Mary Shelley nominated for a Stoker

This is exciting news for me – my collection, Mary Shelley Makes A Monster, has been nominated for a Bram Stoker Award! It’s up for superior achievement in a poetry collection, which is nice for me as it’s my first Stoker nod. So I’m very happy about that, and happy too to be sharing the category with the other nominated poets: Linda D. Addison, Alessandro Manzetti, Donna Lynch, Michelle Scalise, Marge Simon, Bryan D. Dietrich, and Stephanie M. Wytovich.

Voting’s going on now, but the final results won’t be announced until later this year at StokerCon UK. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend as I’ll be in the middle of my writer’s residency at Massey University here in New Zealand, but it’s still great to be nominated.

Mary Shelley Makes A Monster

My second poetry collection is out! Mary Shelley Makes A Monster is published by Aqueduct Press. The title poem was originally published in Strange Horizons and was inspired by a biography of Shelley. And, of course, by Frankenstein

All our monsters are mirrors. And when Mary Shelley’s second monster (built from her life rather than her pen, born out of biography instead of blood) outlives its mother, that monster goes looking for a substitute. But all the monster really knows of women is that women write, and so the search for a replacement takes it first to Katherine Mansfield, and then to other women who know what mutilated things can be made from ink and mirrors… Virginia Woolf. Janet Frame. Sylvia Plath. Grace Mera Molisa. Octavia Butler. Angela Carter. Murasaki Shikibu. The monster stares into each of them, has their words carved into its tongue, their nails drawn down its back, their toothmarks embedded in its heart.

When it goes out into the world, no-one can tell the difference.

Available in print and ebook.

Review: “Our Lady of the Ruins” by Traci Brimhall

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

Our Lady of the Ruins, by Traci Brimhall, is a poetry collection that follows a group of women wandering through the apocalypse. The back cover describes the women’s journey as a “pilgrimage” which is a faith-based term if ever there was one, even though the women themselves are periodically, violently anti-religious. The collection is mythic and layered, the poems forming a fractured narrative. And it’s a challenging narrative at that: a text laden down with metaphor and imagination, taking its imagery from a number of sources and with journeys over land and sea, from the old worlds and into the new, even venturing down into the underworld.

Steeped in the language of myth and pilgrimage as well as science, the first poem starts with an invitation that serves the same function as a question: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues” (“Music from a Burning Piano”, p. 15).

Imagine indeed.

There are a lot of apocalyptic stories out there. I don’t claim to have read all of them, but I have read a good few. They come in all shapes, mostly, although there are certain funnel effects—like the spectre of nuclear war, for instance—that help to form the resulting narrative and give it a sense and aesthetic different from that of a climate change apocalypse, for example, or one caused by plague.

What apocalypse stories tend to share is a theme of faith: what it is to have it, what it is to lose it, and how the object of that faith is both constructed and reconstructed in a changing environment. The faith in question could be in family, or it could be religious, or it could be the inability of science to make it all better, to restore order and bring back a semblance of normal life. Faith isn’t the only post-apocalyptic theme, of course, but it is I think the pre-eminent one.

The only type of faith that has no place in an apocalyptic narrative is a stagnant one. Stagnancy is dramatically dull at the best of times; following a hideous, transformative disaster it becomes unrealistic as well as dull. So: faith changes, or fluctuates, or perhaps it rebels. Faith, in an apocalyptic world, is metamorphic.

Which is why it shouldn’t be constrained by structure. The individual poems in Our Lady of the Ruins are fragments of larger stories. They ask questions of a destroyed world, of the place of faith and the place of stories in a world where destruction and faithlessness is the new norm. Because of this, stories are strung through the text like little seeds, telling of how “curators removed an elephant’s heart / from the museum because it began beating when anyone / in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows / swimming in a drowned girl’s lungs” (“Prelude to a Revolution”, p. 16).

Sometimes, though, these stories are twisted from what they once were. After visiting an oracle, the narrator records, “We tie new knots in her hair and swim / into the belly of a shark to retrieve the book / of signs” (“Come Trembling”, p. 81). When it comes to oracles who are linked to the swallowing of great ocean creatures, we are more used to thinking of whales… but a shark is sharper, more deadly, and more apt for the gorging of war and end times. These twisted little references are found throughout the text, and explicitly so: later in the “Come Trembling” poem is the comment, “We want to believe, to split open the myth / and lie in it” (p. 81); but myths lose cohesion when split open, when examined for cold reality and superstition, and the skewing of the stories reflects a destabilised world in which the old beliefs have become insufficient.

This twisting is intentional. If the undermining of faith is the backbone of apocalypse, the transformation of faith is the meat about the vertebrae, the journey towards a place to stand again, the beginnings of recreation, and of resurrection.

The spirituality that so conflicts the women at the centre of the collection is implicitly stated to be a form of Christianity—there are reliquaries and madonnas and cathedrals, although all of the last are burning, set alight by the pilgrims in an act of conscious destruction. “We tried to burn every cathedral in the country” (“Hysteria: A Requiem”, p. 48) the narrator confides, but what is the purpose of such burnings? Are they vengeance upon a faith that proved to be inadequate, or are the fires set for the purpose of metaphor? It’s not a new image, fire in the service of purification, of transformation, but in times of struggle we often fall back upon the familiar.

Often, but not always – and it’s in this land-mined area between old habits and the kicking against them that new myths are born.

Our Lady of the Ruins is determined in its stand against resurrection. The narrator of the poems, one of the nameless women on pilgrimage, resolutely turns away from the possibility of spiritual renewal. This is the primary tension of the text: the betrayed reaction, for even though the women rebel against symbols of what one presumes was their previous, shared beliefs, they are on a pilgrimage still. But a pilgrimage for what? Does a pilgrimage have to be for anything anyway? What if it is a pilgrimage against?

Mid-apocalypse is a time for doubt and darkness if ever there was one, and both take centre-stage in this narrative. Doubt is not only a reasonable condition here; it is a mandatory one. “You, chosen for your doubt, / remain on the bridge, caught in your quiet / passage from one broken country to another” (“Diaspora”, p. 22). “You are the doubter and the doubt / worshipping a book you can’t read” (“Gnostic Fugue”, p. 35).

Characters who don’t doubt, in an apocalypse, are not characters driven—or even influenced—by reason. Their faith tends towards fundamentalism, their one-track minds so broken by trauma, or by the opportunism granted by trauma, that they’re all too invested in faiths that don’t change. That can’t change, although that “can’t” is always a position both driven and enforced by a faith’s followers. It’s the people more attuned to the world around them, the people with the most awareness of the utter destabilisation of apocalypse, that find their faiths both muted and mutating.

The world of Our Lady of the Ruins has been scarred from war until it is almost unrecognisable. “The Colossus” states that, “In the beginning, none of us can tell rock / from bone” (p. 31). This is an example of the conflation of body and nature that is so often illustrated in eco-poetry, lifted out and inserted into another genre, one where the body is equally influenced by—and influencing of—the environment. Here the conflation between the two is underlined by the sterile landscape and the death of the narrator’s baby. Fertility and growth are beyond the personified natural, and the stories are instead those of death and burial, or death and cremation.

The images of destruction in this collection are consistently linked with fire. New battlefields are “lit by strange flames” (“The Needful Animal”, p. 32). Even the anonymous narrator links her own desire for obliteration with fire, following the death of her child in “Requiem for the Firstborn”: “I can burn down the sugar cane” (p. 74). Some days she says that “fire is a mirror” (“Envoi”, p. 78), comparing their different capacities for destruction. The only things the narrator can retain are “grief / and a new obedience and four pounds of ash” (“How to Find the Underworld”, p. 75), where the ashes are remnants of fire and the only link to a destroyed past.

In the collection’s introduction, Carolyn Forché links the apocalypse of the text with the holocaust that was the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Forché describes Brimhall as “standing, as the stone lady stood in the ruins of bombed Dresden (as it happens, near the Church of Our Lady), keeping vigil in the aftermath”. The holocaust at Dresden is an apocalyptic landscape also caused by science: the white phosphorous bombs causing fires that would foreshadow the coming atomic bomb. Brimhall, by exploring the lives of the survivors of her own scientific apocalypse, tells their stories by metaphors and mixing, echoing science with myth to make new stories and new meanings for the new (and frequently hideous) world.

This merging of myth and science is repeatedly illustrated in the text. I’m thinking of one particular image of a fossil, standing as proxy for the subjective nature of personal truth. The narrator tells of her sister, who knows “that a fossil leaves two stories—one about unmiraculous fish and loaves and a hill crowded with atheists muttering mass, and one about carbon” (“The Revisionist Gospel”, p. 36). Or there’s the poem in which the women visit monks in “The Orchard of Infinite Pears” (p. 82)—monks who refuse to speak, whose primary interest now seems to be in the mathematical properties of zero. If they’re spreading any word at all now, any gospel, it’s of fruit and arithmetic instead of divinity.

As I commented before, this is a challenging text. But also a rewarding one, I think, and one that bears repeated reading. It exists in a space of searching and doubt, with juxtaposed images and personal ambiguities—the rages and defeats and small joys of continued existence—illustrating what life in an apocalypse might be for the poets, or for the faithful. Highly recommended.

 

Review: “Wake” and “Drink” by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Wake published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015.

Drink published by BlazeVOX [books], 2015.

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There’s some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend you go for Drink. I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death – specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman’s death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I’ve come across often – barring F.G. Haghenbeck’s portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo­, or Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series,  for instanceand it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that’s underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.

“Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You” (49) has the poem’s narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn’t touch her – which is what you’d expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it’s one-sided.

“I like monsters” says the poet (in “Preference”, 56). Yet “My sister is a monster” (so claims the poem “Barren Monsters”, 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because “Monsters and humans can’t mate”. One would presume, in this case, that it’s the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out – the bleeding, the “extra wombs” – for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It’s a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem “Book of Monsters” (61) states that “As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom’s ceiling and walls black”. Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.

No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.

Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister’s house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping – or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. “We don’t go there anymore” says the poet (in “Death’s House”, 38) and it’s a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death’s House. Other people live there; they “tread the family carpet, watch the doors”. Yet later, in “Sister Death” (46), “We know it’s time to visit again” and it’s all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn’t kind. It’s of a bitter thank-goodness-I’m-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they’re overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In “The Entrance to Death” (64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: “I’m going in. I’ve been there. I can come back.” In “Death’s Cameras (51-52) it’s “Together we’ll go back to the living”.

But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in “Anthology of the Dead” (40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell – how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because “Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives” (in “Considering Lore”, 39).

It’s a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.

I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of – and poems on – mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay – in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.

But the wordplay is underpinned by deeper connections – the varying myths and realities of modern life. The poem “On Vanishing” (19) makes this particularly clear. After the disappearance of a plane, possible reasons for that disappearance get stranger and stranger, delving into science fiction and controversy. Then “Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids.” The myths of the past, of half-human, half-fish sea creatures are being replaced by the myths of the present: the welfare mother as the reason for social (and aeronautical) collapse, the ever-present expectation of terrorism as the new lurking monster under the bed (in the hold). These myths expand into our social consciousness. Given that this is a book about mothers and daughters, the myth of the welfare mother holds special weight. Unemployed and slovenly, bearing multiple children to different fathers and spending her money unwisely. A scourge to her daughters, violent and abusive. That it appears to be true in this case – the sequence of poems in Drink where the mother ignores a daughter’s suicide attempt, telling her boyfriend du jour, on being confronted with that daughter’s failing body, to “Step over her, Joe. Step over her” (“Complicit IV”, 63) is particularly horrifying – doesn’t mean that the exception is the rule. Unless, of course, we’re mythmaking. Then, the single incompetent individual is blown up, magnified as the representation of an entire class, because demonising that class is an easy thing, a simple explanation. Terrible mothers don’t bring down ships in “On Vanishing”. They bring down planes.

The subject of the myth changes, but the object – the desire to explain, to place blame – remains the same. It’s not mermaids pulling men underwater any more, it’s irresponsible women drowning themselves in drink, and the children are suffering for it.

But if the terrible mother shares the threatening nature of mermaids, so do her daughters. It’s here that the two parts of Drink really come together: it’s an exploration of what living with drink, what being surrounded by it, can make of you.

In Drink, the daughters of an alcoholic become mermaids. Not literally, of course. They don’t learn to breathe underwater. Their legs don’t fuse; they don’t live on fish and the folk they lure into drowning. What they share is more subtle than that. It’s certainty that ties the two pieces of myth and reality together… the certainty of self, of what it means to be a mermaid, to be the daughter of a drunk.

This certainty both strengthens and handicaps. Mermaids “fear nothing. The only thing to fear is mermaids” (“Shadows”, 24). The only thing to fear is the self, in other words. The self that refuses to die, even after swallowing a bottle of pills and being stepped over by boyfriends, still and silent on the carpet, surrounded by vomit. The self that is afraid of backsliding, of transforming into the mother, because alcoholism in a family member increases the chances of alcoholism in the self. “I don’t drink anymore so there’s no beer, no wine, no liquor to take a drink” (“Hit the Bottle”, 87). Reminders of temptation, of generational repetition, are always about. A partner who collects bottles (and how much is the daughter of an alcoholic going to be drawn to others? has it happened without her understanding it?). Bottles that appear out of nowhere: “I didn’t understand why there was a bottle by the sink. I didn’t put it there” (“The First Bottle”, 72). Bottles thrown into the ocean, and always the possibility of return: “You say, It will come back. I shake my head, thinking, No, some choose never to come back” (“A Bottled Message”, 71) – the implication being, of course, that some do.

Mermaids are trouble because their only danger is themselves. They’re unaffected by anyone else. “Not like elves or fairies. If you stop believing in them, they don’t care or die” (“Against I: Myth”, 29). If you stop believing in a parent, do they care? If a mother’s daughter is overdosing at her feet, does she remain unaffected?

The rock solid certainty of personality, this absolute cleaving to myth, is reflected in the certainty of daughter towards the mother. “Welfare Queen” (43) is acid in the description of the parent: negligent, abusive, entirely absent of boundary. The daughters, in reflection, are called “Pariahs. Homeless. Whores” because certainty is catching when myths are about. They’ve a mythic role to play, those daughters: the next stage in the intergenerational cycle of dependency, the image of their mother.

In response to sexual abuse, the girls “grew scales, bone hard and jagged, an armour”. Their humanity is taken away by the indifference and determined looking-away of neighbours, when there was no-one “who would talk to us like we were human / we swam mostly alone” (“Pariahs”, 51).

Mermaid traits are thus a defence mechanism – but a double-edged one. Becoming a mermaid may protect from some threats, but it comes with certainty and risk, the possibility of turning into mother, of being so solidly set upon a rock made of bottles that the final destination really is drowning in drink. “I write, SOS. I write, My sister refused to die. I write, We are all mermaids” (“O Captain! My Captain!”, 88). The daughters swim alone, but another poem, “The Mermaid’s Sister” (89) says “I don’t swim, not even close”, while being gifted with bottles by a lover.

The drink is always a temptation, for mermaids, for the daughters of alcoholics.

It’s what’s expected of them, anyway.

Nature as Creative Catalyst

entanglementsI’ve a new book chapter out!

Actually, that implies there was an old book chapter. Nope! There’ve been a handful of papers, but this is is the first academic chapter I’ve had published. It rejoices in the name of “Nature as Creative Catalyst: Building Poetic Environmental Narratives through the Artists in Antarctica Programme”, and it is riveting stuff I tell you.

But if you think that title’s a mouthful, have a look at the collection that it’s in: Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene, edited by Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel. Perhaps it’ll all be a bit clearer when I tell you that the working title of the project, for most of the time I was involved in it, was Working With Nature. Basically, it’s a collection of essays on the many different ways that people interact with their natural environment. Aside from mine, there are chapters on photographing the Australian landscape, suburban landscapes, postcolonial property rights in New Zealand, and more. The focus does tend towards the Antipodean, but it’s not the only setting explored.

My own chapter looks at New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica programme. Every year, artists are sent down to Scott Base, to live and work with the scientists there. This is done in order for artists to communicate the Antarctic environment to the general public, in different ways than the scientists do. Basically, to give a more well-rounded experience of the continent to said public, who let’s not forget are the ones paying for NZ’s research programmes on the ice. The more invested the public is in Antarctic conservation and science, the better – at least as far as I’m concerned. Selected artists may be writers, film-makers, visual artists, textile artists, musicians, and so on. Being a poet myself, I focused on the visiting poets and how they built environmental narratives of their experiences.

I’m not going to lie, one day I’d love to be part of the Artists in Antarctica programme myself. Still, until that happy day, I can at least appreciate the work of the poets who have been able to go thus far… namely Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Chris Orsman, and Owen Marshall. Lucky, talented bastards.