While even readers unfamiliar with genre literature can identify a work of speculative fiction, they have often been less certain about the speculative in poetry. After all, in these latter days of Star Wars and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, where Harry Potter and Anita Blake still dominate the bookshelves, one would be hard-pressed not to notice such works. To put it crudely, if it has spaceships, dragons, or vampires, chances are it isn't mainstream realistic fiction.
Yet for some reason, the idea that poetry can deal with the same tropes and concerns as science fiction, fantasy, and horror has yet to really take hold, despite the fact that speculative poetry could be called the oldest form of human story telling. What are The Odyssey, Gilgamesh and The Faerie Queene if not journeys into the impossible, and therefore journeys that employ some amount of speculation about what might happen if the mythic, the unusual and the impossible suddenly became real? To understand speculative poetry, one should first pick up one of these epic poems, or any epic poem. And then, one should pick up a collection by Science Fiction Poetry Association Grand Master Poet Bruce Boston, one of the finest and most original voices working in speculative poetry today. Any collection will do, of course, but his most recent chapbook Shades Fantastic, which collects poems published between 2001 and 2006, particularly stands out as a primer of what speculative poetry can and should be at its finest. In this slim volume, Boston takes the reader on an incredible journey through such places as the ruins of Stonehenge, the cold interior life of statues, the farthest reaches of space, and the undefined spaces of dreams. Along the way he never fails to ask the question that lies in one way another at the heart of all speculative poetry, as well as speculative prose: what if? Sometimes terrifying, sometimes whimsical, and sometimes downright absurd, Boston's answers to this question are always original and gripping.
One of Boston's main strengths as a poet is his unabashed wonder and amazement for everything the universe has to offer, and even some of the things it doesn't. In "Heavy Weather" (which won the 2005 Asimov's Reader's Choice Award) he asks what would happen "if gravity changed like the weather," leaving people pinned to the earth for a time to dream of floating in fair skies. "Of Glass, Of Fire, Of Elements Abundantly Defined" looks at a volatile conversation elements in the periodic table might have, while "Origami Rockets" reads like a school boy's essay about life in outer space:
They float to the moon
in origami rockets.
a childhood fantasy.
The moon smells
like a green apple [...]
Boston's playfulness and sense of wonder lend themselves well to surrealism, and Shades Fantastic contains several poems that play with the form's conventions. Of these, "Three Seconds Before Waking" looks at the madcap end of a dream using recursive imagery straight from the Salvador Dali paintings that inspired it:
from the mouths of pomegranates
come sea bass
from the mouths of sea bass
from the mouths of tigers
from the mouths of rifles
come coins [...]
While the work of several contemporary speculative poets (such as that of Catherynne M. Valente and Mike Allen) obviously owes a large debt to surrealism, rare is the poet in this day who attempts such a literal translation of this movement's principles into words. In "Three Seconds Before Waking" and poems like "Revealing Their Eyes" and "When Clock is Egg," Boston succeeds in bringing the delightful anarchy of surrealism to a new generation of readers. His language revels in surrealism's mystery and seeming randomness, and also in its gun-fire rapidity.
Boston's humor also has a wry streak, as seen in the book's shortest piece "When the Alien Sat Down Beside Me," a poem in the style of William Carlos Williams which plays on xenophobia and the double meaning of the politically loaded word "alien" :
When the alien sat down next to me,
if they hadn't told me he was alien,
if I didn't know about such things,
I would have taken him for human.
But they did tell me, and I do know,
so I stood up and walked away.
Indeed, many of the poems Shades Fantastic examine comparatively starker subjects as the terror of war ("Future Forth"), human extinction ("Mandates for the Fifth Enclave"), and even ritualistic murder ("In the Sweltering Ruins of the Old City"). Boston's tone never becomes cynical or macabre when he faces down human cruelty and frailty, but this apparent lightness in tone does not imply dismissiveness of its subjects. By giving details and refusing to dwell on his heavier subjects, Boston leaves the reader with powerful images—such as the bomb-like explosions of fireworks, of young men stalking young women with long knives—which become progressively starker and more horrifying the longer one contemplates them. Through this signature economy of word and image he provides the reader with an impressionistic look at unpleasant subjects and in doing so portrays their ugliness all the more effectively. In "Shells: The Next Generation," Boston uses this linguistic impressionism to discuss the impact of human greed on the environment. The way he does this bears comparison to the way Monet used seemingly haphazard brushstrokes to define a Cathedral or a lily pond when viewed at the proper distance.
[...] At dusk a lone beachcomber wanders
the trampled and deserted shoreline,
a sloppy hat upon his weathered brow.
His shell collection is far from complete
and there is no hope of completing it now.
He unearths only a few shattered remnants,
notable only for how their grained interiors
can sometimes shine with muted intensity
in the swiftly falling horizontal light [...]
Shades Fantastic will delight fans of Boston's earlier work and serve as a wonderful introduction to the world of speculative poetry for novices. Perhaps more comprehensive, although in many ways as different from Shades Fantastic as night is from day, is Boston's 2001 collection of fiction and poetry, Masque of Dreams. While the poetry chapbook focuses mostly on externals—the beauty of ancient ruins, the exhilaration of exploring space—the pieces in Masque of Dreams concern themselves with internals. As the subtitle promises, this collection is full of crises of identity and the illusions (whether induced by drugs, isolation, magic, or even a spaceship crashing into a planet) that instigate them. Inevitably, it is also a collection about human transformation, physical and psychological, beautiful and terrible, mostly for good, but frequently for ill. The 39 poems and short stories cover a wide range of moods, themes, and even geographies, from 1960s drug culture, to Victorian séances, to ghoulish isolated mountain towns that could have sprung from the works of Bram Stoker or Franz Kafka.
Boston's playful spirit is alive and well in such stories as "One-Trick Dog," the raucous Lewis Carroll send-up "With Vorpal Sword in Hand," and the hilariously disturbing "Interview with a Gentleman Farmer" (which gives new meaning to the term "animal husbandry"), but most of the pieces in Masque of Dreams have a dreamier and more wondrous quality. Its comparative quietness draws in the reader and leads him or her into new and unusual realms. Indeed, there is something meditative about many of the stories and poems in this collection. Many of the pieces are meditations on the uncertainty and fragility of human existence and the desperation, terror, or downright dissatisfaction which can drive people to search for something beyond their current lives. The yearnings of Boston's characters for such basic things as a concrete identity (in the 60s-inspired poem "Confessions of a Body Thief"), fame (in the apocalyptic tale "Burning Man"), and a way to transcend grief (the evocative "Houses") are all too familiar.
Boston's use of language is also on fine form in Masque of Dreams, and the imagery of his short stories is just as precise and descriptive as that used in his poetry. This is especially true of the short story "Holos at an Exhibition of the Mutant Rainforest" (co-authored with Robert Frazier). This is the third work (and the only prose piece) set in the landscape Boston and Frazier first created in their 1992 book Chronicles of the Mutant Rainforest. Here, Boston and Frazier use vivid, poetic language to evoke their strange world. Their prose is especially enhanced by the inclusion of unfamiliar plant life (lianas, "twenty-foot Spanish bayonets" and "multitudinous strains of rainbow-hued cacti" to name a few), as well as unusual images, like deadwood stumps that "canted like quaint tombstones in an abandoned graveyard" or vines hanging "in great tatters of lace work" in the "lush vegetable darkness."
A few of the collection's stories deserve special distinction for their construction, language, and overall quality. These include "Love in Babylon", an ingenious and perversely sexy tale of love and lust between artificially engineered beings, "Curse of the Cyberhead's Wife," a nuanced look at the impact of the internet and virtual reality on marital relations that never falls into shrillness or cliché, and "The Eyes of the Crowd", the previously mentioned evocation of Kafkaesque alienation and displacement that will please any reader of early modern psychological horror. But the best story in the collection is also the longest, "After Magic" (which Dark Regions Press published as a book in 1999). Set in 1893, this novella follows familiar figures from the Victorian side show, including a jaded magician, a fraud of a medium (who nonetheless has some real claims to psychic power), a dwarf, and even a trained monkey in their quests to discover "real magic." Their quest increasingly becomes as much about freeing themselves to the vicissitudes of desire as it is about freeing themselves from their lives of stage tricks and chicanery. With its interweaving story lines, which follow characters from fin-de-siecle England to the Far East, it is a complex and satisfying love story that ultimately becomes once more about yearning; about the human need for intellectual and emotional transcendence. The fact that it also features a sympathetic romantic couple who are not traditional in temperament or attractiveness (specifically, a frail, hawk-nosed man and an overweight woman) is also refreshingly unusual.
Masque of Dreams is a gripping and inventive collection; in both this book and Shades Fantastic, Boston demonstrates a gift for creating dynamic worlds and situations which not only draw in the reader, but which speak simply and truthfully about human frailty at the same time.
JoSelle Vanderhooft is the author of the novel The Tale of the Miller's Daughter (Papaveria Press) and several poems and short stories. Her chapbook, The Minotaur's Last Letter to His Mother, will be released in Spring 2007 by Ash Phoenix Books. She is Senior Book Reviewer for The Pedestal Magazine and the editor of several soon-to-be published anthologies of queer speculative fiction. She lives in Salt Lake City.