Bull Spec Poetry Issues 4-6
Edited by Dan Campbell
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Last time we took a look at the first three issues of Bull Spec, an SF magazine that has been around since Spring 2010, which left me with the impression that the poetry content was something of an afterthought. Good and poor were mixed together in a bit of a layout salad which diminished the good slightly and made the bad harder to read. Let’s see if the second three issues does anything for the issues raised in the first three.
The short answer is they have, though not as much as I would have liked. The quality of the poems has improved, and the layout does get a little less confusing, though no less crowded.
Issue 4 begins with “Masdevallia” by Mark Brandon Allen, a planetary romance-evoking poem in quatrains. Evil spirits and ostensible starships, I can dig it. Rose Lemberg follows up with “Beastwoman’s Snarled Rune” which snarls along in rhyming couplets with some interesting line-break play. Normally, I’m not a fan of such things, but Lemberg manages to pull it off. It helps that the poem is a promise of revenge for wrongs inflicted, and I am always on board for those.
Four poems crowd the second page; the layout gives my eye the feel of what I have to imagine was the experience of the person who did the layout had – it’s 4 a.m. and all I want to do is close the program and go to bed. I hate to harp on the layout, but here it is actually distracting and makes it hard for me to read.
Jennifer McConnel’s “Enchantment” is the first of the four, the shortest and the weakest in the issue. It’s a fairly insubstantial thing that still manages to be a little clunky around the language and cliché around the images. Kaolin Fire’s “with the fisher on the lake” is one of the more interesting poems I’ve seen from him, telling, or at least hinting at a story of lake monsters with human companions/ hunters/emissaries. It can go a couple of different ways. Lisa M. Bradley’s “Requiem for a Roboticist” is, I think, my favorite of this issue, good images, good language, and most difficult, good robots. Last is “The Guardian at the Fountain of Eternal Youth” by Alexandra Seidel, which goes exactly where I expected it, but it made me enjoy the trip. Not one of my favorites of Seidel’s, but still quite good.
Fire and Seidel return for issue 5, which has 6 poems, still crushed together, but not quite as jumbled as issues 3 and 4. Seidel with “The Dirty Vampire, a Recipe” which is a clever takedown of “sexy vampire boyfriend” Paranormal Romance; it’s well executed with a cool turn of phrase at the end, but it doesn’t quite hit my takedown spot. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s played a little too straight? Nathaniel Lee’s “Snake Eyes,” the story of a kismet, follows. This poem is alright overall, but, for me, it rises on the strength of the implication of a shiny, mouth-sized rock and a mother’s inattention that counts as a stroke of good luck for a toddler. Also, the fact that the narrator is content to just watch the kid play with it; this makes the poem my favorite of the issue (disclosure: I am a bad person).
“Seeing Red” by Russ Bain is shoved down in the corner of the first page, some exploration of being stuck at a red light as mental disorder or vice versa. I’m not sure. But I am sure that if I want to get on my high poet-horse for another review in a row, I would want to say from the saddle that when you write a very short poem, it is on you to make sure every word smacks me hard in the snoot, and arrange those words into a good boxing combination. If you don’t, please don’t be surprised when I am not floored.
“Basilosaurus” by Carol Allen is a brief encounter with a cryptid, which, while the language falls a little flat, was a reasonably clever conceit, and well, I like. This reminds me of my own possible encounter with Winnie one summer in the 80’s, which probably wasn’t. This probably isn’t a great poem, either, but it did manage to earn my affection, which seems to be a theme for this issue: lesser poems earning my affection while a greater poem sits in the cold.
“Kyrielle for a Cloned Baby” is another from Lisa M. Bradley, and I think she wins this issue as well as the last. Kyrielle isn’t a form I see often, and I enjoy how Bradley pulled it off, the juxtaposition of the subject matter with a form that has religious overtones, and the flow of the poem overall. Kaolin Fire’s “and now the tide recedes” is the last of the issue, and it is… It’s good; I am starting to get a handle on Fire’s voice, his language and his images, and after a few poems, I still like them, but I want him to do something else with them. This one is good, but I am afraid I won’t be able to tell it from any of his other work that I have read if you show it to me in a week’s time.
I am heartened by the improvement in quality overall from the poems in this batch of Bull Spec. Only one more remains.
Issue 6 begins with “Spacetime Geodesics” by Athena Andreadis, which I think is great. It’s got a strong emotional core and it plays those emotions frankly and well, without under- or overplaying them, which sets it above a lot of poems whose setting is speculative space. “Ruminations on a Dandelion Theme,” by Nathaniel Lee, manages to do both the overplaying and underplaying and comes off as kind of po-faced almost to the point of being juvenile. I love using botanical elements in my work (it borders on fetish), and I like dandelions, and I want to give this poem the benefit of the doubt, but it doesn’t work for me.
Mari Ness brings us a tale of kitsune or kumiho or something vulpine from the legends of east Asia with “Petals” and this one, I feel like I would be doing you, her and my principles a disservice in to not take it behind the old Cultural Appropriation Woodshed, so, yeah, to the woodshed. If you’re noting a lack of enthusiasm on the woodshed front, it’s because I really liked the poem. If you’re wondering why, at this late date, I am actually bringing my principles, covered in dust, into the fray, is that there is a little sour note in the poem, that throws me and makes me think of appropriation, though heaven knows if that is the correct diagnosis. I like it, but something bugs me about it, feels off, reads untrue. And I really like most of Ness’ work, so this is harder than I like.
Edgar Mason’s “Spinning the Seabed Dry” is another one that throws me and makes my brain-gears grind together, but this is an easier one to diagnose. I love the voice and despise the similes. They toss me right out of the flow of a poem that flows very well. In the end I am not sure if I like the poem or I don’t and it frustrates me. I am quite sure about Linda Ann Strang’s “Lyssa Depressed” and I am quite sure, editors of Bull Spec, more like this please. Language and image are spot on. This is the strongest of all six issues so far, I think.
Bull Spec seems to be developing quite well as a poetry publication. I know that poetry is not ever going to be its first priority, but its choices are showing signs of steady improvement, and I’m glad of that. My gripes about layout are probably unfair (except perhaps for issues 3 and 4, which were legitimately difficult for the eye to follow) and the screeching of someone who has converted entirely to the digital format.