated in works like Frankenstein and reflected here in this poem. It’s sharp and it’s very short but there’s a lot to dig into and it makes for a wonderful read!


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