There is a huge challenge in creating any anthology of anything. Doing so suggests an attempt to offer readers a representation of a specific body of literature at a specific time. The difficulty of that task is compounded when the anthology commits to an international remit, an attempt to showcase writers from a range of cultures and linguistic backgrounds. And when one adds to all that the additional challenge of providing a representation of something as amorphous and ambiguous as “science fiction poetry,” editors Rachel Plummer and Russell Jones are to be congratulated for the scale and scope of their attempt.
There is certainly a need for an anthology of this sort. With the number of active magazines and websites regularly publishing science, or speculative, fiction and poetry (including this one), readers might find it difficult to know where to start. Yet, going by a quick internet search, besides the annual Rhysling anthology there doesn’t seem to be much out there in the way of volumes for those interested in the current “state of the field.” A unifying international anthology seems like a good idea. Plummer, herself a poet, and Jones—an editor, along with Noel Chidwick, of the magazine Shoreline of Infinity, itself an important venue for publishing and showcasing science fiction poetry—are well positioned to offer a vantage point. This was their goal in Multiverse (pun surely intended), an anthology featuring seventy contributors from around the world— though there are only a handful of translations, and the editors admit in their introduction that a large proportion are from Scotland, where they are both based.
On the basis of this anthology, is it possible to say anything about the current state of science fiction poetry? Are there any valid generalizations to be made? First, let’s be honest: there’s certainly a kind of desperation in speculative poetry, a longing to be taken seriously, to be accounted as “true literature”—a phenomenon which Jane Yolen mentions in her brief foreword to the anthology. And why not? Why shouldn’t it be possible for poems that deal with, as the book’s back cover lays out with unfortunate alliteration, “robotics and romance, asteroids and arachnids, nukes and nanobots, worm holes, warp drives and future wars” to be just as effective as any other type?
Part of the challenge of speculative poetry being considered “serious” is that poetry, perhaps more than any other form of literature, is anchored in experience, sensation, and metaphor. And this is truly difficult—is really pushed to its limit—in science fiction poetry. One could write a poem about the experience of viewing a nebula through a telescope, for example. But it’s much more difficult to write poetry about visiting that nebula or interacting with the sentient, gaseous life forms that may dwell within it, with the same level of sensual grounding. It can be tricky to keep the language anchored and not drifting off into fuzzy metaphors that don’t connect to anything that feels real.
On the other hand, “space without poetry is a lost cause,” as one of the authors in this anthology writes (in a poem that itself includes the wonderful line, “the cold extended hand of that gracious galaxy”). The author is writing about including poets on space missions, of the fact that we need poets to engage with the emptiness and futility and wonder of space:
What will the void impose upon us,
if we do not first dare to describe it? (p. 221)
Is this the goal of science fiction poetry, to try to bring expression to that void? According to Borges, that master of magical realism, poetry is about making linguistic connections. If we accept this view (which for Borges is a universalizing one—every word, in this sense, can be poetry), then the strength of science fiction poetry (and its unique challenge) is that whereas most good poetry forges new or unexpected metaphors between things we’re familiar with, drawing aspects of life and experience together in new ways, science fiction poetry uses metaphors to build bridges to places we’ve never been before.
Then there’s the interesting intersection between speculative poetry and nature poetry. When is poetry about the physical world considered science fiction poetry? Apparently, if it has to do with astronomy or physics, and there are some fantastic poems about science in this anthology.
All we see of these distant planets
are their clean-punched shadow-holes (p. 39)
This is a wonderful image of discovering exoplanets by the transit method. There’s also a great poem about the Planck length, which not only ties metaphors to the nuts and bolts of physics, but then lands the poem with a twist, a bridge to something you weren’t expecting:
The universe has a chunky basement,
indivisible blocks, like a careless god
thought we wouldn’t notice …
… Now time a photon’s walk
across the Planck. Notice: Time
doesn’t flow at this scale. It stutters. Tiny
ticks, the universe taking discrete turns.
Those suspicious that we live in a computer
simulation: take note. These observations
are relevant to your interests. (p. 128)
The ground here is fertile: technology, space, astronomy, AI, aliens; all the tropes of science fiction open new vistas from which to build images and metaphor, those fundamental elements of the poem as a form.
Yet, in this anthology, I felt the editors cast the net too wide. The book was organized loosely around themes: space, earth (read, climate change jeremiads—for which there is a justified place, but reading any such sequence gets to be depressing), tech, relationships, science, time, body, and finally a section simply self-referentially entitled “sf.” There was too broad a variety of quality and form—from cringe-worthy odes to science fiction television shows to a “post-apocalyptic haiku” composed of blank squares—to form any sort of generalizations of what science fiction poetry has to say as a whole. A legitimate argument is that maybe that’s simply an empirical reflection of the field; but, as a reader, I would have preferred—considering the editors’ locality—to see what an anthology of Scottish or British SF poetry would have read like, or how science fiction poetry from the British Isles might be collected, or perhaps a volume of “award-winning SF poetry.” This would have offered a clearer, and therefore more productive, focus.
That said, some of these pieces were truly remarkable. Take for instance the lines:
The arachnoids of Venus are spidery
networks of fractures, radiating
like highways of ancient cities. (p. 31)
There are, to the best of my knowledge, no such things as arachnoids of Venus, but the solid images here, the clear idea of a city seen from the air, seems to bring to mind topographical maps of Venus as well as pulp-era imaginings of the planet’s inhabitants—and illustrates that idea of building a bridge with metaphor.
Compare that with another poem, one that didn’t work for me. As I was trying to figure out why it didn’t work, I kept coming back to the idea of the solidity of metaphor:
Light-pockets of cities pulse-signal eternity.
Narrowed cats’ eyes peer among looping contours,
geology’s fingerprints. Above, quicksilver webs
trap time in flight as galaxies dissolve and birth. (p. 158)
Here the images seem stacked on each other, alluding to vistas seen first from above and then from below, but the metaphors don’t seem anchored to anything. They don’t paint any concrete picture for me, beyond a vague sort of science fiction montage.
Unfortunately, this was my reaction to a lot of poems in this anthology. I’m not going to be so declarative as to say the poems were not good, but I will say I found many of them unconvincing. I wasn’t able to consistently muster that “willing suspension of disbelief” that comes so much easier in prose fiction but that Coleridge called the essence of “poetic faith.”
What seemed to me most clearly lacking in this international anthology, though, were pieces that married this strength of metaphor with cultural diversity. Certainly, there are several pieces—a disproportionate number, perhaps—which were written in a sort of future Scottish brogue that was incredibly hard for me as a North American reader to parse; more strikingly, there were two pieces in particular that stood out as the kind of thing I wanted to see a lot more of: Alex Hernandez’s “Cien Mil Soles” and Cat Hellisen’s “The Migratory Patterns of Family Recipes.” Both were excellent poems that made the longing for space and the imagined realities of life there truly feel like they were—are—planet-wide. The stanzas near the end of Hernandez’s poem seemed especially timely:
… by the gravity of all those abuelitas spinning their tales
Kepler-16b will transform into Eleggua, crooked smile in the sky.
Trappist-1e will slip into the sultry skin of Oshun.
Gliese 518d, with its hobbled orbit, will be christened Babalú-Ayé
cigar smoke swirling. (p. 53)
And maybe this is an indication of what science fiction poetry can do at its best: not simply connect us through language and metaphor in new and surprising ways to places we’ve never been or seen; but more than that—help us see the connections that others can forge. What I mean is that it’s one thing to be given a stunning metaphor of how I might see the sky; it’s another—and deeper—thing to be given a glimpse of how someone else might see it. In the best pieces of this anthology, the reader gets a glimpse of this poetic possibility.