The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry
Edited by Rose Lemberg
Published by Aqueduct Press, 174 pages
Reviewed by Francesca Forrest
The Moment of Change, a collection of feminist speculative poetry edited by Rose Lemberg, has already received much-deserved accolades, reviewed by Strange Horizons’ Brit Mandelo at Tor.com and by the speculative poet and short-story writer Rachel Swirsky at the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
It’s a stunning treasury of speculative poets, including several Rhysling Award winners and nominees, as well as prize-winners from the world of speculative fiction, including Ursula K. LeGuin, Jo Walton, and Greer Gilman. It offers a tremendous opportunity to get a taste of some of the best of speculative feminist poetry.
A champion of diversity, Lemberg has chosen poems that represent the unruly, ungeneralizable expanse of human female experience. There’s no one agenda here: there are angry poems, but also joyful ones; there are poems of childhood and old age, poems of hope and despair. There are poems in which gender is central and others in which it is peripheral. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the importance of finding one’s voice and then using it. Lemberg writes,
We re-remember ourselves, constantly remake ourselves, grapple with theory and life’s challenges. “See us,” the poets of this collection say. “Change with us. Walk with us. Dream with us.”
Lemberg’s skill as an editor shines in her placement of the poems. The Moment of Change is no odd-sock drawer of poems; Lemberg sets each contributions as carefully as the colored tiles in a mosaic. So, for example, one trio of poems (“The Haunted Girl,” by Lisa Bradley, followed by “Tertiary,” by Mary Alexander Agner, in turn followed by “Owling,” by Sara Amis) deals with women as formed or deformed creatures: Bradley’s reveals the cost of male gaze; Agner’s is a radical reclaiming of the right to shape one’s form oneself; Amis’s takes the Pygmalion story and gives it a metamorphosis twist: perhaps it’s input from the goddess Athena that leads to Galatea’s escape in owl form.
Another trio, Meena Kandasamy’s “Six Hours of Chastity,” Samantha Henderson’s “Berry Cobbler,” and Sofîa Rhei’s “Bluebeard Possibilities” (translated by Lawrence Schimel), offer contrasting husband-and-wife tales. Kandasamy makes use of the traditional story of Nalayani, a wife faithful to her leper husband who, when asked to claim a reward for her devotion, asks her husband to take the form of five different men to satisfy her desire. Kandasamy’s poem features six different men, and her portraits of them show their hypocrasy and pride, but also their vulnerability and need. The husband in Henderson’s poem is abusive and doesn’t survive to the end: having liberated herself, the wife enjoys her berry cobbler just the way she likes it. In Rhei’s recursive retelling of the Bluebeard story, it’s not clear if all or none of Bluebeard’s wives have been murdered; the poem plays with several possibilities.
The theme of speaking or singing out weaves through the collection. Phyllis Gottlieb’s “Robot’s Daughter” cries “Mother / what song have I to sing?” and the next poem, Vandana Singh’s “Syllables of Old Lore,” deals entirely with finding a voice when one is silenced:
My words are ash on the lips
They shrivel on the tongue …
… So I must speak slant
In languages I can trust
Wind, leaves, clouds, and rain,
A symbolic tongue of joy and pain
In Sofia Samatar’s “Year of Disasters,” an alien invasion (perhaps science fictional, perhaps a metaphor for literal or cultural invasion as we know it in our present world) strips a region of birds, then cats, and at last of language itself:
I myself saw songs being butchered in the street
Now when I meet an old friend by chance
we gesture at one another with open mouths,
clacking our fingertips
in their language.
But it’s not all grimdark. River in Sheree Renée Thomas’s sexy, sensual “untitled Old Scratch poem, featuring River” is in clear possession of her voice, an assured voice, a confident voice. River listens to Old Scratch “hum humming softly, wine / and sultry whispers” but won’t be moved by his importuning:
like I don’t know he sang
that same tired song to Old Sista Sky …
I let his sugar lies
drop like old stones
in the bottom of the sea
and swing my big hips
on by, on by
And this brief survey doesn’t even begin to cover the collection’s riches. There are wonderful monsters, a loving lesbian selkie (and a lesbian Cinderella), scatterbrained witches and wise ones, Mary Shelley and King Lear, starship navigators and travelers to the moon, and a quite excellent trenchcoat. Go forth and discover your own favorites.