Dreams & Nightmares #86
Edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Criticism is, as you may have gathered, a little new to me. I have dabbled at it here and there, trying to rehabilitate teenaged poets (myself included) in the Chimera, Bolton High School’s annual literary magazine, offering critiques and getting my dander up about some silly thing here or there in the other half-my-life-and-then-some since, but the resumé is brief and the stages of professional development are still a mystery. One of them I did not anticipate is this sense. It’s not dread, but it is of the same root; a reluctance. I look at my assignments and hope, hope that I do not have to say mean things about them, hope that I don’t have to consider lying and saying a poem is fine when it’s not only not fine, but not really a poem (I promise I never will, but the temptation is always, always there). I am reluctant to trot out that word cliché, which is starting to feel like a cliché in and of itself, coming out my fingers as the serpent swallows its own tail. As someone who takes great joy in occasionally saying mean things on the internet, it turns out that saying mean things is actually the hardest part of criticism.
I wrote this preamble before looking at the current docket of poetry, it’s got nothing directly related to what to which I’m about to read and respond; this could be a massive non-sequitur. I hope it is.
So, here we go on a run of Dreams & Nightmares. I’ll be looking at issue 86 in this review, 87 in the next and 88 in the last. I will say before I begin that 88 issues is quite an accomplishment. I’ll also say that this is the first issue of D&N I’ve read. #86 features a solid dozen poems, so let’s take a look.
This is not a good omen. First of the pack is Gary Every’s “Moon Tickets,” which, Gods help me, reads like what happens when you look at the bottom of a very long email thread at the first couple of messages, pressed down, again and again into a smaller column. I liked Duncan Jones’ Moon (2010), too, and I also thought, when I was little we’d be going to the genuine article as tourists by now, too. And, that’s about what I’ve got. It goes from pretty flat poem-formatted prose to something a little like a poem, but it’s the kind of poem that shows up at the edge of a gathering in a trench coat and a hat, never takes them off, is slightly off on all the social cues and has a blank, expressionless, waxy sort of face that you aren’t quite sure is a mask.
Ruth Berman’s “Affair” follows, and marks the first time, I think, that I have to write about minimalist speculative poetry. I’m always a little uncomfortable with SF haiku and tanka, which this is not, but I recognize that the SF haiku is a venerable form in speculative poetry, and I have encountered effective poems in that form. This poem, three lines and twenty five syllables, this one is pretty effective and clever. I’m not certain, yet, whether I should be setting the bar higher or lower, but from where I have it this one crosses.
Neal Wilgus gives us a cryptid encounter in the style of Sawney Bean with the enigmatically named “Mariah,” which, for all its faults in language (and it has a few), has a sort of SyFy Original Pictures cheesiness that I find… kind of tasty, actually. It’s not what I think of as a good poem, the language clunks, the narrative clumps, but the cheese, oh the cheese.
Bigfoot is here to eat
And we are not.
Seriously, pitch this. I want to watch it. I want it to star Richard Greco and Amber Benson.
Brian Trent brings us a little bit of VR Christmas cheer in “A Holiday in Necropolis” which has all the elements of a good, creepy poem or short story here. I think I would have liked it better as a short story, but the poem isn’t bad. I think it could have used a little tightening, but the last two lines are good, and the mental image of the Carpenters record playing while the family skips is quite strong.
Terrie Leigh Relf gives us a short-short with “SETI in Translation,” which, while reasonably well executed, is an idea (the ETs really wish we would shut the hell up) that feels old and worn. There’s more that can be done with that idea, but Relf doesn’t.
Samantha Henderson saves me from naming “Mariah” my favorite of the issue with “The Pharaoh Plays at Senet,” which is a grim walk through the ancient Egyptian afterlife. As above, an idea which, by itself, is a pretty worn one, but with the right images, the right language, there’s still some life in it. Henderson manages to bring it to life even as her nameless Pharaoh is on his way to the second and final death. The only complaint I can lay against this poem is that some of the punctuation (never a nit unpicked) strikes my eyes a little funny, in a way that I am not sure if it’s a typo or the deliberate pauses in the reading, because it could be either. I read it out loud the way it looks and I read it the way I would read it if I had written it, and they both sound right to me.
Marge Simon’s “The Wavering Hour” just eludes me. There is either too much here, not enough, or what is here is either too personal or irrelevant to what she is trying to say. Whether this is some awful memory that sneaks up on the protagonist or there is some sort of temporal anomaly that puts him on the train tracks when the train is rushing in, I can’t tell.
Terrie Leigh Relf shows up again with “The Boortean Storybook Hour: A Fairytale Romance,” which, again, clever, neat language, a little more to it than the last one and I think more effective, but the line-breaks make confetti of it, and not the festive kind. This is some rare, new confetti that causes mostly headaches and someone who is trying to read it out loud to stutter and stumble over words. Stanza breaks that split sentences and thoughts are not my friends, either, and here they are in great abundance.
Fred Herman brings us a prose poem in “Four Bits of the Rim,” which I liked more than I expected. I am a little leery of prose poetry for reasons that I am not fully capable of articulating, but I think it does a lot of justice to SF concepts and setting. The first three sections are very tight and interesting; the last one falls apart a little for me. The language gets a bit messy and the ideas start sounding a little worn, but overall, it was a good one.
Roger Dutcher turns in a completely acceptable and competent poem about, I’m guessing, the heat-death of the universe. “The Last Day” is also as predictable and boring as the heat-death of the universe.
“In Ghostly Ravenna” might suffer from the lingering malaise from reading the last couple of poems, the latter with nothing to tell and the former with a distracting way of telling; it seems like a trick of the light. It’s got decent subject matter, decent execution, decent language, but it’s missing something. I could not begin to tell you what it is that Darrell Schweitzer could have done with this one; it’s frustrating, because it is good, but it doesn’t move me. I’ll admit, I am pretty hard to move, but still, it sits, and ends the issue and I am yet unmoved.
It’s a good place to cap off the issue, which is a mixed bag that I have spent a couple hours pummeling. There were a lot of poems in this issue, that, for me were one or two drafts from being great, but never quite got there, two that were really quite good (Henderson’s and Herman’s) and one that I have an unreasonable affection for because of the cheese. I’ll have more to say about Dreams & Nightmares as a publication as I go on, but for now, this is where we shall leave things.