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Science-Fiction Poetry Anthology Reviewed

Russell Jones, ed. – Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK 

(London: Penned in the Margins, 2012. Paperback, 208pp., £9.99)
 

Reviewed by Paul March-Russell 

 
Science fiction (sf) poetry has had an inglorious past. With the exception of Edwin Morgan, to whom this present collection is dedicated, few mainstream poets have attempted the genre. At the same time, poems rarely appeared in sf magazines until Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds which, as part of its avant-garde affiliations, featured the sf experiments of poets such as George MacBeth, Peter Redgrove and D.M. Thomas. The latter, especially in ‘The Head Rape’ (1968), found a narrative style and content that complemented the fiction although, in retrospect, the poems strain for hallucinogenic effects. 
 
In the US, a more promising tradition was initiated by Marilyn Hacker’s poems for her then-husband Samuel R. Delany’s novel, Babel-17 (1966). Hacker, alongside genre writers such as Thomas M. Disch, Ursula Le Guin and Gene Wolfe, contributed to a 1969 poetry magazine, Kinesis. These initiatives led to the formation, in 1978, of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. In the UK, alongside mainstream figures such as Morgan and Jeremy Reed (conspicuously absent from the present collection), Steve Sneyd has been a prolific writer, editor and publisher of sf poetry through his small press, Hilltop Press.
 
Sneyd himself contributes an introductory essay to the volume which, like Alasdair Gray’s preface, offers a genealogy of metaphysical literature (Gilgamesh, Homer, Dante, Milton) with which to justify the thematic content of contemporary sf poetry. Like similar attempts in sf criticism, such a genealogy obscures as much as it reveals about the definition and history of sf and, in this instance, sets an impossibly high standard for the poems that follow. The majority of the poems are written in the lyrical tradition with few non-lyrical experiments, such as Peter Finch’s concrete exercise ‘Mars Attacks!’ Although a number of them, such as Greg Delanty’s ‘The Event Horizon’ or Kelley Swain’s ‘Celestial Navigation’, strain for a sense of the numinous or melancholic sublime, none of the poems have the epic qualities of their alleged precursors. Instead, they tend variously towards pathos, understated irony or a vaguely modernist feeling of decrescendo. 
 
The volume is arranged into four sections, each prefaced by a poem from Morgan’s 2010 collection, Dreams and Other Nightmares. Although Morgan’s poetry is Russell Jones’ inspiration, its inclusion commits another possible disservice to the poems that follow – he is clearly the most competent and adept practitioner in the book. Morgan’s presence, though, highlights the strong contribution of Scottish poets which begs another question: to what extent can the politics of place and dialect be harnessed to a science-fictional vision of alternate possibilities? Ken MacLeod, the celebrated sf novelist whose poetry is more often characterised by a lack of science-fictional content, indicates this reading in his poem, ‘Looking Backward, On The Year 2000’. Like Gray in his preface, I too am drawn to the poems written in Lowland Scots, such as James Robertson’s ‘Intae the Ooter’, which in contrast to the Anglophone (more specifically Hollywood) expressions that dominate commercial sf suggest alternate ways of not only articulating but also experiencing future scenarios.
 
Too often, though, an emotional or linguistic sameness descends upon the poems. There are examples, most obviously Kona Macphee’s ‘Poem for Roy Batty’, that eulogise sf, poems such as Ian McLachlan’s ‘Man-of-War’ that import the iconography of space opera, or poems such as Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving’s ‘Automata Soup’ that merely reiterate the techno-babble of sf. Even Stone’s playful translations of Catullus in the vocabulary of sf tend more towards a playing with cliché rather than an investigation of the internal properties of sf as a language. This absence partially arises from a lack of historical knowledge – too many of the poems repeat the motifs of cyberpunk; the surface fascination with androids, AIs, virtual realities and prosthetic limbs – whilst it is no surprise that the more confident contributions come from genre writers such as MacLeod and Jane Yolen.
 
Then there is the impression that the poems are less often sf poems and more like poems about sf. This is not necessarily a criticism – Aiko Harman’s love poem, ‘The Costume’, or Jane McKie’s childhood memory, ‘Our Flight to the Moon’, indicate the extent to which sf visions imbricate mainstream culture – although Claire Askew’s ironic ‘The Trekker’s Wife’ is too clearly indebted to its original template (Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (1999)). Furthermore, there are poems that appear to be less about sf than about science or techno-culture more broadly (Ron Butlin’s ‘Three Composers Respond to the Politics of Perpetual War’; Sue Guiney’s ‘What Can Be Taught’), and so have even less in common with Gray and Sneyd’s putative genealogy than they do with scientifically-engaged poets such as Elizabeth Bishop or Miroslav Holub. Such poems do at least add diversity to the collection but they also blur the distinction of what might be ‘sf poetry’.
 
This indistinctness raises, lastly, as to whom this anthology is for. The packaging and back cover blurb, including the obnoxious use of ‘sci-fi’, suggest that it is either being marketed for a hypothetical fan or for someone with a kitsch sense of what sf is rather than the interested poetry reader. Jones, unlike Gray or Sneyd, takes a more cautious approach in his introduction; although using ‘science fiction’ as a recognisable term, he evidently inclines to its more speculative meanings which might, in turn, have more appeal for the general readership. His claim that these are ‘poems that burn through our history and into the future’ can be excused for its hyperbole but it does seem to indicate an anxiety as for whom or for what effect these poems have been written. Taken as a whole, the anthology is a curate’s egg that does not dispel the impression that sf poetry remains a minor tributary within an already expanded cultural field.  
17 May 2015