The Speculative in Poetry
Recently, I lost interest in fiction. Every new novel was a weak version of something familiar. Every short story was uninteresting until the last paragraph, which would hint at a better -- more challenging, more satisfying -- story not in existence. In the grip of this malaise, I abandoned books left and right. I stared out bus windows. I walked away from library shelves with nothing in hand. Eventually, the feeling passed and fiction became interesting again, but my loss of interest provided me with a gift, too, because in the time of fiction's absence I stumbled into the realm of speculative poetry.
Previously, speculative poetry had struck me as an oxymoron. The speculative refers to genres more commonly associated with fiction: fantasy, science fiction, horror, the weird, and the various subgenres and combinations thereof. I thought, mistakenly, that the speculative was rooted in playing with and responding to a kind of literalness antithetical to poetry. The one or two examples of speculative poetry I had previously read reinforced this belief. They shouted their speculativeness through genre tropes and insisted the reader understand that the fairies were literal fairies -- real fairies -- and not metaphors. They cut off ambiguous interpretation, and in doing so cut away much of what I love both about the speculative and about poetry. Luckily for me, it turns out there is a whole world of speculative poetry nothing like those literal poems.
"Reverberations," the eleventh issue of Stone Telling, the online speculative poetry magazine, is an excellent example. Its poems are anything but insistently literal. They range from poems rooted in myth and fable to those whose connections to the speculative of any kind are perhaps more of a touch -- a brush with the fantastic. In the About section and the submission guidelines on the website, the editors make clear they are more interested in boundary-crossings than border checking and these boundary-crossings allow for brief glimpses of what is not in between explorations of what is. They are often metaphorical and literal at once, flickering between the two states in a breath or a word.
The issue opens with a poem by Isabel Yap, "The Monkey Climbs the Tree, as the Turtle Watches." The poem immediately places itself within the familiar speculative context of fables and fairy tales. It begins with a snapshot from a Filipino fable: the monkey (Matsing) in the tree while the turtle (Pagong) waits below. The open lines function as a retelling of the story, but in the eighth line the poem powerfully shifts out of narrative:
How to reconsider
the inevitable end: some shouting, some
drowning, a lake with bodies bloated
from the same cautionary tale, an overturned
shell, discarded bandages the color of rust.
While the first lines placed us deep in a single moment, the above lines suddenly push us into fast-forward, bringing us abruptly to the conclusion and its consequences. In this version, though, those consequences have far more physicality than is typical for a fable. The overturned shell, the discarded bandages (all the more real for being the color of rust rather than blood-soaked), and the bloated bodies all pull away the comfortable veil of a moral, which stands between our reality and the reality of the fable. At the same time, the speaker seems exhausted by the attempts -- by her and by others -- to retell the fable in a new way. It's those attempts to retell the fable that have filled the lake with bodies. And yet, as the last few lines make clear, the story forever tempts with the possibility of turning out differently, pulling us into reading the poem itself again in hopes of a new outcome.
Sara Norja's "Kuura (extract from a Finnish-English dictionary)" is an example of a less directly speculative poem. The speaker describes the physical phenomenon of hoarfrost on tree branches in the deep of winter, "a type of hoar-frost that clings / to each branch-- / birch, pine, larch." The poem gains a different reading from being placed within a magazine of speculative poetry, in which the unreal can be real. Just as the title invokes cultural crossings and dual-interpretations, the movement between Finnish and English, the speculative allows the descriptions to be both metaphor and real at once. The speaker's walk "is a fairytale," "Kuura wraps the trees in a veil," "they've grown spirit leaves" -- you can read these as apt images or you can read them as literal truths, and the poem supports both readings.
While I enjoyed many of the poems, I had a clear favorite: Ruth Jenkins's "Scales." It's perhaps not coincidence that Jenkins made the most use of narrative in the issue. The poem opens with a place and a character, though the solidity of both is immediately unsettled: "Sera swears the hospital becomes a ship at night / its foundations loosen and shrug off the earth." Again, the context of the speculative creates an open understanding of these lines. We hear the speaker's slight doubt in "Sera swears" -- there is a hint of an argument between the two characters -- but at the same time we know this is a magazine in which a hospital can turn into a ship, and so Sera could be entirely correct about the hospital at night.
"Scales" is also open in its form. The order of the lines, and of the narrative itself, changes depending on which linked words the reader selects. For example, in the opening lines quoted above, the reader could select "ship" or select "earth," and that choice determines the next lines in the poem. Certain key events and lines repeat no matter which path you take: the hospital room, the speaker's childhood surgery to remove her scales, the statues of girl-fishes found in the woods in the dark. The storyline shuffles and reforms itself around these events with each rereading. I decided not to be methodical and so was surprised on the fifth time, the sixth, the eighth, when the story suddenly revealed a previously hidden moment. Here a little more about the triangular relationship between Sera, Marcie, and the speaker, a love-triangle formed by the contours of knowledge rather than of jealousy. Here a little more about the statues of girl-fishes, torn from their rightful place in the woods. Here scales glittering beneath sleeves. Here a story of illness and those who wait, who recount and consider the traces of the convalescent in their lives. To say "more" feels like an attempt to pin down what lives through movement, and so instead I'll offer a few lines, plucked from throughout the poem:
When we stand the earth tilts
back and forth to an old rhythm
wooden girl-fish bodies
ever so still among the trees
In this city, the sea is always the horizon
the lights of ship-wrecked boats stars.
The other poems in the issue, thirteen in all, also invite repeated readings. There are conversations between creatures and makers ("To the Creature" by Gillian Daniels) and conversations with long-dead poets ("I do not know your ἀλφάβητος" by Saira Ali). There are apparent scenes of destruction ("Vertigo and Annihilation" by Valeria Rodriguez Mar and "The Exile, i." by M Sereno), which may turn out to be something else entirely once fully explored. There is a whole world of speculative poetry, previously unknown, to cure me of my fatigue.