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[Editor's Note: Roger Dutcher, one of the editors of The Alchemy of Stars, is a Poetry Editor at Strange Horizons.]
The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase anthologizes science fiction, fantasy, and horror poems that won the Rhysling Award from 1978-2004, and includes supporting materials by leading voices in these fields. Altogether, this collection presents an ideal resource for fans of speculative poetry; for those new to this branch of poetry, it provides an ideal introduction.
In his foreword, Roger Dutcher explains how he discovered science fiction poetry from an ad in Locus, plus the history of speculative poetry and the formation of the anthology. Jane Yolen thoughtfully debates the usefulness of an award specific to speculative poetry. Robert Frazier analyzes the history of science fiction poetry including decade-by-decade detail of its recent evolution, the rise of the Rhysling Award, possible future trends, and a fascinating list of Rhysling synchronicities.
The poems conveniently appear in chronological order, first the long and then the short poem from each year, allowing readers to observe trends over time. (Some years feature extra, tied winners.) They span the range of rhymed and unrhymed, traditional and experimental forms. The editors secured reprint rights for all but one winner; you can track down "On Science Fiction" by Thomas M. Disch in Nebula Awards Stories: 17, edited by Joe Haldeman, or Burning With a Vision, edited by Robert Frazier.
Some of these poems deserve particular attention. "Storybooks and Treasure Maps" (1979 short) by Steve Eng is a double ballad, elegantly written in a Tolkienesque style, with a haunting tension between the wonder of childhood and the disillusionment of maturity. The narrator explains:
The chivalry of knights-in-armour's ended,
Fading like a fable into time,
The castle and the walls are undefended,
Empty like an ancient nursery rhyme.
But you and I must fight, and not surrender
All the dreams of yesterday we knew;
The grown-ups better listen and remember
Storybooks and treasure maps are true.
Helen Ehrlich offers a pair of sonnets, "Love Song to Lucy" and "Lucy Answers" (1984 short), a dialog between descendants and foremother musing on deep time and evolution. "Letter from Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)" by Siv Cedering (1985 long) evokes astronomy from a female perspective. In "Rocky Road to Hoe" (1988 short), Suzette Haden Elgin relates the dilemma of an ordinary woman who hears stones talking. Although the narrative is entertaining, the title of David Memmott's poem is the best part: "The Aging Cryonicist in the Arms of His Mistress Contemplates the Survival of the Species While the Phoenix Is Consumed by Fire" (1991 long). W. Gregory Stewart deftly tells a complete science fiction story without using narrative; the result is bizarre, delightful, and unique. Consider this excerpt from "the button and what you know" (1992 long):
I. this is the button and
what you know about it:
1. that it is a button - you know this.
2. that it has suddenly appeared before you.
3. that the button is
attached to a plate;
that the plate is attached to nothing else—
that it floats.
Laurel Winter's "egg horror poem" (1999 short) is the most disturbing piece in this anthology, about the fears of a carton of eggs. Most scary poems, you don't want to read at night. This one you don't want to read in the morning, before breakfast, or you'll wind up eating cold cereal. "Grimoire" (2000 short) by Rebecca Marjesdatter offers a different take on growing up than Steve Eng, as she speaks of a reader-turned-writer seeking to slip into other worlds. Lawrence Schimel explains "How to Make a Human" (2002 long) by dissecting mythical beasts. This is my favorite verse:
Take the horse from the centaur
and you take away the sleek grace,
the strength of harnessed power.
What is left can still run across fields,
after a fashion, but is easily winded;
what is left will therefore erect buildings
to divide the open plains, so he no longer
must face the wide expanse where once
his equine legs raced the winds
and, sometimes, won.
Suzette Haden Elgin concludes the anthology by describing how she founded the SFPA and where it went from there. Author biographies at the end provide a "who's who" of speculative poetry.
The Alchemy of Stars gathers the best of science fiction and the best of poetry, melding them into a unique conglomerate. It holds great appeal for both science fiction and poetry fans—and it makes an excellent resource for teachers or panelists. Most highly recommended.
Elizabeth Barrette writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her fields include speculative fiction, alternative spirituality, and gender studies. She often does panels at cons. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief, bungee-jumping, and spelunking in other people’s reality tunnels.