Searching for habitable planets

Otherworldly poetry is an adaptable traveler—it can thrive in many climates and habitats—but the new science fiction-themed issue of the New Yorker does not, apparently, possess a life-sustaining atmosphere.

My favorite reading bandwidth is slipstream, new fabulism, whatever you call it: that place on the dial where so-called literary values of complexity, moral ambiguity, and linguistic precision fuzz into the world-skewing tendencies of speculative fiction. Various definitions include any narrative that makes you feel strange, that reframes reality as a somewhat random consensus, though the main uses of these categories seem to be a) marketing and b) giving critics, teachers, and students something to argue about. (My recently graduated student Mathew, now off to do micro-finance in Mongolia, prefers the term post-realism; my rising senior student Eric growls when you put “post” in front of anything.)  I like realism too, and straight-out fantasy when the dragons are handled responsibly. The problem with the former, though, is that it can be too much like life—isn’t the real world mean, sad, boring, and pointless enough?—and the latter can be different from life in ways that are too predictable. My Darth Vader died a few days ago and I would like literary support, but no symbolic castrations, please, or death-bed reconciliations (in my family, last words run along the lines of “I need you to go retrieve cash from a secret compartment in my spaceship while my third wife is at church”—not something you want ringing in your ears during battle scenes).

So I awaited this New Yorker optimistically, eager to escape into a bracingly cool slipstream. It’s a decent issue. The stories by Junot Díaz and Jennifer Egan are terrific; the ones by Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte are passably entertaining; and the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Colson Whitehead, and others are interesting and often very funny. I also really appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” and “Community”: one theme of these shows, she observes, is that “the fan’s experience of loyalty and loss is its own, legitimate form of romantic love.” Inspector Spacetime, I love you madly.

But Paul Muldoon, you blew it! I guess I knew you would. I saw the names Kay Ryan and Charles Simic, though, and hope flickered in my dying warp drive. Both are wonderfully weird poets. Ryan’s “The Octopus” focuses on the extreme oddity of the titular creature, estranging it for us further: what does it have eight of, exactly? Arms or legs? And why is it so smart? She envisions some production factory where “Sometimes a brain-feed/ sticks until the brain/ that gets delivered has/ a hundred times the/ strength it needs in/ nature. Which changes/ nature.” Ryan’s a “strange intelligence” too. I like her questions, and it’s OK that none of her eight appendages is pointing to an answer, but this isn’t a world-skewing poem. And it’s short on the soundplay and crazy lineation that give some of her apparently slight poems their black-hole-gravity.

Not a speculative poem, and not a great poem either. Same goes for Simic’s “Driving Around,” sadly. He’s performing that surrealistic trick: imagine small town Main Street as “an abandoned movie set/ whose director/ ran out of money and ideas.” The unhappy woman in the bridal shop window becomes an out-of-work actress. I suppose the poignancy he intends is how a Hollywood metaphor makes ordinary desolation more vivid: aren’t we bad people, grieving more for the actress than we would for Miss Nobody? Simic is applying an alien perspective to a familiar scene, a strategy that once made James Fenton describe poet Craig Raine as “Of the Martian School.” This way of writing is a little science fictiony—hence the name—but in these particular cases, it’s also a little disappointing.

I speculate Tim Green at Rattle will do better (see his call for sf poems here). In the meantime, I’d be grateful for summer reading suggestions for half-orphaned poet-heroes: anything absorbing, preferably a little otherworldly; goofy is good as long as it’s not dumb. Elven stereotyping has gotten totally out of hand.

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