Dear Reader: as devotees of the speculative and the fantastic in poetry, I should hope you are familiar with the Bordertown series, originally edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold. A scintillating combination of elves and rock and roll, the Bordertwon series grew up in the 80’s all tangled up with fey-caught artists longing for a place to fit in and encountering dangers untold in pursuit of that dream. While prose has long formed the flesh and sinews of the Bordertown anthologies, verse – through the centrality of music and, later, through included poetry – has always been Bordertown’s blood.
If you’re a bit lost on the Bordertown front and need a primer, you could do worse than spend a leisurely time exploring the wealth of material available at the Bordertown series site. But if you’re in hurry, as Internet readers and white rabbits often are, here’s what you need to know about Bordertown:
It exists on the border between Faerie (or the Realm, as its inhabitants call it) and the World (where the rest of us live our mundane daily lives). It is full of runaways, elves, artists, enchantments, despair, hope, and community. Life is more dangerous there, and possibly more rewarding. It’s definitely expensive, and the costs are personal: there’s no easy way there, no easy life once inside, and transformation is required. If there’s a toll to be paid for living on the Border, it’s this: change or die.
Thirteen years ago, the Way between our world and the Border closed. Of course, in the manner of portals to other dimensions causing temporal dilation (not to mention in the fine tradition of fairy tales), only thirteen days passed for the denizens of Bordertown. Now the Way is open once again, tourists are flooding in, and there’s a new scene on the rise.
Welcome to Bordertown is the massive postcard welcoming us back: poetry lurks and dances through the whole volume, and fittingly forms about a third of its contents. Let’s take a look.
“Cruel Sister” by Patricia A. McKillip is the first poem of the anthology, and features both McKillip’s trademark grace and knives cunningly hidden under fairytale opulence. “Cruel Sister” is a poem so rich you can smell loam when you breathe. She plays fascinatingly with mirror images, and the borders between family members that sometimes aren’t enough to make you cleave together but instead cleave you apart.2
Amal El-Mohtar’s “Stairs in Her Hair” continues this thread of alienation. Through relatively spare verse, El-Mohtar opens a vein (yours or hers, who can say?) with surgical precision and spills coins and stones and keys into your lap. They echo with loneliness, vulnerability, boldness. I’ve had the honor of hearing the poem sung by El-Mohtar herself, and can’t read it any other way now. I’ll always hear the author’s voice echoing in my head, shivering down my spine, leaving me blinking back tears.3
The next poem slips us sideways into an unexpected perspective: Steven Brust’s “Run Back Across the Border” is the second song in the anthology, and is a rather difficult piece steeped in the blood feuds and intolerance of the different Border factions. While being such an aggressively unwelcoming anthem, it still betrays the patchwork collection of people living thickly together in Bordertown through stanzas that bugle out from rival groups without pause for overt differentiation.
I am nearly incapable of describing Jane Yolen’s “Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap” otherwise than “awesome Tam Lin awesomeness squared!” In much fewer stanzas than most traditional Tam Lin ballads, Yolen manages to create a wholly memorable character and a wicked spoken word piece. I dare you not to find yourself tapping out a rhythm or speaking the words under your breath when you read this piece.
Jane Yolen has three pieces in the anthology, with the second being “Lullabye: Night Song for a Halfie.” Leading with a translator’s note situating the piece anthropologically and anecdotally, the lullaby unfolds as a “hushabye” piece sung by a Trueblood mother to her offspring. The piece is wonderfully disturbing, and strangely enough a bit of an earworm.
One of the cornerstones of this collection is surely “The Wall” by Delia Sherman, compelling the reader with kaleidoscopic enchantment. The poem could be called an anthropologist’s brief findings on the perceived appearance of the membrane separating the World and the Realm. It could be called the truth, or all truths, or a facet. Or it can be called enthralling; all would be correct.4
Jane Yolen returns one last time to finish off her contributions to Welcome to Bordertown with “A Borderland Jump-Rope Rhyme,” an unexpected and clever installment in her collection of Bordertown street music. Once more, there is a fascinating translator’s note situating the piece and then the piece itself: a jump-rope rhyme which is spine-chillingly disturbing.
Neil Gaiman’s “The Song of the Song” is a brilliant coda to the volume’s poetry, being a poem crafted in a conversational tone culminating in a bone-shivering warning. The piece is a song sung by the song that no one sings anymore, and it understands a few things about the difference between what stories really are and the way they’re told. The song skirls along the borders of thought and existence and fantasy, and it won’t be forgotten.
Just like Bordertown.
3. You can hear Amal’s talented sister Dounya sing “Stairs in Her Hair” on the Bordertown blog, and see the gorgeous Rima Stains painting that inspired Amal’s poem.