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Trio cover

Field Guide to the Spirits cover

I have to hand two slim collections of poetry, Trio by Sarah Tolmie and A Field Guide to the Spirits by Jean LeBlanc. It may be that neither of them would ever have come to me, or to Strange Horizons, were it not for the genre ties of the authors and publishers. Sarah Tolmie had a well-regarded debut fantasy novel, The Stone Boatmen, which came out in 2014 from Aqueduct Press. The LeBlanc poetry collection is also published by Aqueduct, one of the most innovative and provocative small presses in our field. If Aqueduct’s editors (led by L. Timmel Duchamp) believe these authors are worth our time, then I am inclined to believe them.

Which is to say, neither of these collections of poetry are exactly speculative fiction. When compared to Rose Lemberg’s debut collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird (reviewed by myself and Sofia Samatar here), there is very little explicit SF or fantasy. What there is instead is a distinct interdisciplinary character that puts science on the same aesthetic level as the rest of human endeavour, neither privileging it in the way that pure science fiction might, nor rejecting it outright the way some humanities programs might.

How does this play out in practice? In Trio, science is one of the lenses the characters use to view each other. Trio is a series of 120 linked sonnets, describing how three characters, one woman and two men, relate to each other. The narrative "I" belongs to the woman, a poet, who is in love with two very different men, one an intellectual, the other a dancer. Tolmie is deeply involved in a physical art form called contact improvisation, where two people move to music without a set choreography, trying to maintain some point of contact with each other at all times.

So the interdisciplinary nature of Trio is baked into the concept of the project; the poet is marrying the intense physicality of the dance with the attractions of the intellectual life, and she brings the same poetic intensity to both.

So for one lover:

. . . We always know when that

Circuit is closed. Invisible, electric motion

That unites two systems. Digits become nodes;

Information flows faster than we can trace

Or calculate. Hear what my fingers say. (p. 10)

And for the other:

Bend my arm and torso, sinuous

In line with yours, with yours. Do

Me to move as you move yourself, my limbs

In your decision, effortless. (p. 34)

The form of the book, with the extended sequence of similarly formed poems, allows the poetry to follow the evolution of the characters and their relationships over time. Tolmie made a very wise choice to allow for considerable flexibility in her sonnets, otherwise they would probably have felt over-determined and somewhat stilted. By avoiding allegiance to one set rhyme scheme (for instance, not all of her final couplets rhyme, the way Shakespeare or Spenser would have it), Tolmie gives herself considerably more freedom to say what she wants and to get all the impressions across to the audience.

When looking for the "sense" of the poetry, this collection is about all the different ways you can be in love with two people and watch each of them doing things with you and without you and how you feel about them. The feeling of dance, of sex, of conversation; of watching someone you love get married to someone else, of the thrill of courtship or adultery, of sex, love, and bitterness. But here’s the thing: all of that without being as melodramatic as my description is making it sound.

If I were to say that someone wrote a series of sonnets describing the different romantic relationships between two men and a woman in the modern era, some people would be intrigued but others would assume it was all pretentious twaddle. Let me assure you that Tolmie deftly avoids that. Once one learns that iambic pentameter actually reads like very natural speech in English (many common phrases use that meter, from "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day" to "I ate my sister’s soup and it was good") these poems read very smoothly. There’s lots of internal rhyme and clever shifting of words and senses, but none of them obscure the meaning of the moment. In each stanza the passion of the poet shines through. Another thing that helps is Tolmie’s choice of narrator: a middle-aged woman who can laugh at the drama even while she feels it; a woman with two children already, who faces a third pregnancy late in the book with equanimity and ambiguity. It’s not a voice we’ve heard too often, and one we need to hear more of.

From Jean LeBlanc and Aqueduct Press a book titled A Field Guide to the Spirits might conjure up visions of an abecedarium of different supernatural beings, each with their own way of interacting with the world. What we get is instead something considerably more nuanced and interesting. The focus of this collection is historical, looking back at the spiritualism movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to historical figures spanning many centuries. At no point does it commit to the reality of the spirits being channeled in the poetry, which evidences an interesting tension between the obviously rationalistic tenor of our society that frames the collection and the perhaps pre-rational mindset of the spiritualists and their clients, especially at the height of their popularity. So here we get Kate Fox and automatic writing, but at the same time we get a series of three poems about astronomer Caroline Herschel.

People may be familiar with William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in the late eighteenth century. Most people (including myself, I’m sad to say, even though I was obsessed with the history of astronomy when I was a teenager) will be less familiar with his sister Caroline. Stunted by typhus in her youth and reaching only a full height of four feet three inches, her parents despaired of marrying her off and trained her to be a housekeeper. Instead her elder brother (by twelve years) asked that she accompany him to England where he was setting up as an astronomer. She assisted him and ended up making significant discoveries in her own right, including a few comets. She was the first (honorary) member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She lived to be ninety-seven years old, and never married.

LeBlanc’s three poems peek in on Herschel at different points in her life. There is a sense of how empowering education can be, with one poem speaking of young Herschel naming the constellation of her scars, and also of her taking ownership of what William is teaching her. At the end of her life, she is visited by an astronomer back from a trip to Tahiti to watch the transit of Venus. It is a life enriched by what she was able to do, but still a life ending, still ambiguous, still overshadowed by her more famous brother.

Poetry has an ability to convey more in less space than any other non-visual art form I know. Both of these collections are quite slim, around 90 pages for LeBlanc and less than 150 for Tolmie. But even when a poem is only a page or two long, there’s so much to unpack for each one. The form of course, and the sense, but then also the feeling of it, which will of course be subjective. As a reviewer trained in the SF/F genres, I tend to over-focus on the sense, and run to Wikipedia to search out the allusions and references. But the feeling is perhaps the most important part, and that is always subjective. For myself, I reacted more viscerally to Tolmie’s intensely personal narrative of evolving romance; while I considered LeBlanc’s poetry more analytically.

As I was working out the sense of each poem in Trio, I experienced the most profound experience of disconnect between my reading and an "official" reading that I’ve had since I really got the hang of this reviewing gig, and it emphasized to me that while these two books are admirably interdisciplinary, they are not terribly intersectional.

My habit is to take a book under review and start reading it with as little information beforehand as possible—I throw away the press release, I try not to read other reviews, I ignore back cover copy if it’s there. Obviously I have preconceived notions if I start reading a new Greg Egan short story since I’ve read so much else of his work, but I try to approach a new book as "freshly" as I can. So when I started reading Trio, I assumed that the members of the triad would be given equal weight, and as I have many friends in polyamorous relationships, that the trio would be poly in some way. Coming from a genre background where it’s common to shift between viewpoint characters in different chapters, I was looking for the "I" in each stanza, and variously identifying them as the woman, the male dancer and the male intellectual as they paired off in different ways and viewed each other with male/female, gay/straight/bi gazes. It was confusing, but the power of the poetry couldn’t be denied.

Upon finishing it I finally read the back cover copy and discovered that the intent is that "I" is constant throughout the poetry, and it is always from the woman’s POV. I’ve rarely had a more literal experience of the phrase "this text can support multiple readings." I went back and re-read it with the assumption that the viewpoint is always female, and there is no denying that it is much easier to read it that way. The power of the poetry is still there, especially regarding the physicality. It was a bit disappointing, though, because reading it that way becomes an exercise in heteronormativity instead of queerness—there’s no male gaze, no homosexual encounters, no bisexuality, no gender/sexual fluidity. The back cover hails this as a "feminist revision of a traditional poetic form," but I originally read it as a queer revisioning, and it made me sad that it wasn’t intended that way.

When it comes to Field Guide, the experience I brought to it was a lifelong interest in Forteanism and the history of science. Thus while I had to look up some references (Caroline Herschel, Sir Joseph Banks), I grasped the author’s project and the common ties that run through it: an interest in how the history of yesterday continues to affect the present of today; the way that history is continually revisited and re-understood by each successive generation. But it was very clearly my tradition of intellectual pursuit and understanding: spiritualism and science as practiced in the US and Europe, with all the historical figures coming from those two areas. No one from Africa, South America, Asia, or elsewhere.

It is not fair to fault the poet for writing what they wrote and not something else; what LeBlanc has collected here is absolutely worth reading. When the explorer comes back in "Every Journey Ends in Prison" and realizes that he cannot persuade his countrymen of the reality of his travels, he begins to doubt them himself:

. . . You come back and tell your friends

about the canyon washes, the height of the pines,

the roses, and they listen politely.

It is in the telling that you realize

I have returned, as if the journey never

happened, as if you imagined it all,

and that is what everyone else thinks, too.

That is a wonderfully universal and estranging perspective, but the way it is grounded—the canyons, the pines, the roses—exoticizes a landscape that is home for other people, not the actor in the poem. As a science fiction reader, I (and this is a personal, subjective issue) prefer when my own life, my own "default" is the estranged, and I get to see things from a completely new perspective (see Ted Chiang’s brilliant short story "Exhalation" for perhaps the best example of this in recent SF).

In the end, these collections of poetry, although not fundamentally speculative, are worthy of anyone’s attention. They equalize the aesthetics of the different sides of the "humanities/sciences" spectrum (which is often improperly put forth as a binary) in fascinating and worthwhile interdisciplinary ways. Both authors have a wonderful way with language, packing layers upon layers of meaning and feeling in very compact textual passages. However, in both individual collections, the overall perspective is fairly tightly bound by class, race, sexuality, and gender in a way that lacks intersectionality. Which is to say, after you’ve finished reading and appreciating LeBlanc and Tolmie’s poetry, try seeking out the poetry of Amal El-Mohtar, Emily Jiang, Rose Lemberg, and even issue #2 of the online magazine Jalada (which interleaves Afrofuturist short fiction with poetry) and so many others working in the speculative poetry genre today to get a full picture of what the field is capable of.

Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction book reviewer and critic. She has worked on various space programs such as the Orion capsule and the Dream Chaser space plane. She reviews for venues such as Locus magazine,, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and published a book on the work of Greg Egan with University of Illinois Press in 2014. She lives with her husband and two children near Baltimore, Maryland.

Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction critic and book reviewer. Her writing appears in venues such as Locus, NYRSF,, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. Her book on the work of Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014. Professionally she worked for several years on NASA projects, and currently lives near Baltimore in the United States.
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