I don't think of myself as a poet, although I have written poems. (Many of them rather poor, it must be said.) And I don't think of myself as a reader of poetry, although I've read, and more to the point, enjoyed, quite a bit of poetry. So when Strange Horizons's poetry editors invited me to contribute a review of Mythic Delirium's final print issue, my first reaction was surprise.
I'm still a bit surprised, to be honest: this is the first issue of Mythic Delirium I've ever read. Indeed, I'm not widely or consistently read in the field of speculative and mythic poetry, and thus I cannot make sweeping statements about the whole run of thirty issues, or Mythic Delirium's place in and influence upon the poetry conversation (other participants in this conversation include the likes of Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, and Strange Horizons itself). This is a retrospective issue, filled with poems reprinted from the first twenty-five issues, and my inability to place this issue securely in its context eats at me.
But I can, at least, talk about the poems.
For the most part they're pretty unimpressive.
That's a judgement of taste, which, when it comes to poetry, is probably more idiosyncratic than in any other area of the literary arts. Particularly in the absence of poetic formalism: there are bad sonnets, but it is easier to judge a bad sonnet, or a bad sestina (and also easier to write a bad one), than it is to judge freeform poetry. (Not, alas, that I'm well-schooled in formalism.) Poetry is poetry, rather than prose, because it bears significance in its rhythm, fire in its assonance, the shiver of half-remembered associations in rhyme and metre, syllables searing off the tongue—
Poetry burns. Or it should: freighted with the heft of all the things that cannot be said in words, it speaks with its silences, implies by its choices, signifies meaning slantwise. Poetry is as close as I get to religious experience, these days: for me, it matters. A strophe implies a world; a line, a universe of possibilities.
But very few of these poems reach into my blood and brain and ignite any of my enthusiasm. Four of them. Perhaps five: Theodora Goss's "Bal Macabre" is a chill and elegant yet playful piece; but within the confines of its rhyme scheme, it never quite comes together into a speaking unity.
The same is not true for either of Sonya Taaffe's two poems in this issue, the haunting, eerie "Sedna," and the uncanny, memorable "Kaddish for a Dybbuk." Sedna is the Mother of the Sea in Inuit mythology, an underworld goddess whose fingers—severed by her father—became sea mammals, and
souls weight like fish
the net of her hair.
The poem spirals out like the sea-combed hair that forms one of its central images, tangling the reader in the echo of something old, and vast, and cold. The poem's rhythm shifts between its first lines and its final ones: the long, rounded vowels of down and comb and bone and hold recall the hollow boom of sea on shore:
Go down, and comb her hair.
Below the ice. Go down, and comb her hair.
Knucklebone joints turned seal and whale,
walrus, narwhal, gliding from the darkness
of her spindrift hair: the bone comb
she cannot hold in her blunted hands.
Thumbless, fingerless, tidal cavern curving
in the dark: she can only hold the world.
"Kaddish for a Dybbuk" reflects a similar maturity: here is a thoughtful poet working with the limits of language and mythology to shape something potent with meaning. But where "Sedna" rolls outwards, "Kaddish for a Dybbuk" pulls you in to a tightening spiral of interiority, grief, inevitability: clinging, like the possessing spirit of its title, reminding you of dead souls caught in place; of the bittersweet aftertaste of mourning:
than milk the impossible wish
to give the dead back the selves
they forfeited with their final
"[T]he ending/is always the same," Taaffe says in "Kaddish for a Dybbuk," and it is that quiet inevitability that unifies all this poem's ghosts.
Amal El-Mohtar's "Song for an Ancient City" strikes me with its mingled poignancy and defiance, the echo of sorrow and longing. (I cannot help feel, reading it now, that Syria's present civil war gives that poignancy an added layer: "Damascus, Dimashq/is a song I sing to myself.")
"Song for an Ancient City" is more open, poetically, than either of Taaffe's poems, its images less compressed: more like a scatter of breadcrumbs than Taaffe's dense crust over deep wells of meaning. Or perhaps like a scatter of stars in the night sky:
like powdered cinnamon, I would wear
as other girls wear jasmine and lilies,
that a child with seafoam eyes
and dusky skin might cry, there
goes a girl with seven thousand years
at the hollow of her throat, there
goes a girl who opens her mouth to pour
caravans, mamelukes, a mongolian horde
from lips that know less of roses
than of temples in the rising sun!
The dust of Damascus, the clamor of the city—"and there is dust in her laughter"—winds about this poem, drawing it through interior rhyme and repetition and images cut to glass-edged sharpness to an aching conclusion. Possession, past, belonging, the love and loss of history and place: the speaker of the poem knots them all together in the senses, and passes them on:
would spill attar from my eyes,
mix her dust with my salt,
steep my fingers in her stone
and raise them to my lips.
Jennifer Crow's "We Took Our Gods" doesn't set me afire with the same sort of language-drunk, rhythm-lost delight as the poems of Taaffe and El-Mohtar. But it speaks of myth and mockery in spaceflight, a bared-teeth grin at mythology:
took mischief, mirth, and mockery—
idols that flash like teeth
and cut the unwary
What gods—what stories?—would you bring to new worlds?
Not the ones with placid faces
and still hands
Crow's poem argues, but the gamblers, the ones with
with the tales that birthed them.
It's a strong enough image, a strong enough conceit, that the poem stands up around it.
Should I criticize the other poems? Out of two dozen-odd, only these stand out for their poetic grace and power. Of Mythic Delirium 30's other offerings, the best that can be said is that some of them try too hard for a post-modern apotheosis of sense (while never quite attaining their goals), while others never rise above a journeyman naiveté that shows the outlines of promise.
This issue, alas, also includes K. S. Hardy's "Saint Neil," which contains the memorable lines:
In the moondust
For the frequent
Touchings of pilgrims
Have caused it
Of "Saint Neil," like far too many of the poems in this issue, the most praise one can give is, well, they tried. Much as I tried to find an echo of the Muses in them, but without success.