Stone Telling Issue #5: First Anniversary Issue
Edited by Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan
Reviewed by J. C. Runolfson
Since its inception, Stone Telling has been explicitly committed to showcasing diversity in speculative poetry, often by featuring work from underrepresented perspectives and voices traditionally silenced in the ongoing English narrative. It is appropriate, then, that their fifth issue, marking the first anniversary of the publication’s birth, is full of such a wide range of poetic subjects, styles, and passions. That there is passion here cannot be doubted, for the very cover image of this issue speaks of it, in the wild colors illuminating a bard and that bard’s bone-carved instrument, both caught in a moment of intense movement. The stated theme of this issue is “Myths,” and it is clear this bard is truly ready to build a world of words. It’s a promising prospect for what the issue holds.
Of course, before diving into the poetry, there’s the editor’s introduction to set the stage. Provocatively titled “Not Only a Hero’s Journey,” co-editors Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan tackle the inherent multiplicity of the concept of folklore and its relation to myth. In their own words, they state:
The very definition of folklore, “multiple existence and variation,” implies that folkloric forms can never be truly fixed, that the telling can never be truly done.
This provides a useful context from which to evaluate the dynamic genre of speculative poetry, as well as a framework in which to experience the poetry collected in this issue.
The poetry itself is broken out into three sets of four to five poems, and I have to say from past reading that I’ve found that following the arrangement of the TOC, including taking short meditative breaks between sections, really gives me a sense of the rhythm of the issue as a whole, which enhances the rhythms of the various poems. Particularly when dealing with mythic subject matter, which has traditionally been passed down in spoken word and song, I find rhythm to be a key factor to poetry. This issue was no exception.
The first section starts with Patricia Monaghan’s “Tiddy Mun is Gone.” Here is a story of a town near a fen, the sort of fen that holds dead bodies and restless spirits and the creatures that lured them in, including Tiddy Mun. Modern industrial concerns have led to draining the fen, which causes the things that call it home to come out into the town, and robs the townspeople of the safety of the fen.
Monaghan uses a poetic form that allows for a kind of nursery rhyme sing-song rhythm, which works very well with the subject matter. This is, after all, a nursery rhyme, ending as they tend to do:
and call out warnings to us in the shops and the streets
and we have nowhere safe to go, nowhere at all, at all.
In contrast, the next poem features the minimalist style of Yoon Ha Lee, a poet I’m always glad to see in a Table of Contents. With “Immigrants,” she considers paper airplanes as immigrants, removed from the book and folded into a new shape, never again to return as they were:
Spread them flat, if
you care to,
but the creases
across the page.
It’s a powerful piece, the more so for how understated Lee’s use of the language is.
“The Changeling Lament,” by Shira Lipkin, is not understated, but it is definitely powerful. There are two audio tracks at the top of poem page, one titled “the girl’s voice” and one “the changeling’s voice.” Play them both at the same time and listen while you read, because this is a poem that speaks by alchemy, that speaks of change, and choice, and the limits of both:
…I don’t know what the hell
a human girl is
and I can tell, I can,
that everyone knows I don’t belong here.
“Mirror Woman” by JT Stewart – A clean-edged, elegant, and pointed use of a motif from Snow White to examine social views of women of color, and how those views interact with women’s views of themselves. This is another one where the audio reading is amazing, imparting the world-weariness and dignity of the narrator, as well as her fondness for all the women in the mirror:
I want to hug her. Yes. Maybe I
even want to give her my skin.
I move away
leaving her free to talk with that
other woman in the mirror.
While this first section seems mainly concerned with the impact mythology has on our personal landscapes, including self-image and home, the second section seems to consider the creation of myth, the ways and whys of it. We start with Delia Sherman’s “Fathers,” which tackles the problem of paternal culpability in folk tales. It’s often been pointed out how much leeway fathers are given in fairy tales and folklore, particularly when contrasted with the punishments meted out to mothers and stepmothers. “Fathers” takes three archetypal fathers of folk tradition and points out, with deft irony, exactly how at fault they are for their children’s suffering and their own, though none of them ever recognize their self-deception.
Sherman mentions in her bio that she doesn’t write much poetry, which is a shame. She has quite a talent for making use of the rhythms of both words and silences that poetry requires. Her reading is also excellent, delicately underscoring the hypocrisy of each father’s declaration of care for his children, though his final lament is always for himself:
I tell you, daughter,
I am much to be pitied.
“Fathers” is followed up with “The Lend,” by Erik Amundsen, which focuses on an unnamed book full of precisely the sorts of tales, rules, traditions, and customs that make up folklore. The concern here is how those things were shaped, and how they shape us, the deep impact they have on our lives. “They wrote you with the blood” each stanza begins, and it’s not stated, but Amundsen makes it very clear that only blood will wash out blood, if one wishes to change what the next generation will know.
I would love to hear a recording of this poem someday, because it reads to me like a chant, an incantation, building momentum with each line, each quickening pause for breath.
In an ordering that shows a discerning editorial eye, “The Lend” leads into “The Sand Diviner,” by Sofia Samatar. This is a gorgeous long poem that addresses the interplay of myth, tradition, destiny, and self-determination, and how the framework of each influences the outcome of life. Each section of this poem is written in a different form, most tending toward lyrical prose poetry, but each underscoring the concept of form dictating content. This is also another case where the audio recording adds layers to the poem, and those who can are strongly encouraged to give it a listen.
Speaking of excellent audio, possibly the audio tour de force of this issue is “A Masquerade in Four Voices,” by Alexandra Seidel. This is not to undercut the prose poem in the written form, which is beautifully phrased and laid out in the swirls and sweeps of a grand dance. It’s just that those swirls and sweeps become more breathless, more full of the potential for romance and danger, when heard in four voices. Both romance and danger, of course, are present, intertwined in a liminal space where every face is masked, and every mask is a truth that can only be looked at in artifice.
“Panikos,” by Elizabeth R. McClellan, also borrows some of the rhythms of dancing and tackles the theme of myth through performative narratives. This poem is a chant, a spoken-word song, and so it makes sense that the audio recording is by singer and musician S.J. Tucker. The subject matter is the literal collision of myth with mundane life, how imagination informs both thought and madness, how folklore defines both. It’s a great note, if you’ll forgive the pun, on which to end this section, and move to the third and last.
That section begins with “Graffiti,” by the excellent and prolific Sonya Taaffe. This is a compact poem, dense with imagery, speaking of the mythology of ancient things, ancient and incidental writings, the half-illegible graffiti carved into a tumbled stone that was once part of a pillar somewhere like Pompeii. It’s a good reminder that some things intended to be transitory may last, out of context, when the things intended to last crumble away. Myth is as much about one as the other.
Koel Mukherjee’s “Sita Reflects” comes at the issue from a different angle. This is a sharp and pointed poem about Sita, a much-contested figure of Hindu mythology often used as a yardstick for what a “proper” woman should be. This poem explores her patience and faithfulness from another perspective, and argues that her choices may better serve as impetus for other women to make other choices. Certainly, the audio recording bolsters this understanding of the text.
Jennifer Givhan’s “Stapler Poem” is the narrative of a woman making other choices, dealing with the stacatto rhythms of her Southern California culture, the expectations of what she should do and what she should want. This is the necessary evaluation of the myths, folklore, expectations handed down to us, and the rejecting and rewriting to fit the realities of our lives. Again, the audio recording adds nuances to the poem, grounding it in its sense of place, even as the underlying story is more widely applicable.
Mike Allen takes on a particular myth and applies it specifically with “Surviving Wonderland,” which riffs on every version of “Alice in Wonderland,” including the recent Tim Burton “sequel.” Also “Harvey” and “Donny Darko,” with their terrifying, psychosis-induced rabbits. The audio is again a must listen for this one, for the freakish echoes in the Rabbit’s dialogue and the growling of another challenger on the battlefield of Wonderland.
After such a jagged-edged, dark and dangerous incantata, “Prayer,” by Eliza Victoria, may seem a promise of refuge. But it’s not long before you realize this prose-poem is only a quieter kind of darkness, destruction drawing close slow but inexorable. “Prayer” is about the need of myth, the need to find reason in a world full of reasonless losses, unearned luck. Sometimes acting in belief seems to help bring about a desired outcome, and sometimes not, but performing the ritual at least means you have tried something, have added yourself to the myth. “I send a sow across the river for the safety of everyone I love, and wait for the boat to return,” as the poem ends, and so we arrive here, waiting too for the boat to return.
As usual, Stone Telling also offers several excellent pieces of non-fiction, including two retrospectives discussing the poetry featured in the late Journal of the Mythic Arts. Not only are the retrospectives interesting in their own right, they’re also a great reminder of another source of good speculative poetry, because the archives of the Journal of the Mythic Arts are still online.
Emily Jiang gives more great resources in her article on mulicultural myths and influences on poetry, and Mike Allen reviews a contemporary resource, the most recent issue of Not One of Us. Julia Rios conducts a roundtable with several of the poets featured in this issue, which is great for learning about some of what inspired and influenced their work.
Stone Telling continues to raise the bar of quality in speculative poetry, and to push the boundaries of what constitutes speculative poetry and what voices get heard in the field. I very much look forward to what its editors will share with us in the coming year.