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Rhysling Award Anthology
edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
64 pages

Rhysling Award Anthology
Rhysling Award Anthology
Rhysling Award Anthology is available for $5 from:
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

The Rhysling Award Anthology picks its residents from nominators that belong to the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA -- Belonging to SFPA requires neither initiation nor hazing -- simply, fifteen bucks for the anthology and six issues of Star*Line. By the numbers, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry [] held court over the nomination proceedings, raking in half a dozen. Unlike the web-based award (, most nominees of the Rhysling anthology deserve nominations. Still, as the SFPA's chair, G.O. Clark, noted "The only problem with this year's nominations, as in year's past, is all the excellent poems that couldn't be included." For instance, I would have liked to have seen how David C. Kopaska-Merkel's "Billy Never Noticed" faired against the short poems. Notably, no poems from the internet showed up among the nominees, either. A closing complaint some might have is that the large majority of these, apart from the abundant experimental forms, are what some term populist though this reviewer wonders why wide-appeal should discourage anyone -- unless the populist poem lacks art as well. With as few readers as they have, poets should not snub readers. All Merwin required was for even a child to respond. All Eliot required was for his mother to like how it sounded. Perhaps poets should tune in closer to the populist barometer -- without sacrificing art or vision.

Finally, since this review was written during the aftermath of NY and DC plane-bombing, it was difficult not to read fortune telling into the poems: "objects overhead // soar banshee-screaming, / burning people down to warm / up on righteous souls." [Stalking the Perception], "of all that shovels dig from her / face" [Poem for Persephone], and "they concluded it was typical for Homo sapiens / to destroy an opportunity for freedom." [Ebonmadder's Run]. This reviewer refrained from such entirely improbable albeit ineluctable connections. Context, of course, is everything.


The anthology opens with the Brazilian-flavored, galactic Noah's Ark of "Planeta do Favola" by Mike Allen. The Portu-glish style gives the poem an exotic feel though its use is somewhat inconsistent -- sometimes borrowing the Portuguese, sometimes the English word for starship. The poem is well-written but feels like part of a much larger work.

Bruce Boston took the short poem Rhysling award for "My Wife Returns As She Would Have It." The narrator imagines his wife after her death to be reincarnated into a Monarch butterfly. The most poignant moment occurs when the narrator recognizes the absurdity of the situation yet does not regret:

"Is that you, sweetheart?" I whisper
I am a fifty-six-year-old man suddenly
kneeling on the cement spilling out
his love and regrets to a lone insect
he hopes is a reincarnation of his wife.
G.O.Clark compares the vast to the mundane for comprehension of the vast in the contemplative "Of Dance Steps and Distances," equating constellations to objects caught on a cobweb, and Saturn's rings to "an old knit hat from the Sixties."

In "First Contact," David Clink's light verse warns against scratching our skin (one of a number of often compared and contrasted though coincidental motifs that appeared throughout this anthology), not knowing how aliens might perceive this gesture.

The ending of Sandy DeLuca's "Sarah" gave me the chills. No other poem managed to strike quite the same chord. Commentary cannot evoke the same emotions. Quoting it in part would cut the whole out:

[Sarah] spurted from my vagina;
rust-colored droplets
on white panties

we created her
in the midst
of an acid trip

when I saw God
by a green waterfall

Sarah chose
not to live
with me
in this lifetime

perhaps her spirit
floated above me,
waited for my death;
for my next
when sanity
would make me
a suitable mother

I looked at
twisted strings
of tissue,
jagged bits of flesh;
cried for a moment,
pictured cherub face, dimpled smile,
brown eyes like her father's

then I threw her in the trash
with leftover steak sandwiches, and greasy fries

Denise Dumars, in one of a number of mystic poems here, praises the goddess "Nehebka."

Roger Dutcher's "Outbound: Cryogenic Dream #1" (thanks to the unreality of the title) becomes moving at its inexorable conclusion: "Stay with me, I // But I hear only the distant hum / of the universe, everything in it / moving away from the center."

Timons Esias puts in two appearances with light verse: "Advice for Our New Galactic Warriors" and "The Last Word." The first pokes fun at SF tropes mixing sheer humor with mock-seriousness:

Be vigilant
For the Enemy has seen
Lucy, Gilligan
and The Brady Bunch
And knows all our weaknesses...

Practice aphorism
For Military History
is always seeking
a few good lines...

For War is Man's
greatest single
public expenditure.

In Esias' "The Last Word," the narrator seeks revenge on all the squirrels who wrecked havoc upon the creatures and domestic constructions in his backyard. He has chosen (and not chosen) who will enter the ships migrating off Earth.

Isaac Asimov once advised learning all the trivia you can if you wanted to write. Always intriguing, Albert Goldbarth has perhaps surpassed Asimov in the density of knowledge, combining references of Catholicism with archeology and astronomy in this untitled, seven line poem. Whether you're a reader of poetry or a reader of science fiction, if you haven't read the National Book Critics award-winning Goldbarth yet, you'd better redeem yourself at the altar of his volumes.

Despite an awkward title striving too hard for beauty, Tracina Jackson-Adams' "Persephone Wakening" provides nice contrast with "Poem for Persephone" and debates that where most assume her life to be hell, she contends a heaven with moments of opulence: "You may pity me those pomegranate seeds.../ Lush rubies burst upon my tongue."

Already printed three times in nine months (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here and in Keith Allen Daniels' 2001: a Science Fiction Poetry Anthology), Mary Soon Lee's "Every Other Day of the Year" uses a pumpkin-headed child to warn against the havoc that parents might play if legally able to manipulate their children's genes.

"The Sibyl Servant" by Sandra Lindow is a light verse detailing the importance of the speculative poet to the world "After [its] microchip meltdown" employed as its mystic seer.

In prophetic tones, Terry McGarry's "Terminal Moraine" suggests that an oracle born from glacial ice, melted "by the friction / of truth against truth" has arrived to tell us of our factual past, which is no more than our future "in other guise: echo, repeat, reprise."

Ghost lovers at sea long and reach for one another but cannot leave what must be their resting grounds in Tom Piccirilli's "Not Yet of the Flesh."

The sonnet "The Oort cloud" by John Salonia is a pleasant encomium to the comets whose thermodynamics cause them to fall to the sun. While Salonia renders the sonnet form admirably, juxtaposed to Schwader's, one wishes all could be rendered so well.

Ann K. Schwader mourns the fading of Russian cosmology in her sonnet "Reflections in a Fading Mir" with a joyfully sad sentiment where Mir joins all those beings, human and otherwise, whose lives were lost in the exploration of the heavens. The rhyme and rhythm are excellent examples of how classic forms ought to be composed. Poets forcing such rhyme and rhythm should take note.

Marge Simon takes us on a future horse race of a different color in "Ebonmadder's Run," where the viewers and the racers are not what they seem (to spoil the surprise somewhat, reread the second paragraph).

Bobbi Sinha-Morey's "Fairy in Winter" describes what the garden fairy must do when the weather turns.

The subtitle of Mary Rudbeck Stanko's "Poem for Persephone," the second of two poems contrasting Persephone themes, could have read "for those taken in their prime and for those who search the earth for them" which is answered by the hauntingly repeated "The grass is not a door."


One of the MIA poems on the Preditor / Editor poll, Sabina Becker's "World Building," minus a few presumptions, would make a playful and light-hearted introduction to an article of SF world-building woes:

contemplate a moon.
To moon or not to moon,
that is the question; or maybe

how many moons?
One lump or two?
Remember, they affect your tides,

Bruce Boston's "The Tale of the Dream Merchant" is just that: a tale of a narrator who pleads his dreams are not contraband but selected and desired by its buyers. The poem, essentially a tale of prohibition speculative writer woe, is of speculative interest with a strong meter that only occasionally throws the reader off balance "with legendary heroes of yore." For a review of Boston's "Lesions of Genetic Sins," please see

James S. Dorr builds his own mystic mythic world of "Maya," cycling through the various dimensions of her disciples, her celebrants, and her personas that change from savior to slayer.

Roger Dutcher describes what life after "Virtual Death" might be like: "You can not say."

"Barley Bree" by Phil Emery tells of a surreal future with some retina-burning language and imagery: Cities are broken depopulated annuli,
eroded by time and emptiness
the rings of trees tell age--
the concrete xylem of the cities also.
Outermost rings diameter continents,
archeologies of expand or die economics Joe Haldeman most deservedly won the Rhysling long poem with his emotionally potent "January Fires." Haldeman makes a clean break from standard form, going to an almost pastiche like appearance, giving the poem the jagged feel necessary to relate the narrator's personal experiences with America's two major space-faring disasters (yet another coincidental motif contrasted against Schwader's). The first section, being the more spare and stark for its spareness, packs more of a gut-punch ("killed by pure oxygen and one spark / on a wire's cheap cotton insulation...// one almost got the door open"), but the narrator packs quite a wallop after he admits to himself he lied to the journalist about still wanting to go into space after the space shuttle explosion: "you know / you would kill anything / to stay alive you / would even kill a dream."

Charlee Jacob reined in the most long poem nominations with "Stalking the Perception," "Beds" and "Skin," almost making up a Jacob chapbook within the anthology. The three are all recursive speculative poetry to one degree or another. "Stalking the Perception" catalogues the poet's encounters with the imaginative Muse to "write it all down, down," concluding the speculative poet's realm is "lost in us / seeking out of reach between / myth and cognition." The two stronger poems, "Beds" and "Skin," share much of the same strengths and weakness: both raise a sort of call and response of subject matter, both have thirteen ways of looking at beds and skin, both have motifs of sharp instruments, both suffer from an overabundance of "disturbing" imagery to get their point across so that reader becomes more numb than disturbed:

On beds of razor blades,
prostrate on the belly execution style,
doggy style,
phantoms step up to take their best shot.
Now I lay me down to dream,
my mouth wide in recumbent scream.
If Jacob had stuck to fewer disturbances turning to more of the subtle kind (from "Beds:" "patients suspended from I.V. hooks / wriggle a bit before being cast out / to snare some dream fish" or from "Skin:" "Going through the morgue, I read the toe tags....// This one was silk, / watermarked as she drowned in her tub. / The next was crinoline, / spinning.../ until she burned transparent./ The other wool"), both could have given Haldeman's a good running for the gold. This reviewer imagines Jacob fans must have been divided over which to choose.

David C. Kopaska-Merkel's "Valley of Years" recounts the figurative and literal journey of a couple as they weave in and out and back into love: "For days I work the city's bones, ... Sometimes you are there... You turn a nd vanish... as I run through the alleys redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg." For a complete review of Kopaska-Merkel's Results of a Preliminary Investigation of Electrochemical Properties of Some Organic Matrices which includes this Rhysling nominated poem, see

In Sandra Lindow's "Because We Must," the narrator is only capable of falling in love in virtual reality during a ritual mating dance, using technology to bring us back to our ancestral roots. The language of the poem hits "I do not question the rightness of it / or deny the blushed pattern of love" and misses "that now adorns me." Once Lindow's eloquent voice centers on the distinctive image and the rightness of words, poetry readers will not question the rightness of it but read because they must.

Kurt Newton has little original to add to the speculation of planet being overbuilt in "beneath a pale city," but the emotion he conveys within that persona is all there:

but for the time being
from beneath this pale city
I'll gaze up through the cracks
through the grates in the streets
and I'll wait
yes I'll wait
for the day I can reach up
and pull myself free
and breath
Poems like Richard William Pearce's "Pegasus Rose" make the reader wonder if a number of speculative poets have even read contemporary poetry. Just as writers must read SF in order to write it, so too must poets read contemporary poetry. An occasional artifact of language to pay an homage or parody is fine, but Pearce's diction is what poets of every age strive against:
Horse, 'tis said
that upon thy back Bellerophon
slew a dragon; conquered countless foes;
fought an army all alone, and won.
Thinking he had broken thee he chose
heaven as a haughty goal: Anon
he was thrown, and plummeted. You rose,
The reason Donne used elisions was not only because it helped achieve rhythm but also because that was he heard on the street. There's little place for it in poem of our age -- even harkening back to a former age like the Greeks' -- only Pearce didn't write in Greek. Neither, do I see how the form of the poem (centered) adds unless it is to cover the weak one-word lines.

Gene van Troyer discourses upon "Event Horizons" with all the liveliness of a philosophically-inclined scientific textbook; however, the (albeit sometimes annoying) format conveys the exact feeling the poet intended: pulsations of prose feeds directly through the retina to the back of your brain. You can almost feel the waves as the changing font-gradations of unjustified text course down your second cranial nerve. Strangely, the poem would not leave me be. I kept returning, searching for an entrance through the distraction of the poem's form inside but sensing the meaning lay "at the edges of vision, for it is well known that one can never know what goes on behind one's back, try as one may it is forever in the dark (surrounding oneself with mirrors solves nothing, for then one is faced with the question of what's going on behind the mirror...)." When a poet can communicate his feelings to the reader (with or without meaning) as this one does, he deserves recognition.


1st Bruce Boston, "My Wife Returns As She Would Have It"
2nd (tie) G. O. Clark, "Of Dance Steps and Distances"
Ann K. Schwader, "Reflections In A Fading Mir"
3rd Tracina Jackson-Adams, "Persephone Wakening"

1st Joe Haldeman, "January Fires"
2nd (tie) David C. Kopaska-Merkel, "Valley Of Years"
James Dorr, "Maya"
3rd (tie) Bruce Boston, "Lesions of Genetic Sin"
Gene Van Troyer, "Event Horizons"

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared in Speculon, Spires, and The Pittsburgh Quarterly, among others. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine he can be seen coaching the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach, or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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