Goblin Fruit: Summer 2011
Edited by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Let’s start this show with a disclaimer. Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Wick have, in the past, accepted and published submissions of mine, most recently, for an upcoming issue of Goblin Fruit. Good, we have that out of the way, so let’s begin:
The editrixes of Goblin Fruit have some tells I always like to check before I read. I pay attention to the art, which changes issue to issue. This time it’s done in the style of print on fabric, gold and blue with red and green about for accent. There’s always a note before the poetry begins, and I read that. This time (in addition to the raucous celebration of C. S. E. Cooney’s Rhysling win [disclosure: Claire is my editor at the Black Gate Blog]), I get the sense of exploration, geography and cartography off of that, and this makes me happy. I like exploration. It’s in my blood. That’s not the tell, though. The tell is the question they ask of their poets, to be answered in their bios, should this not be their first outing. The first bio-question, the one posed to Cat Valente, it was about masks. I go forewarned.
But the warning is no help against Valente’s A Silver Splendour, a Flame. Amal and Jess open this with another note, a note that finds me nodding in agreement: this is a Persephone poem. We have all seen Persephone poems before. We have all written Persephone poems before (disclosure: guilty). They tell us:
“Persephone is, along with mermaids and Little Red Ridinghood, one of the top three choices of subject where people who submit to us are concerned. It’s fascinating to see in how many ways her story is told and re-told; who writes from Persephone’s perspective, from Hades’, from Demeter’s; who writes Persephone as a child or a grown woman; who privileges her desire for home over her desire for a husband and queendom.”
I really, really wanted to speculate and pontificate on this, wonder about what a myth does when the interpretation and reinterpretation is crowd sourced, what aspects of Persephone’s story makes it so popular to poets. I want to muse about liminality. Yeah. No such luck. This poem leaves no space for pontification.
Amal and Jess include links to the Persephone poems they have published in the past, one of which is also Valente’s. Reviews for these are beyond the purview of this review, but I suggest you read them before you read Silver Splendour, a Flame, which, now might be the time to mention, is the first of a four act performance.
Clearly, a poem that has required reading does not fuck around. Three quarters of the way through this labyrinthine, branching, forked-path narrative, which, in my head requires at least three readers and a pit orchestra to perform, I tried ctrl+scroll wheel to see what the whole of the piece looked like. It crashed my browser. On the second try, I managed to get it out as far as it could go, and I saw a river in spate, unearthing boulders and swamping the foundations of collapsed houses in its path. But enough of how it looks on the screen. How does it read? To speak the unspoken question about any poem with her as the subject, does it say anything new about Persephone?
The answer to the latter question, I have to place my palm parallel to the floor, spread my thumb and pinkie and waver them up and down. Yes, but. Yes, but not in the way I usually expect to answer this question; yes in language, yes in structure. The myth and its themes are what you know, what you expect, what, I’m guessing, Valente addresses in the first parallel-branch stanza:
I’ll stop telling this story
Just as soon as it stops
happening to me.
I can dig it; use the myth that everyone knows inside and out and upside-down, blindfolded in a tank of water, as a basis for explorations. I’m good with that. I’m intrigued that this is the first act of four, I love that it’s a subterranean labyrinth, lit by gems.
But I wish to all the gods it was not the first thing on the Table of Contents, petty as I’m going to sound, because it’s like sitting down to a meal and getting an appetizer that is a three foot sphere of solid teak. There is no way to talk about it without going on for as long as I have, and with poems, it’s turtles all the way down, so there’s never a place to stop and say you’ve said enough. I haven’t said enough. Not near enough.
And that’s just the first poem. And that’s just a quarter of it.
What follows are what I have to imagine are a lot of first timers. I notice a lot of questions about fruit answered in the bios, and a lot of names I don’t recognize. I am intrigued.
Starting this show are a pair of equally Classically inspired poems in Liz Bourke’s Where is Apollo and Shawna Lenore Kastin’s Said the Satyr to the Wood Nymph. The first runs afoul of a theme I dislike, that scientific understanding somehow kills mystery, diminishes myth, destroys the gods. It’s a lament for Apollo in the face of the hydrogen and helium sun. I can’t give it a fair shake, and for all that it is well done it doesn’t persuade me to try. Kastin’s poem is fun; it’s what you would expect from the title, sure, and it is lighthearted, but not airy, not without substance. It’s whimsical and does a lot to lighten the mood of our read so far, cleanse the palate.
Speaking of themes that I don’t like, Coyote makes an appearance, singing the blues, no less; but Tala Eirsdottir sells it. Sells it soft, and convinces me. I will take this Coyote first among the skulking legions of Coyote I’ve seen. Brock Marie Moore follows with, maybe, a shape-shifter, a weird beast invited in Cleaving, whose description charms me. There is more to this poem that I don’t know, can’t see, could guess, but it seems wrong to do so. The speaker here is hidden behind the creature conjured, only a desire is spoken, here, and that desire is one that seems private between the speaker and the disguised desideratum; it would be unseemly to pry.
Kathryn Hinds wins mythology for this issue, opening Eurydice Variations (2) with “I made him look.” So good, it should have been obvious, done six hundred times. I haven’t seen it before, so by chance or design, Hinds wins the race to my head; what follows, the explanation of why and what Eurydice wants in the underworld, that is exactly what it needs to be.
Oh, I don’t want to like Amanda C. Davis’ A Shining Spindle Can Still Be Poisoned, because I can see where this is going, and it’s headed up the briar ladder of gender essentialism, boys-are-stupid false feminism, and were this not right at the top of my mind for things unrelated, I would have probably loved this poem and missed it, for boys are, sometimes, stupid, and I love a fairy tale. Especially with an intrepid female protagonist, which we are not getting here, because girls are too wise, only boys are silly and shallow enough to dare the danger of the thorns to get a princess, just because she is pretty. It could have been a good critique of the some unexamined gendered foolery that shows up in fairy tales like an obnoxious regular at a place you like to relax. It came very close (I can see taking out three stanzas that would have left it, in my opinion, a lot stronger), but I think Davis overplays the hand. Yeah, I think I’ve convinced myself I don’t like it.
Nin Harris comes next with a diptych in The Domestic Sundial, and this is a story that I want to know better, know in context. Revenge that is not revenge, for an act that I am not sure why it happened, with consequences hinted, of which I am ignorant. I want to learn more. I am hooked. I am almost as ignorant of what is going on in Seanan McGuire’s Post-Modern Cinderella. Or maybe nonplussed. The image of this woman is strong, but, again, and maybe I am just being obtuse, I am missing the point. Perhaps this is just an image, a single frame, a single action; it could be that this poem suffers from my lack of historical or mythological understanding of the last one, and I am reading too much, looking in the wrong place, barking up the wrong tree.
This is around about the time I should mention that most of the poems here have sound files of their reading, a lot of them I have not been able to get to play, so far, but the one for Elizabeth R. McClellan’s The Sea Witch Talks Show Business has Sooj Tucker reading, and that one did play, and I am glad of it. The Sea Witch is awesome. Mermaids being terribly popular, one little one in particular, this poem goes at an angle from all of that, into the sea witch’s interactions with all the others of her undersea purview, and what shakes out is rich and deep and full of all the things that makes the sea, and witchcraft so compelling: show business. And tentacles.
Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier’s Pandora: an Afterthought follows on, another poem at an angle from the myth, another mystery, and it’s good. It builds, it goes where you think it should, and then surprises you, a little, at the last. You should have seen it coming, could have predicted, might have known.
Kathryn Hinds returns to win mythology again, this time with Eurydice Variations (4), which reminds you that this might have been the tragedy of Orpheus, but it was Eurydice’s lot that was all the more a tragedy.
But then we have Coyote again. Did I mention I can’t handle Coyote in poems? This time he’s back in Rosalind Casey’s Love Song in the form of the bad-boy boyfriend. And it is… good. Well done. I feel churlish, but I cannot like it, I cannot see it as something that hasn’t been done and done and done again and something that irritated me the first time I encountered it. What have I against Coyote? I feel that I should recuse myself from judging this poem. It will not get a fair shake from me.
And why should Nina Pelaez’s Freyja work for me when The Post-Modern Cinderella did not? This, too, is only an image, but it works better for me. Also, it makes me more favorably inclined toward the former; I see them both better in context of one another.
Landing, for every collection, every publication of poetry needs to land, we reach World’s End, by Becca de la Rosa, which is everything I could ask for in the end. The central conceit, children of cartographers and their maps, exploring a world of people described in terms of natural features; this is what I’d hoped to find here. This is the one I was looking for. I want to say Sea Witch was a stronger poem in and of itself, but this one is my favorite.
This is not my favorite issue of Goblin Fruit to date. It was a challenging issue, one that ran hard against my prejudices and didn’t, in some cases, overcome them. A couple of the poems fell flat for me, but the theme worked, and the poems worked the theme. Exploration, in terms of travel and in terms of gaining wisdom and context, does shine through. Valente’s addition is characteristically ambitious, and I would like to revisit the work as a whole. McClellan, Bohémier and de la Rosa were the stand-outs, and their pieces were as good as any of the many I have enjoyed in Goblin Fruit, and the issue as a whole was strong, well aimed, and, despite not being my favorite from Amal and Jess, a worthy addition to their editorial corpus.