2012 was a good year for speculative poetry, with the release of the feminist anthology The Moment of Change (ed. Rose Lemberg) and the return of the journal Inkscrawl, the new speculative-themed issue of Rattle and the debut of Through the Gate, and continued fine work coming out of Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, and other journals. While I've read a fair amount of new and original speculative poetry in the last year, I've only read one speculative novel-in-verse about sexual politics in academia, and I couldn't put it down.
The project is an exciting move in the work of poet Lesley Wheeler, whose previous books of poetry—Heathen (2004) and Heterotopia (2008)—have offered the more traditional format of shorter, discrete poems (no novels-in-verse) presented to and largely received by an audience in the literary mainstream. (While there are some wonderfully speculative moments in those earlier books—poems like "Zombie" and "Nevermore" in Heathen, for instance—it's for certain that they do not rhyme "icy night" with "Turkish Delight" [p. 52].) The Receptionist and Other Tales is thus a bit of a risk in terms of genre, but it's one that pays off for the reader who loves word-play, women's lives, and the immersive world of the Quest, echoed in well-known fantasy and science fiction stories.
University Counsel loomed there, a pair
of lawyers, Blackberrys shining brighter than
the hide on their wings. This is the part where
the Riders attack you from their avian
steeds. The damned Voice tolled again in Edna's
ear, and she looked up in surprise. A skin
of clouds was forming over faint stars,
a crescent moon. They want to steal your voice,
it warned. Not my amulet? Edna was
exasperated. Not my spell-book? Your choice. (p. 12)
These lines succeed on the level of narrative energy as well as poetic craft. Momentum comes from several directions—the threat of attorneys on the hill, Edna's rising to meet them, and the ongoing and contentious dialogue between Edna and the Voice. The figurative language is lively and playful (Blackberrys as knives) and extends fluently, as their shine is compared to "the hide on [the Riders'] wings." Fantasy is both metaphor (attorneys as Riders) and part of the literal story (there's a Voice, giving a warning). The Voice itself talks in terms of fantasy as a genre—telling Edna what "part" this is. And through it all, lyrical imagery works to build atmosphere, the |skin/ of clouds . . . forming over faint stars."
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Edna may need to rescue the victims of sexism, favoritism, and unethical political maneuvering in her department, as well as recognize her own worth and direction. She finds herself wanting to champion Isabel, the faculty poet, and other junior faculty members, who are threatened by an alliance between the corrupt Dean (also called Dr. Evil, the Dark Lord, and the |wolf in wool"), who has a history of sexual harassment, and a professor of Global Studies with whom the Dean is having an affair. In entering the conflict, Edna evaluates her potential to build on her current roles as department staff member and mother of two. Her stepmother encourages her to focus on her family life, while conversations with the faculty poet point to Edna's intellectual ambitions. In the section titled "After Doing the Dishes, The Hero Embraces Her Destiny," Edna tidies the bathroom and speaks to the voice about her options, and its own:
"Everyone wants to convert me." With an angry shiver,
Edna rinsed clots of blue paste from the basin, stretched
for the cord to the blind. The window was a mirror
backed by darkness. If you're not attached
to the fantasy thing, I could be the demon
on your shoulder. Your stepmother's tale. "Bewitched,"
Edna muttered, unfurling the shade. Woman
with magical powers chooses the domestic
lot, the Voice mused. The PTA and Lemon
Pledge. She suddenly sat down on the plastic
toilet-lid. "Nuh-uh," she said. "Not that story.
Not even the secret back-up hope, the sarcastic
Princess. I want to be Luke and hog all the glory." (p. 32-3)
The playful work with sound—rhyming "woman" and "Lemon" [Pledge], "plastic" and "sarcastic"—supports the tone of this interchange. The form supports the pacing of the poem, as well. Readers don't need to be ardent fans of Dante or Chaucer to appreciate Wheeler's use of terza rima form to drive her story. Its three-lined chain rhyme scheme allows swift forward movement of the narrative amid sonic pleasure and play. The language's texture is rich and whimsical, from the description of a faculty child at a soccer game—a "grass-stained sprite sucking so hard/ at a juice-box, she ought to pop a shin-guard" (p. 18) to the way Edna "chuckled like a cracked crock-pot" (p. 5). Wheeler's handling of it is never overbearing; prosody never distracts from the story.
While the combination of craft and narrative is one of the most memorable features of the book, I'm also consistently intrigued by the slippery way the fantasy elements function in the main poem. At times, they satirize how exalted some of the players in academic politics believe themselves to be; the Global Studies professor, for example, becomes the "High Priestess of Bling" (p. 19). At others, they suggest ways Edna makes fun of herself and situation in order to cope: a section title derives humor from the disparity between the reality of a disheartened poetry professor inviting Edna to lunch, and the fantasy: "The Bard Opens a Portal" (p. 22). At their strongest, they bring life to Edna's journey in the story, her quest for self-realization. She is searching for what her magic power might be—and I won't give away what she discovers. I would, however, posit that part of her superpower is her ability to read her world as she'd read a piece of speculative fiction. Readers share that skill with her, and we're all the wiser for it; also, it adds to our fun.
The ironic relationship between fantasy and realism in this tale does not trivialize either perspective, or take away from the reader's ability to enter in, and care about, what happens. Indeed, one of the things I admire most about this piece is the way its metafictional qualities—its witty allusions to its own genre—don't cost us in terms of intimacy with the characters. Sometimes a work distinguished by such self-referentiality suffers from a case of too much cleverness and not enough heart. The Receptionist does not fall into this trap. Edna remains a sympathetic character, one I'm invested in as a reader, and her self-aware status as Hero in a Quest makes her more likeable. Because her relationship to the fantasy stories and the quest figure is an organic one—rising out of her own experience of reading and loving these stories—it doesn't push the reader out of the plot, doesn't interrupt Edna's own story so much as bolster it.
The "other tales" of the title are one-off poems that capture a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin story, magic (or just much stronger?) spectacles, the experience of zombies at Thanksgiving dinner and other moments of speculative reckoning in ways that amplify the author's skill with wit, imagery, and the music of language. Of special note here are a set of four sonnets, "Villainous Creeds," which are persona poems in the voices of Captain Hook, The White Witch, George W. Bush, and God. These poems are charged with the dense energy of their form, and animated by lively diction and skewering humor. They change the tables on the reader in delightful ways; the White Witch warns that her "golden foe" is in fact "the misanthropic/metaphor, not I" (p. 81); God claims, "I'm the best bad idea you ever had" (p. 83). These "other tales" give Wheeler a chance to spread weirdness to varying forms and hit different keys, and they are a worthy addition to the novel-in-verse.
It is difficult to compare the experience of reading The Receptionist and Other Tales to other works of speculative poetry available these days, because it's a singular project. The novel-in-verse in the book is relatively brief, and Wheeler's work with craft and character maximizes its effects. The poems that follow offer a sampling of related delights. For the lover of poetry and fantasy, for the survivor of academic politics or anyone interested in feminist speculative work, this book is a new and valuable Voice.
Sally Rosen Kindred is the author of the poetry book No Eden (Mayapple Press, 2011) and the chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in diode, Through the Gate, and Strange Horizons, and her reviews have appeared at The Rumpus and at Connotations Press. You can find her online at http://www.sallyrosenkindred.com.